Is This Atheism?

Is This Atheism? February 26, 2015

Dale Tuggy posted not that long ago on the late Marcus Borg’s view of God, declaring it essentially a form of atheism.

This is a very old accusation. Mystics in the Islamic tradition were accused of pantheism, which Richard Dawkins famously declared to be nothing more than “sexed-up atheism.” Hume depicts the mystical theist Philo as being accused of atheism in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

It is interesting that, when thinkers increase the degree to which God is thought of as truly ultimate, transcendent, and infinite, and less anthropomorphically, this is viewed not as a more majestic view of God, but as “atheism.”

I think what this shows is that many theists in fact view God as a being who may be more powerful than others, but differs from them in degree rather than kind. And so one could counter this accusation of atheism in kind with an accusation that such theists are both atheists and polytheists. They are atheists inasmuch as they deny that God is the truly ultimate. And they are polytheists inasmuch as they demote God to one being among others.

Patrick Arnold’s recent discussion of “Ultimism” in his review of Evolutionary Religion by J. L. Schellenberg also touches on this topic.

Ironically, while some traditional theists would like to label liberal theists, panentheists, mystics and others with these sorts of views as “atheists,” very often atheists are happy to do the same and claim those individuals as their own, as for instance Peter Mosley recently tried to do with President Obama. And of course, atheists and conservative religious people are often happy to join forces in labeling those who are not conservative as “less faithful” to a religion, as Henry Neufeld recently highlighted.

What do you think? Is emphasizing that the ultimate is beyond human comprehension, and beyond human categories like personhood, an expression of atheism? Or is Tuggy wrong to suggest that there is a non-naturalistic atheism which can be called ultimism, which renders the view of many classic Hindu texts, and of many progressive and liberal Christians and Jews, “atheism”? Is saying that God is not a thing saying that God is nothing, or elevating God above the level of things?

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  • Sven2547

    I guess it amounts to quibbling over how one even defines “the ultimate”.

    • Nick G

      That which is even more biggerer than the biggerest thing you can imagine?

  • JasonTorpy

    On the one hand, it’s ignorantism. It’s like a kid in school who decides that instead of learn his times tables, he’ll just make fun of nerds. Those ‘nerds’ might know times tables and have no concept of calculus but at least they’re trying.
    Perhaps more to the point is that whatever you call it, the person has to act *as-if* they’re atheist. If a *personal* god has not provided clear *instructions* with *consequences* in this world or the next, then we have to figure it out ourselves. Without all 3 of those things, we’re on our own and whatever we believe, we have to do the same thing an atheist would do. And this ‘ultimism’ says that clear instructions are impossible to understand and god is ‘ultimate’ not personal so we’re on our own.

  • I wonder James.

    If panentheism is true, God would certainly be greater than the universes and greater than human.

    But if that’s the case, does it not make sense to assume that he’s personal as well and perhaps even more than a person?

    • Hans Küng put it nicely when he said that God is “at least personal” but “more than personal.” I think the fear many have is that saying God is not a person like we are is making God less than we are, whereas the infinite ground of all being is by definition greater than human beings.

    • Nick G

      No. Because “greater” is so ambiguous as to be useless in this context. An elephant is greater than a person: it’s a lot bigger. An H-bomb is greater than a person: it has more explosive power. A society is greater than a person: it contains multiple people. None of these things is personal. To get the result you want, you have to smuggle your conclusion into the premise. But then, religions are usually quite OK with that.

  • Michael Pahl

    I suppose I’m verging on atheism then, or have even crossed the line. Nah, I don’t think so. Here were some thoughts I posted on “god” a few weeks back, which echo some of your thoughts and questions here: https://mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/the-god-who-is/

  • Bethany

    I seem to recall Karen Armstrong writing in “A History of God” that there are many past religious thinkers who would have agreed that “God doesn’t exist” not because they believed that there was no God, but because they believed that God isn’t a thing like other things. God doesn’t exist the way you or I or my laptop or the Milky Way exists. God is something altogether different. God is God.

    However, I think equating the position that “God isn’t an entity like other entities in the Universe — God is something immanent and transcendent and altogether different” with “There is no God” is really, really missing the point. I mean, not even in the same country as the point, let alone in the same zip code.

    I think panentheism (or for that matter, pantheism) is atheism only in the sense that there is a subset of atheists (including many of the most prominent ones) whose arguments against religion are based in large part on equating “religion” with “modern Christian and occasionally Islamic fundamentalism.” So if forced to deal with the fact that there are in fact other religious beliefs besides modern Christian (and occasionally Islamic) fundamentalism… well, denying they’re actually religious beliefs at all is one way to go. Then again, I’m a cynic.

