Dan Linford on ‘Sophisticated Theology’

My friend Dan Linford has an article in Scientia Salon that answers an argument often heard from some of the more academic corners of theology. The argument goes like this: When atheists say they don’t believe in God, they mean the sort of overly simplistic God that the rubes believe in, not the vague, unspecified, undefinable God that they believe in.

This is the position of several authors who have written popular books on the subject over the last two decades: Karen Armstrong, John Haught, and David Bentley Hart, to name a few. I think these authors are incorrect. There are good reasons for rejecting belief even in their gods. Here I will focus on Armstrong’s version, but several of my remarks will be applicable to a number of other theologies.

What sort of gods do these writers have in mind? If the wrong sort of God is “too small,” the right sort of God is much bigger: a radically transcendent being about which human languages can only speak indirectly. Armstrong claims that her God is beyond any of our conceptions of what a god might be like. God is so far beyond human comprehension, she insists, that when we try to imagine God we instead imagine a false idol. God, she tells us, “is the God beyond [our idolatrous conception of] God”.

Armstrong, and others of a similar view, are mystics who insist that the way that we speak of God comes in stages.

First, we speak of God directly: we might say “God is good,” where the word “good” means the same thing of God as it does when we talk about a virtuous human. Here we affirm one of God’s properties.

Second, we learn that our initial way of speaking about God was naive: we cannot mean the same thing when we talk about God’s goodness as we do when we speak of humanly goodness. We say: “God is not good.” Here we deny that God has some (human) property.

Many mystics insist that we should alternate between these two stages, affirming and denying, until we are left in a silence pointing to God. In the end, we learn that we do not know what we are saying when we speak of God. Some theologians, such as Denys Turner and Thomas Aquinas, have suggested that we do not even know what it means to say that God exists. Armstrong agrees. She writes that God is “not a being at all. […] We could not even say that God ‘existed,’ because our concept of existence was too limited”.

For Armstrong, because we cannot speak literally of God, we should resort to poetry, “which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do”. It remains unclear, then, why Armstrong’s many books about God are not books of poetry.

If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists know what they are objecting to? Thus, the mystical theologian insists that the atheist could not have rejected God after all. And a variety of traditional objections to theism, naturally, disappear as well.

There is a tiny kernel of truth here, but far too small to support the grandiose claims of the mystics. It’s certainly true that many rank and file Christians, with their almost childlike literalism and inerrantism, believe in a God that is all too easily disproved. And it’s true that there are more reasonable versions of Christianity that need to be tackled. But this kind of mystical religiosity is so vague and incomprehensible and the best one could say about it is that it isn’t even wrong.

In order to be wrong it must say something that can, at the very least, be understood. Yet they begin their belief by admitting that we can’t really know anything about the subject at all, that we could not understand it even if we tried to. So what, one may be forgiven for asking, are they suggesting we believe at all on the subject? If it is undefinable and unsupportable, then, quite frankly, I think we’re done here. What more need — indeed, could — be said of it?

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  • macallan

    All this bullshit boils down to the same idea – if you can’t prove it wrong it must be right.

    That said, all this babbling about how limited humans are supposed to be gets on my nerves. It’s a cop out, nothing more. If humans can’t comprehend it, you better first establish that there is something humans in general can’t comprehend. Anything. At all. Hint: just because Bozo Fundiehead can’t comprehend A that in no way proves that nobody else can. Good luck with that.

  • observer

    It’s interesting to note how similar “sophisticated theology” is to “reefer theology.” As in, “Duuuuude! Like, everything’s connected!”

    The only difference is that the sophisticated theologians congratulate themselves on their sophistication when they should be making a late night run to Taco Bell.

  • D. C. Sessions

    OK, I get it: there is no “God” at a level that matters to humans.

    Works for me.

  • Irreverend Bastard

    If god is vague, unspecified, and/or undefinable, then we can’t claim that god tells us to discriminate against gays. Actually, we’d have to scrap the whole damned bible, because the bible defines and specifies god in great detail.

    As an atheist, I don’t object to god. I object to people telling me what that god wants me to do.

  • macallan

    “Sophisticated theology” is the practical application of “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit”.

  • peterh

    Supernatural = null. End of story.

  • anubisprime

    Epicurus nailed it over well over two thousand years ago…

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

    Why indeed?

  • doublereed

    But that’s an obvious bait-and-switch tactic. To grant them that this is their belief, and that they are Christian at the same time, is obviously bullshit.

    What, for instance, does such a God have to do with the Bible? That’s not at all what the Bible describes, and especially not what Jesus describes.

  • Michael Heath

    “Sophisticated theology” is still dependent on the fatally defective thinking of taking a position derived largely by evidence-less beliefs rooted in primitive holy dogma.

