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?