How Do You Know That?

Jerry Coyne has written an incredibly lengthy complaint about a book he has not read. His rant suggests that deep down he knows that there is something wrong with the picture, but that doesn’t manage to stop him from simply plowing ahead. He begins by pointing out something that theologians have been saying long before atheists were and which therefore should not be news to anyone: the way liberal religious academics conceive of God is different from popular notions in not merely significant but radical ways.

Coyne concludes his article with the following questions:

1. On what basis do you know that God is a Ground-of-Being God instead of an anthropomorphic God? (In your answer, you cannot include as evidence the dubious claim that the former God is the one most people have accepted throughout history.)

2. How do you know that your Ground-of-Being god embodies truth, goodness, and beauty rather than lies, evil, and ugliness?

3. What would convince you that the god you describe doesn’t exist?

Let a theologian, for once, answer the best arguments of atheists: those that involve the question, “How do you know that?”

When the “best argument” for atheism is a question that liberal Christians were asking long before atheism gained its current popularity, that in itself makes it doubtful that the argument is in fact one that supports atheism. But leaving that to one side, let’s see if we can answer the specific questions Coyne has raised.

1. The reason why liberals have rejected an anthropomorphic God is for the same reasons atheists reject such a God – lack of evidence, and evidence to the contrary. Religious liberals have been doing that for at least as long as atheists, if not indeed much much longer. We also find the implications of positing that sort of God to be religiously problematic, rather than problems which mean that one ought to dismiss all forms of religion altogether. When we speak of God as Being itself or the Ground of Being, we are talking about existence, about reality. We are positing that reality has transcendence and depth. The reasons why people think in these terms often differ – for some, it may be a spiritual or mystical experience, while for others it may not be. But what we tend to have in common is the sense that religious language is a helpful way of doing justice to our experience of life.

2. I recently addressed this on my blog. First, whenever people talk about God, the ultimate, they associate God with their core values. In the case of liberal and reconstructionist Judaism, God is often explicitly a placeholder for such values, a symbol of them. But I would go further and say that love is by definition self-transcendence, and truth is about getting to know reality as it really is. And so to say that transcendent reality is the opposite of transcendent reality makes no sense.

3. For me, the question is not about the existence of such a God, since that would be to talk about the sort of anthropomorphic god that is one being among others in the totality of existence. For those who talk of God as the Ground of Being, this it about the nature of Being itself. There is a reality that transcends us and which brought us into existence. We call it the universe. If reality ends there, then from this sort of liberal religious naturalist perspective, that would be called pantheism. If reality extends further still, then a term like panentheism would be more appropriate – and that is the term I prefer. But those who have this view find that either way, they do not feel that jettisoning religious language leaves us with the resources to articulate our sense of awe and wonder at the creativity at work in the cosmos, which has created beautiful works of art and given rise to beings like ourselves with the aesthetic sense to appreciate that beauty.

That Coyne posed the questions in the way that he did suggests to me that he still does not grasp what liberal religious people are talking about and how radically different it is from what many conservatives are saying. God is about humility and awe before mystery, rather than about dogmatically confident claims to knowledge.

Would you have answered Coyne’s questions differently? Would you, with greater or perhaps even less  familiarity with liberal religion, have asked different questions?

  • Just Sayin’

    Hart, not a liberal nor particularly progressive theologian, answers these questions in his book — the one that Coyne hasn’t read!

    But you have answered them very nicely yourself in this post, from your own perspective.

  • plectrophenax

    I don’t think that Coyne can grasp that God need not be seen as an entity in the universe – he is fixed on that view, as presumably this seems like a scientific hypothesis to him, which he can dismiss.

    It’s not surprising that Hart answers these questions, since they are not only of interest to liberals, but surely go back to classical theism?

  • Andrew Dowling

    Great response. You can tell from Coyne’s juvenile term that not only does he not understand the liberal religious strand or thought or its history, but he doesn’t care to know. New Atheists are as annoying in this regard as fundamentalists; they love the “fight” and embrace their own sanctimoniousness and that clouds and restricts their view of reality.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Perhaps of more interest than Coyne’s criticisms, James Croft is doing a chapter by chapter discussion of Hart’s book over on the Atheist Channel.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks so much for sharing that!

    • David_Evans

      Yes, thank you. That looks very promising. I shall be reading it.

  • plectrophenax

    After rereading Coyne’s article, the funniest thing about it is that he hasn’t read Hart’s book, and has to keep quoting other people’s summaries of it. However, he is definitely going to read it, so that’s alright!

