Some popular religious writers have claimed that atheists reject God because they were presented with the wrong kind of God. Atheists reject a god that is too small, it is claimed, and most have not considered the more sophisticated God that is really worth believing in. If only atheists considered the proper sort of deity, these authors insist, they would have long abandoned their atheism.
This is the position of several authors who have written popular books on the subject over the last two decades: Karen Armstrong, John Haught, and David Bentley Hart, to name a few. I think these authors are incorrect. There are good reasons for rejecting belief even in their gods. Here I will focus on Armstrong’s version, but several of my remarks will be applicable to a number of other theologies.
What sort of gods do these writers have in mind? If the wrong sort of God is “too small,” the right sort of God is much bigger: a radically transcendent being about which human languages can only speak indirectly. Armstrong claims that her God is beyond any of our conceptions of what a god might be like. God is so far beyond human comprehension, she insists, that when we try to imagine God we instead imagine a false idol. God, she tells us, “is the God beyond [our idolatrous conception of] God”.
Armstrong, and others of a similar view, are mystics who insist that the way that we speak of God comes in stages.
First, we speak of God directly: we might say “God is good,” where the word “good” means the same thing of God as it does when we talk about a virtuous human. Here we affirm one of God’s properties.
Second, we learn that our initial way of speaking about God was naive: we cannot mean the same thing when we talk about God’s goodness as we do when we speak of humanly goodness. We say: “God is not good.” Here we deny that God has some (human) property.
Many mystics insist that we should alternate between these two stages, affirming and denying, until we are left in a silence pointing to God. In the end, we learn that we do not know what we are saying when we speak of God. Some theologians, such as Denys Turner and Thomas Aquinas, have suggested that we do not even know what it means to say that God exists. Armstrong agrees. She writes that God is “not a being at all. We could not even say that God ‘existed,’ because our concept of existence was too limited”.
For Armstrong, because we cannot speak literally of God, we should resort to poetry, “which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do”. It remains unclear, then, why Armstrong’s many books about God are not books of poetry.
If we do not know what we mean when we speak of God, how can atheists know what they are objecting to? Thus, the mystical theologian insists that the atheist could not have rejected God after all. And a variety of traditional objections to theism, naturally, disappear as well.
For example, no longer could one say that the widespread suffering in our world is incompatible with an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God because we would be unable to say what these properties indicate about God. If God is “all-knowing,” “all-powerful,” and “all-loving,” but in no way that we can understand, then, whatever that way is, it might be compatible with any degree of suffering whatsoever.
Still, the god of the mystical theologian, as I shall call it, is subject to at least three problems.
First, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, concerning a similar view, why should we think that God has this sort of transcendence — the sort where we do not possess words adequate to describe God — and not some other? Armstrong’s theology seems to be nothing more than a vague assertion.
Plantinga continues by pointing out that a God beyond words is not coherent. Consider that the property of being God can be expressed in English. If mystical theologians insist that no property of God can be expressed in English, then the property of being God is not one of God’s properties. But how can God not be God? Similarly, God is not a bottle of beer. Yet mystical theologians could not say that God literally has the property of not being a bottle of beer. If none of the properties that we can attribute to God in human languages can be applied literally to God, then God is incoherent.
Second, the theist would have no reason to maintain belief in religious doctrines that had been provided only through divine revelation. Why not? As philosopher Erik Wielenberg has pointed out, there is a significant problem for revelation if we can know so little (nothing, really) about God. Consider the statement “God is good.” The mystical theologian insists that the word “good,” as it appears in this statement, cannot be understood by finite humans. If that is so, we cannot know what God’s goodness entails. For all we know, God may have reasons, beyond our comprehension, for lying to us.
But wait, you say, God cannot lie because God is morally perfect! I am not claiming that God lies. I am only claiming that believers have no reason to rule out the possibility of God lying. According to the view maintained by the mystical theologian, we cannot know what God’s moral perfection entails. It may be good, in a way that we cannot understand, for God to lie to us.
The mystical theologian wishes to say that God is truthful and trustworthy, but this would involve knowing things about God’s goodness which the mystical theologian maintains we cannot know. The mystical theologian may change her mind concerning what we can or cannot know about God, yet remember where we started. If we could more definitively say what God is, it would expose God to the atheist’s traditional objections (regardless of whether one finds them convincing or not).
If we cannot rule out the possibility of God lying to us, then we have no reason to trust those doctrines which humans learned about only through divine revelation. These include the Trinity, the Eucharist, the nature of the afterlife, and so on. There would be little reason to accept Christianity, or any other traditional religion.
Armstrong does not appear to accept divine revelation in a traditional sense. For her, all of the world’s religions are each attempts to make sense of the same Divine Reality. However, Armstrong would have to say that there is some sense in which the revelations made to each religion contain truths. But it is difficult to make sense of this position, given her take on God.
There is a related problem. Armstrong has written that, “[i]f a conventional idea of God inspires empathy and respect for all others, it is doing its job”. But if we do not know what it means to talk about God’s goodness — or about any of God’s properties at all — why should we think that God is connected with the property “empathy and respect for all others”?
And now the third problem. Consider those doctrines for which we might have some evidence. This may include God’s hand in the creation and the maintenance of the universe or in miracles. Mystical theology entails that these cannot be evidence for God after all.
Consider some phenomena behind which one might suspect the handiwork of God. Such phenomena can only count as evidence for God if we have reason to think that God was likely to produce the phenomena in question. Indeed, if God was comparatively unlikely to produce some phenomenon, the latter may actually count as evidence against the existence of God. Yet mystical theology tells us that we cannot know what God is likely to do or to want. For all we know, any purported evidence of God’s presence is actually evidence of the contrary.
Mystical theologians may object that God is not to be inferred through evidence of design in nature (as Intelligent Design advocates insist) but is instead to be experienced. This is no better: if we cannot know what sort of phenomena God is likely to produce then we cannot know what sort of experiences God is likely to trigger within us.
Mystical theologians should find it troubling that religious experience cannot provide us with reason to believe in God, but apparently they don’t. Both Armstrong and Haught argue that we can only come to know God experientially while at the same time implicitly barring the intelligibility of religious experience, thus leaving us without God.
Mystical theology gives us no justification for its radical (and seemingly incoherent) transcendence, without trust in scripture, without evidence for God, and without religious experience. Do atheists reject the wrong kind of God? How could we even know?