“The Experience of God” Review – Chapter One

This is the second in a series of posts examining David Bentley Hart’s new book “The Experience of God”. You can find the other parts here.

Having established his general project, Hart turns to the first plank of his argument in favor of the existence of God: he attempts to make a firm distinction between “God” (capital G) and “gods” (lower-case g). His claim here is, essentially, that in many debates about God the central term under discussion is not properly defined, and that skeptics (as well as religious apologists) frequently aim their arguments at the wrong target. The arguments presented by the New Atheists, suggests Hart, are not really arguments about “God” at all, but rather arguments about “gods”. The distinction between these two concepts forms an essential foundational component of Hart’s argument since, Hart believes, if “God” is properly defined, atheism becomes “a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe to absurd” (p. 15). In short, his arguments is this:

if one understands what the actual philosophical definition of “god” is in most of the great religious traditions, and if consequently one understands what is logically entailed in denying that there is any God so defined, then one cannot reject the reality of God tout court without embracing an ultimate absurdity (p. 16)

Defining “God” properly, Hart argues, reveals not only the weakness of atheism but also of naturalism and materialism – so it’s really very important to get that definition right (and, consequently, it would be very damaging for Hart if there were something problematic about his definition, since so much rests upon it).

“God” and “gods” – Hart’s Definition

What is the distinction Hart wishes to make, then, between “God and “gods”? Hart suggests that “Most of us understand that “God” (or its equivalent) means the on God who is the source of all things, whereas “god” (or its equivalent) indicates one or another of a plurality of divine beings who inhabit the cosmos and reign over various regions” (p. 28). He stresses the difference is not simply that there is one God and many gods: rather this is a “distinction…between two entirely different kinds of reality” (p. 28). The “God” which Hart seeks to defend is not simply one of many divine beings within the cosmos, but is, rather:

“the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things” (p. 30)

Hart notes that frequently this “God” is often spoken of in religious traditions by describing what it is not – it is not created, not in the universe, not above the universe, is not itself the universe etc. It is not a “being”, “not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all”. What it is, apparently, is “the infinite wellspring of all that is…”beyond being”…[yet] in another sense…”being itself”” (p. 30).

In contrast, “gods” are not a “transcendent reality at all, but only…a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality” (. 31). These “gods” belong to nature, exist in space and time, are beings, etc. They might be thought of in a similar way one might think of aliens, or angels, or super-heroes (if one believed in them): very powerful entities which nonetheless exist in the same way we exist, live in the universe we inhabit, come from somewhere identifiable, participate in causality etc. They are very powerful beings, while “God”, according to Hart, is not a being at all. They are, Hart suggests, “demiurges”, not truly God.

It follows from this distinction, Hart suggests, that while “gods” can be examined through the application of the scientific method – we can investigate and see if they are actually sitting on Mount Olympus just as we can look for fairies at the bottom of our garden – while “God” cannot. “God” can only be investigated “by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or…by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences” (p. 33). This, in Hart’s view, invalidates many famous arguments against the existence of God, because they are simply pointing at the wrong target. The question “If God made the world, then who made God?” is based on a conceptual confusion regarding the nature of God; Euthyphro’s dilemma likewise. Both are declared entirely irrelevant to the question of God’s existence (p. 34).

Hart’s claim is that while “the God described by the new atheists definitely does not exist” (p. 23) – the target of the New Atheists is, in his terms, merely one of the “gods”, rather than “God” – disbelieving in God is impossible without embracing absurdity:

To be an atheist in the best modern sense…and so to be a truly intellectually and emotionally fulfilled naturalist in philosophy, one must genuinely succeed in not believing in God, with all the logical consequences such disbelief entails.(p. 32)

Evaluating Hart’s Definition

Hart makes a very strong claim and, this being only the first chapter of the book, it’s no surprise that much more remains to be said, and that the argument is by no means solid yet. Nonetheless, some preliminary words can be said in terms of evaluation. First, it is worth noting the breadth of Hart’s critique of the misdefinition of “God”, since it captures many believers, apologists, and theologians as well as atheists. Second, it is worth considering whether Hart’s two categories are conceptually coherent themselves, since I believe there are very significant conceptual problems with the way Hart has defined “God”. Third, it is unclear to me how the term “God”, as Hart wishes to use it, could advance our understanding of experience in any significant way – it lacks, potentially, epistemic utility.

