Attribute and Affect

I have argued against theologians like Richard Swinburne that they play a dangerous game in moving from abstracted notions of God to specific characteristics of God and the doctrines of Christianity. In the long run, the snowman they build feature by feature is still snow. It will melt. Both believing and unbelieving philosophers of religion have played this game for a very long time–perhaps since the time of Aquinas–but the bottom line is: No one is an atheist on general principles. There is some X that you reject, and that X comes with attributes or “properties” attached. Any working notion of ontology requires not merely existence but attribution.

This is why the most damaging arguments against ontology, going back to the eighteenth century, begin with the criticism that “existence” is a state (being) and not a property. Anselm had argued against his hypothetical unbeliever that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived [to exist],” and then took the leap to existence by stating that the existence of the greatest conceivable thing can not be merely conceptual since perfection requires actuality. Anselm limited this state of perfection to being and not to racehorses or desert islands because ordinary things can be conceived in degrees but not in states of perfection. God thus becomes a supreme case of perfection existing in actuality because it cannot simply exist in the mind for — “Si enim vel in solo intellectu est potest cogitari esse et in re quod maius est” (Proslogion 2). Now that you have the snow, it is possible to add goodness (Aquinas’s summum bonum), and the so-called Omni-properties of God (knowledge, presence, benevolence, etc.) as well as the Not-properties of God: infinite, immutable, impassible, etc. Snowman, meet your maker.

It is perfectly possible to believe in snow without believing in snowmen. But in historical theology we have long come to accept that the God of the western tradition, and by and large the God rejected by the first brave souls of the pre-Enlightenment, like John Biddle in 1615, is more slush than shape–to wit, Biddle on trying to make sense of the Trinity:

“The major premise is quite clear inasmuch as if we say that the Holy Spirit is God and yet distinguished from God then it implies a contradiction. The minor premise that the Holy Spirit is distinguished from God if it is taken personally and not essentially is against all reason:First, it is impossible for any man to distinguish the Person from the Essence of God, and not to frame two Beings or Things in his mind. Consequently, he will be forced to the conclusion that there are two Gods.Secondly, if the Person be distinguished from the Essence of God, the Person would be some Independent Thing. Therefore it would either be finite or infinite. If finite then God would be a finite thing since according to the Church everything in God is God Himself. So the conclusion is absurd. If infinite then there will be two infinites in God, and consequently the two Gods which is more absurd than the former argument.Thirdly, to speak of God taken impersonally is ridiculous, as it is admitted by everyone that God is the Name of a Person, who with absolute sovereignty rules over all. None but a person can rule over others therefore to take otherwise than personally is to take Him otherwise than He is.”

Granted that the early atheist thinkers were less concerned with the Big Picture than with dismantling inherited beliefs member by member. Many had long since concluded that the wheels of theology spun around doctrines rather than biblical texts, which had been gratuitously laid on or cherry picked to support beliefs that otherwise had been fashioned by councils without any scriptural warrants at all. A classic case, as it relates to Biddle’s long winded dilemma, above, was the so-called Johannine Comma. Based on a sequence of extra words which appear in 1 John 5:7-8 in some early printed editions of the Greek New Testament:

ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες [ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὁ Πατήρ, ὁ Λόγος, καὶ τὸ Ἅγιον Πνεῦμα· καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἔν εἰσι. 8 καὶ τρεῖς εἰσιν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῇ γῇ] τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα, καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν

and which were included by the King James translators, thus:

“For there are three that bear record [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one…”

Is this not the Trinity, beloved of both Catholic and Protestants since the fourth century? Well, no, because the italicized words are absent from Greek manuscripts, and only appear in the text of four late medieval manuscripts where they seem to be the helpful clarification of a zealous copyist, originating as his marginal note. Think of it as new snow.

