“The Experience of God” Review – Introduction

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

Once in a while a book is published which people declare to be a “must read” for atheists. The new book is so powerful and insightful, it is averred, that it will blow away the stale air which suffocates intelligent discussion of religion and faith, and refocus the debate on what really matters. Intelligent atheists will pause, brows furrowed, chins in hand, and reconsider their position, while the wise theologian author strokes their beard and smokes their pipe, eyes a-twinkling.

Recently, the book which has earned this questionable accolade is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, by David Bentley Hart. Hart is a philosopher and theologian of some distinction: graduate of the University of Maryland, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Virginia, sometime professor, and author of Atheist Delusions, for which he won the Michael Ramsey Prize in Theology. He is no slouch. His new book has been declared “The one theology book all atheists really should read” by the UK’s Guardian newspaper – which given The Guardian’s tendency toward tepid understatement is a forceful recommendation indeed! – and The National Review declared “one would be hard put to find a more thorough and a more devastating refutation of naturalism…than here.”

As an atheist and (sort of) naturalist with philosophical training and a desire to be thoughtful regarding my metaphysical commitments, I’ve decided to read Hart’s book and give a chapter-by-chapter take on the arguments therein. I believe that one of the surest ways to advance one’s ideas is to challenge them through engagement with strong arguments in favor of opposing positions and, by all accounts, Hart’s book will provide such a challenge. I hope mine will be a constructive and fair-minded engagement with the text: my purpose is not to refute his arguments but to examine them critically to determine if there is anything of worth in them. I am not necessarily committed to my own atheistic position and, if Hart offers good reasons, I would be happy to abandon that position to accept his. To this end I’ve listened to some interviews with Hart about the work as well as begun the process of reading it closely, so I can get a solid picture of what he is attempting to do with the book, and why. While other atheist bloggers have engaged with Hart’s book (Jerry Coyne responds to a review of the book here, without yet reading the book: not a practice I think particularly helpful), I have not seen a thorough examination of the arguments contained therein. That’s what I hope to provide in a series of posts.

A Note on Style

Hart’s style in the book is learned but provocative. The prose is enjoyable and easy to read – even sometimes delicious – and Hart is clearly a man of great erudition, though he sometimes wears that erudition more heavily than he might. At the same time Hart indulges, particularly toward the start of the book, in rather gleeful attacks on New Atheist authors. Atheists – particularly those engaged in the atheist movement – who read it are likely to raise their eyebrows at least once as Hart mercilessly eviscerates the ideas of various New Atheist celebrities. In style and tone the early book reads rather like the New Atheist manifestos he decries, which is somewhat ironic. That said, it is important to remember that texts which enrage us can also be right. Hart’s penchant for quipping at the expense of Richard Dawkins does not discredit his argument, and throughout this guided analysis I am going to ignore tonal and stylistic elements of the book and pull out the argumentative guts.

So, let’s begin with Hart’s introduction.

Introduction

Hart’s introduction lays out what his general project in The Experience of God is, and his general philosophical approach. As such it is worthy of serious scrutiny, because many future criticisms of his writing could miss the mark if his overall approach and purposes are misunderstood.

Hart states that his “intention is simply to offer a definition of the word “God”” (p. 1). This desire – to get clear on what is actually at issue when we talk about “God” – is repeated throughout the introduction and in interviews with Hart. He feels that many debates regarding the “existence of God” falter because there is a lack of clarity regarding the term under discussion. Intriguingly (and I think this may not be well understood by some of the believers lionizing Hart’s book at present), Hart is critical of both sides in these debates, saying “on most occasions none of them [neither atheists nor believers] is talking about God in any coherent sense at all” (p. 1). Rather than offering a work of apologetics, Hart promises a “lexicographical exercise” which examines what the term “God” means, in order that atheists “have a clear concept of what it is the claim not to believe” (p. 2).

Having outlined his purpose, Hart then begins to sketch his argument. He claims that he is going to present a definition of God which can be found in a wide variety of religious traditions (all the Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism, Sikhism, some forms of Buddhism etc.). This definition of God, he says, will be quite different to the “god” attacked by New Atheists in their popular bestsellers, which he declares a straw man (indeed, “whole armies of straw men”, p. 4). This God, far from the “sky daddy” Hart claims New Atheist authors aim their arguments at, is something (is “thing” even the correct word here?) which cannot be touched by science: “the notion that any discovery of empirical science could possibly…have any effect whatsoever on the logical content of the concept of God or of creation” is called a “vulgar error” (p. 6). And this, Hart argues, is the sort of God intelligent and thoughtful atheists should seek to grapple with, for such a God represents the “strongest possible formulation” of the God idea.