Hart’s Critique is Broad

It has been noted by Jerry Coyne and Isaac Chotiner that Hart’s critique of the misdefinition of “God” by atheists, if accurate, would also serve as an equally powerful criticism of many lay-conceptions of God held by the general public, as well as many of the versions of God promoted by theologians and popular apologists. If Hart is to keep to his definition strictly, for instance, anyone who believes that God “performs miracles”, in the sense of reaching into the material universe to tweak or change something, would at that moment (it seems) not be speaking of “God” but merely of “a god”. Likewise for any conception of God which involves the design of any part of organisms by, for instance, tweaking genes.

Hart recognizes this, and in his text is critical of fundamentalist conceptions of God, and of Intelligent Design in particular, for falling prey to the same conceptual confusion he lays at the door of atheists. In my view, however, he doesn’t follow this thread quite to the end. For instance, he is rather disingenuous in his claim, in the book and in radio interviews, that if you speak with the average believer in God they will likely give a definition very similar to what he terms “God”: transcendent, fount of all being, etc. While this may be true, if you probe such believers a little further (as many polls do), you find that in addition to defining God as transcendent they also will speak of God as immanent – as a part of everyday reality, changing things, doing things, etc. In other words I think it fair to say that many believers probably have some hybrid conception of “God” which combines elements of what Hart terms “God” and “gods” – and this, strictly speaking, is totally incoherent if you take Hart’s argument seriously.

Similarly, reading the works of popular apologists (including theologically well-read ones like William Lane Craig), it is not clear at all that they share Hart’s definition of “God”. Craig, for instance, frequently writes as if God is a part of the universe, speaking with people, “sending” people to different places, casting judgments – doing all sorts of “gods-like” things (his famous defense of the slaughter of the Canaanites is a good example)! Reading much popular apologetics is like reading a defense of what Hart calls a “demiurge”, mixed in with philosophical ruminations more akin to Hart’s preferred method of getting at “God”. They seem to have a hybrid definition too. And this is evident in debates with atheists, where very rarely do you get the sense that the atheist and the believer are talking about entirely different concepts: they seem to be perfectly capable of arguing with each other from a (mostly) shared set of premises. So Hart’s criticism hear is broad: it captures many everyday believers as well as apologists and theologians in its sweep.

This does not, of course, speak to the quality of Hart’s argument: it could well be that all the people against whom he has positioned himself are wrong about their conception of God. But it does raise the question, as I noted in my critique of the introduction, of what Hart hopes to gain from this enterprise. If we accept, by the end of the book, that he has made his case, then perhaps we will have to reject naturalism and materialism, and perhaps we will have to accept the existence of “God” – but that “God” will not be, in all respects at least, the “God” which many believers believe in or which many apologists eagerly seek to defend. It’s tough (at least at this point in the argument) to see how the God Hart describes could be the God of Christianity as most understanding it, which takes literal person-hood in the figure of Christ. Indeed Hart’s entire approach – looking at how “God” is defined in common across many religious traditions – speaks against the idea that the resultant concept will be able to ground a specific religious worldview. This may not (as Isaac Chotiner notes) be comforting to believers who reach for Hart’s book as a defense of their god.

Hart’s Concept of “God” is Conceptually Challenging

When Hart talks of “gods”, I understand what he means. I can picture in my head what such a god might look like, and how it might operate in the world. Such a god – like a fairy – has a delineated sphere of influence, participates in normal causality, is a being, lives in time, comes from somewhere – it has a series of positive characteristics which enables me to think about it coherently and concretely and, therefore, make judgments about it. A god can be posited as the answer to some challenging earthly question, like “How does the planet Earth turn?” or “What are the Northern Lights?” I might reject the existence of such “gods” (and I do), but I know what it is I am rejecting.

