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In the spirit of my series of posts on the basis of morality (which I plan to continue), I thought I would include the following thoughts about the divine command theory, which were prompted by recent conversations at Randal Rauser’s blog. That discussion began because I claimed that the notion that God is the source of morality is noxious. Now, perhaps that was a poor choice of words given that it is prone to cause offense. In any event, I think it is true that this idea is a false one and is not conducive to clear thinking about morality. Let me explain:
I think that the divine command theory (DCT) facilitates poor moral reasoning. The reason is that it asks us to focus on morally irrelevant features when we reason about matters of moral concern. This, at least in some instances, can blind us to significant moral truths.
The divine command theory says that our moral obligations are grounded in the commands of God. The most widely defended modern version of that view stems from the work of Robert Adams. Adams’ version of the DCT says that obligations are grounded in the commands of a God who is perfectly loving. I don’t think that this modified divine command theory (as it has come to be called) is particularly relevant to what I have to say here, but my criticism will be directed at this view (or something near enough to it).
The problem with the divine command theory that I want to highlight is that it claims that the moral features of actions are specifiable solely in terms of God’s commands. What makes an action morally obligatory is the fact that God commands that we do it. What makes an action morally wrong is the fact that God commands that we not do it. The problem is that these are morally irrelevant features. In other words, the fact that God commands an action has nothing to do with what makes the action wrong, nor indeed can it. What makes an action wrong is the fact that it harms conscious beings. Now, I grant that this is a very general statement, but I don’t think that I need to be any more specific (except by way of illustrating what I mean with some examples) to establish my point.
I made two claims in the previous paragraph: (1) God’s commands do not have anything to do with what makes an action morally wrong. (2) God’s commands cannot have anything to do with what makes an action morally wrong. The second is obviously stronger than the first and while I think that the second can be established via a straightforward argument, I will not attempt to do so here. Rather, I will focus my efforts on establishing (1). To do this I will use Randal Rauser’s sample version of the DCT that he provided in the discussion I mentioned:
Sample divine command theory of ethics: God is maximally good and loving and has commanded his creatures to love one another. This divine command constitutes the moral obligation that all creatures have always to love one another.
Let’s call this view “Rauser’s Divine Command Theory of Ethics” (RDCT). This sounds fine and Randal’s point is that it is difficult to see how anyone could find anything objectionable about this view. I think it is objectionable because it misidentifies the morally relevant features of actions. So, what, on RDCT, makes it obligatory to love one another? Is the fact that creatures are deserving of love? Is it the fact that loving one another facilitates peace and harmony? Is it the fact that being loved is a necessary condition for a creature to achieve its highest good? All of the features mentioned in these questions are reasonable candidates for what makes it the case that we should love one another. But on RDCT, the answer to all of these questions is, No. What makes it the case that we are obligated to love one another is the fact that God commands it. Full stop.
This point cannot be overemphasized. In the discussion following his original post, Randal pointed out, correctly, that it is perfectly consistent with RDCT that God commands that we love one another because we are conscious agents with dignity. While that is true, the important thing is that, on RDCT, this is merely an account of the reasons why God commands love; it is not an account of what makes love right. To see this we need only notice that the fact that we conscious agents with dignity cannot, on any version of the DCT, by itself make it the case that we are obligated to love one another. All versions of the DCT claim that moral obligations are grounded in God’s commands such that, in the absence of a divine command with respect to a particular action, that action is neither obligatory nor wrong. All versions of the DCT are thus committed to the following dependence principle:
Dependence Principle (DP): Moral obligations depend for their existence on God’s commands. If God offers no commands with respect to a particular action, then that action has no deontic properties.
So, what does make it the case that we ought to love one another on RDCT? The fact that God commands it. Nothing else could make it the case that it is obligatory to love one another, on the DCT. As I said, this is a perfectly general point that applies to all versions of the DCT; the whole point of the DCT is that obligations are grounded in God’s commands. His commands make it the case that we have moral obligations. This is the problem that I want to focus on.
