God Matters

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 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 toreveal 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.

4 thoughts on “God Matters

  1. You know, I’m completely in awe of your scholarship. Completely. But, I keep wondering if a-theists shouldn’t really be called anti-theists. You guys don’t seem to be able to separate spiritual musings from political angst.

    Arguments about God/not-God seem to inevitably get mired in playing the other guy’s game. If we’re going to be anti-theists, then we have to be just as literal – maybe *more* literal – than fundamentalists to argue the point.

    We don’t question whether investigating angels dancing on a pin is a mug’s game…nosirree! We are going to measure that pinhead and then extrapolate Biblical angelic dimensions to *prove*…well, something-or-other. That believers can’t measure. Or don’t care about measurement.

    My approach (if it can be dignified with that word) is to imagine that the Bible and other religious mythology may represent a genuine insight someone had in the distant past. Never mind that it may have been rigorously misunderstood and misused for centuries since. Once upon a time, some superior human had an insight, or revelation, or moment of enlightenment and it seemed important enough that it has survived to this day…even if in bowdlerized form.

    So my personal question is: How might this be true? In what way might this make sense? I can’t bring myself to imagine that I will somehow induce religious idiots to abandon their idiocy or increase their respect for rational thought or science in any way. So I ask myself instead, what that original insight might have been.

    I make not even the tiniest claim to scholarship. The sum total of my scholarship could be added to the Widow’s Mite and not register on any scale. My insights are purely that…and I make no claim beyond that. I surely will under no circumstances attempt to “prove” them! That simply seems silly and pointless to me.

    An example: one of the Biblical stories that always bothered me was Moses being excluded from the Promised Land. Was that God just being chickenshit to show that he could if he wanted to? It just seemed utterly unfair.

    But what if Moses is an ancient Hebrew version of the ego? And the Promised Land is enlightenment? Now it makes perfect sense. The ego guides you to enlightenment. They journey may be long and seem indirect and pointless (more Biblical stuff)…but when “you” finally arrive…”you” cannot enter. That “you” has to be abandoned to enter. Not obliterated…not destroyed…it just can’t be “in charge” any more.

    Came to me one morning in church, listening to the lesson – just like you.

    Same is true for lots of either impenetrable or seemingly silly Biblical stuff. What if the Holy Trinity is just another culture’s description of the Tao in action? God = the immaterial source – the field of possibility in physics terms, and The Son = matter, literally the “word” made flesh. That leaves Mister or Ms Holy Ghost as the process of the immaterial becoming material and the material headed home to immateriality.

    I’m not saying it’s TRUE. I make no claims of PROOF. I’m just saying that, looked at in that way, it makes sense. At least to me. And I’m all I’ve got to work with.

    • @Gene – I am a very poor atheist in the same way that some people are very poor Catholics. I cannot swallow atheism entire; the excessive ranting newish type actually looks the evil twin of dominionism in Xty. Nor am I happy with saying that we may as well shut up about what we can’t know on purely naturalistic grounds. The greatest refutation of a thoroughgoing naturalism is human experience, and human experience includes religion.In any event, I suppose I am atheistic towards most of what has historically been postulated about God, but only really antagonistic when these postulates are put forward by people far more certain than I am as “solutions” to problems. But to be a-theistic in that sense really isn’t to be an atheist in the impossibilist sense (“I believe there is not God” vs ‘I do not believe in [x] God”). If anything, my atheism is just a denial of the picture we have, not a denial of all possible pictures. And if that weren’t so, I would happily shut up. To make things slightly more confusing for myself, i rather like some elements of the picture we have.

  2. Very nice post. I agree “a healthy skepticism is always preferable to uninformed credulity”, and Yeats agrees: “[t]he best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”.

    Speaking with some Christians (and two ministers) it would seem as if the notion of the “existence” of God has more or less lost its meaning. It’s not so much whether something or other is “believable”, but “What’s it all about”. God(s) of religions is coming to be seen I think as an anachronism, culturally constructed in specific historical contexts and ideas evolve.

    Some churches teach “Christianity” not “theism”. That is they teach values, community, social justice issues and so on. God, or ideas of and even metaphors God are becoming increasing irrelevant in some societies and churches. There is more confessed agnosticism than belief in an unknowable thing. And then there is fundamentalism but that hasn’t really been prominent in, or even part of my cultural environments where we have the secular atheistic/agnostic Christianities taught by the likes of Jim Veitch and Lloyd Geering – Christianity without God.

    To be an atheist is to maintain the existence of God, as Ursula Le Guin expressed it, and that seems a fair enough statement to me. I think to be an atheist you have to have believed and unbelieved… and I never believed so I don’t want the label. And the ‘atheist’ baggage is too heavy. I travel light.

    The history of theology, to some extent at least, seems to me like the history of mistakes. A bit like cuttlefish, spraying too much ink and clouding the waters, it functions to justify itself in a world of its own creation, seeking knowledge through faith in… I’m never quite sure. Theologians are incredibly fascinating things to study.

  3. Pingback: November Biblical Studies Carnival: The Undead Edition « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

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