Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Imaginary Amazon Review

Occasionally I visit the Amazon website for my book to see how it’s doing and to read any new reader reviews that have been posted. The other day, when I checked the site, I noticed two things. First of all, there was a new review up (by someone named “Marco”) that accused me (once again) of simply sidestepping the challenges of the New Atheists by “redefining” religion. Here's how Marco puts it:
Unfortunately in responding to the New Atheists, Reitan followed the
standard strategy of first re-defining religion so that it no longer matches the
target that the New Atheists attack, then defending the re-defined religion, and
then finally claiming that since re-defined religion is so easily defended, that
the New Atheists are therefore wrong.

The other thing I noticed was that an older negative review, which makes a similar argument to Marco's—written by someone pseudonymously named “Greywizard”—had now risen to the top as the “most helpful” review.

A word about this older review. “Greywizard” is a frequenter of Richard Dawkins’ website. I know this because he posted a comment on the page there devoted to attacking my book. (On the Dawkins site, books critical of The God Delusion are called “fleas,” and whenever a new “flea” is discovered, a discussion threat about it is created on the site). Greywizard was one of the more measured voices in the discussion thread. He chastised those who were engaged in raucous name-calling and knee-jerk dismissals of my book based on PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply."

He then pointed out what to me is pretty obvious--that making fun of a book they hadn’t read wasn’t enough. While noting that not every critique of the New Atheists called for a rebuttal, Greywizard maintained that with respect to the more measured replies, “if no response is made, the theists will be in firm possession of the high ground when the dust of battle has cleared.” He went on to stress that there were “strategic considerations here regarding the image that atheism will leave if it keeps repeating the mantra that religion can have nothing to say.” That is to say, it’s good strategy in the war against religion to know which enemies to attack, and then to attack them in an intellectually rigorous way.

A few days later (about a week after his comments appeared on the Dawkins site), Greywizard’s negative review appeared on the website of virtually every major online distributor of my book. Apparently, he’d read my book very quickly, and then felt the need to post a scathing review as promptly as he could and as widely as he could.

When I first read that review I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a nicely packaged and authoritatively written bit of confusion paired with a dollop of fallacious reasoning.” And then I went on with my day.

But now this review has come to be ranked as the top review on the Amazon site.

Seeing this, I found myself suddenly, uncharacteristically mad. How in the world could such an obviously erroneous critique of my book be viewed as “helpful”? Of course, part of the problem is that the people who find it helpful haven’t read the book, let alone read it carefully enough to see where Greywizard goes wrong. They haven’t read the book because they haven’t decided whether to buy it yet…a decision that will be made in part by reading reviews such as Greywizard’s.

I suspect that one reason I got mad was because I want people to buy my book and think about the arguments there, and Greywizard’s review might discourage some of the very people who would most benefit from those arguments.

But the bigger issue is just the frustration of it. The other day a student dropped by after having read my book, and he raised the same confused objection that Marco and Greywizard raise. It took me two minutes to explain where and why this objection goes wrong. The student saw clearly that it was based on a misreading and thus could focus on the real philosophical controversies. What followed was a lively discussion about issues that really matter.

The frustration is this: it would be easy for me to explain to everyone who’s reading Marco’s and Greywizard’s reviews where they go wrong, and so set aside a red herring that only gets in the way of wrestling with the deeper issues and controversies. But to do that—to make sure that readers of these reviews are also exposed to a lucid explanation of how and why these reviewers are confused—I’d need to post my response on the Amazon site, either as a comment on the review (which probably wouldn’t be read) or, more likely, as a “response review” of the sort that some people post on Amazon. But to do either of those things with respect to my own book would be bad form, to say the least.

Then I imagined writing such a review and posting it anonymously—even worse form, and something I’d never actually do. But I wrote it anyway—a third-person review in response to Marco and Greywizard—just as a cathartic exercise. And while I can’t legitimately post it on the Amazon site, I can post it here. So here it is:

Marco and Greywizard are Confused: An Imaginary Amazon Review

It is surprising to me how many reviewers of Reitan’s book critique it by saying, in effect, that he redefines religion so that the term no longer refers to what the New Atheists are attacking. The fact is that Reitan is quite clear from the very start of his book that “religion” is a term that encompasses a range of phenomena, and his problem with the New Atheists is that they attack one species of religion and then apply their conclusions to religion generally.