    He also seems to get impaled on the argumentum ad populum – since he argues that most theists have an anthropomorphic view of God, not a ‘ground of being’ one. I don’t know if this is actually true, but are we then going to judge arguments by their popularity? How about scientific ideas – do we do the same?

  • David_Evans

    I think Coyne’s questions are badly posed, but I understand the feeling behind them. It’s a certain exasperation, arising from the question “Is what these people are defending really Christianity?”

    You say “There is a reality that transcends us and which brought us into existence. We call it the universe.” Fine. No atheist could disagree with that (with an appropriate definition of “transcend”). But how do you justify calling it “God”? Even more, how do you justify identifying it (to the extent that you do identify) with Yahweh, or with God the Father?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      The term God has a well established use in philosophy and not just in popular religion. Indeed, the adaptation of related terms in other languages which meant “god” (one powerful anthropomorphic being among many) to mean one supreme God itself shows how terminology evolves and is adapted.

      Biblical depictions of God are no less mythical than those of other texts and traditions. And so it is not that the two are identified. It is that one is a mythic and symbolic pointer towards the other. Tillich has a helpful treatment of the “broken myth” in his Dynamics of Faith.

      • David_Evans

        I still think there is some equivocation going on here. You say “For me, the question is not about the existence of such a God, since that would be to talk about the sort of anthropomorphic god that is one being among others in the totality of existence.”
        OK. You can immunise God against the question “Does God exist?” by redefining him as the ground of all being. But the question “Does God exist?” means something different for most people. It means things like “When I pray, is anyone listening?” and “Is there a supernatural being who will reward or punish my actions?” If these questions are anthropomorphic, then so is the language of Church services as I remember them.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Oh yes, absolutely. For most people who envisage one God, they simply have all the gods that were personified forces of nature rolled into one. While there is a long history of mysticism and apophatic theology and liberal questioning and the rest, I don’t think that anyone would deny that popular religion has always been and continues to be about pleading with one or more anthropomorphic beings in the hope of getting help with problems in life.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        I would say that the catch is that the term “God” does not have A well established use in philosophy — or rather, that does not mean any particular well established use is THE well established use in philosophy. In mathematical parlance, existence of some use is easily demonstrated by an example, but showing uniqueness of such is hard. (Perhaps not possible.) And false pretense of uniqueness is a fast shortcut to equivocation fallacies.

      • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

        While the concepts are that now, I don’t think “gods” and “spirits” have always been so anthropomorphic, after reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World.

      • Mark S.

        I don’t understand your answer to David Evans’s question. What makes you think there is a connection between the “ground of being” and Christianity?

        I concede that the universe exists. I just don’t think that any of the attributes commonly attributed to Yahweh or Jesus or Allah or Vishnu are involved. Instead of “God”, I could have called the “ground of being” by the name “Toki Toki”. In a way, that would be more honest because nobody looks at the word Toki Toki and thinks “Hey, that is a guy with a gray beard who lives in the clouds”.

        And if you were to choose to call “the ground of being” by the name Toki Toki, then what would your religion be?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I’m not familiar with Toki Toki, so I could at best venture a wild guess and suggest that it might be called “tokitokiism”?

          But I am not sure that I understand your question. For those who think of God as the Ground of Being, any particular religious system is a symbolic pointer to transcendence, not an actual description of actual anthropomorphic deities that exist within the universe. Such mythical language is an attempt to explore the unfathomable in terms of the concrete. And attempt to view myth as something other than myth would be rejected by those who subscribe to a liberal view of theology.

          • xyzzy

            You don’t know Toki Toki because I just made it up as a name for the thing that you call “the ground of being”. I object to using the term “God” to describe “the ground of being” because the name has so many other meanings. You can’t say “God” without implying a thousand years of assumptions that are inconsistent with “the ground of being”.

            If you discuss “the ground of being”, you can call it by any name you like. Giving it a name that has never been used before helps to clarify the discussion.

            Definition: “Toki Toki” is the name of “the ground of being”.

            Question: What makes yout think that Toki Toki has anything to do with the Bible, other than the Bible is a thing that exists?

            Question: What makes you think that Toki Toki is connected with your core values in any way? (See your original answer #2.)

            Question: Do you talk to Toki Toki?

            Question: Does Toki Toki have a son? If yes, what does it even mean for Toki Toki to have a son?

            Question: If Christianity is myth, why would you think it helps you to understand Toki Toki?