The point of these examples is that modern unbelief is highly confused about the difference between snow and snowmen, between being and somethingness. Simply put, what does it mean to say “I don’t believe in God,” if (as many atheists have reminded me) that is all an atheist is required to say to be a member of the club? My query is really the same at Robert Frost’s poetical question in “Mending Wall”: “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,/ And to whom I was like to give offense.”

I maintain that it is impossible to accept Anselm’s ontological argument. Kant was right. “Existence is not a predicate.” The ontological argument illicitly treats existence as a property that things can either possess or lack: to say that a thing exists is not to “attribute” existence to that thing, but to say that the concept of that thing is exemplified–expressed and experienced–in the world. Exemplification requires attributes. That is why the obscure language and syllogisms of philosophy (for the above, e.g.: “S is p” is true iff there is something in the world that is S, satisfying the description “is p”) have never really appealed to robust varsity atheists. But Kant’s critique of ontology slices both ways: if ontology is defeasible because existence is not a predicate, it means that the statements God exists is not falsifiable because there is nothing in the world corresponding to God, at least not of the S is p variety.


Many atheists know this, and they also know that their rejection of “theism” (a very funny word derived from the Greek θεός — a god, hence, a-theism, being without such a belief) is not based on snowflakes but fully formed snowmen: the God of “Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) “theism” who comes to us in a manifestly literary, messy, and inconsistent way in scripture. You cannot be an atheist in the abstract; you have to be an atheist in terms of attributions that have been applied in specific historical moments and which can be traced to particular historical contexts–such as the legislative “creation” of the Trinity in 325 AD. You must be walling out something.

I am perfectly at home with this kind of unbelief, comfortable with the truism that most people are atheists with respect to 99% of all the gods who were ever believed to exist. The statement is inadvertently poignant because it suggests that what we find it easy to contradict or reject are specific “attributes” or characterizations, and then to construct from these a more complete rejection of the whole picture. Every clever schoolkid knows the game and the logic: How can a God who is all good tolerate famine, cancer, premature death? How can a God who is all-wise put the prostate near to the male urinary tract (was he cutting costs?); Why would a God who is all powerful not create us, like Adam, in a post-adolescent, decision-making state free from high school, acne, and nagging parents? Note that what is being rejected are the attributes laid on this God, attributes which are construed from “S”: the state of existence as we know it.

Conveniently, for unbelievers, the rejection of attributes is facilitated by books thought to reveal the nature and purposes of God himself, especially the Bible and the Koran. The existence of texts that were never designed for use in philosophical and theological argument is a treasure chest for unbelievers–full of informal literary proofs that the God made from scriptural snow doesn’t correspond to the God made from theological snow: His whole story is an epic tragedy that could have been avoided if he had but exercised his omniscience and power at the beginning of time, avoided making fruit trees, or refrained from making Adam, or simply said “Apology accepted” when the First Couple betrayed his sole commandment. The manifest insufficiency and limitedness of this literary deity measured by the philosophical yardstick brought into the Church with theology–moments of remorse (Genesis 6,6) and petulance (6.1-16) and violence–flood, war, disease, death–makes the job of the skeptic a walk in the Garden.

What the unbeliever discovers in an amateur way is the composite nature of tradition: God-traditions that developed in Jerusalem and Athens being spliced together with sometimes implausible ingenuity and impossible contiguity. The illegitimate move is for the skeptic to conclude that the process of development is in some sense a “system” of untruths devised by ignorant or malicious men to keep the facts hidden or science suppressed. The real story, like all real stories, is much more complicated. But science does not emerge from the total exposure of the God traditions as deliberately false–the wreckage of a false system on the shoals of fact. It arises because of the inadequacy of the explanatory power of religion: the appearance of nature beneath the melting snow, to cop a phrase from Emerson.

End of winter

I think it is important, if only at an educational level, for unbelievers to avoid the error to which their commitment easily gives rise. One is a version of what W.K. Wimsatt called in 1954, in conjunction with literary criticism, the “affective” fallacy. He used the expression to mean that the ultimate value of a piece of literature (or art) cannot be established on the basis of how it affects a reader or viewer:

“The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological skepticism [ . . . which . . .] begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism [with the result that] the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear.”