The problem is that, contrary to (DP), God’s commands in fact have nothing to do with what makes an action morally wrong. In my most recent blog post, I attempted a detailed account of the basis of moral obligation. The simple answer is that actions that cause harm are wrong because they cause harm to conscious beings, actions that help are right because they help conscious beings. Think about how odd (DP) is. It implies that in the absence of a divine command concerning whether we should not do it, rape is not wrong. That is ludicrous. Rape is wrong because it causes physical and mental harm and it interferes with the agency of a conscious person. End of story. The suggestion that God’s commands have anything to do with is, quite frankly, bizarre. I can’t see why anyone would think that. I can’t see why anyone would think that, in the absence of a command not to torture and kill small children, that torturing and killing small children is not wrong.
There are really two problems here: First, it seems pretty clear that acts like torture, rape, and murder are wrong because of the harm that they cause to conscious beings. Second, I can’t see how God’s commands could change anything. If it is not already wrong to torture children just in virtue of the fact that torture causes serious short-term and long-term physical and emotional suffering, then I don’t see how God could make it wrong just by commanding that we not do it. This is a pretty magical ability that God must have in order to take an action, which has no moral features in the absence of his commands, and make it wrong. How does that work?
So, the divine command theory just gets morality wrong. By claiming that what makes an action right or wrong are the commands of a perfectly loving God, DCT misidentifies the relevant moral features. And it doesn’t just sort of get things wrong, the error is radical. DCT claims that what makes actions wrong is not the harm caused by them; this is an extreme error. Now, this is obviously a problem in that it is a false theory, but it is also a problem because it leads to faulty moral reasoning. Let’s return to RDCT. It tells us that we are obligated to love one another. Now, I want to know whether I should give money to a panhandler on the street. What does RDCT tell us about that? Well, it claims that I need to love the panhandler. But what does that entail? Perhaps loving him means that I should give him any disposable income that I have until he is in a position to provide for himself. Perhaps if I love him, I just need to buy him a meal and send him on his way. Perhaps I should ask if he is a drug addict and then, if so, pay for his drug-treatment. Or perhaps if I really love him I should help him score his next hit. What should I do?
I am not claiming that the answer to this question is easy. I am only claiming that RDCT (or any version of the DCT) facilitates faulty thinking about it. How do I know what love requires? Well, since God, on RDCT is perfectly loving, I need to look to him. Well, then presumably, I need to find out what God commands me to do in this instance. Suppose that God commands me to ignore the panhandler. Is this impossible? I don’t know, but I don’t see anything self-contradictory about the following: God believes that each of us needs to be responsible for ourselves. Loving others entails not burdening them with our problems. Thus God commands that we not give money to panhandlers.
What is the problem here? What God commands is not relevant to what I should do. And to the extent that I worry about what God commands, I am not worrying about what is morally relevant. Further, how do I know what a perfectly loving omniscient being will command? For all I know, there are goods that are beyond my ken. Perhaps, from God’s perspective, loving a drug addicted panhandler entails torturing him until he gives up his drug habit. (For more on the fact that we cannot know that a loving God won’t command torture, read this.) But none of this is relevant. The relevant questions concern what I can do to help and avoid harming this person. That is what matters, and worrying about God’s commands only facilitates confusion. The DCT blinds us to the significant moral truth that, in difficult matters of moral concern, we should be focusing on what we can do to avoid harm and facilitate well-being.
Another example: Should I eat animals that have been raised and slaughtered in a modern factory farm? If the DCT is true, then I need to find out what God commands about this. There are a few problems here: First, how am I going to discern what God commands about eating animals? Second, this is a waste of time; I should be thinking about the effects of my actions on conscious beings. Third, it is all too easy to reach the wrong conclusion if all I am concerned with is what God commands. Again, knowing what God’s commands are is difficult. But it is all too easy to come up with rationalizations about what God commands. I can pull passages from the Bible in which God (allegedly) gives humans dominion over animals and use that as part of a justification for concluding that God would not command that we not eat animals (even those raised in factory farms). But this is faulty reasoning (and, at least according to me, the wrong answer); what matters is harm, not God’s commands.
