New Republic contributing editor Damon Linker has written a defense of faith in The Week magazine. Linker means to show how atheists misunderstand religion, but he ends up revealing something else: namely, how much ground religion has conceded to the faithless. My hunch is that his piece will please more nonbelievers than believers.
Linker's essay is actually a review of The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, a new book by David Bentley Hart. (I haven't read it.) Of the book, Linker says "It demolishes this facile, self-satisfied position, exposing how completely it relies on a straw man account of God for its cogency."
The position he is referring to is the one that states theism and a scientific understanding of the universe do not go together. Linker adds: "Atheism may well be true; a society of secularists might get along just fine without any form of piety. But until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy." [Italics Mine]
Linker also writes: "Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe." However: "The major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference."
One objection arises here, which is that we are arguing over something that Linker himself seems unable to define very precisely. I wish I could tell you what is meant by "the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world," but I cannot, and I am not sure Linker can either.
He continues as follows:
God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God "exists" in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.
I cannot speak for everyone, of course, and the amount of time I have spent with deeply religious people (Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims) is relatively limited. But I have talked somewhat extensively with people in each of these religions and not a single one of them has ever described his or her belief in God in anything like these terms. As Jerry Coyne puts it in response to Linker, "Yes, it turns out that the 99% of believers who see God as an anthropomorphic being are wrong, and only the theologians—that is, some theologians—truly know what God is." (Ideas such as answered prayers, or the parting of the seas, don't really mesh with what Linker is laying out.)
But let's say Linker is right and many people do believe in this type of God. He still seems to be conceding that less "transcendent" beliefs in God don't make much sense, or at least that atheists who confront these beliefs are not confronting a strong case for God. This is a giant concession.
Linker continues with this: "In a move sure to enrage atheists, Hart even goes so far as to argue that faith in this classical notion of God can never be 'wholly and coherently rejected' — and not only because it may very well be self-contradictory to prove the nonexistence of an absolute, transcendent ground of existence."
If this is not tautologous enough for you, try this comment:
The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) "that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not."
Here I would turn again to Linker's comment implying that the "major world religions" have a view of God similar to the one that Linker lays out above. If you think this is the case, ask yourself how many major world religions will consider you a believer in their particular faiths just because you merely state that you "seek the good," which I would hope nearly all of us do.
In summary, Linker is unable to make a case for God that doesn't define God as such an intrinsic part of the universe ("truth, goodness, and beauty") that God exists by definition. If I were a religious believer, I would likely neither appreciate the concessions that Linker has made, nor go along with his account of my beliefs.
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