    Consider a theology based only on relevant factually true premises; with no consideration for the beliefs of ancient religionists. I don’t think any reasonable person would ever arrive where these supposed theologians are at. I think that argues these theologians are mere apologists, just more creative and witty than the fundie kind.

    I do agree with one conclusion some supposed sophisticates argue. If a god exists who has the super-powerful qualities claimed in holy books, that god could not be the same god described in those very holy books. The powerful attributes projected on these supposed gods are falsified by the very behavior also asserted onto these gods.

    This point is still down in the rabbit hole since it presumes there is truth embedded in old holy dogma regarding the existence and nature of gods when all the evidence to date, and it’s an overwhelming amount of evidence, points towards no gods as described in ancient texts.

    Consider the supposed power of the Christian god(s), and yet this god is still completely incapable of revealing himself, let alone communicating what he wants of us. That’s something nearly all humans are easily capable of doing.

  • Matt G

    The problem, of course, is that sophisticated theologians believe in BOTH of these gods, appealing to whichever one suits their purposes at the time.

  • Michael Heath

    The following is from coel in the comments section of Dan Linford’s blog post. It was posted 12/4 at 8:27 a.m.

    The whole point of such apophatic theology is to throw up a smokescreen of verbiage, such that they can pretend that behind the smoke there is substance. The last thing apophatic theologians want to do is discuss the claims on their merits; rather, they are trying to construct a conception of “God” that is quite literally meaningless and therefore unfalsifiable.

    If they can construct a conception of “God” that is entirely indistinguishable from not-God, then no possible atheist argument can dent their construct! Any argument for not-God is then equally an argument for their god. It is a tactic close to brilliance!

    At that point, they can sneer at the New Atheists for being simpletons who, lacking in intellectual sophistication, just don’t get it (see, for example, the blurb to the Bentley Hart book). Meanwhile, the smokescreen of verbiage serves the purpose of arousing the warm and fuzzies in the faithful, reassuring them that there really is “sophisticated theology” that the atheists cannot address.

    I don’t follow this topic closely enough to conclude that coel’s observation is correct regarding the type of theologians discussed in this thread; that they seek to avoid the arguing the merits of their argument for the existence and nature of their god(s). I did find his comment post worth considering and therefore post here.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Without evidence, it’s impossible to tell sophisticated theology from pure bullshit.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    When I encounter the “sophisticated” goobers I explain to them that they can’t be christian or hindu or muslim or anything else, since those are all founded on non-sophisticated theologies. This makes them unhappy.

  • illdoittomorrow

    Dan Linford, quoted in the OP: “If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists know what they are objecting to?”

    Indeed. It also begs the question of why sophistimicated theologicians apparently lack anything resembling self awareness: how can you know that what you worship exists? Is worth worshipping, or even wants/cares to be worshipped? That you’re doing it right, and all those false religions are doin’ it wrong?

  • Akira MacKenzie

    “Sophisticated theology” is an oxymoron. Strip it of all its obfuscating, academic-sounging language and all you are left with are the same, long-refuted, fallacy-filled apologetics we heard time-and-time from televangelists and tent-revivalists.

  • http://artk.typepad.com ArtK

    This is the creationists’ “God of the gaps” wrapped up in academic-speak. A sort-of theological Uncertainty Principle: If you can observe something and God isn’t there, then He is someplace else. It begs the question of whether God exists or not.

    In other words, incredibly unsophisticated thinking.

  • Matt G

    What kills me about all these “proofs” of God’s existence is this: do these proofs all prove the existence of the same god? If you can “prove” the god of deism with one set of proofs and the god of theism with another, you’ve proved incompatible gods.

  • http://artk.typepad.com ArtK

    @Matt G

    Explaining that one is a piece of cake to the sophisticated theologists. Because God is unknowable, those differences between gods are actually similarities. All gods are the one God, at least if you look at Him in His own light. Or squint at Him the right way. You’re just too unsophisticated to understand this, with your simplistic “logic.”

    Having a discussion with theologists like this is trying to squeeze a water balloon. No mater where you press, it bulges out somewhere else.

  • themadtapper

    If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists Christians know what they are objecting to accepting? Thus, the mystical theologian insists that the atheist Christian could not have rejected accepted God after all.

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh? Also,

    God is so far beyond human comprehension, she insists, that when we try to imagine God we instead imagine a false idol. God, she tells us, “is the God beyond [our idolatrous conception of] God”.

    Since it is a sin to worship false idols, and any attempt to describe or imagine God simply creates a false idol, then worshiping God as described by the Bible in any way described by the Bible is a sin.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    the right sort of God is much bigger: a radically transcendent being about which human languages can only speak indirectly. Armstrong claims that her God is beyond any of our conceptions of what a god might be like.