    • arcseconds

      I presume you know about the via negativa (AKA apophatic theology)? It takes the view that God is beyond human understanding very seriously, and holds that in this situation the best humans can do is deny predicates of God. So ‘God is good’ is best understood as meaning ‘God is not evil’, and ‘God is mighty’ is understood as ‘God is not weak’.

      If I recall correctly, the ‘way of negation’ starts with the traditional attributes of God and recasts them in the negations like I’ve just indicated, but as you proceed along the way and your understanding of your lack of understanding of God increases, you end up denying the traditional attributes themselves, so ‘God is not good’ and ‘God is not mighty’, and finally ‘God does not exist’.

      • Bethany

        I haven’t, but IIRC Armstrong mentioned something like this as well.

        Part of the take-away message I got from her book is the idea that if if you’re really thinking about God and not just some human image of God, you’re probably very, very confused. (And of course then you’re still thinking of some human image of God, but you may be getting a marginally closer approximation of God than if you’re not confused.)

    • arcseconds

      I remember reading an article in a magazine written by an Anglican with some other claim to fame that I’ve forgotten. I don’t remember much about the article, it was a fairly standard ‘religion makes sense to me’ kind of line, but I was struck by his complaint about Dawkins.

      The complaint was about Dawkins’s characterisation of religion as a desiccated, soulless, almost robotic enactment of empty traditions, a completely backward-looking and unreflective enterprise (I don’t remember exactly how Dawkins characterised it, but it seems to me he has indeed said things like this). The writer complained that Dawkins knows people personally for whom religion is not like this (in fact, the writer himself was somewhat acquainted with Dawkins apparently), but will just go ahead and say this sort of thing anyway.

      It’s easier being an ideologue if you don’t let little things like facts complicate your characterisations, I suppose.

    • Bethany

      In addition: Besides being a cynic, I’m also pretty much a panentheist. As a cynical panentheist I’m naturally inclined to think that that another reason Dawkins and his ilk would want to deny that panentheism is theism at all is that it’s a harder target to attack than the idea that God is an old man with superpowers sitting on a cloud up in the sky somewhere. (Which Armstrong claims is actually not the view of God that has been most common throughout history, but I don’t think Dawkins, Harris, et al. have shown themselves to be overly concerned with issues like that.)

      Snide remarks about leprechauns and invisible pink unicorns and invisible sky daddies don’t really work as well applied the ground of all being. 😉

      Aside, I once went to talk by a man who used to be an evangelical fundamentalist and ended up becoming an evangelist for the theory of evolution: I mean, literally going around the country giving talks to religious groups about evolution. I saw him talk at the UU, so he was preaching to the choir there, but I gather he’s talked to conservative groups as well. While he didn’t use the term his viewpoint seemed to have a lot in common with panentheism — I remember a bit where he talked about how the universe is layered, with atoms in molecules in cells in organs in people etc. etc. with God as the ultimate, outermost layer — and he said he’d found many people more receptive to the theory of evolution when he talked about God and evolution in those terms.

      • arcseconds

        Certainly theologians and people who are informed by them typically do not suppose God is an old man with superpowers.

        However, most believers even now, and certainly throughout history, are not very familiar with theology at all.

        I wouldn’t want to make any definite claims about what ideas of God they might have without some actual research done (which would be harder than checking up on what theologians think, as most people throughout most of history would not have written such thoughts down, and those that have typically won’t have published them in a book), but I’m inclined to think anthropomorphic ideas are very common.

        Certainly many people talk apparently non-ironically and literally about God changing their mind, getting angry, being pleased, answering extremely specific prayers with explicit instructions, causing particular sports teams to win, etc. things that seem incongruous at best for an ultimate existential or cosmic principle of order to be doing. They even talk about God being straightforwardly male.

        And I suspect that many people have even more anthropomorphic ideas than that: perhaps hazy and unanalyzed pictures in their heads of an old guy with a beard that they nevertheless constantly think of as ‘God’. Certainly children (naturally) think in these terms, and I’m not at all sure that many people make much of an advance on them.

        So while it’s an easy target, I’m not at all sure that it’s not a common one.

        • Bethany

          My recollection is that Armstrong’s argument is that it’s not actually as common historically as is generally believed. (If you haven’t read it, you might find it interesting… although it’s kind of like Moby Dick in that I’m really glad I read it and I’m not sure I have any intention of ever reading it again.)

