Several times, reading the comments beneath an online article about religion, I've come upon remarks along the lines of: "Really? A magic being in the sky?" Terry Eagleton, in "Reason, Faith, and Revolution," refers to this pseudo-critique as the Yeti theory of belief in God: The idea that what the religious believe in is some sort of entity in the world for whose existence we have dubious evidence at best. In a review of Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Eagleton puts it this way:
[Dawkins] seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms.
This has become one of my favorite analogies, so I am indebted to Richard Dawkins for that much at least.
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The Yeti theorists, and the so-called New Atheists in general — Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and their ilk — are soft targets. It takes no particular sophistication in theological matters to demolish their arguments. I confess I've read more polemics written against Ditchkins (Eagleton's collective term for them) than I needed to, because I enjoy seeing shoddy thinking skewered. Eagleton's book, David Bentley Hart's "Atheist Delusions," Mark Johnston's "Saving God" and certain of Marilynne Robinson's essays all run through similar themes: that "St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas would roll their eyes in disbelief at the third-rate challenge to their God posed by the likes of Ditchkins" (as Andrew O'Hehir put it in his review of Eagleton); that Ditchkins is prone to rudimentary historical errors; that Ditchkins wrongly believes the findings of the natural sciences to be at odds with the tenets of religious belief; and that Ditchkins is an acolyte of scientism, not science. Often these considerations are accompanied by a lament that atheism has fallen so far since Nietzsche, who understood religion from the inside, and was thus able to mount a devastating, informed critique against it.
In Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead," the minister John Ames, far from discouraging young Jack Boughton's doubt, gives him a copy of the atheist Ludwig Feuerbach's "The Essence of Christianity." I like this gesture very much. I've seen young people reading Dawkins or Dennett on the subway and wished I had a copy of Nietzsche's "On the Genealogy of Morality" to press on them. Still, New Atheism appears unlikely to do much harm: It now seems one of those journalistic fads that the half-educated feed on between Malcolm Gladwell books.
And yet. Paging through "Is God Happy?", a new selection of the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski's essays, I came upon this passage:
Then there are the convinced atheists (if indeed any such exist); for them … there is no God question. They have not the slightest doubt that science has definitively driven God from the world; in their view, the idea of God is merely a vestige of old superstitions and past ignorance, or a psychological defence mechanism, or an expression of social conflict.
This was written in 1981. An identical sentence could have been written earlier this morning, or in 1961, or indeed in 1891. The perspective Kolakowski is concerned to undermine here is essentially that of Freud's "The Future of an Illusion" (1927).
It drives the atheists bonkers: How does this God stuff keep duping people, three centuries after the Enlightenment? Philip Larkin, writing in 1955, wondered "When churches will fall completely out of use / What we shall turn them into." It's touching now, this certitude that the darkness has been vanquished forever, since unbelief seems to have been a localized phenomenon among the educated classes of Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America. Daniel Dennett has proposed that atheists rebrand themselves as "brights," thus implicitly admitting that, in his view, belief persists simply because most people are stupid.
(It doesn't occur to these people that religious belief might persist because God reveals himself to human beings in history. I don't say I believe this myself, but it's telling that such an explanation is ruled out of bounds before the investigation is properly underway — question-begging is a favorite pastime of brights.)
It's the certainty that "science has definitively driven God from the world" that is most puzzling. It's a conclusion derived not from scientific inquiry but from what Kolakowski calls "scientistic rationalism." To be sure, many fundamentalists believe plainly untrue things about the age of the earth, say, or our happy cousinship with the apes. But Paul did not say, "Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of particle physics."
Did Augustine, the greatest Father of the Church, believe that the earth was created in six literal 24-hour periods? He did not. ("If the apparent meaning of Scripture conflicts with demonstrative conclusions," wrote the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, "it must be interpreted allegorically, that is, metaphorically.") Does religion arise in order to provide explanations for natural phenomena, as the natural sciences do? It does not. As Robinson, a Calvinist, writes in "When I Was a Child I Read Books":
The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all.
