You Daily Dose of Religio-Babble

Andrew Sullivan often has posts titled “poseur alerts” that highlights particularly incoherent or obscure use of jargon by academics, but he presents this quote from Robert Barron without noticing that it would qualify very well for that label. Barron is arguing that the “new atheists” (I really hate that term) don’t understand God at all:

It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

That’s the kind of meaningless babble you hear from the more “new agey” and liberal Christians quite often. What could it possibly even mean to say that God is “the sheer act of being itself”? Absolutely nothing. It is, quite literally, gibberish, like a baby making random sounds with its mouth.

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  • So God is an act? God is an event? God is a logical formula? He’s right then, that I don’t understand, because there’s nothing there to understand. “The sheer act of being itself” is a well-formed sentence and not much else. “Act” suggests he means something willful, but existence is not contingent upon will. I, like a rock or a plant, exist because I exist. As a sentient being, I can take willful steps to end my existence, but after that I can’t do much to to undo that. So it seems that what this guy is effectively saying is that if God didn’t exist, he could will himself into existence. And… no.

  • Cuttlefish

    Of course, what this means is that the faith I had as a child–even up to while I was a born-again Christian–was improper, and aimed at the wrong sort of God. The God that moves hurricanes, hates (or loves) gays, blesses pets, saves souls… that god is not Aquinas’s god.

    So, yeah, the new atheists are not (or are, depending) grasping Aquinas’s god–but neither are the vast majority of Christians.

  • It’s actually not even a well-formed sentence. It’s just a noun phrase.

  • eric

    To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.”

    Uhhhh, it’s Christians that invented the onlogolical argument for God and Christians that give it credence. You seem to be bashing Christian thought here, not atheist thought.

    If atheists are talking about some maximal thing that therefore must have ‘being,’ I guarantee you its because they are responding (negatively) to some theist who is claiming God must exist because he wouldn’t have the maximal traits associated with godliness if he didn’t.

  • gshelley

    I’m pretty sure that Dawkins also lacks beliefs in other Gods. Barron should probably have read the God Delusion at least, before criticizing Dawkins for how he views God.

  • matty1

    So how do we get from “the sheer act of being itself” even if we could make sense of that phrase to a God who listens to prayers, performs miracles and gets born in a stable?

    If this is the God of Aquinas then I guess Aquinas was less Christian than he is commonly portrayed.

  • jamessweet

    The disadvantage of having a multi-pronged argument is that those wishing to snipe at you from afar can always pick one prong, pretend that is the entirety of your approach, and then present an argument that is vulnerable to a different a prong (while pretending the latter prong doesn’t exist).

    It is true that a lot of words have been spilt ridiculing the idea of god-as-a-physical-personage, the so called “bearded man in the sky” — because a lot of people believe in that god, and that god is absolutely ludicrous in a modern scientific world. But that’s just one prong. Sure, many people believe in a vague “sheer-act-of-belief” god. We have an argument for that too. It’s a different argument, so obviously if you try to apply the anti-beard-man arguments to the puff-of-belief god, they are not going to work. But there are plenty of good arguments against the puff-of-belief god too. Like, that it doesn’t actually mean anything; or that it is essentially synonymous with an atheistic worldview.

  • raven

    it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

    1. So what? Aquinas was the usual idiotic xian apologist.

    2. This is the one that always gets me. Which god? There are thousands of gods.

  • Childermass

    It not unlike those who use the word “God” for “the laws of physics.”

    Okay, for the sake of argument, lets say that God is act of being, etc.

    Why should I think that that should be self-aware? Why should I think it created humanity? Etc.

    And I have heard of this stuff before. I am sure that vast majority of those attending Christian churches have.

  • matty1

    @8 “Which god? There are thousands of gods.”

    The true one, duh

  • raven

    Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

    This is the god the xians drag out when you ask them why there god is nowhere, doing nothing. and looks completely imaginary. It wouldn’t be a problem except that it isn’t the xian’s god.

