The latest gambit among the spiritually inclined opponents of such “New Atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris has been to deprecate them as “undergraduate atheists.” Their unseemly and childish squabbles with equally unenlightened religious fundamentalists are supposedly just the predictable outcome of their mutual confusion about the real nature of God. They are in dire need of adult supervision from more sophisticated believers who have troubled themselves to acquire this knowledge. One such self-appointed guardian of the divine wisdom is David Bentley Hart, whose latest effort to set the New Atheists straight is entitled The Experience of God. As Hart puts it,
…any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be. If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one simply has misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I rather suspect that Dawkins and the rest aren’t quite as ignorant as Hart suggests of the Eastern Philosophy 101 version of God he portrays in his book. As he claims, it’s a version that’s common to the mystics of Christianity, Islam, and many other religious traditions. However, the New Atheists have quite reasonably chosen to focus their attention on the God that most people actually believe in rather than the one favored by Hart and the rest of the metaphysicians. According to Hart, all this amounts to is a pitiful spectacle of equally ignorant atheists and religious fundamentalists chasing each others tails. Supposedly, by focusing on what most of the faithful actually believe about the nature of God, the New Atheists have removed themselves from the debate. In reality, Hart is the one who’s not really in the “debate,” because he artificially attempts to lift himself out of it. He does this by fragmenting God into a “philosophical” God and a “dogmatic” God, as if the latter were irrelevant to the former. This is supposedly done in order to achieve “clarity,” and to spare the reader “boring arguments.” In fact, this taking a meat ax to God to chop off the inconvenient bits achieves the very opposite of “clarity.” What it does do is obfuscate the very real and very sharp incompatibilities between the different religious traditions that Dawkins was referring to when he wrote in the God Delusion,
We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.
We can assume that, as Hart claims, all the great religious traditions are in broad agreement about the “philosophical” God that he describes at length in his book. What about the “dogmatic” God that is distinguished in the different religions and sects by how many wills He has, how many natures He has, what His “substance” is, whether or not he is “begotten,” whether he comes in one person or three, etc. These distinctions are very real, important, and can’t just be dismissed with a wave of the hand to achieve “clarity.”
For example, most Christians believe in the Trinity, and virtually all of them believe that the term “begotten” is associated with God in one way or another. Moslems beg to differ. Muhammad said quite plainly that, not only is this Christian version of God wrong, but those who believe in the Trinity, or that Christ was “begotten” as one of God’s persons, will burn in hell forever. “Forever,” of course, is a very long time, compared to which the supposed 13 plus billion year age of the universe is but the blink of an eye. Muhammad was also quite explicit about what burning in hell means. One’s physical body will be immersed in fire, and a new skin will immediately replace each old one as it is consumed by the flames. One might say that if, as Hart insists, there really is a God, he might be a great deal less “bored” by the distinction between the Trinitarian and Unitarian versions of God after he dies than he is now. He might end up in a rather more tropical climate than he expected.
It is one of Hart’s favorite conceits, practiced, he assures us, since the days of the earliest fathers of the church, to dismiss all the contradictions and physical absurdities in the Bible as “allegories.” Unfortunately, one does not have this luxury with the Quran. Muhammad said quite plainly that he hadn’t written any riddles or allegories, and he meant everything he said. In fact, the different versions of God are the same only if we allow Hart to perform his “dogmatic” lobotomy on them. Thus, to the extent that they make any sense at all, such statements in the book as,
…if one is content merely to devise images of God that are self-evidently nonsensical, and then proceed triumphantly to demonstrate just how infuriatingly nonsensical they are, one is not going to accomplish anything interesting.
can make sense only after Hart has carefully denatured God by excising all his “dogmatic” bits. But what of Hart’s “philosophical” God, this denatured God of the mystics and metaphysicians, about whose nature Christian priests, Moslem mullahs, and Hindu sadhus are supposed to be in such loving agreement? Predictably, it turns out that He exists up on an intellectual shelf, free from the prying rationality of the atheists. As Hart puts it,
All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension, hence, much of the language used of Him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.