Hart’s “God” is not so clear to me. When he talks of something (is “something” even a correct term here?) being the “ground” or “fount” of existence, which is both “beyond being” yet “being itself”, I am very confused. This does not, of course, defeat his argument: my inability to understand the concept which he is outlining is not necessarily evidence that the concept is flawed. But we must be careful here: it is a burden on the proposer of an idea to ensure that what they are proposing is at least minimally coherent and explicable. It is possible to craft a concept so meaningless that nothing said in its defense is valid. While I am certain Hart has much more to say in defense of his concept of “God”, as it is outlined in the first chapter it does not seem to me to meet minimal standards of intelligibility, and I think this likely to speak more to problems with the concept of “God” Hart is advancing than to problems with my attempts to comprehend it. The rest of the book will presumably shed more light on this.

Hart’s Concept of God Seems Potentially Epistemically Deficient

This criticism is linked to the above. The purpose of an explanation is epistemic: we advance explanations in order to help us understand things we wish to understand. The qualities are a good explanation are many, but they include at least offering intelligible ways of better grasping phenomena which, without the explanation, would be difficult to grasp. Good explanations need, therefore, to be intelligible themselves (see above); they are better if, in the process of explaining phenomenon A, they do not introduce a more difficult phenomenon B which then itself has to be explained; they have to address a genuine problem, rather than a pseudo-problem (in other words, there has to be something pressing to be explained for an explanation to be epistemically valuable); they should be consistent with other ways of understanding things which are themselves generative, or offer an alternative to the explanatory frameworks or methods they contradict (in other words, consistency is prized) – and there are a whole host of other criteria we might add to a list of what makes an explanation valuable.

The key point is that just because you appear to have offered an explanation for something, it doesn’t mean that the explanation is genuinely useful. It might introduce more problems than it solves. It might not mesh well with existing explanations. You might be addressing a pseudo-problem and not something which in fact requires an explanation.

Hart claims that his concept of God is designed to do just that: explain facets of our experience which otherwise are inexplicable. He says he will explain the problems of “being”, “consciousness”, and “bliss”, which he suggests naturalism cannot account for, and we shall have to see how well Hart articulates what the problems are with these facets of experience, and how well the concept of God he advances responds to those problems. But currently I do not see quite how he intends to approach it.

This problem is compounded by another: as far as I can tell, at this early stage in his argument, a conscientious atheist could grant his premises and yet deny he has achieved much of significance. Let us say he is right and that materialism and naturalism are serious flawed to the extent of conceptual incoherence, and that they have no adequate responses to the problems of being, consciousness, and bliss: this does not imply any sort of theism. There are non-naturalistic, non-theistic approaches which might be as adequate as Hart’s at responding to the problems he poses, so in addition to presenting his case against naturalism (he provides nothing more than a sketch of an argument in this chapter) he must also defend his theism from atheistic non-naturalistic explanations in order to demonstrate that including God genuinely advances understanding in comparison with other available options.

Furthermore, we must always keep in mind the possibility that there are problems for which, while genuine, we cannot devise a satisfactory solution. Some problems may not admit of an epistemically satisfactory explanation. The problems Hart suggests naturalistic frameworks – even if they represent real challenges to naturalistic worldviews – have may not be soluble by any framework, or we may spend many decades seeking solutions. This does not mean, however, that we should immediately seek alternate frameworks. Rather, we should use the frameworks which best explain the most pressing questions while recognizing they are not total in their explanatory reach. In other words, to identify even insoluble problems with naturalism is not to defeat naturalism unless an equally fruitful alternative viewpoint is espoused. We can happily remain agnostic on even very pressing questions if no suitable viewpoint is available: we need not leap from naturalism to supernaturalism just because it has challenges we cannot immediately resolve.