Now, obviously any case of moral reasoning can be infected by self-serving motives; that is not unique to cases of reasoning about God’s commands. But I think that a theory that misidentifies the morally relevant features in such a radical way as the divine command theory does is especially prone to such problems. The problem is that God’s commands literally have nothing to do with the deontic features of actions. Now, if we had some perfect access to God’s commands, we might then use his commands as a guide to what is right since he, being omniscient, would know what is required of us. But, of course we have very imperfect access (if indeed we have access at all) to God’s commands, even on the assumption that God exists. If thus seems to be (a) a waste of time to worry about God’s commands and (b) in our interests to avoid focusing on God’s commands since such concern can lead us astray.
I have been thinking a lot about the cosmological argument lately, in part because I am currently teaching it in my Introduction to Philosophy class and also because of some recent discussions at the Secular Outpost. My general view on cosmological arguments is that whatever the validity and/or soundness of the arguments (whether the Kalam, or arguments from contingency or any other version), the proper conclusion of such arguments can never be that God exists. That is, no cosmological argument implies that theism is true. I’m not prepared to fully develop and defend this view now, but a few brief remarks are in order:
This point is easiest to see with respect to the Kalam:
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(C) The universe has a cause.
Nothing about the premises guarantees that the cause of the universe is God. Even if we follow William Lane Craig and believe that other considerations show that the cause must be personal, nothing implies that this person is God. God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator. The person who created the universe, if indeed there is one, need have none of these features, which are essential characteristics of God.
In general, even if we are convinced that there must exist an uncaused cause or a necessary being, nothing forces us to believe that such being is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. So, the proper conclusion of a cosmological argument (CA) will always be something less than ‘God exists.’ And I take this to be a significant point.
In his, “The Cosmological Argument and the Epistemic Status of Belief in God” (reprinted in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, W. L. Craig, ed.), Stephen T. Davis presents a version of the CA with precisely the conclusion that I said a CA could never have. Here is Davis’ argument, which he calls the “generic cosmological argument” GCA:
(1) If the universe can be explained, then God exists.
(2) Everything can be explained.
(3) The universe is a thing.
(4) Therefore, the universe can be explained.
(5) Therefore, God exists.
I think that premise (1) is fairly obviously ridiculous and that, if we are being careful, we should not formulate a premise like it. Why? Because, as I said, God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, creator. But nothing about the fact that the universe can be explained implies that the explanation of the universe involves an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent person. Indeed, nothing about the fact (assuming it is one) that the universe can be explained implies that this explanation involves a person. In other words, it is possible that the universe can be explained completely in terms of a non-personal force or forces. Furthermore, even if we had some reason to think that the explanation must appeal to the activity of a person, nothing forces us to believe that this person is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent. The explanation of the universe could be that it was created by a supernatural omnipotent evil idiot.
But Davis thinks that Premise (1) is perfectly fine and he is a more successful philosopher than I am, so I had better give him the benefit of the doubt and carefully consider what he says in its defense. First, he admits that even if GCA is successful, it does not necessarily prove the existence of the God of theism. He does, however, think that, if successful, it does prove the existence of some kind of divine reality. In addition, he says,
Premise (1) simply claims that if there is any explanation of the existence of the universe, then God must exist and provide that explanation. This premise seems perfectly sensible because if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “God created it.” And this seems about the only sort of explanation that could be given. If no God or Godlike creator of the universe exists, it seems that the universe will have no explanation whatsoever for its existence. Its existence will be what we might call a brute fact. It is just there, and that is all that can be said. (p. 83 of Craig)
This is really not very good. First, the fact, and I grant that it is one, that if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is that God did it is really quite irrelevant for the truth of (1). All that it means is that God is a possible explanation for the universe, not that, if there is an explanation, God is it. There are other potential explanations. I mentioned a couple above: a non-personal force of some unknown kind, the activity of a supernatural being who is neither God nor divine. Suppose I asserted (1′) If the universe can be explained, then the Gnostic Demiurge exists, and then defended this with the following assertion: (D) if the Demiurge exists, then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “the Demiurge did it.” Obviously (D) is not a reason to think that (1′) is true.