Much more can and will be said about each of the ideas Hart raises in his introduction, but first I wish to offer a few thoughts regarding the general approach. First, I think Hart is correct in his judgment that the books of the New Atheists are not sophisticated texts grappling with the strongest possible arguments available for the existence of any sort of “God”. I think he is wrong, however, to decry them for that. He himself correctly identifies them as “manifestos…supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection” (p. 5). They are not sophisticated works of philosophy or theology, nor are they meant to be. In my judgment, the New Atheist texts are best understood as analogues to popular aologetics, rather than advances of or even introductions to the philosophical and theological literature regarding the question of God. It would be wrong for a lay reader reading The God Delusion to mistake it for a sophisticated or even competent work of philosophy – and it would be equally wrong for a professional theologian to treat it as such. The same criticisms Hart levels at New Atheist texts could equally be leveled at much popular Christian apologetics: The God Delusion is rather like an atheist version of Christian apologist Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God in intellectual sophistication and purpose, and if it is right for the intellectually serious atheist to consider stronger formulations of theism than those refuted in the New Atheist texts, then it is equally right for theologians like Hart to consider stronger forms of atheism than those texts promote. As yet I see little evidence Hart follows his own dictum in this regard.

Second (and here we approach issues my review of the first chapter will delve into more deeply, and which Jerry Coyne raises in his post), we might question precisely what Hart hopes to “get” out of his philosophical enterprise here. Let’s say we grant him his arguments, and concede that he can demonstrate that the world makes a lot more sense given a certain sort of theism, the central tenets of which can be found in most of the great religious traditions of the earth. Is this much of a victory? If so, a victory for whom? It is difficult to see how such a God could ground an exclusive Christianity (one which claims a Christian understanding of/relationship with God is preferential to other ways of understanding/relating to God), Islam, Judaism, or whatever. It is also difficult to see what difference it would make to our understanding of many of the most pressing questions of life: a recent discussion between Hart and atheist philosopher Richard Norman seemed to me (as well as being wholly inconclusive) to reveal no way in which such a God could conceivably matter – but perhaps this is a question addressed later in the text. Simply put, there are ways of defining “God” such that, even if one could show it would make better sense to believe it exists, it would do very little for the “God” depicted by specific religious traditions or worshiped by followers of those traditions. It is possible for the distance between the worshiper and the philosopher to become so great that to use the same term to denote “God” in both circumstances becomes hopelessly confused – more on this in the next post.

Third, there is a tendency in the introduction for Hart to elide the term “God” with “the transcendent”, using them in ways which suggest they are simply interchangeable. We are told that “the human longing for God or the transcendent runs very deep” (p. 5), for instance, and that “the unquestionably sublime achievements of the human intellect and imagination have arisen in worlds shaped by some vision of transcendent truth” (p. 5). There may be no actual problem here, but my philosopher’s spidey sense starts tingling when one complex term is elided with another without explanation. Depending on what one determines “transcendent” to mean, there are super-naturalistic accounts of transcendence and the transcendent which are not theistic, and even accounts of the transcendent which are naturalistic. Hart will explore this later, certainly – but the potential for a damaging elision is there, and is worth flagging ahead of time.

Finally, I’m not sure quite what to make of the claim that atheists need to understand what Hart means by “God” in order to understand what they claim not to believe in. Frequently an assertion of atheism is not the assertion of a complete philosophical or metaphysical position, but a way of saying, essentially, “That thing you say you believe in, which you are calling “God” – I don’t think that thing exists, or any similar thing.” Often, as a practical matter, atheism is a response to prevailing understandings of “God” in a given culture at a given time, rather than a claim that no intelligible conception of “God” is conceivable. I can say, as Hart himself says, I do not believe in a fundamentalist Christian “god” quite happily without engagement in the more complex metaphysical musings Hart enjoys. It’s worth keeping in mind that “atheism” is as complex and contingent a social category as any “theism” – it’s not always easy to tell what people mean when they say they are an “atheist”, just as it isn’t always easy to pin down what is meant by “God”, and not all versions of “atheism” require engagement in metaphysical niceties.

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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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