    Then when you leave, thet put it away and drag out their sockpuppet god. The one that hates what they hate and wants them to have what they want. The gay hating, supply side economics, Tea Party jesus, who wants you to own lots of guns, take away people’s food stamps, and deny them the ACA.

    Aquinas’s real god ran a heaven where a popular pastime was looking down into hell to watch your friends and relatives being tortured forever. The usual anthropomorphic Sky Monster god.

  • raven

    To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.”

    So do the xians. The reason the atheists call the fundie xian god the Sky Fairy or Sky Monster god is simple.

    That is what the xians believe.

    Their god hates atheists, nonwhites, gays, science, scientists, women, Democrats, college educations, and whatever else anyone wants it to hate. He is going to destroy the world any minute now unless you send lots of money to his self appointed spokespeople.

    The fundie god is like a vending machine. If you perform the proper magic ritual, imprecatory prayer, you can use him as an invisible gun and kill people. If you send money to the right Prosperity Gospel toad, you will get rich yourself.

  • caseloweraz

    The way I read Aquinas, he is saying that the sum total of existence is God. This is close to Carl Sagan’s definition of the Cosmos: “The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

    Or, for Leonard Cohen fans, the words of “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” (sung so well by Buffy Saint Marie.)

    So if God is everything, then “Thou art God. Never thirst, brother.”

    Of course, Barron fails to tell us what “serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions” other than Aquinas believe on the subject. No doubt their opinions are all over the map. No matter: To me it seems as if only such nebulous concepts of diety (use any name you wish) are the only ones that have any sort of coherence today.

    Remember, in Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, the only religion that survived was a form of purified Buddhism.

    Having now read Barron’s entire piece, I’ll stipulate that he may indeed know the thoughts of those other serious thinkers. But this still leaves us with the same problem: this being, this unknowable potential, provides no guidance on how we should behave. That is up to us. As it was and ever shall be, amen. (For forseeable values of “ever”.)

  • alanb

    As Matty1 @ 6 seems to be suggesting, Father Barron appears be arguing ro a deistic god not a theistic one. I doubt that many of his fellow Catholics or even Aquinas would agree with that.

  • andysci

    They may not make more sense than my 6 month old daughter, but at least in her babbling she’s *learning* something. The religio-babble here is anti-knowledge, tricking people into thinking that they’ve found the answers when all they’ve really done is to stop asking questions.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    The mighty depths of Aquinas’s intellect also gave us the serious scientifical (quantitative, even!) question of how many angels could dance on a pinhead.

    And he promised all his fellow believers an eternity of good clean entertainment watching the rest of us receive enhanced interrogation at the hands of OmniMax’s implausible-deniability minion’s minions.

    You have to wonder what Sullivan, Barron, and the other fans of so-sophisticated theoboggy would say if someone slipped “medievalism” into their word-association tests.

  • It is best to remember when “arguments” such as Barron’s are put forward that ALL gods are non-existent and that all religion is bullshit that’s been cobbled up by people who want something so bad that they think their delusions can come true. I think Fantasy Football has about the same degree of validity as theology.

  • matty1

    @14 – Yes that’s it, this line of argument gets you to a deistic first cause but no further and the extra arguments used to turn that first cause into the God of popular religion not only fail on their own they are a poor fit with the start of the argument.

    “The ontological ground of being requires you to be baptised” just doesn’t work.

  • raven

    The Philosopher’s god is a common bait and switch of a few xians.

    They drag him out when you ask where god is, why he does nothing, and why is he such an incompetent and evil idiot.

    Then when you are gone, they put him away and drag out their humanoid, sockpuppet god again. The incompetent Sky Monster one.

    Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said over the weekend that he had prayed to God to guide him in the shutdown fight and was sure that “his will be done as I know it will be.”

    The ineffable, Act of Being, Gound of all Being god, agrees with Ted Cruz. He hates the Affordable Care Act and wants to shut down the US government and cause a worldwide recession.

  • voidhawk

    If God is everything, then God is also nothing, as any list of the infinite qualities of God would have to include the quality’s negative.

    God is Love, God is indifference

    God exists, God does not exist.

    God is good, God is bad.

    God is a table, God is not a table.