Now, as I said, above Davis recognizes the problem that his argument cannot prove that God (the god of theism) exists (or at least he recognizes part of the problem), hence his use of “God or Godlike creator.” But this is very slippery. If he is going to be completely clear, he needs to change premise (1) to read “If the universe can be explained, then God or a Godlike creator exists.” And the proper conclusion would be, “God or a Godlike being exists.” But now this is not an argument for theism, it is an argument for theism or some theism-like view. Even so, we still have a few problems. First, how much like God does this Godlike being have to be. Suppose, as I suggested earlier, that the explanation of the universe is that it was created by the Demiurge or by an evil omnipotent idiot (a being I’ll call Fod). Is Fod really Godlike? The demiurge of gnosticism pretty clearly is not. Would we say that Fod worshipers, if any existed, hold a view that is very much like theism? I doubt it. So, I don’t think that even “God or a Godlike being exists” is the proper conclusion of this argument. Rather, at best it is “A creator exists.” That is interesting, but much weaker than Davis’ original conclusion.
However, we still haven’t dealt with the possibility of a non-personal force. Without some argument that the explanation for the universe must involve the activity of a person, we had better weaken Davis’ Premise (1) and conclusion even further:
(1) If the universe can be explained, then either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.
(5) Therefore, either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.
This is pretty weak tea. And it is consistent with my view that no cosmological argument has, as its proper conclusion, the claim that God exists.
The primary reason that I wanted to write this post has to do with something that Davis says toward the end of the article. He considers the following objection to the GCA: “If GCA is a successful argument, the “god” or necessary being that it proves exists is not the God of theism or even any lesser god-like sentient being, but rather the universe, or physical matter itself” (88). In reply Davis says that it does not seem sensible to think that the universe is a necessary being but admits that he cannot prove it. He points to an argument from Richard Taylor that something can be both everlasting and contingent. (This, by the way is a very interesting claim, which warrants more consideration that I can give it here.) But his considered view on this issue is given in the following:
And a truly telling point against the objection to the GCA that we are considering is this:even if the universe were everlasting, it would still make sense to ask: Why should it exist at all? That is, why is there a reality at all? Why is there anything rather than nothing? There is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe. . . . It follows that there is nothing about the universe that implies or even suggests that it is a necessary being. (89)
I am particularly interested in Davis’ claim that “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe.” Now, this claim is ambiguous (an issue I will deal with below) but at first blush, Davis is admitting something that is devastating to his argument.
Davis is here indicating that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists. He is also inferring that since there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. He is also relying on a general principle something like this: (A) If there is nothing absurd about the idea that something, s, does not exist, then there is nothing about s that implies or suggests that s is a necessary being. The problem is that all of this applies to God just as much as it does to the universe.
Davis is claiming that we can consistently suppose that nothing exists. Well, this supposition entails that God does not exist. In other words, when we suppose that nothing exists, we are supposing that God does not exist. So, if there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there must be nothing absurd about the idea that God does not exist. Thus, by principle (A), there is nothing about God that implies or suggests that God is a necessary being.
So long as we allow that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists, I don’t see how we can escape this conclusion. Now, perhaps when Davis says, “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe” he does not mean that there is no absurdity in the idea of there being nothing at all, full stop. After all, there is that comma and “no universe.” As I indicated above, I think that this statement is ambiguous. I have been reading Davis as claiming that the idea that nothing at all exists is not absurd. But perhaps all he means is that the idea that the universe does not exist is not absurd. If so, he faces a different problem.
Either he claims that there is some absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists or he claims that there is no absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists. If the latter, then he must admit that there is no absurdity in the idea that God does not exist and my conclusions above stand. If the former, he needs to explain what is is absurd about the idea that nothing at all exists. He might say that this is absurd because it implies that God does not exist. But then he needs to show why the idea that God does not exist is absurd. Presumably he will say that it is absurd because God is a necessary being. But this is a petitio principii if there ever was one. If we grant that God’s existence is necessary, then there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist. But the same can be said about the universe. So, how do we know that God’s non-existence is absurd but the non-existence of the universe is not absurd?
The reason Davis gave us for thinking that the universe is not a necessary being, on this reading, is the fact that there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. If that is the only reason, then to suggest that there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist because God is a necessary being is to beg the question. I have to assume that God is a necessary being in order to see the absurdity of the suggestion that God does not exist. Davis either needs some other reason for supposing that the idea that God does not exist is absurd, or else he needs some other reason for thinking that God is a necessary being.