He then goes on to present us with the terms that, later in the book, are to figure prominently both in his definition of God and the proof of his existence:
The terms in which I have chosen to speak of God, as the title page of the volume announces, are “being,” “consciousness,” and “bliss.” This is a traditional ternion that I have borrowed from Indian tradition… they are ideal descriptions not only of how various traditions understand the nature of God, but also of how the reality of God can, according to those traditions, be experienced and known by us. For to say that God is being, consciousness, and bliss is also to say that he is the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and that therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of experience.
I invite those interested in a further explication of these terms to consult Hart’s book, as he devotes a chapter to each of them. However, for the purposes of this post, I will cut to the chase. These terms are supposed to constitute a bulletproof rejoinder to the “undergraduate atheists.” According to Hart, we cannot explain how there is something rather than nothing without a God (being), we cannot explain consciousness without a God, and we cannot explain such things as beauty or the “moral law within” without God (bliss). I must say that I am in full agreement with Hart to the extent that I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. I have no clue how I can be conscious, and I haven’t the faintest inkling of exactly how my consciousness experiences beauty. However, the hoary conceit that we are somehow forced to supply a God to explain the things we don’t understand strikes me as rather weak, especially for someone like Hart, who writes in the style of a high school prima donna who people have made such a fuss over that she imagines she’s Meryl Streep.
In reality, Hart’s “proofs” of God’s existence amount to nothing more than the classic non sequitur of supplying something more complicated to explain something less complicated, regardless of whether he chooses to describe God as an object, a subject, a Ground of Being, an Absolute Reality, or whatever. In the end, that’s really all he’s got. These three words supply his whole rationalization to himself of why he’s infinitely smarter and wiser than the “undergraduate atheists.” He would have been better off just stating these “proofs” and leaving it at that, but he couldn’t resist pondering the implications of these three “incontrovertible” truths for science itself, and lecturing the scientists accordingly. We learn in the process that he’s not only way, way smarter than just the New Atheists, but also such worthies as the physicists Weinberg, Feynman and Hawking, to whom he delivers a stern lecture for daring to violate his metaphysical territory. Needless to say, he also imagines himself far above such intellectual “lightweights” as Dawkins,
As for Dawkins’ own attempt at an argument against the likelihood of God’s existence, it is so crude and embarrassingly confused as to be germane to nothing at all, perhaps not even to itself.
as for the rest of the New Atheists,
Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as no more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised upon a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith.
Hart presents us with such bluster repeatedly, without accompanying it with a serious attempt to specifically address so much as one of Dawkins’ actual arguments against the existence of God. In fact, one might say he is the perfect platonic “form” of a Pharisee. One can just imagine him in the temple, praying to his God,
I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this New Atheist. (Luke 18:11)
One wonders how he squares this flamboyant intellectual hubris with such teachings of Jesus as,
Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
No doubt, like Noah’s ark and the Garden of Eden they are just another lot of “allegories.” For all his hubris, the self-assurance with which Hart lectures the likes of Hawking and Feynman is based on a level of scientific understanding that is, shall we say, idiosyncratic. For example,
As a species, we have been shaped evolutionarily, in large part at least, by transcendental ecstasies whose orientation exceeds the whole of nature. Instead of speaking vacuously of genetic selfishness, then, it would be immeasurably more accurate to say that compassion, generosity, love, and conscience have a unique claim on life.
The mystery remains: the transcendent good, which is invisible to the forces of natural selection, has made a dwelling for itself within the consciousness of rational animals. A capacity has appeared within nature that, in its very form, is supernatural: it cannot be accounted for entirely in terms of the economy of advantageous cooperation because it continually and exorbitantly exceeds any sane calculation of evolutionary benefits. Yet, in the effectual order of evolution, it is precisely this irrepressible excessiveness that, operating as a higher cause, inscribes its logic upon the largely inert substrate of genetic materials, and guides the evolution of rational nature toward an openness to ends that cannot be enclosed within mere physical processes.
No doubt this will inspire some serious rewriting of the mathematical models of the geneticists and evolutionary biologists. It grieved me to see that, of all the scientific tribes, the evolutionary psychologists were singled out for a double helping of Hart’s disapprobation. Those ubiquitous whipping boys for ideological and religious zealots of all stripes came in for his particular ire for suggesting that morality might not come from God. In other words, they sinned against the “bliss” part of his “ternion.” As Hart somewhat flamboyantly explains,
In the end, the incongruity speaks for itself. No explanation of ethical desire entirely in terms of evolutionary benefit can ever really account for the sheer exorbitance of the moral passion of which rational minds are capable, or for the transcendentally “ecstatic” structure of moral longing.