Dawkins, for example, says up front (on page 36 of
The God Delusion) that he isn’t interested in refuting just one “particular version of God or gods.” He wants to refute “God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” One couldn’t get much more sweeping than that. In response, Reitan sets out to show that Dawkins’ arguments do NOT succeed in refuting the existence of “anything and everything supernatural” and so do not succeed in doing what Dawkins sets out explicitly to do. This is not “talking past” Dawkins as Marco claims.

Furthermore, what Reitan ends up defending isn’t religion “redefined.” It is one kind of religion among a range of options. It may not be the most popular kind, but it exists—in progressive Christian churches, liberal Jewish congregations, Quaker meetings, etc. Reitan’s point is that the New Atheists think their criticisms apply to religion generally, when in fact their criticisms apply only to religion in certain forms.

For example, one of the arguments made by both Sam Harris and Dawkins is that “moderate religion” is complicit in the moral crimes of religious extremists because it teaches that blind faith without regard for reason is a virtue. In this way they try to implicate ALL religion in the moral horrors perpetrated by, for example, the 9/11 terrorists. Both Dawkins and Harris are plain about this. As Dawkins puts it, “The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism” (
The God Delusion, p. 306). “Religion itself” is, according to Dawkins, the problem.

Reitan takes this argument head-on by arguing that not all “moderate religion” teaches that blind faith is a virtue. He then goes on to offer an understanding of “faith” that can actually serve as a basis for condemning the actions of extremists. That Reitan’s critics ignore this says more about the selective ideological lens through which they seem to be reading the book than about the weaknesses of Reitan’s arguments.

At one point in his review, Greywizard makes his criticism in the following way:

At the end of his book, after redefining religion, Reitan says that "It's now
time to directly consider whether religion IN THIS SENSE 'poisons everything'."
(209; my emphasis) However, this is clearly not a response to Hitchens, because
Hitchens didn't have 'this sense' in mind at all.

Reitan would surely agree that Hitchens didn’t have “this sense” of religion in mind. That, for Reitan, is precisely the problem. Hitchens seems utterly blind to the existence of the kind of religion that Reitan thinks is intellectually respectable and morally benign. And so Hitchens concludes that RELIGION—not fundamentalism, not exclusivist religion, but RELIGION—poisons everything. To show that Hitchens is wrong, one needn’t defend the intellectual and moral credentials of the kind of religion he’s aware of and specifically attacks. One need merely show that there is a kind of religion that isn’t touched by those attacks. Hitchens’ problem is that he’s making a sweeping dismissal of religion as such, based on arguments that just don’t touch at least one important kind of religion—the kind that Reitan wants to call attention to and endorse.

The critics of Reitan would be right if the New Atheists were saying basically this: “We don’t think all religion is bad and we certainly don’t think it is unreasonable or morally bad to believe in the existence of a God defined as the fulfillment of our ‘ethico-religious hope’ (which is how Reitan defines God); but we do think that religious fundamentalism is bad, and we do think that it is unreasonable and wrong to believe in a God who is a big tyrant in the sky.”

But that’s simply not what the New Athiests are saying. They are saying that religion is bad and belief in God is irrational and wrong. Reitan sets out to show that there is a kind of religion that isn’t bad and a species of belief in God that can be rationally defended and may be morally beneficial. If Reitan is right, then he hasn’t committed some fallacy. He’s refuted the New Atheists.

But to be fair, Greywizard offers a follow-up argument to the effect that the kind of religion Reitan seeks to defend just isn’t a
significant kind. He calls it a “shadow religion” that couldn’t exist except by hanging onto the “coat-tails” of the sort of religion that the New Atheists attack.

His first point is that “most religion is not as Reitan describes it, a matter of belief that the universe trends towards the good, and that faith is a matter of trusting in the religious-ethical hope that all the evils and harms of existence will be redeemed by the infinite personal spirit whose essence is love.”

Maybe not. But this is a pretty good description of the religion of Martin Luther King, Jr., who led a rather significant social movement in the 1960’s based on this kind of religion. I suppose if you think the civil rights movement is a trivial historical event, then you’re likely to dismiss as insignificant the religiosity that inspired it. But I happen to think the civil rights movement was one of the most significant events of the 20th Century.