This is a follow-up to my last post on the question of whether there are phenomena that theism can account for but which naturalism cannot. The Cosmological Argument can be thought of as an argument not just for the existence of God, but for the claim that a theistic worldview has the resources to explain something that a naturalistic worldview cannot explain (in its simplest form, this something is the fact that there exists something rather than nothing). I don’t think this is so and I am going to try to explain why.
Here is the Kalam cosmological argument.
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The Universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause.
First, premise (1) is odd. Why say that everything that begins to exist has a cause, rather than everything, full stop? The answer is that the attempt to use the alternative,
(1*) Everything that exists has a cause
has an obvious and unfortunate consequence for theism: it implies that it is false. Since God is supposed to be uncaused, (1*) cannot be true (if (1*) is true, then there is no uncaused God, so theism is false). So, we get (1) as a means of avoiding begging the question against theism.
It is important to see that (1) depends upon a more general principle, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) [I am just going to assume here that if PSR is false, then for that very reason, we should be skeptical of (1). But I would be happy to pursue this if anyone is interested]. PSR says (in one of its simpler formulations) that for everything that exists, there is a reason that it exists, in other words, there is an explanation for the existence of everything. Now, making the reasonable inference that, in the material realm, the explanation for the existence of anything will be in terms of causes, we can assume that if the PSR is true, everything that exists has a cause. But this supports (1*) doesn’t it? Well, the problem, again, is that this inference only works if we ignore the possibility that there exist non-material things. The explanation for their existence might not be in terms of causes. So we shouldn’t assume that everything that exists has a cause. However, certainly material things have causes, at least as far as we know. And, as far as we know, every material thing had a beginning. Roughly then, (there are a few other considerations that I will ignore here), that is one way of getting to (1) from the PSR.
But the PSR does imply that everything that exists has an explanation. So while it might be unreasonable to ask what the cause of God is (since, if he exists, he is immaterial, and so might not have a cause), that does not mean that it is unreasonable to ask for the explanation of God. So, if the PSR is true, then, if God exists, there is an explanation for the existence of God.
We’ve gotten a little bit side-tracked, so let’s get back to the main thread of the argument. There are actually two points to be made here. First, even if the CA is a sound argument, and even if it is true that God created the universe, none of that tells us what the explanation for the universe is. That is, saying that God did does not explain how it was done. If there is nothing more to the explanation that the claim that God did it, then what is the difference between saying that God did it and saying that it was magic?
The second point is that since the CA relies on the PSR, there is no reason to think that it is only the universe’s existence that presents a fundamental mystery that cries out for explanation. If the question is, “why is there something rather than nothing?” then theists should ask why there is a God.
So, what I am saying here is this: If the problem that theists point to is that there is no naturalistic account of the existence of the universe (or, even more broadly, why there exists something rather than nothing), then the theist does not have an answer to this problem either. The naturalist *might* always have to assume the existence of something in order to provide explanations, but so must the theist. The theist must fall back on the existence of God, something that is not explained by theism. Now, of course I am aware that theists have tried to avoid this. There is a long theological history to the claim that God contains the reason for his own existence. But, as I argued recently, that claim, even if it makes sense and it is true, does not tell what this reason is. The claim that God exists a se tells us nothing more than that there is a reason for God’s existence and that it is contained in his nature; it does not tell us what the reason is.
So, it is false that theism has an explanation for the existence of the universe. Thus, the argument that says that theism is to be preferred over atheism because the former can account for something that the latter cannot is a bad argument since the premise is false.
Suppose that God exists, exists necessarily, contains the reason for his existence in his own nature, and that everything other than God owes its existence to God. This is granting quite a bit, and there are reasonable objections to all of the items on this list. However, for know I want to grant all of this for the sake of argument because I think we can shown that, even if such a God exists, it does not follow that God is the terminus of all explanation. More specifically, I will argue that even if theism is true in all of its details, there are still facts that theism cannot explain.