          I’d also submit that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about what theologians believe or believed when we’re talking about God, any more than there is with talking about what scientists believe or believed when talking about science.

          I’m pretty sure Dawkins wouldn’t suggest that if you’re arguing against a scientific theory you should be more concerned with that the lay person who hasn’t thought much about science thinks than what scientists think. I mean, I haven’t taken a poll, but my guess is that if you were going to take general society’s view of evolutionary theory as the canonical form of evolutionary theory, it wouldn’t be such a hot theory.

          • arcseconds

            Did Armstrong actually investigate what non-theologically-informed people believed, or reference such an investigation?

            Because it seems to me that it’s fairly easy to work out what theologians believed: you consult their written works. It is not so easy to work out what the vast majority of people believed. The vast majority of people in most of history have been illiterate, so they couldn’t have written down their thoughts about God. And those few who were literate (drawn predominantly from different social classes to those who weren’t, so there’d be a big selection bias, it must be mentioned), to the extent that they recorded their thoughts on God at all, for the most part would not have recorded them in works entitled ‘My Thoughts on God, by John Bull’, but rather in other literary works, and diaries and letters.

            And, as I said, most believers these days know very little theology as far as I can figure, and don’t have very sophisticated, or even very clear ideas about God. It would strike me as most surprising if most people in earlier years were vastly more informed and sophisticated.

          • Bethany

            I believe I mentioned the part where it was a very interesting book and I’m glad I read it, but it’s not at the very top of my to-be-re-read pile. 🙂 It’s a very dense book for something that’s a popular rather than an academic text.

          • arcseconds

            As far as looking at what theologians believe, it’s a good point as far as it goes, but Dawkins etc. could simply reply that they’re not at all concerned with theology as an intellectual movement (they regard it as unimportant twaddle, of course), but rather religion as a social phenomenon, and the great harm it causes.

            And if you’re interested in a major social phenomenon, what the most intellectual participants think might be quite irrelevant to understanding the phenomenon, particularly if the intellectuals’ views are quite divergent with those of the ranks-and-file, and have little influence.

            And that’s actually true of evolution, too. If you’re interested in it as a scientific theory, then sure, look at what the scientists have to say about it and ignore the general public. But to look at it’s effect on social discourse, the details of the scientific view is not so very relevant. Even now, a progressivist notion of evolution is extremely common, where it’s thought to be all about getting smarter and more wonderful.

            And it would certainly be wrong to say “progressivist notions of evolution have little sway today”, even though it has little or no sway in evolutionary biology, and evolutionary biologists try very hard to correct this notion…

          • Bethany

            But that’s not the impression I get at all. Dawkins, Harris, etc. seem to be arguing not against certain religious viewpoints (as Fred at Slacktivist or our host do, or the way Borg did) but against religion in general. I don’t think the argument is (just) that religion is harmful, but that religion isn’t true.

            If they’re not interested in making any sort of ontological claims then sure, but again, that’s not the impression I get.

            I mean, I could say I’m not concerned with science as an intellectual movement (it’s all unimportant twaddle) but I know the great harm that things like Social Darwinism have caused, so therefore I know that the findings of science aren’t true and we should all be ascientists.

          • Nick G

            But there is at least both good evidence and something of a consensus that a lot of the things scientists study (and specifically, those evolutionary biologists study) do actually exist. That makes a difference.

  • I do understand it, when liberal Christians contrast a conception of God as a “ground of all being” against an anthropomorphic conception of God as an “old man in the sky”.

    But doesn’t the anthropomorphism of God (at least the Christian God) begin with the Bible. The Old Testament portrays God as angry, jealous, vengeful, one who loves and hates, one who takes pity and delight, and even changes his mind. The New Testament portrays God as fathering a child, and then as being embodied (or at the very least) represented by the very human figure of Jesus. In both the Old and New Testament, God is portrayed performing miracles that would be considered “magic” in any other context.

    So to what extent does a “ground of all being” relate to all of the very human characteristics attributed to the God of the bible? And if a God that is a “ground of all being” cannot be anthropomorphized, then is a “ground of all being” a Biblical God or a Christian God to any meaningful extent?

    • Bethany

      It’s important to realize that the Bible (especially the Hebrew Bible) contains material from many points in the history of thinking about God and more than one viewpoint about the nature of God. Some material in the Pentatech appears to be remnants of an older polytheistic tradition, for example. Much of the most anthropomorphic material is in the Pentatuch, yet there’s plenty of non-anthropomorphic material there as well, going back to Genesis 1.

