Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was on Kerri Miller’s Midmorning (MN public radio) again but I called too late to get in my comment. He and other atheists say they reject God, but they really reject the Christian god and not what thoughtful religious people think of as God. Misleading Christian language—the monopolistic “Father” and “he/him/his”—gives the impression that God is a humanlike individual.

The atheist André Comte-Sponville in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality rejects belief in “a God,” in a “subject,” “in something,” “in Someone,” and “in his existence.” And I don’t believe in that god either! Each of his phrases indicates an individual something, an object or subject, something alongside other individual things in the universe, and that’s not God.

One of the foremost theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner, explains that,
the mysterious and the incomprehensible . . . can never be defined by being distinguished from something else. For that would be to objectify it, to understand it as one object among other objects, and to define it conceptually. . . . we do not know God by himself as one individual object alongside others, but only as the term of transcendence.
Despite Rahner's unfortunate use of the male pronoun, he clarifies the mistake of believing in A certain humanlike God. It substitutes a particular God-image for the Divine Mystery beyond anything we can imagine. We must not fall into the idolatry of worshipping a particular God-image—father, mother, bear, sun, moon, turtle, or Jesus—for no image can adequately represent the Transcendent Mystery.

I sympathized with Dawkins this morning when he said it was hard to avoid contempt for people who deny evolution and think the planet is 6,000 years old. I confess I struggle with contempt for people who can’t see that there’s something wrong with always talking about God as if IT were a male individual.

Comte-Sponville gives beautiful and appropriate descriptions of what we call “God” but he calls IT “the All” or “nature”:
• the infinite, the eternal and the absolute.

• . . . what has traditionally been called the absolute or the unconditioned, that which depends on nothing but itself and exists independently of all relations, conditions and points of view.

• It is the silence of that which can be neither explained nor expressed . . . not meaning, but being.
• How can it not exist, given that, without it, nothing could exist?

• . . . the truth of the universe must indeed be mysterious. How can we expect to understand and explain everything, given the fact that the ‘everything’ was here long before we were, and formed us, and permeates our very being, and surpasses us in every direction?
I’m sure he doesn’t know he is describing God as thoughtful Christians would describe IT, and as IT’s described in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am.” In the original Hebrew this was rendered, YHWH, which derives from the Hebrew word for “being.” And from that we get Yahweh, who degenerates into a god of war and genocide. The atheist Comte-Sponville captures beautifully the true meaning.

Ironic that an atheist does a better job than most Christians would!

3 comments:

Jean Kelley said...

Re: Compte-Sponville
What a beautiful description of God!

Florian said...

Jeanette, have you ever read Aquinas' Summa Theologica?  I haven't either, at least not the whole thing.  But I have been reading through one volume of it that I found in my department library of all places.  If you are interested in the nature of God, you should read that, regardless of whether or not you are inclined to agree with Aquinas.  Books by Dawkins and Comte-Sponville (and even Rahner to some extent) are not seminal works on the subject of God; they are probably not even worthwhile reading.  The Summa, on the other hand, is indeed a landmark work.  It set the standard for doing natural theology.  To advance our scholarly knowledge of God, we have to engage Thomas Aquinas and his Summa at some point.   We can criticize the Summa if we want; but, of course, in order to do that, we have to read it first.

The most famous part of the Summa is probably Aquinas' discussion of his five ways of proving the existence of God.  You might say that that discussion is so besides your point, but it is not.  It is our starting point.  Before jumping to the notion of God as infinite, eternal, absolute, "the unconditioned, which depends on nothing but itself and exists independently," or that which is not defined conceptually, etc. we should remind ourselves of why theologians insist on such notions of God in the first place.  We don't agree on such notions simply because we like them.  There are reasons for them that are traced back to those proofs for God's existence.

The proofs begin by considering how we can account for the existence of things that are contingent.  By "contingent" we mean something which does not need to exist.  Since they do not need to exist, the question of why they do exist arises.  The ultimate answer cannot be lodged in something that's also contingent, which just raises further questions, but rather in something necessary, which is something that does need to exist, or that exists unconditionally (without condition).

You can read more about these proofs elsewhere.  I want to focus on the idea of a contingent, because we can use it to derive attributes of God. For example, God cannot be limited because that would make God contingent. If God is not limited, then God is an unlimited being, or infinite.

Indeed, all of the Comte-Sponville's attributes of God listed by Jeanette can be traced back to the notion that God cannot be contingent, and thus back to the proofs for God. If atheist Comte-Sponville could read this comment he might agree with me that he should have started with the proofs of God before discussing God's attributes.  But, ironically, that would involve accepting the proofs for God, and Comte-Sponville could no longer call himself an atheist.

The point is that Comte-Sponville's divine attributes are not his own, as we all know. They are just the traditional attributes of God we find in Aquina's Summa. So Jeanette, Comte-Sponville, and other atheists do not “reject the Christian god and not what thoughtful religious people, including thoughtful Christians, think of as God.” The God of Comte-Sponville IS the being that Christians say is their God. (By the way, it is clearly insulting and false to imply that faithful Christians are not thoughtful. You do not know that they don't think.)

Jeanette said...

The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas used to be the Bible of Catholic thought, but since the 1960s it has steadily withered in popularity, despite periodic bursts from defenders, because of a cognitive paradigm shift. Its excessive, abstract rationalism has little relevance to sociological, psychological, and ecological concerns in the global village.

One example of Aquinas’ outdated scholasticism is his disparaging of all things female, even its primary role in procreation. Copying Aristotle, Aquinas assumed that the female body merely provides a passive field which the male seed activates.

I respect Thomas Aquinas most for his mystical end when he clearly experienced the Mystery he’d been trying to define all his life. Appropriately he was quoted by his secretary as saying, "All that I have written seems like no more than straw."

Like Thomism, proofs of God’s existence are obsolete (See my post Does God exist? Wrong Question!). Today we celebrate everyday mysticism—the EXPERIENCE of the Mystery called “God. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality exemplifies, as do my posts on the paranormal.