    When you balance these qualities out then the only thing left is a nice big shimmering zero. God is present in everything, God is present in nothing.

    Either your god intervenes in the universe in some manner (either negative or positive) or it is not meaningful to suggest that it exists at all and all the theological masturbation in the world won’t make it so.

  • Azuma Hazuki

    The problem with Thomist theology is that it shoots itself in the foot; the “simple and pure act and essence of Being” has no agency, none, zero. I have yet to see a single apologetic that can reconcile ground-of-all-Being theology with even an iota of personal agency. You may get to Deism this way, but that’s it (and oddly, the opposite number to Thomist theology, Presuppositionalism, suffers from the *exact same problem*).

    Also, this *is* the same Aquinas we’re thinking of, right? “Masturbation is worse than rape because rape may at

    least lead to conception” Aquinas? “The saved in heaven will see the damned in hell that they may render their

    thanks the more fulsomely” Aquinas? “Natural law is supreme and it’s also whatever I say it is and don’t you dare

    call that a naturalistic fallacy” Aquinas?

    Fuck him.

  • raven

    It turns out Robert Barron is a Catholic missionary priest.

    His god hates Protestants, birth control, uppity women, divorce, gays married priests and thinks the Pope has special superpowers. And oh yeah, he wants the mobile baby factories to stop fooling around and get busy. The supply of Catholics is getting low and they need to fill it up again.

    His Act of Being god is just a rhetorical device that he doesn’t believe himself. Just another religious vaguely humanoid toad.

    Your life is not about you – By Father Robert Barron

    www. catholicnewsagency. com › Columns › Guest Columnist‎

    Sep 9, 2013 – Our birthrate is the lowest in recorded history, surpassing even the crash … Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on …

    Fr. Robert Barron on Protestantism and Authority |Blogs …

    www. ncregister. com/…/fr.-robert-barron-on-protestantism-and-authority/‎

    Oct 18, 2013 – Readers familiar with me will know that I think the world of Fr. Robert Barron’s creative and… … It will not come as a shock to know that I agree with Fr. Barron on the problems ….. The infallible dogma is backed by these quotes. …… on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptives…

  • sqlrob

    @ matty1, #10:

    @8 “Which god? There are thousands of gods.”

    The true one, duh

    So would that be Veritas? Aletheia? Ma’at?


  • matty1

    blockquote>So would that be Veritas? Aletheia? Ma’at?


    That last one definitely.

    All hail /gdrlh

  • matty1

    Why can’t I have an undo button on here?

  • raven

    Fr. Robert Barron on Obama’s Secular Totalitarianism |Blogs …

    www. ncregister. com/…/fr.-robert-barron-on-obamas-secular-totalitarianis…‎

    Feb 17, 2012 – Fr. Robert Barron on Obama’s Secular Totalitarianism … If you don’t want your dime going to the evil Nestle corporation (and, yes, they are … Employees are, of course, free to get contraception on their own dime if they like …

    Father Robert Barron’s Act of Being god also hates Obama, contraception, the Affordable Care Act, women who aren’t mindless baby making robots, and for some reason, the Nestle corporation.

    This guy is just your usual fundie Catholic right wing extremist. It would be amusing in a horror movie sort of way if there weren’t millions just like him.

  • You Daily Dose of Religio-Babble

    No, you daily dose of religio-babble!

  • Doug Little

    So god is consciousness? OK then.

  • Poggio

    I always find it amusing when catholics trot out Aquinas as their authority on all matters relating to their god’s existence as if he had all the answers. If one were to read Aquinas’ Summa solely (as catholic theology amateurs often do) without understanding any other medieval theology or philosophy prior or contemporary to him, or the 13th c. legal/scholastic tradition he operated in, you could easily get the impression that it has solutions. It was written in the logical deductive manner of medieval aristotelian philosophy, so it resembles more a discursive mathematics textbook than a modern theological manual. Philosophy was still very primitive in the 13th century; Aquinas’ great contribution was not in his aristotelian solutions, (which to those not used to reading medieval philosophy can seem quite convoluted and ridiculous) but that he recorded the historical debates. The Summa only offers insights into how 13th century scholiasts discussed these matters.