      Certainly there seems to me material in the Bible consistent with a panentheistic viewpoint: much of the material in Job proper (rather than the framing story), some of the Psalms, and of course “In him we live and move and have our being” is about as panentheistic as you can get.

      In addition — beliefs change over time. Again, we can see it happening even within the Bible, but it happened much more after the Bible is complete. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinking didn’t come to a screeching halt after the completion of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quoran, respectively. The idea that only that which is contained in one of these documents is a legitimate Jewish/Christian/Muslim belief is a fundamentalist idea, and religious fundamentalism is actually a fairly recent phenomenon, not a traditional viewpoint.

      e.g. the Trinity is arguably not actually Biblical viewpoint, but it seems odd to me (to say the least) to conclude therefore that it isn’t Christian in any meaningful way.

      • Then let’s limit it to the core narrative of Christianity. How does the “ground of all being” God relate to Jesus’s death and resurrection?

        • NowHereThis

          I don’t want to try to answer for Bethany, but I’ve been giving this particular question a lot of thought recently. What I’m about to say relates to things that make sense in my head, but I haven’t yet successfully put them into words so that someone else understood. Maybe this will be a first.

          To me, the “ground of all being” is a platonic understanding of God. As such it has platonic forms, including the platonic form of “creation”. You could also call this the “logos” or “God’s plan”. It’s a process, but it’s a process that is meant to move towards union with the creator.

          Christianity, as I understand it, proposes that creation, and particularly humans had been resisting movement towards the Logos, using the free will God gave to creation so that it would be genuinely “other” to God. So the logos appears within the creation to relate to it on it’s own level, as Jesus of Nazareth.

          The death of Jesus at the hands of the Powers that Be reveals the bankruptcy of the world as it worshiped the power of the deified Roman emperor. The life of Jesus and the resurrection reveal the way back to the path of unity with the “ground of all being” as well as a sneak preview of what achieving that goal will be like, in the form of the “resurrection body”.

          Does that help at all?

          • By platonic, do you mean “spiritual” or “nonmaterial”?

            To you, was the resurrection platonic, or a literal physical resurrection?

          • NowHereThis

            The final fulfillment of the Logos (full reunion of the creator with the creation) is in what for us is the future. Robin Parry has suggested that when Jesus was raised, he was raised into that future, and projected back to appear to his disciples again. That suggestion makes a certain amount of sense to me, and fits in with the Biblical language of Jesus having been raised to God’s right hand. So what the disciples saw may well have been spiritual, and the resurrection still have been physical (though in a way none of us can imagine because we can no more fully imagine reunion with the creator than we can imagine what pure, undivided Being is like).

          • So to you, the Biblical resurrection story (and presumably all of the miracle stories) may be physically true, as well as spiritually true. If that’s the case, then I’m not sure you align well with liberal Christianity.

          • NowHereThis

            Perhaps not as well as I once did, you could be right about that. The resurrection explains why the Jesus movement didn’t completely fall apart like other messianic movements of the time after the death of their founders. The healings and exorcisms have a higher probability of being historical, too (“exorcist” and “folk healer” are not unheard of occupations). The nature miracles, though, I regard as theoretically possible, but more likely to be post-resurrection expressions of Jesus’s newly discovered authority as an equal to God.

          • Thanks for the helpful answer. I was looking for answers from the sort of liberal Christianity that doesn’t require a physical resurrection.

          • Nick G

            The Bahai religion didn’t fall apart when its founder Baha’u’allah, who claimed to fulfill the eschatological expectations of both Christianity and Islam, died in prison. Mormonism didn’t fall apart when Joseph Smith was murdered. Closer to Jesus’s time, Mandeaism didn’t fall apart when John the Baptist died. That Christianity did not do so therefore calls for no supernatural explanation.

          • Jim

            Sure there’s all that logos, Sophia, anthropomorphisms and all, but what I really want to know is … was Sophia hot? 🙂

    • Many Jewish and Christian mystics past and present have viewed such language as not literally true, as pointers to and symbols of the supreme transcendent God. And mystics who viewed such language as literal, as did the Gnostics, decided that that Biblical God was not the supreme God they sought.

      • But even as nonliteral language – as symbols – don’t all of the biblical human characteristics of God anthropomorphize him? If they are symbols, they seem to point to something very like a human – as opposed to an ineffable ground of all being.

        • Bethany

          I anthropomorphize my computer, my car, my plants, and occasionally my iPod, but that doesn’t make them very like a human, either. 😉

          • No, it doesn’t, which brings me back to my original question. If God is an ineffable ground of all being, what is the value of all the anthropomorphic biblical descriptions of him?