The argument is fairly simple but to understand it, we have to be very clear and precise by what we mean by ‘Theism.’ I shall take theism to be equivalent to the following:
Theism: There exists an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
I maintain that even if theism is true, there still exist facts that theism cannot explain. Here is a list of some of these facts:
- that the creator of the universe is omni-benevolent rather than omni-malevolent, mostly good, or even indifferent
- that the creator of the universe is omnipotent rather than merely very very powerful
- that the creator of the universe is omniscient rather than merely very knowledgable
Do these facts require explanation? I believe they do. It is certainly conceivable that the creator of the universe could have been other than omni-benevolent. It is conceivable that the creator could have been merely knowledgeable enough to create a universe but would not be in a position to know everything about every aspect of the created universe. It is conceivable that the creator has tremendous but limited power. So it seems clear that these are facts that could have been otherwise; thus we need an explanation for why these facts in particular hold rather than a different set of facts.
It is helpful here to use the device (which I use often) of imagining different kinds of gods that might have played the role that God plays according to theism. So, here are some possible gods:
Yod: An omnipotent, omniscient, creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature. (The only difference between Yod and God is that Yod is only contingently omni-benevolent, while God is necessarily so.)
Asura: An omnipotent, omniscient, omni-malevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
Elo: A very powerful (but not omnipotent), omniscient, omni-benevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
Heway: A very powerful (but not omnipotent), very knowledgeable (but not omniscient) creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
And the list goes on . . .
So, one question that theism cannot answer can be stated thus: Why is it that, out of all the conceivable necessarily self-existent beings, God is the one that actually happens to exist?
That theism cannot answer this is clear: As Randal Rasuer has claimed (see my two most recent posts), theists build aseity into the very concept of God. That God exists a se is not something that theism explains, it is something that theism takes for granted because it is part of the definition of God. The same goes for his omniscience, omnipotence, etc.
In my most recent post, I quoted Randal Rauser saying the following:
And so for the person who wonders “But why should anything exist at all?” the answer comes: “Because the omnipotent, necessarily existent God brought it into being.”
But this answer does not answer this question: Why does there exist an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent creator rather than one who lacks one or all of these properties? So God, even if he exists, is not the terminus of explanation.
It might not surprise you to learn that my answer to that question is “no.” If you read the paper and have comments or complaints, feel free to offer them here.
Andrew Sullivan recently linked to an article by Jennifer Fulwiler in which she argues that her atheism and her belief that life is meaningful were in irreconcilable conflict and that the only way to resolve the conflict was to renounce atheism (she converted to Catholicism). The best criticism of her implicit argument, that atheism implies that life is meaningless, that I have come across is from Will Wilkinson. Sullivan also published some of his readers’ comments, a few of which took the opportunity to express disagreement with Fulwiler about what makes life meaningful. In response to one reader’s comment, Sullivan said something that I found rather odd. I’ll quote the relevant portion of the reader response, followed by Sullivan’s rejoinder:
“We have a constant explosion of love and sadness through the enormous sweep of the cosmos and it makes us feel without meaning? If the Universe is anything, it is proof that meaning can be found in the smallest of existence, from atoms to neutrinos and down beneath it. It can be found in a virus if one has to look. The lesson of the Universe is not insignificance, the lesson of it is our mutual enormity. The Universe is loud with it.”
But this is God. It is certainly what I understand as God. Nonbelievers need to let go of anthropocentric, grey-bearded beings in the sky for God itself, the highest consciousness of all, and the force that gives this staggering beauty, available to us all, love.
It is very odd that nonbelievers are being admonished to let go of something that they explicitly don’t believe in. But what Sullivan thinks he means is that nonbelievers are confused about the real nature of God and that if they understood what God really is, then they (or at least many of them) would realize that they do believe in God. But this is deeply confused. Atheists have let go of the anthropomorphic sky deity because that is what an atheist is: someone who thinks that there is no such thing. Whatever else he may believe about the source of meaning, and whatever he may want to call that source, what the disbeliever disbelieves in is a personal creator.
Theism is the belief that there is an almighty person who created and sustains the universe. And thus atheism is the belief that there is no such almighty person.