  • Wylann

    No no. I disbelieve in the sophisticated god if Sullivan’s imagination as well.

    Hope that helps. 😉

  • Wylann

    of Sulli’s imagination…duh.

    Bad fingers, bad!

  • DaveL

    So God is not a being, but the actual act of being itself.

    So the actual act of being itself impregnated a virgin so as to give birth to Being Itself’s only son, who was ALSO the actual act of being itself while simultaneously also a human being. Because the Act of Being Itself demanded blood sacrifice of the Act of Being Itself to the Act of Being Itself before it would overlook certain violations to the rules made up by the Act of Being Itself and thereby refrain from torturing human beings eternally after they died, providing they agree to believe in the Act of Being Itself.

  • Michael Heath

    Consider the amount of energy and rhetoric employed in arguing for theism. Where Christian proponents have yet to find even one iota of veriifiable evidence that which they believe is even true; not one, zero, nada.

    Then you start adding up all the suffering and premature deaths Christianity has caused . . .

    One encouraging sign is that prior to the advent of science and secular universities, early Christian thinkers were far more intelligent than the set we observe since then. People with intellectual talent since the age of enlightenment now increasingly migrate to professions where objective truth actually matters. To the point Christians now rely on people who demonstrate no capability of honest critical engagement, e.g., Bill Dembski, William Lane Craig, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, C. S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright.

  • scienceavenger

    Only in an area of thought as stagnant as religion could something written 900 years ago be considered relevant today. Of course Hitchens and Dawkins have no understanding of Aquinas’ god. To a modern mind most if not all of what Aquinas wrote is garbage. We’ve learned a lot over 900 years, hello!

  • busterggi

    “God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.”

    I’d like to ask what it means then when Abrahamists say we are made in god’s image.

  • The disadvantage of having a multi-pronged argument is that those wishing to snipe at you from afar can always pick one prong, pretend that is the entirety of your approach, and then present an argument that is vulnerable to a different a prong (while pretending the latter prong doesn’t exist).

    My effort to counteract this in debates is to demand a definition of “god” upfront since I see no consensus on what the word means. I think it changes the frame from having rational objections to any particular version of god to exposing the vacuity of the concept as a whole. In a way, it tells the theist that they’ll have to build their definition of god from scratch in front of me, rather than just assume that I know what god they’re talking about.

    Of course, it’s not directly applicable to one-sided sermons, but it might plant a seed of doubt if a listener has previously seen an atheist actively avoid making the assumptions the straw man does.

  • felidae

    Sullivan’s theology bomb on Sunday gave me a bunch of belly laughs with this and several other posts–further proof that the craft of the theologian is spinning horseshit into gold

  • Scott Hanley

    So if God is the “act of being,” and I contemplate the act of being in the act of being … have I discovered a greater God? And, by extension, an infinite number of increasingly-superlative Gods? Ooooooh!

    (Mind goes kablooey! Or not, perhaps because my undergrad days are long past.)

    I more often admire Sullivan than not, but when he gets excited by these defense-of-religion babblings, it’s hard not to feel embarrassed for him. I wish he could just say, “I practice religion because I like the way it makes me feel.”

  • bushrat

    I am currently in the act of being. Bow down before me!

  • Ichthyic

    he presents this quote from Robert Barron without noticing that it would qualify very well for that label.

    That’s because Sullivan’s big weakness is religion. It’s his conflict between his nature, and his upbringing in the Catholic Church.

    Made him say some exceeding inane things about religion over the years, and blinded him to a lot of what he could have said in articles he has posted.

  • @32:

    Well, DaveL, when you put it that way….nah, it’s still the same claptrap and nonsense as it was 900 years ago.

  • hunter

    It reads as though he’s trying to be Joseph W. Campbell writing on Eastern religions — except that Campbell is a) very clear-headed, and b) knows what he’s talking about.

  • escuerd

    bushrat @ 39:

    I am currently in the act of being.

    You have been eaten by a grue.