Conclusion

Hart, in this first chapter, rests a lot on his proposed distinction between “God” and “gods”. While we have not proceeded far enough into the book to know if his distinction will ultimately bear fruit, it is clear that there are serious hurdles for him to overcome – some of which seem not to have been recognized by Hart at this stage. Keeping an eye on these challenges will enable us to better evaluate Hart’s argument as we move through the book.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Jon Dreyer

    Here’s another criticism of this concept of “God.” Unless this God evolves greatly in the rest of the book, it has almost none of the characteristics that we normally associate with God or gods. It doesn’t hear prayer, it doesn’t create the Universe, it doesn’t make moral laws, it doesn’t love us, it offers neither good nor bad eternities, it can’t impregnate virgins, it doesn’t smite.

    I could tell you that, according to my definition, a certain axolotl is God. You couldn’t really argue against the existence of this God, but you might suggest that I’d chosen a confusing name.

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

      In what sense is this a criticism? I’m not sure on what basis you are deciding that traditional theology understands God in the right way, so that an articulation of a different viewpoint is supposedly problematic merely by virtue of being different from that.

      A great many terms are used differently in popular parlance than in technical discussions. It could be argued that scientists ought to come up with a different word than “theory” for a well-established and strongly supported explanatory framework. But the merits of using the term or substituting another don’t really have to do with the substance of what is being articulated, but only about how clearly some audiences may or may not understand what is being spoken of without further clarification.

      • Jon Dreyer

        My point is that this God is _almost nothing like_ the God spoken of in the Torah, Christian Bible, Koran, and that repurposing the word is intellectually dishonest, because they use it to justify remaining in those religious traditions _as if_ this God were the traditional God.

        That’s kind of like saying, “I discovered that the traditional view of creationism is wrong, and I believe Darwin was right about random mutation and natural selection, so but I like being a creationist so I’ll call Darwin’s theory ‘creationism.’ And furthermore I’ll still spout creationist screed but I’ll mean it metaphorically. Oh, please don’t ask me to explain the metaphors.”

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

          Well, in fact we can trace the mystical, allegorical, apophatic and other such approaches to these texts about as far back as we can trace their interpretation. And so this way of viewing things may not reflect popular piety, but it is am intellectual current with a long and established history.

  • johzek

    If this so called ‘something’ which is called God exists, it needs to be described and not defined. Definitions apply to concepts, which are mental abstractions, and not to existing entities. Entities which exist have whatever qualities and attributes they possess and need to be perceived to be described. For example the concept ‘man’ includes all men who have ever lived, all men who are living now, and all men who will exist in the future, no matter what their physical characteristics or intellectual abilities or personalities. Any particular man who exists has these attributes in some definite combination which need to be observed to be described. A particular man is not a concept.
    By attempting to define this ‘something’ called God, it is admitted that it is a mental abstraction and not an existing entity.

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

      Hart is not talking about an “entity” but about Being itself. So you are absolutely right, in one sense, but if you think it is a criticism of the concept of God as Ground of Being then you have misunderstood what is being spoken of.

      • johzek

        Whatever you want to call this “something”, whether it is Ground of Being or some other arbitrary string of words, this something has an identity. It is what it is and it is not what it is not. It is not a concept. It is something definite and supposedly can and should be described, not defined.
        The only way the concept of God as Ground of Being could be formed is if there were multiple gods each of whom possessed this attribute, among others. In such a case the phrase ‘ground of being’ might serve as a concise definition of the concept of ‘god’, just as the phrase ‘the rational animal’ serves as a concise definition of the concept of ‘man’. If I have misunderstood the imaginary, I can live with that. When I start misunderstanding reality then I’ll be worried.

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

          You seem to still be thinking in terms of things, and gods, entities that might or might not exist in the universe, and not about Reality or Being itself.