Applied to the God traditions, atheists are fairly quick to judge religion solely on the basis of its (presumed) affect on believers, such that the details of the question of God’s existence and the implications of belief for everyday life disappear. We can see this tendency especially in the writings of atheists who cherry pick the toxic texts of scripture to conclude that believers who accept such stories as true are delusional or dysfunctional. I remember listening passively at an Easter Vigil celebration many years ago as the following, called the “Song of Moses” from Exodus 15, was read out:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:

‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
2The Lord is my strength and my might,*
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
3The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.

4‘Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.*
5The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
6Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power—
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
7In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
8At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
9The enemy said, “I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.”
10You blew with your wind, the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

11‘Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?
12You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them.

Invested with the spirit of Monty Python, I struggled not to laugh: God is great–just look how many Egyptians he killed, how many wives would now be husbandless, how many daughters fatherless. The vast majority of worshipers around me listened inattentively. Some slept. It was the drone of words. The same liturgy would have been performed in 1278. But no one would have heard very much because it would have been executed only in Latin.

To be affected by such passages (even if the effect is indifference) is a function of human perception. To conclude that the people who endure such banality in the name of religion need to be rescued from their belief in the God who seems to like to drown people or reduce their sinful cities to ashes is the affective fallacy. For every smitten, leprous evildoer and every reference to Israel behaving like a whore, there are passages of immense beauty, human pathos, literary quality and even historical importance.

To deny this human quality is to make the text disappear in the interest of sticking to a narrow and unformed reaction to it, normally based on a lack of familiarity with Hebrew (or Hellenistic) literary tradition, story telling, and historical context. Ironically, it is precisely this same lack of familiarity that permits a fundamentalist to accept “the Bible” in its undifferentiated and inspired totality as the word of God–whose imperfections can be overlooked as part of a divine plan that the book does not reveal in its entirety: 1 Corinthians 13.12.

A healthy skepticism is always preferable to uninformed credulity. But I maintain that unbelievers are often terribly credulous when it comes to their view of the positions they have taken. The fact that biblical passages can be shocking to modern sensibilities has no bearing on their “truth” at a literary, cultural, or experiential level. Nor can the value be determined by taking an average of nice texts and nasty texts without exploring individual judgments and categories. “Everything,” Jacques Barzun once told a resolute graduate student who had made up her mind about what a poem really meant, “is a seminar.” Without the seminar, we turn impressions into conclusions, and that is where the affective fallacy leaves us.


To say that one does not believe in the God whose attributes are those (more or less, and with no consistency) described in the Bible puts the unbeliever in the company of hundreds of thousands of believers. To say that one does not accept the God of theology, with or without the reconcilable attributes of literary biblical tradition, probably would not greatly reduce that company.

The remaining issue, as John Wisdom once put it, is whether believing in a God without attributes is possible at all, or no different from not believing in God.

9 thoughts on “Attribute and Affect

  1. Great article. I’ve often thought that the claim that there is no god leaves me wondering “what is a god exactly?”. Its like saying there are no monsters; well it depends on what you think a monster is.

    I mean a person may worship there ancestors, and surely they existed. I can’t say that god doesn’t exist. If I claim that it is not a god because they aren’t all knowing and all powerful etc I think I might be stepping out of my bounds as an atheist to define what god is to someone else. At best I can say your ancestors aren’t gods to me.

  2. OK, I’ll admit to being metaphysically challenged. Thus, trying to appreciate the nuances of your analysis of “Attribute and Affect” as related to the biblical God was a struggle. But then I was reminded that it was the paragon of reason himself, Emmanuel Kant, who once said, “”Metaphysics is a dark ocean without shores or lighthouse, strewn with many a philosophic wreck.” So, I don’t feel too bad.

