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Mar 24 2013

‘Effing the ineffable’

The post yesterday on god as dog owner about how best to respond to religious people who say that the reason we cannot understand why a good god allows suffering is similar to why a dog does not understand why his owner takes him to the vet for what may be painful treatment for his own good. It is something that to the dog is a deep mystery because it is beyond the dog’s comprehension. In the same way that the owner’s actions are ineffable to the dog, God is ineffable to us.

In the comments, I tried to play Devil’s Advocate and defend the religious point of view but was cornered fairly quickly and gave up. The point I was trying to make was that religious people will try to escape from the corner by invoking new ad hoc assumptions and metaphors and that this process can go on indefinitely. At some point one needs to simply find a way to stop the regression and circularity without conceding the argument.

In his book 2011 book Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole, philosopher Stephen Law provided one means to do that. I used his response to this ‘playing of the mystery card’ to make the case against the dog owner metaphor but he also points out that in order to make the claim that god’s actions are beyond our ken and defend their position, religious people will repeatedly adduce properties to god in order to justify why he/she allows suffering.

This is true, in my experience. If you have any extended conversation with a religious person they will, when cornered on logic, say that god’s actions are inscrutable because he/she is ineffable, while at the same time ascribing all manner of properties to their god in order to defend their position, saying that “god is good”, “god is all powerful”, “god is all knowing”, “god is merciful”, “god is just”, “god wants us to do this”, “god wants us to do that”, and so forth. They cannot avoid this because they have to justify why they worship this god and Law calls this shifty maneuver ‘effing the ineffable’ (p. 113-133).

I like that phrase and intend to use it a lot in the future. Whenever I encounter this type of argument from a religious person, at some point I am going to say, “What you are doing is effing the ineffable”. They will undoubtedly be baffled and say they don’t understand at which point I will explain that there is no point in arguing with someone who takes two contradictory positions simultaneously, and that they need to decide whether god is ineffable or not.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    philboidstudge

    they will, when cornered on logic, say that god’s actions are inscrutable because he/she is ineffable

    I don’t think this is exactly right. “Ineffable” means something that is beyond language; it doesn’t mean it can’t be understood.. (And note there is also a definition just for religious types: “Too sacred to be uttered”). That doesn’t necessarily make a potential god’s actions inscrutable, just that they are incommunicable using language.

    But you are correct that the very people who say God (or Its actions) are ineffable, do not hesitate to describe Him and His behavior with words. Selectively ineffable, one might say. :)

    Note also that there are a slew of attributes of God that are deemed “incommunicable,” although in some cases , it means that which God cannot communicate to humankind. Yet another thing that the Omnipotent One cannot do…

  2. 2
    LeftSidePositive

    When someone is effing the ineffable, I just tell them to eff off.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    That’s a good point. So why do religious people use that word? I get the impression that they are trying to say that no one can fully understand god’s reasoning, not that they understand it but cannot express it in words.

  4. 4
    Perchloric Acid

    The “God as dog owner” analogy doesn’t wash with me, because a dog owner usually only has a couple of dogs, whereas a god would have an entire universe to deal with- billions of people on this planet alone, and He only knows what’s on other planets. The difference between a god and a human would be more on the lines of a human and an ant- and who wants to be worshipped by an ant? To paraphrase ACClarke, any god who worried about humans couldn’t be a very important god.

  5. 5
    sailor1031

    doG is not only effing “ineffable” but, according to many, such as the former cardinal archbishop of Westminster, it is also effing “numinous”. I think it’s all just part of the religious word salad intended to flimflam the simple-minded. After all if they merely said “doG is very mysterious and I don’t understand it” they wouldn’t get much in the old collection plate next sunday.

    BTW I’m not convinced that (real) dogs don’t understand why you take them to the vet. I’m pretty convinced that all my dogs have understood quite well especially when they were seriously ill.

  6. 6
    badgersdaughter

    I’m sure your dogs did understand. My cats understand, and dogs are, by and large, smarter about such things than cats are.

    The thing is, Christians are supposed to believe that animals do not have souls (humans don’t count as animals). Therefore animals do not in general have anything would be identifiable as thoughts or feelings. What we identify as thoughts and feelings in an animal are… oh, (handwave) something else, but not at all thoughts or feelings. I suppose this is so much the better for the dog/vet argument since our minds are as far from God’s mind as the dog’s mind is from ours. Or some such nonsense.

  7. 7
    sailor1031

    Nonsense indeed! I don’t think there’s much of a separation between dog mind and human mind. Frequently you can see the thought processes going on. Cats too – at least Summer-the-little-stripey-cat who was bottle-raised from a week old. Sometimes you can tell she doesn’t really identify with the other cats and thinks she’s human. Not far wrong in my opinion either.

  8. 8
    Broken Things

    Neither do dogs understand when their owners mistreat and abuse them. How do the religious not know if they are being abused for no reason other than malevolent neglect or indifference on the part of their god?

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