But, again to be fair, Greywizard is not merely saying that “Reitan’s religion” isn’t significant in its impact on human life. He’s saying that it can’t survive without “piggy-backing” on the kind of religion that the New Atheists attack. In other words, he thinks that Martin Luther King’s kind of religiosity—the spiritual vision that inspired his rhetoric and rallied the southern black community behind an astonishing nonviolent campaign—could not exist except as a
parasite hanging onto the religiosity of, say, Pat Robertson.

Unfortunately, Greywizard offers little in the way of supporting arguments for this view. At best, he makes a series of undefended pronouncements about the way that religion HAS to work in order to survive: It HAS to offer certainty and exclusive ideologies; it HAS to establish us-them dichotomies. That is, if a religion is to endure over time, it HAS to be the kind of religion that the New Atheists attack. But, at least in the review, Greywizard offers no reasons to think this is true.

Perhaps, however, Greywizard is gesturing towards the sociological understanding of religion offered by the likes of Durkheim and Marx. If so, then Greywizard has conveniently ignored the final section of Reitan’s book in which Reitan addresses Durkheimian religion explicitly. To put the point bluntly, Greywizard is begging the question against the kind of religion Reitan is endorsing by assuming that religion is essentially a social phenomenon that exists and survives by virtue of the social functions it serves.

While there is no doubt that religion of this sort—religion that is fundamentally a social construct—exists, Reitan’s point is that there is also a religion of another sort—one that has its origins not in social forces which dictate the structure of religious institutions and the content of religious teachings, but rather in the immediate experience of something transcendent (an experience which often challenges the dictates of these very social forces).

In saying that the sort of religion which has its origins in such numinous experience cannot survive apart from the religion attacked by the New Atheists, Greywizard is assuming, among other things, that numinous religious experience is NOT an experiential encounter with the transcendent creator. Because if it were, then its survival would depend on God, not on the cultural forces that determine which social institutions survive and which don’t. Put simply, Greywizard is assuming that there is no kind of religion that exists as a response to the divine impressing itself on human life and consciousness. He is assuming that religion is
always nothing more than a social construct whose survival depends on a cultural analogue to natural selection. In short, he is assuming that there is no God and then critiquing Reitan’s book with this assumption firmly in place.

There’s a name for that kind of thing. It’s called begging the question.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Divine Mystery and Divine Goodness

In a comment on my previous post, “Gods of the Imagination,” Speaker for the Dead raised an important issue: if one takes God to be entirely outside the sphere of rational conceptualization, we’re afforded no basis for being critical of claims that are made about God.

Consider hellists—by which I mean those who think that God consigns some of the creatures He loves to an eternity of excruciating torment, torment that does them absolutely no good. While some hellists seek to offer a “theodicy” of hell—that is, an account of why such divine activity is compatible with the goodness of God—others retreat behind the cloak of divine mystery. They point out that God’s ways are not our ways, that divine goodness transcends our comprehension, and that it is therefore simply presumptuous for anyone to question the (supposedly clear) biblical teaching that God expresses his perfect goodness in part by subjecting some creatures to unremitting anguish more extreme than we can possibly fathom.

And the same strategy is, of course, available to anyone who wants to reconcile God’s goodness with their pet views, no matter how horrific: In some mysterious and inexplicable way, God’s perfect benevolence is compatible with commanding genocide, or endorsing the patriarchal subordination of women (or the social marginalization of gays and lesbians), or calling for a terrorist strike on the Twin Towers, etc.

In short, if we shroud God in total mystery, the claim the God is good becomes compatible with any motives or behaviors or commandments we might possibly attribute to God. But if that is right, what are we saying when we say God is good? If saying this about God is compatible with asserting simply anything else about God--if nothing is either implied or excluded when we say it--are we really saying anything at all?

This is an important concern, and one that becomes very real if we fail to make some crucial distinctions. While I think it is important to stress that God is, in many ways, a transcendent mystery, it should be clear to all who have read my work that I do not want to cloak the divine in such a shroud of mystery that “anything goes” in what we attribute to God.

Let me begin by clarifying what I mean when I say that the God who is the proper object of religious devotion defies the imagination. When I speak of the imagination, I mean that faculty which takes concepts and ideas derived from empirical experience—from our engagement with the physical world of matter and energy—and recombines them in ways not seen in empirical experience, producing “pictures” of possible states of affairs and entities that we have never actually encountered in experience.

