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Atheists don't get God

Posted by on Oct. 31, 2013 at 10:47 AM
  • 14 Replies

The most signal contribution of David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss is to clarify that serious theists and atheists, though they debate frequently concerning the reality of God, are hardly ever using the word "God" in the same way. This fundamental equivocation contributes massively to the pointlessness and meanness of most of these discussions.

It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of "being." But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual -- however supreme -- among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas's pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the gods were exalted, immortal, and especially powerful versions of ordinary human beings. They were, if you will, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from regular people. They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

It is absolutely right to say that the advance of the modern physical sciences has eliminated the gods. Having explored the depths of the oceans and the tops of the mountains and even the skies that surround the planet, we have not encountered any of these supreme beings. Furthermore, the myriad natural causes, uncovered by physics, chemistry, biology, etc. are more than sufficient to explain any of the phenomena within the natural realm. But the physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature -- at all.

The Russian cosmonaut from the 1950's who, having pierced the heavens, confidently asserted, "I have found no God," was speaking so much nonsense, though he would have been right had he changed the "G" from large case to small. This is why the new atheists and their army of disciples are committing a category mistake when they confidently assert that scientific advances cause religion to retreat onto ever-shrinking intellectual turf or when they stridently challenge religious people to produce "evidence" for God. No amount of scientific progress can even in principle pose a threat to authentic religion, and no amount of experimental evidence can tell for or against the true God.

So how do we get at the true God? Hart clarifies that real religion begins with a particular type of wonder, namely, the puzzle that things should be at all. We are surrounded on all sides by things that exist but that don't have to exist. The computer on which I am typing these words indeed exists, but its existence is not self-explanatory, for it depends on a whole range of causes, both extrinsic and intrinsic. It exists only because an army of manufacturers, designers, technicians, etc. put it together and only because its molecular, atomic and sub-atomic structure sustains it. Furthermore, it is situated in an environment that conditions it in numberless ways. The technical philosophical term for this caused and conditioned existence is "contingency."

Now a moment's meditation reveals that all of the conditioning elements that I mentioned are themselves, in similar ways, contingent. They don't explain their existence any more than the computer does. Therefore, unless we permanently postpone the explanation, we have to come, by logical deduction, to some reality which is not contingent and whose very nature is to exist. This power of Being itself, which explains and determines all the contingent things or our ordinary experience, is what serious theists of all of the great religious traditions mean by the word "God." I fully realize, of course, that the vast majority of religious believers wouldn't say that their faith in God is a function of this sort of philosophical demonstration. Nevertheless, they are intuiting what the argument makes explicit.

I often tease the critics of religion who take pride in the rigor of their rationalism. I tell them that, though they are willing to ask and answer all sorts of questions about reality, they become radically uncurious, irrational even, just when the most interesting question of all is posed: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?

David Bentley Hart's book helps us to see that the question of God -- the true God -- remains the most beguiling of all.

Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary.


http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2013/10/31/atheists_dont_get_god.html#.UnJQB04P3kt.facebook

(The comments on this are pretty interesting too.)

                      

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9                                                   My Blog

by on Oct. 31, 2013 at 10:47 AM
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Replies (1-10):
ashellbell
by shellbark on Oct. 31, 2013 at 10:55 AM
I'm atheist. I was a believer the majority of my life. I guess I didn't get it?
JakeandEmmasMom
by Platinum Member on Oct. 31, 2013 at 10:56 AM

 How does one have a personal relationship with "the power of being"?

AlekD
by Gold Member on Oct. 31, 2013 at 11:07 AM

That would be a debate about deism vs. traditional religion. This article is about theism vs. atheism. 

Quoting JakeandEmmasMom:

 How does one have a personal relationship with "the power of being"?


                      

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9                                                   My Blog

JakeandEmmasMom
by Platinum Member on Oct. 31, 2013 at 11:16 AM

 Well, he's saying that atheists are confused because we misunderstand the nature of god.  That god isn't a being, but the power of being itself.  I have never met a religious person who claimed that.  Their beliefs seem to center around an actual being, including the "relationship" aspect.  So, which is it?  Is god a being with which a human can have a personal relationship?  Or is god simply the power of being itself? 

My bottom-line point is that if atheists are confused about the nature of god, it is because of the way that theists represent god.

Quoting AlekD:

That would be a debate about deism vs. traditional religion. This article is about theism vs. atheism. 

Quoting JakeandEmmasMom:

 How does one have a personal relationship with "the power of being"?


 

momtoscott
by Platinum Member on Oct. 31, 2013 at 11:36 AM
1 mom liked this

It is possible to understand Aquinas and his proofs of god's existence (I remember there being some odd number of them, but it's been years since I read Aquinas) and still not find them convincing.   The Greek philosophers whose thinking Aquinas appropriated also make interesting arguments about the nature of god and whether and how a god can exist outside of time and creation, etc.  Possible and even plausible don't equal proof (or disproof), and "the power of being" is not a concept that is necessarily equivalent to god (or that implies a god who created the universe and everything in it).      