    I can’t remember who said it, but:

    “Karen Armstrong claims nothing can be said about God, and she has written seven books saying it.”

  • http://lykex.livejournal.com LykeX

    If “god” is so far beyond human comprehension that nothing can actually be said about it, why does it matter whether I accept it or not? Isn’t this really just an argument in favor of abandoning the subject of theology altogether?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I am recently reading Science and Religion: 5 Questions, edited by Gregg D. Caruso. (2014) (ISBN-13: 978-8792130518).

    It has relatively brief responses to questions on the compatibility of science with religion from numerous philosophers, scientists and theologians. The range of views is fascinating.

    .

    In relation to this post, the stance of “sophisticated” theists is amusing. They are perfectly willing to throw the Fundies under the bus, which makes their own position rather strange and hard to credit. They discard 95%* of what the Bible says, which makes it very odd that they accept the remaining 5%. For what reasons should one believe anything from a book they already admit is 95% inaccurate?

    * A made-up number, which will vary somewhat from one “sophisticated” believer to another.

  • davek23

    @Marcus Ranum #12:

    Without evidence, it’s impossible to tell sophisticated theology from pure bullshit.

    I think that could best be styled after Clarke’s third law:

    Any sufficiently advanced theology is indistinguishable from bullshit.

    :)

  • wscott

    I have a good friend who is a theology professor, and fairly well-published. He comes from a Jesuit tradition, so his thinking in general tends to be a bit more rigorous than many of his peers. Nevertheless, debating theology with him is very much like debating [anything] with a postmodernist. He doesn’t actually disagree with any points you make, but throws out a lot of long-winded purple prose about all these other “points” that you have to consider, and cites a lot of scholars he knows you haven’t read and therefore can’t refute, etc. What you’re left with is a vaguely philosophical/metaphysical word salad that is, as Ed says, not even wrong.

    Which might be okay if he were claiming to be a deist or some kind of vague pantheist. I could see that.* But he considers himself a Christian. After 30 years of debating with him, I still don’t get how he can say it’s impossible to know anything about God, and simultaneously claim to know what God wants us to do. It’s maddening. As other have pointed out, these “sophisticated theologians” want to have it both ways.

    @ Irreverend Bastard #4: In their defense, most “sophisticated theologians” I’ve know (including my friend) tend to be on the progressive/tolerant end of Christianity, not Leviticus-quoting reactionaries.

    * I readily concede that the Deist version of God is unfalsifiable. What I never understood is why I should give two shits about a being that doesn’t care about me and doesn’t interfere in the world, even if it could be proved that it exists.

  • matty1

    Like everything else there is no one sophisticated theology, some people who use the term basically mean the same kind of thing fundies do but stripped of a few things like creationism, others use the word god to mean ‘something so vague I can spend 200 pages explaining why I can’t describe it’.

  • matty1

    @24 There is that, the less literalist believers get the more willing they tend to be to discard ‘moral’ rules that conflict with human rights. It isn’t absolute of course, the RCC has never accepted reading the Bible as straightforward history – largely because doing so would undercut their power as interpreters of the ‘real’ meaning – but that doesn’t make them progressive.

  • raven

    Most or all theology is Presuppositionalist.

    They assume god exists and then use that to…prove that god exists.

    The smokescreen is simply to hide that fact. Pantinga, who is one of the most famous theologians of this era is…an idiot. One of his basic assumptions, stolen from other xian sects, is that humans have a sensus divinus. That we are born knowing that the supernatural and gods exist.

    It’s obviously not true. Religion survives by hijacking our evolved minds, relentless early childhood brainwashing, and punishment of the defectors, up to and including murderering them, a once common procedure.

  • raven

    If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists know what they are objecting to?

    We don’t mind the Philosopher’s god. A god who is nowhere and does nothing isn’t worth worrying about.

    But that isn’t the religious gods. The various xian religions worship a variety of gods with the same name. The fundie version is a humanoid Sky Monster. A sockpuppet god like them only more powerful and if possible, more evil.

    It’s easy to not believe in or like that Invisible Sky Monster one.

  • Akira MacKenzie

    Reginald Selkirk @ 22

    They discard 95%* of what the Bible says, which makes it very odd that they accept the remaining 5%. For what reasons should one believe anything from a book they already admit is 95% inaccurate?

    Well admitting that believe that 95% makes them look ludicrous at best, barbaric at worst. Clinging to the 5% allows them to hold onto their hopes for a deity that gives authority to their personal beliefs along with the bonus of the promise of life after death.