Using this faculty of imagination, we can come up with sea serpents and unicorns and screaming banshees—things we have never experienced, but which are, in a sense, possible objects of experience insofar as they are made up of more basic elements which we have experienced. Any God constructed in this way would be a spatio-temporal God, a God who is a part of the physical world and a possible object of scientific study. Zeus and Odin are examples.

When I say that God defies imagination, I mean that the kind of entity I refer to with the term “God” is not something that can be depicted imaginatively in this way. More significantly, if the numinous experience which seems to be at the foundation of so much religious life cannot be adequately described in terms derived from empirical experience, it follows that the object of such experience cannot be a construct of the empirical imagination. Why? Because the empirical imagination lacks the building blocks to construct an experience of that.

In this sense, there is an enormous difference between someone who claims to have encountered a pink elephant in the kitchen or a golden dragon in the woods, and someone who claims to have encountered God in the way that mystics claims to have encountered God.

But if no God-concept constructed by the imagination will track onto the object of numinous experience, on what basis is the mystic even justified in using the term “God” to name the object of that experience? The answer comes when we admit that there are non-empirical concepts, and that the mystic’s understanding of God is primarily in terms of such concepts (even if the mystic's experience of God exceeds this understanding).

Although Hume would deny this (insofar as he insisted that all concepts are empirically derived), I am convinced that there is a difference between saying that God cannot be conceptualized at all and saying that God defies imagination. One of the points I made in the previous post, but failed to elaborate on, is that I believe in non-empirical concepts and that “goodness” is one such concept. This point, I think, is crucial for avoiding the kind of “anything goes” approach to theism that Speaker for the Dead is worried about.

As anyone who has read my book will tell you, I define God primarily in moral terms—as that whose existence would fulfill the “ethico-religious hope,” that is, the hope that the universe is in some ultimate or fundamental way on the side of the good. The object of Simone Weil’s experience can justifiably be called “God,” on this definition, because among other things it is experienced to be fundamental (a non-empirical concept, I think) and good (another non-empirical concept).

I want to focus my comments here on the latter: goodness. Goodness is not the object of ordinary empirical experience (no scientific instrument can measure it), but seems rather to be a concept we have from some other source and bring to bear on the objects of empirical experience—a fact which has led some to treat it as nothing more than a projection of psychological preferences (more about this in a moment). Put another way, although we recognize a good act and are prepared to call it good, goodness isn't some feature of the act that we see or smell or taste or touch (or detect through sophisticates scientific equipment). So if it's an actual property of the act, it's not an empirical one, and our concept of it isn't derived from empirical observation.

But I want to endorse the idea that “goodness” is and actual, objective property of things, even if it's not an empirical one. It is true of a certain action that it is good, even though this goodness is not reducible to any empirical fact about it.

That the latter is true is clear enough. A scientist could exhaustively study all the empirical properties associated with my son’s act of giving the entire contents of his piggy bank to the Salvation Army bell ringer outside Walmart (it was his idea to do this, by the way)—but the goodness of the act would not be included in the description.

Logical positivists, of course, conclude on the basis of this that “goodness” is nothing but a projection of our attitudes onto the field of experience. Based on their prior commitment to the view that all objective properties are empirical, they’re forced to subjectivize the wickedness of child rape and the goodness of a generous gesture. These things aren’t real features of the acts in question, but just attitudinal responses to them. The effect, in my judgment, is that logical positivists are forced to impose on moral claims a meaning that is entirely at odds with what actual people actually mean to say when they use moral language.

I can only sketch out my reasoning here, but a sketch is better than nothing, so here goes: When we say that child-rape is evil, we’re not merely expressing out attitude of disapproval. We mean to be saying something about child-rape, something that is true of it. And when we say this, our utterance is intended to imply that any who deny the wrongness of child-rape are failing to recognize something that is true of it. In short, when we call something “good” or “bad,” we mean to attribute to that something a property which (we think) it actually possesses--but a non-empirical property.

The ethical subjectivism of logical positivists does not permit us to do so. As such, this subjectivism implies that when we make claims to the effect that child-rape possesses this property of wrongness, we are attributing to child-rape a property that nothing can possess, since there are no non-empirical properties and wrongness is clearly not an empirical one. In other words, ethical subjectivists are really saying that all moral utterances are false, at least when these utterances are given the meaning that we intend them to have when we use moral language in the ordinary way.