          • Andrew Dowling

            Humans are limited by our language and thus by metaphors when it comes to expressing conceptions of the transcendent.. Common metaphors for God, especially ancient ones, include ‘Lord’, ‘King’ ‘Father’ etc. Liberal Christianity simply accepts these are expressions limited by human language shaped by experience (it’s all we can use) and thus are not literal.

          • I get that. Liberal Christians don’t see these metaphors as literal.

            But to what extent are they useful? To what extent do they describe God?

            I see a lot of derision for those who see God as an “old man in the sky”, but I don’t think anyone, no matter how fundamentalist (or atheist), sees God as a literal human in the sky. Even the most conservative Christians tend to see God as a spiritual entity.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I think one could say certain descriptions helps one understand God but is incapable of giving a ‘complete’ picture.
            As for the ‘old man in the sky’ . . .whether that’s a literal Zeus like figure or not, I think the idea that there is a “being” that has the characteristics/qualities of a human, albeit an all powerful one (makes calculated decisions on divine intervention, gets jealous/angry, demands worship, literally talks to people) is extremely widespread.

          • Well, I would agree that a belief in a spiritual being with the characteristics you list is widespread. And for good reason. The Bible quite often describes God in all of the ways you list.

            So you’re saying that, for example, the jealousy or anger which are biblically attributed to God are metaphors for some partial aspect of the “ground of all being”?

          • Andrew Dowling

            Moreso they reflect collective grief being under represson, as well as losses of identity (most of the OT as we have it was written while the Israelites were under the thumb of some power or another)
            Also, the Bible has varying views on the characteristics of God. One can’t throw all of the metaphors into a collective Gumbo and go “voila, there is ‘biblical’ God” although some have tried.

          • Sounds like you’re suggesting that the emotionally negative characterizations of the God in the Old Testament (jealousy, anger, hatred, etc.) are a reflection on the writers/editors of the OT, rather than attributes of God. Isn’t that basically the same view as any historian who reads the bible, not theologically, but in the interest of finding out about the people who wrote it?

          • Andrew Dowling

            “Isn’t that basically the same view as any historian who reads the bible,
            not theologically, but in the interest of finding out about the people
            who wrote it?”

            Yes, but given most liberal Christian’s hermeneutic of the Bible, that’s not an issue.

          • So what theological content does the Bible offer a liberal Christian? Is the Bible necessary for the theology surrounding a ground of all being?

            I’m not trying to score some sort of point with these questions. I’m trying to understand how you get from the Biblical portrayal of God to the liberal Christian ground of all being.

            When I read Tillich (and granted, I haven’t read a lot of him yet), it all reads to me like a lot of assertions about the nature of a ground of all being; but the assertions sound like just the sort of thing one might find about the Tao in the Tao Te Ching. Lot’s of interesting assertions are made, but absent any sort of explanation for how these assertions are derived.

            I always come away from Tillich thinking something like, “well, that’s a very pleasant thing to say about courage, I suppose, but is true? Is it just supposed to ‘feel’ true”

          • Andrew Dowling

            I’m not sure I completely understand where you’re coming from, but I’ll attempt to address through a basic summary of what I view as Liberal Christianity, although I can’t claim to speak for all of it of course; James may want to chime in as well:

            -Liberal Christianity believes in a universal ‘God’ that is transcendent, apart of yet also greater than creation itself (many are panENtheists and I’d also fall under that umbrella)and not fully “capturable” in human expression.

            -However, the ethos of love, compassion/empathy, forgiveness that permeate the human psyche (and also lead to human flourishing . .to me this is a big one) show the character of the transcendent/divine in ways that we can understand.
            Many religious/’wisdom’ persons through history and through traditions have articulated essentially the idea above.

            -That the OT and NT show a constant dialogue among various persons regarding the divine and nature of the transcendent among ancient peoples. There are some passages which articulate a panentheistic viewpoint but others that support any number of “theologies” and the proof is in the multivariate pudding. That said, much can be learned from listening and participating in this dialogue.

            -The heart of LC is a faith claim that the person of Jesus articulated the aformentioned truths of the divine (found in love, compassion, mercy), and uniquely
            through ministry and example, showcased this character of the
            transcendent (that to achieve full humanity is to sacrifice for others .
            . Spong articulates this much better than I do)

            -I think whether Jesus had any metaphysical uniqueness in his “relation” to God is considered beside the point for most LCs, but a majority conclude that given what we know about both science and the language of ancient narratives, stories about miracles and bodily resurrections are probably not historical.