    From my perspective, I would not look to Kant for answers or explanations here. I think Joseph Campbell may be a better source. When looked at as myth, many of the ontological and epistemological issues become moot. (See, I can use big words too!) Mythologically, we then can deal with God as Santa Claus, which is a much easier task. We can also call on the cognitive sciences to help us understand the associated psychology (and pathology) associated with religious belief.

    Surely, anyone alive today who got through the eighth grade can at least apprehend the empirical (and logical) impossibility of virtually every story (myth) in Genesis. To accept those events – creation, world-wide flood, walls falling by the sound of trumpets, women turning into salt, etc., etc. — as true is to deny the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, genetics, and mathematics. Even God can’t violate the law of non-contradiction; either 2+2=4, or 2+2= not 4, but not both at the same time. Of course, for believers, denial is just a long river in Africa.

    It was the late, great Carl Sagan who reminded us that, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” That should be emblazoned on the cover of every bible under the caption “WARNING.”

  3. Pingback: Attribute and Affect (via The New Oxonian) | The New Oxonian

  4. Personally, I have always felt it comes down to who are realists and who are not.

    As my critical thinking abilities developed (ever so slowly) I began to realizethat things which exist in reality usually almost always have referents.

    Things without referents tend to be classified as theoretical.

    This is why any (and all) God hypotheses are only theoretical concepts until a valid referent can be emperically established. Failure to adequately provide referential support for any given concepualization probably means the conceptualization is wrong–and the person offering it is likely to be mistaken.

    What I find theologians doing is creating theoretical models which align with their metaphysical assumptions, and once they discover a logically sound hypothesis, they frame their God conceptualization according to this theoretical framework. Providing a philosophically sound framework then, in theory, allows the concept to at least be feasible (in philosophical terms).

    The problem with theologians is they tend to habitually use the old bait-and-switch style of demonstration. If you buy into their premise, and their logic is sound, then low and behold this logic becomes evidence, not for the plausibility of the theoretical concept they have been divising, but as support for their premise.

    In otherwords, rather than offering a testable hypothesis for their God concept, they have merely substituted their theoretical framework as proof for God proper. All they were looking for is our agreement that the philosophical concept is logically sound. Once they have this, then all they need to do is suggest that any attempt to deny such a logically air tight proof would be foolish. Therefore God surely exists.

    Thologians always want us to agree with their logic but forget our own. As if we hadn’t caught them begging the question, or switching out the question about the feasibility of their individual God concept with one of his existence (as if logical agreement somehow equated to proof of existence), all the while neglecting the fact that they are still absent a valid empirically validated referent for something with a supposed real existence.

    Realists have to be skeptical of theistic claims for these reasons and many more like them.

    • Well said: I think the real problem is that the incredible shrinking God of liberal theology is indifferent from a God who (qua Wisdom) may as well not exist. Reminds me a bit of the gods in Lucretius who are complacent and useless, Conceptually, the more robust the attributes ascribed to God the more there is to deny (or pronounce absurd). Still, I cannot imagine any significant theistic claim in which attributes would not play a role, unless you go the apophatic route–but in that case attribution is going on too since the reference points are all relative to S.

      • I like this way of thinking of it. Some atheists seem to feel that they must be able to deny the existence of *all* gods, no matter the particular attributes; but as you point out here that is a fool’s errand. But if one is more modest one finds that there are two kinds of attributes- some that are easily disproved (and most, perhaps all, of the traditional theological attributes like omnipotent omnibenevelence are of this sort) and some that are unfalsifiable because they have no traction on the world whatsover. Perhaps God always hides from and tricks scientists; or perhaps God is in every way indistinguishable from the universe itself. Well then; so what? The existince or nonexistence of beings with such attributes would have no effect upon the rest of reality.
        To riff on CS Lewis- Either God doesn’t exist, or he’s mad, bad, or irrelevant.

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