Put more simply, ethical subjectivism is really moral nihilism in disguise. It claims to offer an account of morality (to the effect that it's nothing but a projection of our attitudes); but this account attaches to our moral utterances a meaning at odds with what we intend when we make such utterances, and denies that what we do intend to say can ever be truthfully said. Sounds like nihilism to me.

Notice that universalizing subjective dispositions does not solve this problem. If all of us happen to have the same subjective reaction to child rape, this is a collective fact about us, not a property of child rape. And so, universal horror at child rape is not the same as child rape having the property of being wrong. The latter would entail that horror is fitting, not merely a fact. What would make horror fitting is that child-rape possesses the (non-empirical) property of being morally horrible. And if it has that property, then horror is fitting whether it’s universally felt or not. And we are justified in condemning the attitudes of those who fail to feel horror.

(I should point out here in passing that one of the big problems with Dawkins’ effort to ground morality in evolutionary theory is the fact that all he can do is show how natural selection might generate a general disposition to feel horror at child-rape. Evolutionary theory cannot show why it is true that child-rape is horrible, and hence why it is true that evolution in this case has generated in us responses which fit with morality).

To avoid moral nihilism, I'm convinced we must treat goodness as a non-empirical property. In fact, I would go further (although I cannot make the case for this here) and say that we need to adopt a metaphysics according to which the good has a foundation in reality that is not reducible to any set of empirical facts. But if we do so, then our grasp of goodness cannot be somehow derived from our engagement with the empirical world, but will be something drawn from something that "transcends" the field of empirical experience (even if it may very well be part of the same reality that we encounter in empirical experience).

Put simply, our concept of the good will be drawn from a “transcendent” source--in the technical sense according to which “transcendent” refers to empirically inaccessible dimensions of reality, that is, dimensions of things-as-they-are-in-themselves that we cannot see, hear, smell, or taste, but which remain real. And if our concept of the good is to have such a source, it must be the case that we, as moral beings, are somehow in touch with this transcendent source from which the concept of goodness immediately derives, even if our connection to it is not empirical.

And so, to say that God defies imagining (to say that any construct of the empirically derived imagination will not map onto God) is not to say that our concept of the good cannot be invoked to assess claims about God. Because our concept of the good might apply to God even if no empirical concept does.

The concept to which Weil refers when she uses the term “God” is not one constructed from empirically derived concepts but is, rather, the object of an experience that cannot be adequately conceptualized…except in this crucial respect: there is a pure, unvarnished sense of goodness that attaches to the otherwise ineffable object of experience.

Of course, the sense of goodness isn’t the whole story. There is also the sense (well-documented by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience) that the experience is of something vastly more real or “fundamental” than what we encounter in ordinary empirical experience, as if we have seen past the surface of things and are in direct touch with the source of reality. In any event, it is these features of the experience—the conformity of it to these non-empirical concepts—which justifies the appellation “God.” We have the immediate sense of our relatedness to something fundamental and good, and so the immediate sense that our ethico-religious hope is indeed fulfilled.

By contrast, were the object of experience every bit as ineffable but shrouded in an aura of malevolence, the mystic wouldn’t be justified in calling it God--because this wouldn't be an experience of encountering something whose existence fulfills the ethico-religious hope.

My own view here is that our ordinary moral sense is the immediate intellectual appropriation of the transcendent insofar as it has implications for how we engage with the empirical world, whereas numinous experience is “the immediate awareness of an existential relation” (to quote Schleiermacher) with that same transcendent. Moral sense and numinous religious experience are thus different ways of relating to the same thing. And I think that both the substance of numinous experience and its pragmatic effects in terms of character transformation support this view. While goodness isn't something we can see, hear, smell, or touch, in mystical moments we seem to do something very like this: goodness seems to become the direct object of experience in something like the way that blueness is the direct object of a visual experience of the sky.

The result of all of this is that even though God is unimaginable in the sense of being impossible to reconstruct in terms of empirically-derived concepts, moral concepts can be properly (if fallibly) attributed to God—in fact, it is these moral concepts that provide the conceptual parameters for what counts as “God” in the first place. The reason why Weil is justified in calling the object of her experience “God” is precisely because, despite being ineffable, despite defying all attempts to define it in terms of empirically-derived concepts, it is experienced as good in a profound way. Empirically-derived concepts don’t fit with the experience except in metaphoric or poetic terms…but the concept of “goodness” not only fits the experience but is enlivened by it. It’s as if numinous experience deepens our understanding of the good.