            So I don’t think the Bible is ‘necessary’ for this theology but the Bible is not a central part of LC theology anyway; it’s more of a companion piece . .like a ‘Lonely Planet’ traveler’s guide to God. Like those, some recommendations within it are right on point; others not so much.

          • This is very helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time to articulate this summary of Liberal Christianity.

            This is where I’m coming from. At this point I’m an atheist. I don’t seen any evidence that would convince me of the existence of a theistic God. From time to time, philosophical arguments could make me consider a deistic God, but even there, I lean against.

            However, I do see the universal value of love, compassion, and mercy, both at a personal and societal level. And in this I can feel a kinship with Liberal Christianity. Lately, my wife and I have been considering meeting with a universalist church in our area, to see if it would work for a couple of old atheists to be in community with a group of liberal Christians.

            I’m trying to get a sense of how liberal Christians are grounded, and whether having a few atheists in an LC church setting would be a useful fit.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Have you read John AT Robinson’s “Honest to God?” It’s a very quick read, and I expected it to be fairly dated when I picked it up a couple of years ago, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It was like reading a lot of my own thoughts on paper as if someone had scooped through the recesses of my brain when pondering spirituality, God, meaning of Jesus etc. Definitely not just a ‘passe’ product of 1960s optimism; remains very relevant IMO.

          • Thanks – I’ll take a look.

          • Hmmm … when I googled Robinson’s Honest to God?”, one of the top results was an essay in which NT Wright takes great pains to disparage the book.

            Now I really want to read it!

          • Bethany

            I don’t think so. If you’re interested in finding about about X, reading what other people have written and thought about the topic X is one way to find out more about X (and not just about the people who wrote the document).

          • I don’t think I disagree with your statement, but then I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at. In the comment you’re responding to, I was rephrasing what I thought Andrew was suggesting. He responded in the affirmative, so I think I understood him correctly.

          • Bethany

            I was replying to, “Isn’t that basically the same view as any historian who reads the bible, not theologically, but in the interest of finding out about the people who wrote it?”

            I have a geography book that was used by my grandmother as a child, and you can learn a lot about the people who wrote the book and the attitudes of their culture by reading it (mostly from the casual racism therein) but that’s not the same as reading the geography book to learn about geography — which you can still do, although of course it’s out-of-date. 🙂

            Or maybe I’ve misunderstood what you’re saying, — you’re not saying that the metaphorical language, etc. means we can’t learn about theology from the Bible — in which case, never mind. (It does seem to be a non-uncommon viewpoint in these sorts of discussions, though… the whole, “if the Bible isn’t the inerrant word of God but reflects the human knowledge and cultural values of those who wrote it, how can we learn anything from it?” argument.)

          • Well, I was asking Andrew if his view was similar to that of historians. Historians might be interested in the theology of ancient writers from a historical point of view. Isn’t that just another aspect of “finding out about the people who wrote it?”

            No, I don’t think a lack of inerrancy renders an ancient text valueless. I have a great appreciation for the Socratic dialogues, Aristotle’s Poetics, the classical plays of 5th century Greece, and other ancient texts, including many sections in the Bible. It’s just that when liberal Christians deride fundamentalists and atheists for addressing an anthropomorphic view of God, it seems to me that they haven’t really dealt with the fact that the anthropomorphic aspects of God begin in the Bible. Even if you see these anthropomorphic elements as metaphorical, (I doubt most fundamentalists believe that God literally walked in the garden), how do they contribute to liberal theology.

  • Chris Eyre

    As it might help to have testimony from someone who does base his faith on a mystical experience of some force similar to that which Dr. Borg describes:-

    Tuggy asks what allowed Dr. Borg to dismiss (as a strawman answer) someone who talked of a profound experience of a personal God. Actually, of course, Borg does not do this, but hey…

    I can answer the question, assuming that Dr. Borg were accused (say) of dismissing the concept of God as wholly transcendent, or that of God as spirit entirely separate from the material world, or that of God as an intervening human-writ-large power (i.e. supernatural theism); the mystical experience, which commonly produces panentheistic, unitive God-concepts is by it’s nature absolutely self-verifying and convincing, which he would no doubt know if he had researched the phenomenon adequately. And none of those descriptions are remotely adequate to describe the God as experienced by the mystic. Some descriptions are less totally inadequate, though.

    It is also not impossible that Dr. Borg had also had an experience of God-as-person; I’ve had both myself. The mystic experience wins, such that the God-as-person conceptualisation becomes a partial, incomplete vision where the unitive experience is the whole.

