“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.

The Atheist Who Spoke to God
The Art of Social Protest
Atheism's Lack of Values is a Bug, Not a Feature
In Art, Intention Isn't Gospel
About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 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.


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