    Despite their academic bona fides and scholastic accolades, they just can’t accept reality as is: they live short, miserable, finite lives as a speck upon a speck in a unconscious, materialist universe where “good” and “evil” are just meaningless words we throw around to justify our equally meaningless actions.

  • robertfoster

    Our ignorance is our proof. In other words, if we don’t know the answer, the answer must be god.

    Time for strong coffee and dark chocolate. Now, those are my gods.

  • anubisprime

    ‘fistikated feelology’ is an after thought that was hastily developed by the grifters to thinly paper over, fudge the issue and muddy the pond in the apparent gaping chasms of absolute fail b’twixt ‘n’ b’tween biblical ‘knowledge’ and reality.

    As such the best line of attack is defense….put the actual subject beyond logical discussion and the opposition are left with the ball to play with.

    It is patently obvious the religious contentions regarding a sky fairy are so fuckin’ ridiculous as to be tantamount to toddlers playing make believe.

    But if the definition and description of a god can be splattered in pompous meaningless prose and ancillary bull crap that removes it beyond even a cursory analysis then so much the better for the scam….

    It can then be claimed that nay-sayers do not understand the concept and as such their arguments are groundless and fatuous.

    MH @ 9

    “I think that argues these theologians are mere apologists, just more creative and witty than the fundie kind’

    That is indeed the point…’fistikated feelology’ developed with two main tenets…

    1) To give the faithful the warm and fuzzies and feel invulnerable, and therefore protected, from atheist logical argument.

    2) To construct ad-hoc running repairs to the philosophy of sky fairy which is arguably extremely vulnerable to decay because it was plonked on a most precarious. crumbling and increasingly shaky, shabbily cobbled, and extremely friable foundation laid by a bunch of ignorant and knowledge poor goat farmers whose only experience of the world ended at the next village along.

    The apologists now preen in providing a so called sophisticated ‘because’ snow job to plaster over the arbitrary rules and regulations that coalesced to the meme and excuse the blatant misogynistic sexually inadequate ignorant bullshite that the religious like to think their delusional invention would say.

    It is a dishonest and a titanic cop out formulated in desperation, outright panic and severe lack of integrity.

    The latest wheeze being if you reject the tale then you do not understand the tale…simples.

    And to make sure they clothe it in absolute facetious,mundane existentialist balderdash constructed specifically to be indecipherable to everyone, fans, churches, other religions, but mainly to atheists, knowing that their trash will receive righteous nods of approval by the committed anyway,,,even though their understanding of it will be virtually zero, but that does not really worry them

    Reminds me of the nonsense the last Arch bishop of Canterbury trotted out in one of his last interviews …’The archbishop of Canterbury described his faith as a ‘silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark’

    Absolute fatuous twaddle and the trade mark of so called religious philosophical debate.

    Make it vague and avoid the question!

    What the apologists cannot disguise, however, is the fact that the majority of fans in society regard their superhero in far different and far more human terms then those promulgated terms conjured up by said apologists.

    They made it up originally…and they continue to make it up today,all is appealing to the frame of reference of the time because they have to, seeing as the main premise is a nonsense to begin with.

  • coffeehound

    Art K @ 18,

    This is the creationists’ “God of the gaps” wrapped up in academic-speak

    This is the impression of anything I’ve read by Karen Armstrong ( not familiar with the other two authors). Good scholar, great documentation, but failing miserably to come up with any novel argument. Because there’s nothing there, other than the greatest, bestest God you can’t imagine, so there.

    and this from the author,

    If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists know what they are objecting to?

    avoids the need to first clarify God’s existence (or not) to have anything to talk about at all. It smells like a creationist type argument to shut down conversation. Otherwise these types of arguments on their side don’t merit serious consideration. Surely they can come up with evidence for a God they’re sure is there so we can START the discussion?

    Most posters here have it right, This is no argument for a deity, it’s just another apologist’s poor attempt to discount atheist arguments by not bothering to consider them.

  • Goblinman

    The most interesting thing about those Armstrong-ite arguments is how obvious it is that the intellectual theists are twisting themselves into knots to avoid having to admit they don’t actually believe in a literal God. Just by altering the wording slightly without changing the meaning, they’re arguing that atheists have nothing to disagree with them about–that their version of God is compatible with an atheistic worldview. The God of these arguments does not exist in any meaningful way.

    This also illustrates the chimerical nature of the concept of God. For liberal theists, at least, the nature of God shapeshifts depending on the need. This version of God both does and does not exist. When pressed by atheists, it becomes unknowable and impersonal. When needed for moral judgement or personal comfort, it becomes knowable again, as a divine friend and lawgiver. Likewise, the bible is both completely true and almost entirely metaphor.