    It is, however, a form of atheism taking the very narrow definition of an atheist as anyone who does not adhere to a supernatural theist God-concept. I doubt that such allegations would have bothered Dr. Borg during his lifetime…

  • Jack Collins

    It’s close enough to atheism for me, anyway. And I mean that as a compliment. It dispenses with most of the elements of traditional theism that I take issue with, since belief in such a god doesn’t particularly lend itself to rigid adherence to received traditions or irrational disregard for naturalistic inquiry. I can’t say I get the point of calling the universe, or the ground of being, or potentiality, or love, “God”, but I suspect that’s largely a matter of aesthetics.

  • Neil Carter

    Similar to Jason, my thought is that once you leave the notion of personhood, you drop the proscriptive demands traditionally attached to the idea. I mean, what exactly does a ground of being want? And isn’t the question itself a little silly?

    • But once you leave the notion of personhood, is it still a Christian or Biblical God? Because the God portrayed biblically would have a few serious answers to the question of what does he want: for example, mercy not sacrifice.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Perhaps it’s not about “demands” rather than innate characteristics . . .

    • Well, since for much of my life as a Christian I did think God is the “Ground of all Being,” I’ll throw in my own speculation here.

      #1 I don’t think I ever thought of God as an “old super man in the sky” image that so many claim Christians mostly embrace. I don’t recall thinking this even as a child when I was a Baptist fundamentalist. (But then I was not ever the usual child or adult Christian;-) All that I remember is asking lots of questions, trying to image God and not being able to.

      #2 Besides my focus wasn’t on fundamentalistic literalistic stuff but on the belief that God loves everyone despite what life shows.

      #3 Then you ask, “what does a ground of being want?”
      The GoB doesn’t want anything, but IS and OUGHT.

      #4 And you ask, “isn’t the question itself a little silly?”

      Not for those who choose to think the existence isn’t totally pointless and purposeless.

      As you already know (from previous comments by me) even though I am no longer a Christian, I would not become an atheist because I think existence does have objective purpose and meaning, even if we humans are too finite to know it.

  • Atheists and conservative religious folks so often simply disagree on whether a limited, uninteresting, often immoral, anthropomorphic god exists. There are so many views of god, the divine, a higher power, etc. that are frankly “None of the Above” with regard to New Atheism and religious conservatism. Neither side seems to be largely capable of seeing more than two options with regard to one god.

    • That’s not true. Dawkins addresses this distinction in “The God Delusion”.

      He presents the accusation: “You go after crude rabble-rousing chancres like Ted Haggard, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, rather than sophisticated theologians like Tillich or Bonhoeffer who teach the sort of religion i believe in.”

      To which he replies:

      “If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and i would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.”

      You could argue with Dawkins numbers and say that the numbers of nuanced religious followers are not “negligible”. But you can’t say that Dawkins doesn’t distinguish between them. And the religion he does argue against is clearly not a straw man.

      • I think that both New Atheists and conservative religious folks are mostly aware of other options. They also, for professional or rhetorical reasons, ignore this fact for the most part. I think that’s why neither side seems to know what to make of moderate and liberal religious folks. Most often they seem to agree that moderate or liberal religious people simply lack commitment, don’t understand the truth of their own scriptures or religion, etc. So the two sides of the false dichotomy fight it out. The people Dawkins lists are the religious fringe, at least of Christianity. I agree with him that we all have to deal with the people he lists, but it is indeed a straw man to categorize the “vast majority” of believers around the world as equivalent. That is simply not true, but I honestly think, from watching interviews and reading a couple of his books, that Dawkins doesn’t know what to make of non-fundamentalists.

        • I don’t think they ignore liberal Christianity for professional or rhetorical reasons. I think they ignore liberal Christianity because they are unconcerned with it.

          Again, you can contest whether or not the conservative religious addressed by Dawkins are “fringe” or “vast majority” (isn’t the truth somewhere in between?), but you cannot contest that they are influential. In our country they actively (and often successfully) oppose marriage equality, women’s contraceptive rights, global warming science, and evolutionary science. And the effect of extreme religious conservativism in middle east is inescapable.

      • Bethany

        But — I could be wrong — I get the impression that Dawkins wants to make a larger claim than that. That is, the argument isn’t, “Well, I think this one specific form of religion is wrong and this one specific view of God is wrong, but other religious views could totally write and maybe God does exist in the way Tillich talks about God, who knows? I’m not arguing there is no God or that we should all be atheists or that there’s anything wrong with religion in general or that belief in God is some sort of delusion or anything like that, just about this one specific form of religious belief.”