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              You obviously aren’t well acquainted with the longstanding philosophical use of the term “God.” And simply by asking whether the Ground of Being has a son, you seem not to understand what is meant by the concept “Ground of Being” either. Your other questions likewise suggest that you don’t grasp how liberal religious people with this sort of outlook view the texts and ideas in their tradition.

              If my previous blogging on these topics is not enough of a treatment, perhaps reading something by Paul Tillich or John A. T. Robinson might help.

              • xyzzy

                I understand that philosophers sometimes use the name “God” to refer to a thing that has little or nothing in common with the usual meaning of that term. If you don’t mean the guy in the clouds with the white beard, I think you should use a different name.

                I also understand that “ground of being” means whatever property of the universe explains why things exist. But if you are a Christian, I assume you think Jesus is the son of God. If God is defined as the Ground of Being, then the Ground of Being does indeed have a son. That is, God is not simply the Ground of Being, but also some other unspecified thing.

                What I don’t understand is that you seem to be presenting this argument:

                1. Things exist.

                2. ???

                3. Therefore, (insert *anything* about Christianity)

                I do not understand why liberal religious people find this argument persuasive. I’m looking for the statement that goes in step 2.

                You did not explain it in your original post above. Rather, you said that people associate their values with “God”. I hypothesize that this is because you are using the word “God” for two unrelated concepts.

                Here is what people are saying with the dual-meaning word: “God is the ground of being. My tradition says that God is good.”

                Here is what they are saying if you use two separate words: “Toki Toki is the ground of being. My tradition says that God is good.”

                I think this is a substantial difference.

                If your blog contains the statement that goes in step 2 of the argument I stated above, perhaps you could point it out. I have not seen it yet. In absence of that, do Tillich or Robinson describe step 2 of the argument?

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  Instead of assuming, why not actually inform yourself about what liberal Christians think? Liberal Christianity has been around long enough that people who are discussing religion publicly should not be misunderstanding the basics.

                  • xyzzy

                    It’s not like I haven’t tried. You can never be sure because people believe so many different things and describe them with the same name. I have also read a lot of descriptions that use many words without conveying any clear meaning.

                    But I conclude from your statement that the only thing I stated as an assumption is incorrect: You do not believe Jesus is the son of God. I stand corrected, and am now puzzled why the set of beliefs that include that is called “Liberal Christian”.

                    Perhaps you’ll note that I am actively trying to inform myself about what liberal Christians think by flat out asking one of them “What is step 2 of the argument?” I have never found a clear explanation of that part.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Liberal Christians are indeed diverse, but so are most groups, unless you are referring to some very narrow subset.

                      Things exist. Reality seems to many to have depth and mystery and transcendence to it. Some of us for whom the language of Christianity is either particularly familiar or particularly resonant find that it provides a useful set of symbols upon which to draw when reflecting on those aspects of existence.

                      Does that help at all?

                    • xyzzy

                      Actually it helps quite a bit. You aren’t really making the argument that I would have expected from your original post. I’m looking for “Ground of Being, therefore something” but if I understand correctly, you are not making that argument at all. Rather, it appears that you are assuming Christianity as a model and then proceeding from there.

                      As far as I can tell, the most significant difference between me and believers is that I have no experience of this depth, mystery, and transcendence that you speak of. When I think of the universe existing, I don’t need the same kind of symbolism that you do.

                      If you hope to convince an atheist, you have to get away from the symbolism and stick with the objective and observable. That is why I have so much difficulty understanding your perspective. For me, the symbolism gets in the way, rather than assisting the process.

                      Thanks for clarifying that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it described so succinctly.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I can completely understand the outlook that you have. Not everyone experiences the world in the same way, and not everyone has the same experience of linguistic systems of religious symbols. I wouldn’t expect someone who encountered Christianity primarily in a form that was abusive or hostile, for instance, to gravitate towards its symbolic language as a way of talking about the transcendent. But I suspect that you will find that there are important symbols within your own worldview, and that it encompasses lots of important things beyond the observable and quantifiable, even if it does so in different ways.

  • plectrophenax

    Aren’t Hart’s writings generally part of a fightback against theistic personalism, which seems to have dominated Protestant thinking? I think there is bound to be confusion and ambivalence over this, as many people will think in personalistic or anthrophomorphic ways, but various Orthodox and Catholic philosophers and others seem to making a stand for classical theism, and you could say, apophatic theology.

    One of the curious aspects of this debate is how much Protestant thinking seems to have influenced many atheists; so they tend to dismiss classical theism without knowing it.


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