In other words, Hart believes in “hard-wired” morality. He just thinks that God did the wiring. However, furious at the pretensions of the evolutionary psychologists, he seizes on the nearest rock to throw at them. As it happens, this is the very same rock that leftist ideologues once fashioned for themselves:
There are now even whole academic disciplines, like evolutionary psychology, that promote themselves as forms of science but that are little more than morasses of metaphor. (Evolutionary psychologists often become quite indignant when one says this, but a “science” that can explain every possible form of human behavior and organization, however universal or idiosyncratic, and no matter how contradictory of other behaviors, as some kind of practical evolutionary adaptation of the modular brain, clearly has nothing to offer but fabulous narratives – Just So Stories, as it were – disguised as scientific propositions.)
Ludicrously, Hart doesn’t realize that the “Just So Story” gambit makes no sense whatsoever if there really is a “moral law within.” It was invented by the Blank Slaters to bolster their arguments that all human behavior is a product of culture and experience. Presumably, if there really is a “moral law within,” the experiments of the evolutionary psychologists would detect it. If Hart’s God-given version of morality is true, than the notion that what they’re seeing are “Just So Stories” is out of the question. The poor, dumb boobs just don’t realize who put the morality there to begin with.
Apparently Hart has read so many books of metaphysics that, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote with his books of knight-errantry, his brain has dried up. It is no longer possible for him to imagine that anyone who doesn’t swallow the ancient conceit that, because there are things that we don’t understand, there must be a God, could possibly be arguing in good faith. Indeed, they must be evil! And so, in the spirit of that venerable Christian teaching,
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7:1-2)
Hart gives us a glance at his religious zealot’s teeth, now sadly rotted and dulled since the days of Torquemada and the Inquisition. For example, anyone who doesn’t believe in God is a collaborator with the Communists and Nazis:
Hence certain distinctively modern contributions to the history of human cruelty: “scientific” racism, Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, criminological theories about inherited degeneracy, “curative” lobotomies, mandatory sterilizations, and so on – and, in the fullness of time, the racial ideology of the Third Reich (which regarded human nature as a biological technology to be perfected) and the collectivist ideology of the communist totalitarianisms (which regarded human nature as a social and economic technology to be reconstructed)… This is why it is silly to assert (as I have heard two of the famous New Atheists do of late) that the atheism of many of those responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was something entirely incidental to their crimes, or that there is no logical connection between the cultural decline of religious belief at the end of the nineteenth century and the political and social horrors of the first half of the twentieth.
This in spite of the fact that, as Hitler wrote and said repeatedly, he was a firm Christian believer. For example, from one of his speeches,
My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.
As for Communism, countless pundits have pointed out that socialist ideology was a religion, the essential difference between it and, for example, Christianity and Islam, lying merely in the fact that its devotees worshipped a secular rather than a spiritual God. Indeed, the great Scotch intellectual Sir James Mackintosh, writing long before the heyday of Marx, correctly predicted its eventual demise because, unlike the traditional spiritual gods, its god could be fact-checked.
Undeterred, and probably innocent of any knowledge of such inconvenient truths, and with the briefest of mentions of the war, slaughter, and oppression that actually have been the direct result of religious belief through the centuries, Hart goes on to explain that atheists are guilty, not only of the sins of the Communists, but of the bourgeoisie as well!
Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values… In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.
So much for the notion of a “dialogue” between atheists and believers. In closing, I cannot refrain from quoting a bit from Edward Fitzgerald’s wonderful critique of organized religion in general and Islam in particular, disguised as a “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.
Would you that spangle of Existence spend
About the Secret–Quick about it, Friend!
A Hair perhaps divides the False and True–
And upon what, prithee, may life depend?
A Hair perhaps divides the False and True;
Yes; and a single Alif were the clue–
Could you but find it–to the Treasure-house,
And peradventure to The Master too;
Whose secret Presence, through Creation’s veins
Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;
Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and
They change and perish all–but He remains;
A moment guess’d–then back behind the Fold
Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll’d
Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,
He doth Himself contrive, enact, behold.
Obviously, Fitzgerald knew all about Hart’s metaphysical God and his “quicksilver-like” presence. There’s a lot more to his poem than “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”