A being that is said to behave in ways radically at odds with the good is, therefore, a being that falls outside the conceptual parameters for what counts as “God.” And our conceptual grasp of the good is not to be dismissed as inapplicable to God in the way that empirical concepts are to be dismissed. Rather, we should presumptively trust our moral sense (or at least its clearest and deepest urgings) when it comes to claims about the transcendent.

As such, we should presumptively trust that if a claim about God flies in the face of the clearest and most vivid urgings of our moral sense, this claim should be rejected. In other words, moral concerns pertaining to religious doctrine cannot be dismissed by a hand-waving invocation of mystery.

It is for this reason, by the way, that I think the problem of evil poses the most substantial challenge to theism and must be wrestled with seriously by theists. While it is not impertinent to note that God may have morally good reasons for allowing evils, reasons which are inaccessible to us, I believe that more than this is called for in response to the reality of evil. Theists cannot ignore the project of attempting to account for why a good God would permit evil—what is called the project of “theodicy.”

But neither does the legitimacy of theistic belief hinge upon a fully adequate theodicy that completely explains why God permits every evil that there is. What the credibility of theism requires, I think, is that the project of theodicy offers a framework within which it makes sense to say that God is not on the side of the evil found in the world despite God’s unique relation to the world as its creative principle. My problem with the classical doctrine of hell is that it attributes something to God that my moral sense finds repugnant. Likewise, if it were maintained that God endorsed the Holocaust or regarded its occurence as ultimately a good thing, my moral sense would revolt. As such, my moral sense revolts against certain theodicies because they attribute to God horrific motivations and intentions.

There is a difference between doing that and attributing to God nothing but motivations and intentions in keeping with my deepest and most stable moral sense of good and evil, but then puzzling over why, if such a being is the fundamental reality, there is so much evil in the world of a sort that would horrify such a being. It seems to me that a crucial part of the task of theodicy is to listen to our moral sense in these things, and to reject any account of why God permits evil which makes horrors out to be anything less than horrors.

The crucial question then becomes this: Can one reasonably believe that the most fundamental reality is on the side of goodness given that there really are genuine horrors in the world, monstrous evils that would make any being on the side of goodness weep? If there is a God who is on the side of goodness, why wouldn’t He act? Why wouldn’t such a God stop these horrors? That is the anguished cry that demands an answer.

Theists cannot hide from that cry. They must, instead, honor it. The deep question is how best to do so. While some atheists will glibly say, “You honor it by abandoning belief in God,” the problem with that response is that the very same anguished voice that cries out for an explanation also cries out for redemption. And the atheist’s response takes the hope of redemption off the table.

I do not think that the human experience, taken as a whole, either forces such a move or is best made sense of in terms of a worldview in which the hope of redemption is lost. And while I think much of the answer to the anguished cry—“Why, God? Why?”—will inevitably be shrouded in mystery, the mystery does not extend to whether genocidal campaigns are really evil. They are. And so, even if it remains a mystery why God is prevented from acting, given the horrors in the world we must believe in a God that weeps.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Gods of the Imagination

In a recent post over on Miss Atomic Bomb, nuclear.kelly offers reflections on the doctrine of hell in which she refers to a passage from Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, a passage in which Huxley bemoans “the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed, by our own devices, from eternity and placed into the causal reality of the natural world.”

One reader of her post quickly retorts with the following: “Sorry, but these are one and the same—all gods, headed or not, arise from our imaginations, whether positive of negative. I agree that trying to make sense of these constructions in any logical, physical way leads us grievously astray. But that is simply a comment on the overall concept, which can not be reconciled with any sensible system.”

This exchange got me thinking about gods of the imagination, and I was promptly reminded of some of Simone Weil’s comments in Gravity and Grace, in which she sees atheism as “a purification” insofar as it cast off gods of the imagination, and hence makes it possible for us to experience that which cannot be imagined.

Weil is not a fan of the imagination. She says, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” She calls it “essentially a liar.” What has value, for Weil, is the immediate experience of a God who cannot be imagined. And we can experience that God only if we make a space within us into which a transcendent reality might flow. But our imagination keeps filling up these spaces.