    It’s also a good illustration of how transparently nonsensical these highly intellectual apologetic arguments are. They can’t actually prove that God exists, so the best thing they can come up with is to create arguments complicated enough to confuse themselves. It’s the logical equivalent of building a very complicated maze and, pointing at its complexity, insisting that it must therefore hold a great treasure, or else why would it be so complicated?

  • doublereed

    Many people don’t seem to realize that unfalsifiable is, in many ways, worse than false. It means that it is ultimately useless and pointless. Existence or non-existence doesn’t matter. You certainly wouldn’t DO anything as a consequence or label yourself this-or-that because of it.

    I mean, what does it say when a religious person wants to convince you that God doesn’t matter? What does it say about what they’re willing to argue?

  • anubisprime

    doublereed @ 34

    I mean, what does it say when a religious person wants to convince you that God doesn’t matter? What does it say about what they’re willing to argue?

    It certainly say’s a lot about their integrity…or rather lack of!

    As long as their delusion is top dead center in policy or government initiative, and as long as their bigotries, hatreds and intolerance’s are catered for in no small measure, they will argue the moon is green cheese and demons infest women, or Obama is the anti-christ or Hitler was an atheist. global warming is a theory in fact any damn thing they think might ding the bell of the rubes…

    About the theology, not as important, it is not the main reason they tango to the beat, that is why most theology they chunder up is risible trash, it is just a holding pattern!

  • http://mostlyrational.net tacitus

    I get the sense that many people want to cling to a belief in some kind of supernatural deity, not because they want to believe there is “something more” to existence, but because they don’twant to believe there is nothing more.

    It’s a scary thought–when you die, that’s it, you cease to exist. That’s why, in the absence of any technological solution to mortality, I don’t believe atheism will ever become the prevailing belief system in the free world, even if and when Christianity and Islam have been relegated to minority status around the world.

  • raven

    It’s a scary thought–when you die, that’s it, you cease to exist.

    Nowhere near as scary as dying and finding the fundie Sky Monster god.

    I don’t know that scary is the right word anyway. The fact that our lives are finite means we have to make the most of what we have now.

    And BTW, how many people really believe in an afterlife? I doubt too many do. They may hope for one but there is no evidence and no way to be sure. The ones in the hospital screaming for futile life prolongation treatments at the very end the most are usually…fundie xians. Like the ones who keep brain dead bodies going for years and years. They simply don’t act like they believe in heaven.

  • linford86

    One thing that has consistently fascinating me in reading responses on here is the perplexing idea that (somehow) I agree with Armstrong simply because I’ve explained her arguments.

    I explain her arguments in my article in order to rebut them.

    At any rate, I thought themadtapper’s remark was hilarious. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh?” Indeed.

    I figured that I’d kind and point out the answer Armstrong gives to this question: “Since it is a sin to worship false idols, and any attempt to describe or imagine God simply creates a false idol, then worshiping God as described by the Bible in any way described by the Bible is a sin.” As far as I can tell, she does not disagree. This is more troubling, however, for the Roman Catholic Church because their catechism commits them to a view similar to Armstrong’s.

  • raven

    http:// scienceblogs. com/insolence/2009/03/19/religion-and-end-of-life-care/

    Quoted in Orac 2009

    Faith in a higher power can often lead to more aggressive treatment than is medically warranted, research is beginning to show. As a result, the nation’s medical community is now grappling with the best way to bring God into the doctor-patient relationship without subjecting patients to needless suffering before they die.

    In a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.,

    researchers found that terminally ill cancer patients were nearly three times more likely to go on breathing machines or receive other invasive treatments if religion was an important part of their decision-making process. Such treatments didn’t improve a person’s long-term chances, however.

    TL,DR version

    researchers found that terminally ill cancer patients were nearly three times more likely to go on breathing machines or receive other invasive treatments if religion was an important part of their decision-making process.

    There you go. If you are wild eyed fanatic fundie xian, you are more likely to demand End of Life treatments that don’t make any difference.

    This must mean they can’t wait to get to heaven (snark).

  • se habla espol

    If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists know what they are objecting to believe in? Thus, the mystical theologian insists that the atheist could not have rejected accepted God after all. And a variety of traditional objections to atheism, naturally, disappear as well.

    FTFY.

  • DaveL

    One thing I think needs to be remarked upon, is that I know of no other field of human endeavor whose practitioners regularly abandon it entirely and admit the entire discipline is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. I’ve never heard of a farmer changing careers because he was forced to admit there was no such thing as corn, and never had been. No chemical engineer ever left the profession because he came to the conclusion that hydrogen was a fable. But in theology, this really happens. It’s not that common, but people really do invest a decade of their lives or more into before declaring there’s to “there” there.

  • http://mostlyrational.net tacitus

    Nowhere near as scary as dying and finding the fundie Sky Monster god.

