There comes a time when, on some particular issue, I start to feel that I have heard and said all that I really care to on that subject, have formed a pretty firm opinion about it, and am no longer really interested in debating its merits much more since I am unlikely to learn anything new. The only reason to further engage with the question is to challenge the propagation of ideas one thinks are wrong and harmful.
That point occurred to me some time ago with respect to the existence of god. It is a subject that I have thought about for decades and have come to the firm conclusion that god does not exist. Does this mean that my mind is closed on the subject? Not completely. But it does mean that someone would need to promise me some striking piece of evidence in support of god’s existence for me to take an interest in what they are saying. But what one is usually offered is something along the lines of a subtle and nuanced re-interpretation of the ontological argument, and such things fail to excite.
But I try to be open and so when I saw the headline of an article by Oliver Burkeman that read The one theology book all atheists really should read, I told myself what the hell, maybe this article this book will really reveal something new, especially since Burkeman begins by saying that his sympathies lie with the atheist side. Burkeman contends that a new book out by theologian David Bentley Hart titled The Experience of God argues that atheists have all this time been arguing against the wrong kind of god, that of some kind of superhero like all the other gods of history, and that Hart’s god is something else entirely.
Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.
And from what Burkeman writes, his new book seems to be in a similar vein, making the same argument.
God, in short, isn’t one very impressive thing among many things that might or might not exist; “not just some especially resplendent object among all the objects illuminated by the light of being,” as Hart puts it. Rather, God is “the light of being itself”, the answer to the question of why there’s existence to begin with.
This is supposed to be new? God as the ‘ground of being’ stuff has been around for decades, ever since Paul Tillich proposed it as “the answer to the ontological threat of non-being” and that “this characterization of the theological answer in philosophical terms means that the answer has been conditioned (insofar as its form is considered) by the question”.
Since I can hear atheist eyeballs rolling backwards in their sockets with scorn, it’s worth saying again: the point isn’t that Hart’s right. It’s that he’s making a case that’s usually never addressed by atheists at all. If you think this God-as-the-condition-of-existence argument is rubbish, you need to say why.
No, I don’t. The burden of proof is not on me to show why any statement that someone cares to make is rubbish. They have to show why it is not rubbish. But Burkeman goes on:
And unlike for the superhero version, scientific evidence won’t clinch the deal. The question isn’t a scientific one, about which things exist. It’s a philosophical one, about what existence is and on what it depends.
And here is the problem. Theologians like Hart deny that god exists in the same sense as anything else is said to exist. For them, god does not exist in the way that tables and chairs exist but ‘exists’ as the answer to why everything else exist and gives meaning to their existence. If they want to believe that, that’s fine. But it entails no consequences whatsoever. You could replace god in that statement with unicorns or leprechauns and it would have the same level of empirical content. Just as I do not feel obliged to respond to unicorns and leprechauns as giving meaning to existence, neither do I feel the need to answer this case for Hart’s god. The burden of proof is on Hart to show why his assertions are not content-free musings but are instead worth taking seriously.
As I said in a previous post:
I think philosophy is a very valuable discipline, enabling people to develop the tools to think clearly, probe deeply to the core of ideas, and sharpen our use of language. Theology, however, is another story. It is largely the futile attempt to justify belief in the existence of god in the absence of any evidence. Theologians use the language of philosophy, not to sharpen and clarify and enlighten, but to create a fog of words to hide the fact that they have no evidence for god. Theology is, to co-opt George Orwell’s phrase, an attempt to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind. When you have no evidence, words become your shield.
Harsh, perhaps, but that’s how I feel. So I will resist Burkeman’s urging to read the ‘the one theology book all atheists really should read’. Maybe Burkeman in his review has missed some earth-shattering arguments and evidence in Hart’s book but I doubt it and will take my chances.