Tuesday 7 January 2014

Which God don't you believe in?

Here's Father Robert Barron on the God he doesn't believe in.


Strip away his smug denunciations of those ignorant New Atheists[TM] and what have we got?

Nothing. After claiming that atheists don't understand God, don't know who he is and generally aren't worthy to occupy the same thought-space as genuine sophisticated "serious" theists among whom he is clearly a splendid exemplar, Father Barron tells us precisely what he means by God (for extremely nebulous values of "precisely"). The short version of his piece is this: "Atheists don't know who God is, and neither do I."

Religionists often complain that the God atheists claim not to believe in is a God they don't believe in either. The God they believe in isn't so crass as to exist in any way that mere mortals can apprehend. The God they believe in exists beyond or outside space and time, which means for all practical purposes he exists in a way that can only be described as "non-existent". And yet theologians expend hundreds of thousands of words on what this being is like. I think we've already established, beyond reasonable doubt, what this being is like. It is most like non-being, non-existence, nothing — it's a being without attributes.

I do not deny that it may be possible for something to exist beyond or outside space and time, but our access to such a realm is hampered by our cognitive facilities, which necessarily operate within space and time. Cause and effect are similarly confined to the space-time continuum (causes act in space and effects occur in time), so anything outside space and time must be non-contingent as well as lacking in the ability to cause effects. Since cause and effect operate only within our realm and not beyond it — they require space and time — it is impossible to establish if this other spaceless and timeless realm exists. Since we cannot know that it exists — even if it did exist beyond our knowledge of it — we cannot have access to it, or any knowledge of it, and we therefore have no reason to suppose it does exist. The lack of compelling evidence for something that is by definition inaccessible from the realm in which we exist, within space and time, strongly suggests that to all intents and purposes such a realm is in fact non-existent. If you want to believe it exists, however, be my guest — but understand you have no reason to do so, other than irrational desire.

Nevertheless, once you have decided to believe in a non-existent realm, you can populate it with whatever you wish: gods, angels, demons — or if you're so inclined, some kind of amorphous "ground of all being". Bear in mind, however, that no matter how many learned theological tomes are written about a non-existent realm, it remains non-existent.

So maybe I should make this my New Year Resolution, at least as far as discussions with theists are concerned: henceforth I will not engage with any theists about the God I don't believe in, unless they tell me — unequivocally — which God they do believe in.