    Yeah, but very few people believe that their god is going to be a monster to them, only to those who deserve it (e.g. unbelievers, unsaved people, evil people, Hitler, etc.)

    And BTW, how many people really believe in an afterlife? I doubt too many do. They may hope for one but there is no evidence and no way to be sure.

    Hope and belief, it’s probably some combination of both for the vast majority of people, but they serve the same purpose, to soften the harsh edges of our finite existence.

  • http://kamakanui.zenfolio.com Kamaka

    Yeah, but very few people believe that their god is going to be a monster to them

    Their god is a monster. Given that ‘sinning’ is specifically designed to make everyone a sinner so as to extort, clergy threats of ETERNAL damnation (you are going to be punished for ever ever), great fear of death and it’s fictitious consequences by believers seems normal to me.

  • martinc

    Holding onto an arguable position of a God who is undisprovable only by virtue of having an existence so tenuous that humans can’t even comprehend him seems to not advance the argument of God’s existence one whit.

    And what do these ‘sophisticated theology’ advocates do with such a God? Worship him? Why? If we can’t comprehend anything about God, why worship? Because God is good? But if you have to define ‘good’ as ‘what God is’ rather than any human understanding of ‘good’, then it seems to me there is no way to meaningfully say that ‘God is good’.

    So why worship? Fear?

  • smrnda

    As a (retired) mathematician, I’m used to precise, exacting definitions. Argument by verbose obfuscation is among the most irritating since the person advancing the mystical bullshit just argues that if you don’t go along with affirming their inflated nonsense it’s because you’re (horribly) demanding that statements actually mean things.

    If we can’t understand something, it’s a waste of time to think about it. As one philosopher recommended, on that which we cannot speak we can remain silent, and (my addition) save a lot of wasted time.

  • macallan

    @24: it’s doublethink – holding two or more incompatible beliefs at the same time.

  • lpetrich

    In fairness to such theologies, they may be derived from mystical experiences or “transcendence hallucinations”, as they are sometimes called. Except that they can seem very real, and sometimes much more real than any of our other experiences. Such experiences can be difficult to describe, something that sort of fits Karen Armstrong’s favorite sort of theology.

    But here is someone who advocates this sort of theology: J.L. Hinman, online as Metacrock. Metacrock’s Blog He repeatedly bellyaches about how atheists think that the Christian God is a big man in the sky and not the Ground of Being or Being Itself or whatever. He argues from the Bible, specifically Exodus 3:14. He goes translation-shopping, using the Septuagint version instead of the Masoretic version. Septuagint: “I am the being”, which he turns into “I am being”. Masoretic: “I am that I am”.

    But he is unwilling to set his fundie friends straight, even though he has been banned from one forum by some fundies.

    One other thing. Try not to be too hard on Metacrock because of his spelling. He has dyslexia. But when he misspells some obscure word or some obscure name, that can cause trouble. He gets very defensive about his dylexia, and he does not adequately appreciate what trouble it can cause. He once stated that he has “Venus ulcer disease”, which was actually “venous ulcer disease”, something I discovered after a *lot* of searching.

  • Anri

    If someone believes that nothing useful can be said about their concept of god, they should at least perhaps shut up.

    …but I guess that makes it harder to sell books.

  • eric

    @24 and @46: Yeah, my personal take is that sophisticated theology = ‘Christian when the atheists aren’t asking questions, vaguely deist when they are.’

  • ah58

    1) How do you get from this nebulous description to the christian god described in the bible?

    2) Why would such a thing demand or warrant worship? What possible purpose would that serve? It would be simply something that exists but you have no influence over, sort of like gravity.

  • anubisprime

    ah58 @ 50far

    Yes indeed…they seem to theologised themselves in to a corner here by

    dragging the frame of reference way across the playing field and losing it in the bushes.

    So intent were they to protect the fictional they have succeeded in only placing it beyond human comprehension of anyone, thereby moving it so far beyond the liars, scam artists and conmen who claim to speak to their god or understand that god’s antipathy to homosexuality, women or atheists.

    Because such mundane bigotry and intolerance is by the apologists definition not possible to be expressed by their version in a human context…because it cannot be parsed in human terms.

    It means the ‘faithful’ are in fact worshiping not only the wrong god but the wrong meme…

    In their pompous righteousness they have killed the god of xtian religion stone dead where it totters, and atheism did not have to do diddly squat!

    The irony is delicious!

  • Eric MacDonald

    Matty1 (#25) says, with a curious degree of confidence: “Like everything else there is no one sophisticated theology, some people who use the term basically mean the same kind of thing fundies do but stripped of a few things like creationism, others use the word god to mean ‘something so vague I can spend 200 pages explaining why I can’t describe it’.”