  • GCBill

    Most modern version of Christianity, including Hart’s own, claim that Jesus is supposedly both fully human and fully divine. But timeless, changeless, (metaphysically) simple Being could never even in principle become human, because Actus purus excludes even the possibility of change, temporal existence, and metaphysical complexity. To assert that God assumed the form of a man is to propose a threefold contradiciton given the premises of classical theism, and so it is impossible for the God that Hart is talking about to be the Christian “God.” I haven’t been able to find any theology that addresses this problem, which makes me doubt the sincerity of the whole endeavor. I think it illustrates why grafting myth onto metaphysics is in general a terrible idea, meaning the uncomfortable amalgamations of Hart, Feser, etc. can never be rationally justified.

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

      A great many liberal Christians, and especially those in the existentialist tradition that Hart stands in, would not embrace the Christology of the creeds with their doctrine of the incarnation. That doesn’t mean that this not a Christian concept of God – it just means that it is radically different from that of conservative and traditional theology. Paul Tillich is another excellent source to read on this topic.

  • Jeff Peden

    I wonder, why the insistence on the word ‘God’? If we replaced Hart’s ‘God’ with ‘The Grounder’ would we lose anything, conceptually? If we don’t, then doesn’t the theism/atheism aspect of this become a mere argument about vocabulary?

    Could I argue something like:
    Contra the understandings of all theists and most atheists (including most naturalists), the proper understanding of nature (which I call Nature) is “the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.” What is natural is that which has arisen from Nature (which, of course, is everything).

    Clearly, when properly understood, Naturalism cannot be refuted. And, as we all know, if Naturalism is true, theism is false. Therefore, gods (and God) do not exist. QED.

    Beyond allowing one to insist it permits theistic belief, calling this God seems to be irrelevant. Why not call it the Ultimate Platonic Form? Why not call it ‘the Grounder’? Why not call it Jeff?

    I understand that Hart wants to connect ‘God’ to the history of religious thought, but it is not entirely clear why that is required. If I can rename Hart’s ‘God’ to ‘Nature’, insist that no gods exist, and lose none of Hart’s conceptual points, then the theism/atheism angle of the book is pointless. It becomes material for selling books by appealing to a cultural hot topic, not anything related to conceptual clarity. At least, it seems that way to me.

    Why do I think this may matter? Because, if I am correct, you can remove the socio-cultural institutions of religion out of the conversation. In fact, there would seemingly be good reason to not appropriate the language of religion. Let’s not confuse anyone about the implications of Hart’s book. And if Hart’s correct, and I have to acknowledge that the Grounder..well…is. Then, so be it. But it seems, I could still happily remain an atheist.

    I think my point is encompassed in many of James’s observations (as well as some of the other reviews). Obviously, this may be addressed later in the book, so I shall have to wait and see.

    James, thank you for these chapter reviews. They have been enjoyable to read.

  • Darren

    Perhaps I have missed a key distinction, but Hart’s definition of “God” .vs. “gods” appears to be little more than simple Thomism. Likewise, Edward Feser makes similar claims that a proper Thomist understanding of God renders Naturalism, Materialism, and Atheism incoherent.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    So far, to me Hart’s “God” just sounds like warmed-ever Spinoza. Am I missing something?

  • Pofarmer

    ““the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient,
    omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of
    all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things”
    (p. 30)”

    I think the problem here, is figuring out the interface for this “God” with our universe. How does something who is “outside” of our reality interact with it? And even if this “God” started our reality, then how would it affect it later on? I think an Atheist could accept this definition of “God” and still not be any closer to being a theist, especially in the Christian mold.

  • Pofarmer

    Just a random thought, but, isn’t the fact that here we have someone yet again defining and trying to prove “God” after at least 5000 years of unfruitful attempts at a salvageable definition, rather an admission that there isn’t much there, there?

    • Anton

      Why wouldn’t it be more likely that humanity is still wrestling with questions that they can’t seem to get answered anywhere else?

      • Pofarmer

        God of ignorance?

        • Anton

          Come again?

          What I meant is that things like art, poetry, and religion survive in our age because they address needs that humanity can’t fulfill any other way. They’ve always been important in describing the human condition. Do you complain that the reason people still paint or write poetry is that they’re useless pursuits?

  • drokhole

    Is this still an on-going series? Where’s the review for Chapter Two?


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