This is a guest post from Counter Apologist, who kindly contributed a chapter to my book Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? We have had a few YouTube discussions, linked below. This is his most recent post on his own blog, and he kindly allowed a crosspost. There are certain similar feelings that I share with regard to the exhaustion of philosophy of religion, hence my more recent predilection for politics. See what you think:
I’ll be honest, lately I’ve been wondering about why I stay in the game. I’ve gotten a bit sick of hashing through arguments that can never really be answered, which is what the overwhelming majority of arguments really hit on when it comes to philosophy of religion.
This is a critique you’ll hear often against metaphysics or philosophy in general, but I wanted to give a concrete example.
Enter this Capturing Christianity article aimed at responding to Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument. The author Brett Lunn is describing Christian philosopher Michael Rea’s response.
I don’t really mean to address the entire article so much as I want to point out the parts that exemplify the point I want to make here.
Schellenberg’s argument is pretty straight forward – if god is supposed to be maximally loving as theists so define him, he would be open to a relationship with any human being who wants to be in a relationship with god. Problem is that there are beings who are non-believers who would be open to a relationship with god, and so that means no loving god exists.
The argument works because many of us understand what love is, we have (or are) loving parents, or spouses. If the object of our intense love, like say our children, were to be in distress because they weren’t in as good a relationship with us as they wanted, we would immediately work to rectify that.
This is after all how god is often portrayed – as a loving heavenly father.
Oftentimes, responses to the hiddenness argument try to undercut the idea that there are or have ever been any non-resistant unbelievers which seems implausible; but this author takes a different approach – he attacks our understanding of what it means for god to love.
This is referred to as “light transcendence”:
“Simply put, our language applies to God straightforwardly and just as it is. We are same speakers when speaking about love for both humans and God. Equivocal language uses the same word in different ways. Analogical language uses the same word in similar ways. Univocal language uses the same word in the same way.”
Basically, if we hold god to the same standard we would hold a human being to when we judge whether or not the human being is “loving” towards another human, god fails the test spectacularly. That’s why the hiddenness argument works.
Obviously this poses a problem so Brett and Rea want to argue against it. What’s their justification for rejecting this interpretation of transcendence?
The argument from divine hiddenness!
“From a purely philosophical point of view, one might take the hiddenness argument itself as reason to reject very light interpretations of divine transcendence.”
What’s his second line of justification for rejecting this view of light transcendence? Because the bible reveals god as not being completely loving towards humans!
“To put it mildly, it is very hard to see how the God of the Christian Bible can sensibly be described as unfailingly good, loving, merciful, toward humanity as a whole if divine love, goodness, and mercy are understood according to what might be called “human” or “creaturely” standards.”
So to get around this thorny problem of the bible describing god as loving humans but at the same time depicting him as pretty obviously not loving towards us at all? Rea proposes a new understanding of divine transcendence. Brett describes this view as having the following consequences:
“That view will have two implications: (1) no concept of an instrinsic attribute of God is fully transparent and non-revealed; and (2) we should have humility about violated expectations; that is, no violation entails, justifies, or makes probable that sentences predicating a property of God are not true.”
First, it’s important to really get past the jargon about light transcendence vs. divine transcendence; this is about how we understand the phrase “god is loving towards humans”.
Second, this is a classic case of apologetics counting the hits and discarding the misses.
So the bible can tell us god is loving towards humans, and when the bible shows god making a sacrifice for us, it comports with our understanding of a loving relationship. But when god say commands a genocide including murdering infants, well you see the idea that god is loving towards us needs to be understood as not fully transparent and while this action by god violates what we understand loving to be about, we axiomatically take it to not falsify the proposition that “god is loving”. Despite the fact that we would take the same scenario with a human being instead of god as completely falsifying an equivalent proposition.
Count the hits, discard the misses. It’s particularly useful when theism as a concept can’t survive having any misses.
Different Questions, Same Answer
It’s an appeal to mystery, because god is “divinely transcendent”, we can’t hope to understand god’s plans, priorities, or reasons.
If that sounds familiar it’s because it should, this is the same kind of appeal skeptical theism makes when it comes to the problem of evil. If god doesn’t comport with our understanding of the concept, we amend our definition of the concept as it applies to god so that we can no longer hope to understand it.
After all, what does it mean to be “loving towards humans”? The concept has some elasticity to it.
This is the basic problem with metaphysical questions in general. When empirical facts on the ground falsify your principle, just amend the principle so that it can’t be falsified.
This is especially apt when it comes to debates about “does god exist”? Apologists like William Lane Craig claim that theism can be falsified if we were to show a logical contradiction in the concept of god, except that’s not quite true.
Show a theologian a contradiction in their theology and they will not become an atheist, they will genuinely thank you for contributing to their work and accordingly amend their theology to avoid the contradiction.
This is readily apparent in other aspects of religious apologetics. I remember in my deconversion reading Kenton Sparks’s book God’s Word in Human Words, a treatise in the inerrancy of scripture.
Sparks lambasts the young earth creationists who insist on a global flood which is so thoroughly disproven by modern science, but then asks if we are going to reject the literal word of god when it comes to a global flood, does that mean Christians are forced to become atheists or at least give up inerrancy of scripture?
He argues that all they need to do is take a view of inerrancy that means that “god’s word is inerrant in all that it aims to teach”. One is prompted to ask: what does god aim to teach in any given passage?
Who the fuck knows! All we need to know is that if something is demonstrably false in the bible, then it can’t possibly be part of what god was aiming to teach with said passage, so it doesn’t matter if it’s false – we can still call the bible inerrant.
It’s defining your theological concepts up front in such a way that they can’t be falsified. That’s probably a good definition of “Sophisticated Theology”.
I insinuated that I’m nearly done with the hobby of counter apologetics, and this post has laid out a good part of the reason why. I’ve come to the conclusion that when we are stuck arguing the topic of theism vs. atheism, the concepts are far too elastic to be useful. Theistic apologists of any stripe can always amend their principles to account for whatever argument you’re going to put forward – and to be fair atheists can do much the same thing. It’s the nature of the debate itself.
The argument never really ends, and there is never any real winner. The real “winning move” is to not play. Apologists love debates about god, they can go all day and if they’re practiced enough they can avoid looking like they’ve ever really “lost” a debate. This is why when two skilled philosophers debate, both sides think their person won.
This is why I believe it’s time to switch gears and hit apologists where they are weakest. Atheists have been too focused on trying to undercut all of religion by arguing for atheism. The prize is so big that we are getting lulled into a game that cannot be won.
It’s time to question what we want. I don’t quite care so much if someone is a theist. I want to stop harmful beliefs prevalent in my culture that cause harm. For me here in the US, that means undermining Christianity specifically.
In fact, there are hardly any apologists who are really just concerned about “mere theism”, what they really want is to convince someone to be a theist so that they can convert them to their specific sectarian religion. That’s why there are “Christian apologists” and “Islamic apologists” and so on.
So what’s the goal? Don’t aim at disproving god, aim at showing how poor an apologist’s justification is for believing in their specific religion. Attack the arguments for the resurrection and Christian specific doctrines. That’s where they are at their weakest, and in any fight, you always end up winning by hitting them where it hurts the most.
That’s where I want to focus my attention going forward.
Stay in touch! Like A Tippling Philosopher on Facebook: