Atheistic belief in “God”

Princess-bride-imageNot “inconceivable” – but rather, “God.”

Check out this interesting post, The Dread God Roberts, at our friend Dr. James McGrath’s blog Exploring Our Matrix. (Which amazingly, just had its 10th birthday. He was blogging way before it was cool.)  Dr. McGrath describes himself as a Progressive Christian.

I commented over there, and he’s replied. The part of his post that got me going was this.

Tillich’s emphasis is that God is not a being, one among others but really advanced. If that term means anything less than Being itself, encompassing all of Reality, then the term denotes a god and not God, and our worship is idolatrous.

He mentions this view positively, without quite endorsing it.

To me, this is not a Christian view of God, and isn’t even any sort of monotheism. In fact, this type of view has always competed with the monotheisms. Isn’t it obvious that the Christian God is a He, not an It? “God” in the Bible has human friends, loves and hates, has knowledge and plans, sent his Son, and wants to be obeyed. James’ reply, in part:

The Reality that encompasses every he, she, and it does not necessarily need to be thought of as “it” as opposed to transcending even the appropriateness of such pronouns.

To me, this type of view – and I say this not to abuse, but only to describe – is a kind of atheism. I mean, believing in God (in the context of any Abrahamic religion) is believing in a great and powerful self, the creator of the cosmos, and this this view entails that there is no such being. There is, on this sort of view, which I have called Ultimism, an Ultimate – a reality which is somehow more basic than, and which in some sense lies behind the physical world. But that being is denied to be a self. This is not naturalistic atheism, to be sure (which is what people most often mean by “atheism” nowadays), but it is atheism.

James makes clear, though, that we should go beyond denying that God is a self.

But why posit that the Ultimate is either personal – which quickly gets one into inappropriate anthropomorphism – or impersonal – which suggests that the Ultimate is in fact less than we are? Why not accept that the reality of God must be so far beyond what either of those terms could refer to that we simply cannot grasp the nature of God?

There are a host of interesting questions here, which deserve more than a quick reply. Still, here’s the quick reply, as this post has grown long.

  • We all easily form a concept of a self – roughly, a being with a point of view, knowledge, and will – which needn’t be human. An alien, a god, a spirit, a ghost. So, thinking of a God as a self needn’t get anywhere near true anthropomorphism (e.g. God is a dude with a beard who lives on a mountain). 
  • Some abuse this latter term, though, so that we are into “anthropomorphism” if we say God is like humans in any way. But any Christian view must respect the claim of Genesis that humans are made “in God’s image and likeness.” (And you can accept this, by the way, while taking the Genesis creation story as non-literally as you please.) This entails that we are similar to him. But similarity is reflexive; thus, he’s also similar to us. But not in respect of having four limbs, etc. Rather, God is Spirit. The similarities must be mental, ethical, spiritual.
  • It is dubiously intelligible to claim that there’s an ineffable being – one such that none of our concepts applies to it. (Exercise for reader: come up with a concept that’d have to apply to such a being.) But without such a strong claim, what reason would we have to believe that neither self nor not-self apply to God, neither he nor it?

It has become something like an article of faith in some sophisticated theological circles to claim that our talk about God can only be metaphorical (because God is ineffable).

Against that, I recommend the long but well-argued paper Panmetaphoricism and Abrahamic Religion by Daniel Howard-Snyder. He brings out just how controversial, and how implausible, the claim is.

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

20 Responses to Atheistic belief in “God”

  1. Randal Rauser says:

    Well said Dale. My sympathies are definitely with you on this one. To add to your bibliography a bit I recommend George Mavrodes’ essay “The Gods Above the Gods: Can the High Gods Survive?” in Reasoned Faith, ed. Eleonore Stump (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).

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  3. Saskia says:

    I don’t really understand how “a reality which is somehow more basic than, and which in some sense lies behind the physical world” is incompatible with the God of the bible. If God does not lie behind the physical world, then He is part of it, and hence could not have created it.

    Of course, if you deny this Reality is a self then I agree that this is unbiblical, but I still wouldn’t call it atheism. I’d call it deism.


  4. I’m obliged to think that the problem here is a shallow sort of Tillichianism, not Tillich himself. You wouldn’t actually hoist him on this petard.

    Certainly, if God is not a being, even the most superior being, then it is a reduction to absurdity to suggest that God is Being itself—unless one uses that as a signifier for a transcendent reality rather than one integral to existence. Tillich’s ultimate is not some categorical or fundamental component of existence. That is not the nature of God as ground of all being.

    There is nothing atheistic or “ultimistic” about grasping that God’s personal reality does in fact transcend the categories for which we have personal pronouns—which are themselves categories of creaturely being, subcategories of “existence.” That does not make God impersonal, a non-self. It certainly does not make God less than we are!

    And to step beyond all of that, I find it ironic that, on a site called “Trinities,” the nuance of God’s personal being as we have been given to understand it is not included in this conversation.

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  6. Dale says:

    ““a reality which is somehow more basic than, and which in some sense lies behind the physical world” is incompatible with the God of the bible…Of course, if you deny this Reality is a self then I agree that this is unbiblical, but I still wouldn’t call it atheism. I’d call it deism.”

    HI Saskia,

    No – that first idea IS compatible with the God of the Bible. Those ideas don’t force ineffability, or anything close to it. Such a being may be plenty understandable, and even like us in some ways.

    “Deism,” as I understand it, is the belief in a great Self who created, but who does not then remain active in the world. So as I understand the term, it does require being a self, and is a kind of monotheism, or is at least compatible with it.

  7. Dale says:

    “There is nothing atheistic or “ultimistic” about grasping that God’s personal reality does in fact transcend the categories for which we have personal pronouns—which are themselves categories of creaturely being, subcategories of “existence.” That does not make God impersonal, a non-self. It certainly does not make God less than we are!”

    Matthew, I’m not clear what the claim of transcendence is here. Take the concept expressed by “he”. Such, typically, is a male human. But a “he” need not be male, or human. And why, in your view, must a “he” be a creature. I don’t see any problem whatever, in saying of God, that “he exists necessarily and is uncreated.” If all you’re saying is that “he” applied to God doesn’t imply that God’s a human, male, or creature… then I wholly agree. It seems kind of a trivial point though, not a profound one.

    Nor am I clear on the distinction you (and Tillich?) seem to presuppose between existence (which applies only to the cosmos?) and … reality? (which applies to the ultimate).

  8. Dan Martin says:

    Dale, it seems to me the concept you’re describing is not so much atheism as panentheism. A “reality that encompasses every he, she, or it” sounds to me like an everything more than a nothing. Either way, I agree that it is way beyond the pale of any Abrahamic tradition.

  9. Dale says:

    Hey Dan – I’m willing to admit pantheism and panentheism as varieties of monotheism, if the “God” there needs to be a great self. I’m not saying that an Ultimate is a nothing – just that’s not a god, and so, not God.

  10. And I’m still going to disagree with you on pronoun gender. The English pronoun “he” refers to a male-gendered person or animal, or an object that has been anthropomorphized as male. Other languages have merely-grammatical gender, but English does not. The concept expressed by “he” is invariably the maleness, the masculinity, of the object.

    You want to have your cake and still eat it. If you want to use “he” as though it transcended gender, you’ve got a usage conflict with the current and longstanding usage of the third-masculine-singular pronoun in English. And if you want to refer to God as transcending the gender of objects, you aren’t helping your case by insisting on a masculine pronoun. That’s all.

  11. Dale says:

    Hey Matthew,

    I’m not willing to argue here what can be settled by grammarians. A sign at a temple reading “Anyone who enters must remove his shoes” will, always, be understood to apply to male and female. This illustrates a gender neutral use of “his”, one which is well-known. This usage has recently gone out of fashion, on the grounds that, as you say, it somehow “perpetuates the patriarchy.” Whatever. To me this preference for “his or her” or his/her is a matter of taste. Our language might well have evolved to use “her” for the gender-neutral meaning. If it had, I couldn’t care less. In practice, many philosophers use “she” and “her” for thought-experiments (where the sex of the hypothetical subject doesn’t matter), as if to re-balance all those years of gender-neutral “he” (etc.). I’ve done that myself, though not with that intention.

    Again, it is traditional (in English) to assign various genders to various sort of objects. e.g. A captain calls his (if you like, or her) ship “she.” It is understood that ships don’t literally have gender. This is not more difficult, really, in the case of God. It seems to me that the worst feminists could charge against the traditions of calling God “he” is that it causes people to *imagine* God as a male. I think that is true. I don’t see the harm of it, though.

    In any case, about the matters at hand, if you believe the ultimate is a personal being, you should avoid “it” and go for “he”, “she”, “he or she” or even the monstrous “s/he”. :-)

  12. Dale says:

    We all think people have a right to be called by their name, and even, to the extent possible, that we should pronounce it correctly. But apparently some are extending this to… designer pronouns. I don’t know how I, as a professor, would keep up with this.

  13. As far as I know, the article that Donald Hook and I wrote for the Scottish Journal of Theology, “Pronouns for Deity” (August 1993), remains the best treatment of this subject. For a synopsis of our arguments, see “Is God a ‘He’?”:

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  18. Matthew Petersen says:

    May I recommend a small book by N. W. Clerk, I believe, (or was it Clive Hamilton?) called Beyond Personality. I at least, would find it a little odd to call the author an atheist, but then, there he is, arguing for the classical position that God is beyond personality that God is “super-personal–something more than a person.” Indeed, Clerk hopes that his statements will mirror Christianity as it is believed by the whole Church (and not any particular denomination).

    More seriously: That book hardly touches the surface of the question. But he’s right: God isn’t a self, he is beyond-self. But can we fill in that negation “beyond-self” with positive content? Since any content, X, we would attempt to plug in for the apophatic “beyond self”, is itself created, we would have to simultaneously say God is beyond X–since whatever is created is less than God, and so God is beyond it.

    So yes, we can say that God is a god, or that He is a self, but after all that can be said of God through creaturely similitude has been said (and self, and godness, and personhood are all created, since they are not God Himself, and all things are created by Him), what He Himself is remains hidden and unknown.

    What do they teach them at schools these days! It’s all in Denis.

  19. Gary Black says:

    As an aside, “Panmetaphoricism and Abrahamic Religion” was a fun read. It falls apart on the last paragraph of the 13th page (1st part of the 14th page). It simply does not follow that if something can not be said literally of an object that nothing – even negations – can be reasoned from it. Suffice to say that the Prima Pars of the summa would have been a lot smaller had this been the case!

    (I do admire the bold statement that Aquinas was an atheist – it gave me a good chuckle.)

  20. Brendan says:

    Pure Being is necessarily “Personal” and “conscious.” “I am that I am.” Inasmuch as God is Personal, he may be viewed as a being–although this way of putting it lends itself to the wrong idea that He is an individual reality, and also the wrong idea that He is a being among other beings. Clearly, He transcends the category of individual existences. In fact, God doesn’t “exist”; creation exists. God is, and He is absolutely, unconditionally, eternally sufficient unto Himself. Being transcends existence or creation. God is a truly universal Reality, or rather He is the Real as such or in itself, and is not limited or determined by existential categories. There is no possibility that limits God, and indeed, God is All-Possibility, in that in God the possible and the real coincide.

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