Now, if Sullivan himself has let go of the anthropomorphic conception of God, and if he means by “letting go of” that he believes that this conception is false, then Sullivan is an atheist. Atheism is just the rejection of theism, and theism, to repeat, really is the belief that the world was created by an almighty person. And so if Sullivan thinks there is no such almighty person, then he is an atheist (despite his repeated assertions that he is a Catholic). If he does believe that there is an almighty person, then it is very peculiar that he is admonishing atheists to give up the anthropocentric being.
But actually the above quote suggests that Sullivan has not completely let go of the anthropocentric being, for he tells us that God is “the highest consciousness of all.” This is an enigmatic phrase, to say the least, and its occurrence in this sentence is highly ambiguous. Is he saying that God is that consciousness that is highest of all, that is, higher than any other consciousness? Or is he saying that God is the highest consciousness of everyone; asserting that there is some kind of collective consciousness? Well, he doesn’t make this clear. But if he is claiming that there is some kind of highest consciousness, higher than any other, then it is pretty obvious that he has not completely let go of the anthropocentric bearded guy. For Sullivan is, on this interpretation, asserting that there is some kind of greatest conscious being, which is really not far from claiming that there is an almighty person.
But suppose he really does want to assert the proposition that there is some kind of collective or underlying consciousness of all of us. It is not at all clear why Sullivan would call that God. Did this consciousness create the universe? Did it send its only son to die for the sins of humanity? Did it die on the cross? And if he does want to say that this consciousness did all of these things, then he is most definitely conceiving of it as a kind of person.
Here is the upshot: Atheists deny that there is an almighty conscious creator. (They also, by the way, generally want to add that the supposition that there is such a conscious being does not at all help us account for any of the important aspects of life, including that life is meaningful). Theists assert that there is such a being. I don’t really know whether Sullivan is an atheist or a theist, and it doesn’t really matter. But when anyone asks questions such as, “Can life be meaningful on the assumption that there is no God?” or “Can atheism account for the fact that life has meaning?” we need to be clear about what we are talking about. When an atheist claims that life is meaningful even if there is no God, what this means is that the existence of an almighty person is not required for life to have meaning.
I have long felt that a genuine religious sensitivity compels a person to doubt the existence of God (more precisely, to doubt the truth of theism). This conclusion is based upon a number of beliefs that I have about the nature of religious experience, some of which I have articulated in this blog, and all of which may just be idiosyncratic to me. In any event:
The core of religious experience for a theist is developing a personal relationship with God. Someone who believes in a God who does not concern Him/Herself with our welfare and with whom it is not possible to have a meaningful personal relationship is not a theist. I suppose deism would be the best term for such a set of beliefs. The theist is committed to the view that God is a person who, in addition to being all-powerful, etc., is all-loving and thus wants each of us to experience His divine love.
Those who are not moved by the problem of evil have always struck me as callous, unwilling to see the intensity and boundless extent of the pain and suffering that has been experienced over the course of human history (and why stop there, the dinosaurs must have suffered tremendously) and that continues to be experienced every day. This callousness often hides an appalling self-centeredness; what makes me immune from the suffering of others is their distance, emotional or otherwise, from me. So long as things are relatively stable and good in our own lives, we rarely have occasion to question those beliefs, commitments, and relationships that provide joy and fulfillment.
In contrast to the wealthy and self-satisfied believer whose share of suffering is no greater than the average citizen of the 21st century industrialized world is his fellow citizen, equally comfortable in the material sense, whose life has recently been shaken by tragedy, the loss of a spouse or a child perhaps, to such an extent that her own faith in an all-loving Father in Heaven cannot withstand the pain. This latter person betrays a (by no means unusual) self-focus in that while she has witnessed from afar the devastation caused by the loss of a loved-one, seen others as profoundly affected as she now finds herself, that suffering of others, which, she would acknowledge, vastly surpasses her own at least in quantity, has never come close to shaking her religious convictions.
This is not to say that every theist is self-centered, only that it is easy to allow one’s own self-focus to affect one’s religious beliefs. And this brings us to very important point: all major religions seem to agree that excessive self-focus is the cause of many of life’s evils. Perhaps Buddhism is most explicit about this, to such an extent that the aim of the spiritual life for a Buddhist can be identified with the extinction of the self (which, it is claimed, was always illusory anyway). Jesus was also very clear, telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I often wonder whether many people actually stop to think about the implications of this commandment and I also wonder whether there has ever been a person alive who loved his neighbors as much as he loved himself. In any event, Jesus is telling us that we must radically re-orient our lives; that, among other things, we must give as much concern to the suffering of others as we do to our own. Similar points about the need to relinquish excessive attachment to the self can be made concerning Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam.