        • That’s an awful lot of words to suggest that Dawkins should be saying. Just because he goes after very common fundamentalist thinking about God, doesn’t mean he is required to defend all other sorts of definitions of God.

          Another point that Dawkins frequently makes (and I agree) is that there is no reason that religious ideology should be granted more privilege than any other sort of ideology. Dawkins may not address the best arguments for a ground of all being (I say “may”, because I certainly haven’t heard any good arguments that haven’t been addressed), but that doesn’t mean he is under any obligation to support them or grant them any particular standing.

          Dawkins is an atheist. Maybe that’s the “larger claim” you think he’s making. If so, then most people, except perhaps the most noncommittal agnostics, are making a “larger claim”.

  • Apostaste

    Stop trying to muddy the issue, you believe in a god or gods = theist, you don’t =atheist. Simples

    • Except that Richard Dawkins says that a pantheist is just a sexed-up atheist, and that it is not impossible that powerful beings (think Q from Star Trek) could exist within the universe, and such beings could be deemed gods, depending on how one defines what constitutes a “god.” It isn’t muddying the issue to deal honestly and accurately with the complexities and nuances of it.

  • Gerald Moore

    The problem here is ultimately about the claimant. It’s about what he is calling god and not how those who don’t believe his claim. I wouldn’t call a pantheist an atheist no matter what his definition. I would call myself a theist with regard to things I believe exist, like the universe. If, for instance, someone wants to claim they are a theist, defines god as the universe or a hair brush and then asks me if I’m also a theist, I would answer “yes,” since I believe the universe exists as well as hair brushes.

    If the definition of a god becomes so ill-defined that it is indistinguishable from things that exist and have names, then the discussion becomes silly. If god boils down to a nebulous feeling of awe and wonder, then I’m a theist. But I classify myself as an atheist in casual conversation because the word “god” generally carries with it a tis bit more baggage than that.

    If the pantheist goes any further and says the universe (or a hair brush) is a sentient thinking mind with a purpose, then I become an atheist again.

  • Kevcol

    Maybe, but I doubt it, in another two thousand years, you theists will be able to give a coherent definition of your deity but do continue to call “it” “God” so as to contribute to maximum confusion…likewise for “ground of all being” because we all know that the ground of all being is the matter and energy of the universe.
    Count me as one who scoffs at all of your navel gazing definitions of deities as nothing but con artistry that would never be so prevalent if it were not so profitable.

    • Speaking as an atheist myself, I think it’s safe to ignore Kevcol’s comment as unproductive and trollish.

      • Kevcol

        Oh, the irony! I addressed the OP and made a substantive comment but along comes Beau, who addresses nothing that the OP or I wrote and offers nothing but an insult, now who’s unproductive and trollish?
        I’m waiting on any of you brave “souls” including the click baiting blogger to say something substantive yet all that you can manage is the same old crap.

        • Irony? My “insult” was to call your comment trollish; your so-called “substantive” comment was to call all theists, navel gazers and con artists.

          Now you say that everything on this post is “crap”. You’re not fooling anyone, Kevcol.

          • Kevcol

            So, now you resort to lying? Please point out where I called all theists navel gazers and con artists.

            Everything in McGrath’s post is the “same old crap”! Can you point to something new?

          • Oh, so now you want to parse your words in order to accuse me of lying?

            Perhaps I was mistaken! Perhaps, when you addressed your comment to “you theists”, you didn’t mean “theists” generally, but only the theists who happened to be commenting on this blog post? Well, in that case, your navel gazing and con artist insults are still far more insulting than my statement that your comment was “trollish”.

            And when I call one comment “trollish”, it’s an “insult”; but presumably not when you call virtually the entire post “crap”?

            No, “trollish” was the right word from the start.

  • mutie

    “Is saying that God is not a thing saying that God is nothing, or elevating God above the level of things?”

    None of the above. Atheism is exactly saying “‘god’ is an idea created by people.” All other arguments are marginal to this thesis. It’s the only thesis related to the idea of ‘god’ that withstands the test of proof. If you live your life accepting things for which there is no proof, there are ways for the rest of us to describe your mental methods, but that does not make the products of your mental method “real” in the same sense a rock is provably real.

  • Ambaa

    To Hindus, God is everything. God is the ultimate beyond personification and God is also every molecule of everything in creation. God is the manifest and the unmanifest. God is the image of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, etc. And is also beyond all divisions of personhood. God is love and God is human beings and God is the power and breath of the universe. We don’t need to make any division lines at all.