    Of course, there is no one sophisticated theology, any more than there is one leading edge theory of physics, or any more than there is one sophisticated philosophy. Theology uses rational argument, not empirical evidence, for its claims. And you don’t get to theology by stripping fundy preconceptions, but by fairly serious and sophisticated forms of argument. Unfortunately, Ophelia’s friend decides to opt for the easiest target, Karen Armstrong, who is a religious commentator and populariser (and often not a good one), not a theologian. Had he paid more attention to Hart’s books he would have had a harder time saying the kinds of things he says about Armstrong’s version of apophaticism. Also, the idea of revelation (which sits very uneasily with any religion, but has been studied in some depth by Christian theologians, who have questioned its use in Christian contexts – see Gerald Downing’s Has Christianity a Revelation?) is one that needs further analysis, in the sense that revelations are usually in words written by men (and possibly women – see Harold Bloom’s J) and are always open to various interpretations, especially when historical distance between original writing and the time of interpretation are brought into play. As Derrida showed so thoroughly, everything that is written in human language is open to interpretation, and so, to some extent, the message is always indeterminate. This applies to scientific theories as well, which are, as Hawking says, based on a theory of model realism, and is especially true with theoretical physics, which can no longer confirm its most adventurous theories. String theory, multiverses, etc., are speculations that cannot be confirmed. We seem to be at the limit (at CERN) with the detection of particle phenomena, which leaves us with equations which cannot be verified – why Lee Smolin wrote his book The Trouble with Physics.

    It is simply not true, however, that, minus creationism and a few other literalisms, the religion of theologians is basically a form of fundamentalism. This is the kind of hubris that discredits atheism, and its unwillingness to address the most sophisticated arguments for both God’s transcendence, along with the idea that nevertheless God is encountered in human life (experiences for which William James and other writers about religion have a good deal of respect), is a demonstration of atheism’s childishness instead of sophistication. I’m afraid that Linford’s article leans towards the childish side of the discussion of religious belief. That authoritarian religion has often ended up in an unjustified dogmatism (just as so much new atheism does) is no reason to dismiss theology without argument, as Linford effectively does, and as most comments in this thread do. If you really want to be an atheist without sounding like a fundamentalist yourself, you really do need to learn more about how theology is done. Most of it begins with philosophy, and then leads from there to what can be said about God, and then with a concept of God as in some sense the fullness of being that transcends existence, we can see why we cannot speak about God except in terms of human experiences of encounter and meaning, and this leads on, in most cases (unlike the past, when sexual taboos seemed to monoplise religious ethics), to ways of living most fully in this life, without any reasonable certainty about any other life. What troubles me is how much atheists simply do not know about religion, though most of them started out with elementary forms of religious belief.

  • http://lykex.livejournal.com LykeX

    I’m sorry, you were way too brief for me to catch your meaning. Please repeat your point, but use more words and preferable longer ones. I have no doubt that we’ll all gain much from such a clarification.

  • anubisprime

    LykeX @ 53

    I have no doubt that we’ll all gain much from such a clarification.

    Or not…as the case maybe….certainly the peddled understanding of theoretical physics and the role of CERN is rather cursory if not actually embarrassingly scant in that ahem!…analysis.

    Maybe no holding of the breath will required for any imminent revelation from the screed to broaden our philosophical horizons…it might well be futile!

  • Nick Gotts

    Eric MacDonald@52,

    Theology uses rational argument

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Good one!

    Oh. You were serious?

    Unfortunately, Ophelia’s friend decides to opt for the easiest target, Karen Armstrong, who is a religious commentator and populariser (and often not a good one), not a theologian. Had he paid more attention to Hart’s books he would have had a harder time saying the kinds of things he says about Armstrong’s version of apophaticism.

    Yup. The really sophisticated theology is always somewhere else. The Courtier’s Reply at its most, er, naked.

    Most of it begins with philosophy

    Given the vast range covered by the term “philosophy” – much of it, although by no means all, either worthless rubbish or simply outdated – that is a completely useless claim. Moreover, the great majority of theologians start with a framework of ideas (to use that term in its broadest sense) derived from a specific religion – generally Christianity. The more sophisticated they are, the more of this framework they abandon, until some end up with a kind of homeopathic religion to which they nonetheless attribute great value, although generally having some difficulty explaining what that value consists in.

    and then leads from there to what can be said about God

    Anything at all can be said about God, just as it can about any other fictional character.

    and then with a concept of God as in some sense the fullness of being that transcends existence

    …and then we arrive at in some sense the fulness of self-important burbling that transcends drivel.

    and is especially true with theoretical physics, which can no longer confirm its most adventurous theories. String theory, multiverses, etc., are speculations that cannot be confirmed.