So many, if not most, of the world’s religious traditions claim that spiritual progress is made only when we abandon our (very natural) narrow self-centered perspectives. My contention is that feeling the real force of the problem of evil requires one to abandon, if only partially and temporarily, one’s normal self-centered perspective. If I were to feel the pain and loss of others as if it were my own, how could my faith in God survive? Of course one could not actually endure this; if I were to experience the suffering of even a very few others, I would most likely not want to go on living. But appreciating the power of the problem of evil does not require that I feel the pain of all of those countless others, but to simply acknowledge it and realize that, if we could feel it, it would indeed be incapacitating.
How, having acknowledged this, can I then return to my faith in an all-loving God? To continue to reap the benefits of a relationship (real or imagined) with the all-powerful creator would be the height of selfishness, which is the exact opposite attitude that religious belief ought to inspire.
One aspect of religion that I think should be somewhat surprising is the conjunction of two seemingly unrelated aspects: that of wonder or awe at the power, beauty, and mystery of the universe and the feeling of being morally compelled to engage in certain behaviors (and to avoid others). Why should reverence be tied to morality?
In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins distinguishes the object of his criticism, which he sometimes refers to as ”supernatural religion,’ from his own religious or spiritual sensibilities, a perspective that he calls Einsteinian religion. Einstein often used the word ‘God’ when talking about his fundamental appreciation of the power and mystery of the world. (Dawkins thinks that Einstein’s choice of terminology is regrettable since Einstein manifestly did not believe in a personal supernatural deity.) Famously, Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”
Dawkins wants to simultaneously endorse the “pantheistic reverence” of Einstein and insist that such reverence does not entail a belief in anything supernatural. Dawkins is certainly right about this; the feelings of awe and wonder so well-articulated by Dawkins, Carl Sagan and other scientists do not have any obvious theistic implications. And I agree that a naturalist can be religious in this sense and not believe in anything supernatural.
What is conspicuously absent in Dawkins analysis, however, is any recognition of the other side of religious feeling; the sense that what we stand in awe of has some kind of legitimate authority over how we live our lives; that we are compelled by some source of authority outside of ourselves to change for the better–to bring our activities, thoughts, and emotions in line with the objective standard of Goodness, Righteousness, and Justice.
Perhaps because it is easier for conscious beings to understand other conscious beings, it is natural for humans to understand both of these aspects (awe and duty) in an anthropomorphic way. Theism is the view that the ultimate source of beauty, power, and creation is a person (a special kind of very powerful person, but a person nonetheless); and this view is coupled to the understanding of morality as the dictate of Divine Will. This deep connection between the feelings of awe and obligation would naturally lead a theist to be very suspicious of Dawkins and Einsteins religious sensitivities. The natural question to ask Dawkins would be whether that which he reveres in nature holds any ethical power over us. Does the feeling of transcendent wonder at the glory of the universe generate, as a matter of necessity, any sense of obligation in oneself toward the universe and its parts (or the transcendent glory)? There is no doubt that Dawkins does feel the compulsion of objective morality; he rightly points out that an atheist can recognize the power of objective moral values. The question is whether this appreciation of morality is connected to his feelings of wonder, awe, and reverence for the natural world.
Of course I believe that the Divine Command Theory is a failed understanding of the source of moral authority; the idea that moral obligation can be tied to divine will is as deeply flawed as the parallel view that the source of logical entailment could be found in the will of God. Nonetheless it remains that case that genuine religious feeling seems to involve not just awe and reverence but also an understanding that proper reverence requires us to examine ourselves and improve ourselves, to bring our behavior, thoughts, and values in line with an ultimate and external standard. This is why one of the tests of genuine religious experience is whether that experience brings about a change in attitude and behavior.
However, that these two feelings should be connected remains somewhat of a mystery to me: Why should an appreciation of ultimate reality entail a change in myself? I’ll leave that question for next time.