I believe the person who is making an error is the writer of the OP.  Atheists respond to various arguments for the existence of god.  These arguments themselves contain assumptions about god, sometimes as a physical being of the universe; answers to these arguments tend to conform to the shape of the god presented.  That doesn't reflect atheists' concept of god, just their response to that particular argument.  

shannonnigans
by Platinum Member on Oct. 31, 2013 at 11:54 AM
To expand upon what J&E said , I find it extremely strange that this is coming from a priest, who ostensibly has an intimate personal relationship with God by definition. How do you have a personal relationship with the power of being, so to speak, or any power? This sounds like a reasonably intelligent man who understands the validity of science well enough to know that he must adjust his concept of God to adapt to it. In the process, though, he goes so far as to weaken his own argument. Why would I be inclined to follow the power of being? What fulfillment is there in that? Why bother? Moreover, like anyone else who makes this argument , he assumes that atheists not only don't believe, but are deeply committed to this argument. Patently false - most of us don't believe and don't care, because you generally don't think about that which you don't believe in the first place. Only when religion is pushed upon us is it even an issue .
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AlekD
by Gold Member on Oct. 31, 2013 at 12:03 PM

He is a Catholic priest. Christianity fosters a personal relationship with the ineffable God in that we believe he became incarnate in a human person, Jesus Christ, Specifically in order to facilitate that relationship.

Quoting shannonnigans:

To expand upon what J&E said , I find it extremely strange that this is coming from a priest, who ostensibly has an intimate personal relationship with God by definition. How do you have a personal relationship with the power of being, so to speak, or any power? This sounds like a reasonably intelligent man who understands the validity of science well enough to know that he must adjust his concept of God to adapt to it. In the process, though, he goes so far as to weaken his own argument. Why would I be inclined to follow the power of being? What fulfillment is there in that? Why bother? Moreover, like anyone else who makes this argument , he assumes that atheists not only don't believe, but are deeply committed to this argument. Patently false - most of us don't believe and don't care, because you generally don't think about that which you don't believe in the first place. Only when religion is pushed upon us is it even an issue .


                      

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9                                                   My Blog

shannonnigans
by Platinum Member on Oct. 31, 2013 at 12:08 PM
Yeah, that I get. I might not believe in it but I get it. It's what I understood Catholicism to be as well. It focuses quite sharply on a being or beings. This particular piece seems to be quite divergent from that, unless I'm reading it incorrectly....and it's early, I'm tired, so that is possible.


Quoting AlekD:

He is a Catholic priest. Christianity fosters a personal relationship with the ineffable God in that we believe he became incarnate in a human person, Jesus Christ, Specifically in order to facilitate that relationship.

Quoting shannonnigans:

To expand upon what J&E said , I find it extremely strange that this is coming from a priest, who ostensibly has an intimate personal relationship with God by definition. How do you have a personal relationship with the power of being, so to speak, or any power? This sounds like a reasonably intelligent man who understands the validity of science well enough to know that he must adjust his concept of God to adapt to it. In the process, though, he goes so far as to weaken his own argument. Why would I be inclined to follow the power of being? What fulfillment is there in that? Why bother? Moreover, like anyone else who makes this argument , he assumes that atheists not only don't believe, but are deeply committed to this argument. Patently false - most of us don't believe and don't care, because you generally don't think about that which you don't believe in the first place. Only when religion is pushed upon us is it even an issue .



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CheesyKitty
by on Oct. 31, 2013 at 12:09 PM
I think that the problem is that religious people don't get that atheists don't put that much thought into what they don't believe in.

An atheist trying to define what God is to religious people is like if I were going to describe the inside of your home today. Either I've never been there so can only say "It has walls and a roof" or I've been there long ago amd can give more details but don't know exactly.

But Atheists don't care what your God means to you. They don't believe it exists and that's that.
Clairwil
by Ruby Member on Oct. 31, 2013 at 12:10 PM
2 moms liked this
Quoting AlekD:

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of "being." But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual -- however supreme -- among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas's pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

Aquinas didn't hold that God was just the act of being.   He projected other properties, such as benevolence, upon his hypothesised deity.

And I think you'll find that when 'serious' atheists are being pedantic, what they'll talk about is evidence detectable from within the universe accessible to (or that can detectibly influence) living humans, and not speculate beyond that what sort of force, being, or "sheer act" could be the cause of the detectable signals.  (Unless referring to specific deities that other's have already specified.)

To some extent, this is a problem with linguistics.  What is meant by "world", "universe", "multiverse", "cosmos", "entire order of being", "higher dimensions", "other planes of existence", etc.

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