    Which is why they are not, in the scientific sense, theories, although they may become so, if ways of testing them are found. Which is completely unlike balderdash such as “a concept of God as in some sense the fullness of being that transcends existence”, which will never be anything but balderdash.

    If you really want to be an atheist without sounding like a fundamentalist yourself

    Oh, how original. It can’t be more than the thousandth time I’ve heard that ridiculous claim. “Fundamentalist” is a word with a specific meaning: it refers to someone who hews to a specific interpretation of a text taken as authoritatively expressing the truth. One could perhaps argue that some Marxists and many Randians have such an attitude to their own “scriptures”, but you won’t find any such here.

  • Crimson Clupeidae

    The problem with those ‘sophisticated’ gods is that they each only have one follower, which doesn’t make for much of a church, or god.

  • Nick Gotts

    It’s a scary thought–when you die, that’s it, you cease to exist. – tacitus@36

    Is it? Why? To paraphrase (IIRC) Mark Twain, I was non-existent for billions of years, and it never caused me the slightest inconvenience. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like the option of greatly extending my lifespan, because I enjoy life, and there’s too much to do and to learn to fit into a measly 70 or 80 years, but I don’t find the thought of ceasing to exist scary in the least.

  • DaveL

    and then with a concept of God as in some sense the fullness of being that transcends existence

    How exactly is that different from a concept of God as in some sense the colorless green idea that sleeps furiously?

  • Anri

    Eric MacDonald @ 52:

    If you really want to be an atheist without sounding like a fundamentalist yourself, you really do need to learn more about how theology is done. Most of it begins with philosophy, and then leads from there to what can be said about God, and then with a concept of God as in some sense the fullness of being that transcends existence, we can see why we cannot speak about God except in terms of human experiences of encounter and meaning, and this leads on, in most cases (unlike the past, when sexual taboos seemed to monoplise religious ethics), to ways of living most fully in this life, without any reasonable certainty about any other life. What troubles me is how much atheists simply do not know about religion, though most of them started out with elementary forms of religious belief.

    Actually, in my experience, religion doesn’t begin with philosophy, it begins with presupposition of god’s existence and desperately attempts to use the wordplay of philosophy to explain itself. Generally badly.

    As an example:

    a concept of God as in some sense the fullness of being that transcends existence

    In plainer language:

    someone really really big who’s realier than all the realiest things that are real!

    But, ok, I’ll try to meet you on your own terms here. You say this:

    we can see why we cannot speak about God except in terms of human experiences of encounter and meaning

    Presumably something us ignorant atheists aren’t doing. So, here’s my challenge for you: try to do just that. Which is to say, speak about god as you apparently think ignorant atheists do – without terms of human experiences and meaning.

    I don’t really know what you mean by that phrasing, and I suspect you don’t either, so I’ll ask for your version of a counterexample to clarify it for me. Tell me what an atheist would say about god – free of human experiences and meaning – if you would.

    Your alternative, painful as it would be, is to admit, at least to yourself, that you are just bullshitting.

  • anubisprime

    Seems the poster was far more interested in having a snide and superior pop at atheists then in providing meaningful prose is support and illumination of his transcendental sky fairy.

    Bullshitting for jeebus is a traditional pursuit which is indulged in from every stratum and niche of the theist fanclub, some do it with a smile others with a knife behind the back, but all do it with an intent to deceive.

    It never has quality or depth of insight, only quantity and intended vagueness of definition, it is almost as a trademark of the screed.

    As I mentioned elsewhere the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury tried the same tactic in one of his last interviews, it was less then enlightening, in fact a real embarrassment for a so called advanced scholar of theology…a point that almost every press release and media article about Williams mentioned ad-infinitum for the whole duration of his tenure as A of C.

    The degree does not have to be a diploma mill award for the result to be just as fatuous and trite.

    It is rhetoric that works well when the audience is less then vigorous in cognitive function, not likely to ask any awkward questions, just swoon in awe and ignorance of ‘learned’ folk, usually proud possessors of a swathe of fabricated diplomas and degrees that suggests that they indeed ‘know’ god, actually not even being one step up, or indeed greatly removed from, from the ‘Hi I am Kent Hovind’ type dissertation candidate.

    I do not accuse the poster of imitating these fine and upstanding xtian traits but it would not be a surprise that certain screeds of the author might appear in church pamphlets here and there, but maybe I flatter to much.

    It is smoke and mirrors all the way down, I hope this poster replies to Anri @ 59…but a certain amount of experience suggests it was a brain fart drive by posting…I would be delighted to be wrong in this instance, but holding of breath will not be occurring.

    ‘Awaiting the question mark’….all the best folk do it don’t cha know?