In what other field are writers taken seriously when they propose explanations for and refutations of systems with whose basic tenets they are largely unacquainted? That the beautiful creation story of Genesis, for instance, is a mythology is damning only to those who don't understand what a mythology is; in any case, one really ought to read it, and some of what has been written about it by people who knew it well, and perhaps even to think carefully about it, before ridiculing it for proposing what it does not propose and implying what it does not imply, as Dennett and Dawkins do.
Alas, those of Ditchkins' stripe are abetted by their mirror-images, the fundamentalists of all religions, who are often as little acquainted with their own scriptures. In this country, Christianity seems at times to have almost nothing to do with Christ. In "The Death of Adam," Robinson wryly, and sadly, observes:
People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of "to him who asks, give," or "sell what you have and give the money to the poor."
None of what I've said here is new, which is, really, the point. It is not belief or unbelief that is a foolish response to our bewildering being-here, but an uncritical relation to either. Kierkegaard, according to whom almost no one in Christendom is actually a Christian, knew that doubt is an integral part of faith. Scientism, unlike science, makes no room for doubt: The "God question" is no question at all. But to deeply ponder that question is not to surrender to superstition or Satanic mischief in the fossil record (Mark Johnston is excellent on the need to rid religion of superstitious belief). It is only to recognize and honor what Kolakowski called "the incurable ambiguity of reality itself."
John Gray makes this point in "Straw Dogs":
Driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, [religious believers] have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast, secular believers — held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time — are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.
Kierkegaard wrote in the fading light of divinity; so did Nietzsche, for whom "there are no facts, only interpretations." This may turn out to be a good thing for divinity, even as it has encouraged a great deal of nonsense disguised as scientific objectivity.
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Raised in Colorado Springs — home of those gentle ministers of grace, Focus on the Family — I for a long time took a dim view of Christianity, whose principal manifestations in my immediate circle involved not having sex, asking people whether they were "saved," and denouncing the "special rights" homosexuals wanted to arrogate to themselves. In my mid-20s, though, I committed the venial sin of reading several books by the secular Jewish Gnostic windbag Harold Bloom (I still think "The American Religion" is a weird and underrated blast).
Bloom's cranky take on Christian Gnosticism — he reads it by Blake-light — led me to the suppressed Gospel of Thomas. Here was a Yeshua I could relate to, a terse, cryptic weirdo purged, mostly, of supernaturalism: "Yeshua said, Be passersby." To trace my journey since then to a position something like the great English poet Geoffrey Hill's — "not believe, hope" — would bore even me. It involved a lot of reading in theology, from the early church fathers to Karl Barth, philosophy and religious studies (to the books I've recommended thus far, let me add Simone Weil's "Gravity and Grace" and Guy Davenport's compilation from the canonical gospels and Thomas, "The Logia of Yeshua"). My understanding of Kierkegaard's emphasis on the immense difficulty — almost the impossibility — of becoming a Christian (along with my inability to believe that there is only one path to God, a doubt not quite answered by the Catholic doctrine that other religions offer true paths to God insofar as they mysteriously participate in Christ) prevents me from putting a name to my convictions, or caring much to do so. I confess to a dread that this makes me a Unitarian.
For the medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides, nothing can be positively predicated of God, who is so far beyond our comprehension that we can only say what he (and of course "he" is ridiculous in this context) is not. Even to say "God exists" is to conceive of the Highest One in temporal terms that are proper to creation. But God is not one entity among others; he is not an entity at all. Aquinas identifies God with ipsum esse, existence itself. In our own time, philosopher Jean-Luc Marion has argued that God must be radically free of all determinations whatsoever, including that of Being. (If you're confused by all this, it means you're paying attention.) But one negative attribute of God all would assent to is that he is not a Yeti.
My own preferred image of God comes from Dante. At the end of the "Paradiso," Dante the pilgrim has at last ascended to the Empyrean and is vouchsafed a vision of God, who is not the white-bearded figure of iconography. As often throughout the last canticle of his Comedy, Dante stresses that what he witnessed "was greater than speech can show." Everything he can say of his vision is but an approximation, a translation of the ineffable into human terms. With this qualification in place, Dante describes God as an infinitely transparent point of light, conflating "substances and accidents and their modes … in such a way that what I describe is a simple light," where goodness is gathered. "And what is perfect there falls short elsewhere."
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times