So how do we distinguish between gods of the imagination and the experience of “the true God” (if there is such a thing)? For Weil, making this distinction is a matter of rejecting all gods that we can imagine, but being open to the experience of loving relatedness to that which defies imagining. And so Weil says, “I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”

Nuclear.kelly’s (and Huxley’s) call for resisting “the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed…from eternity” appears to be of the same sort as Weil’s: an insistence that true religious consciousness needs to reach beyond the limits of our empirically-defined imaginations, to adopt a posture of openness to that which transcends our ordinary concepts. And nuclear.kelly’s critic responds with a quick dismissal of that call, a dismissal premised on the assumption that there simply is nothing beyond these limits, or at least nothing that could justify the appellation “God.”

Both agree that there is something seriously wrong with gods of the imagination. The question is whether it is even possible for religion to be a response to anything other than a god of the imagination.

Here, it may be helpful to reflect for a moment on the empirical philosophy of David Hume. Hume pointed out that our imagination—at least in the most common sense of that term—is bounded by empirical experience. In other words, what we imagine is always a construct built up from elements derived from experience. The one-eyed purple monster with razor teeth and antlers and weeping pustules all over its body is not itself an object of experience, but each element of which it is made is derived from experience.

Empirical experience is always temporal and spatial. As such, any construct of the imagination is bounded by space and time. In other words, no construct of the imagination can be what orthodox Christianity takes God to be: eternal, self-existent, infinite. These are not spatio-temporal properties, but the properties of that which transcends the limits of space and time.

To believe in God in this sense is therefore to think that there is something which defies imagining. No construct of the imagination can correspond with God, and so any such construct is a false God. When one begins to make such an imagined construct the object of one’s devotion, one has become an idolater.

But to say that God cannot be imagined is not to say that God cannot be thought or conceptualized in any way. It is, rather, to say that God cannot be univocally conceptualized through depiction. If God is conceptualized at all, it will be in terms of non-empirical concepts.

Where Hume went seriously wrong, in my judgment, is in denying the existence of such non-empirical concepts. In so doing, he set the stage for logical positivism and its various spiritual children. (My reasons for opposing Hume and the logical positivists on this point are sketched out in an earlier post).

In any event, if there are non-empirical concepts (and I think the concept of “goodness” is one), then there may be ways to conceptualize God without being able to “imagine” God—an issue I touch on in Chapter 6 of Is God a Delusion? This is not to say that we can expect to have a fully adequate understanding of the divine, but only that we have the conceptual resources to make “God” a meaningful concept, one which points beyond the empirical world to a referent that defies imagination. And so the statements “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” can be meaningful ones. They say something, even if what they say is not something empirical or empirically testable.

What Huxley and Weil and others are claiming is that when “God” is defined in terms amenable to human imagination, the object thus defined is something that does not exist and which does not deserve the kind of devotion or worship that God supposedly warrants—in fact, when devotion becomes directed to these spatio-temporally bounded artifacts of our imagination, the results can be very bad indeed.

In this they agree with most of the new atheists. But unlike them, they do not stop there. There is another way to understand the meaning of “God,” a more profound way, an understanding of the divine that casts off the limits of the imagination and points beyond the empirical surface of the world.

And when it comes to the question of whether God in that sense exists, dogmatic assertions to the effect that every concept of God is a product of the imagination shouldn’t be confused with a compelling answer. In fact, it is just about the only answer that must be rejected on the facts. For the fact is that people have had and continue to have encounters with what Rudolf Otto dubbed “the numinous”—that is, experiences which defy imagination, which feel like a direct relational connection to something that cannot be depicted, which cannot be represented in terms of the categories derived from our engagement with the natural world.

The gods of the imagination don’t fit with this experience but are, instead, driven out by it. They are rendered trite. In their place is a sense that there exists something vast, mysterious, and fundamental…but also something capable of love, love unlike any love one could ever hope to feel—and so something that warrants the label “God.”

It is a fact that for people like Otto, and Weil, and Martin Luther King, Jr., “God” does not name a product of the imagination, but the object of an experience which is characterized, among other things, by being unimaginable. Call it a delusion if you will, but don’t call it a product of the imagination. It’s not that.

Of course, it might still be a false notion. Perhaps this sort of experience is just a side effect of a sudden upsurge of DMT production in the pineal gland. But to believe this is to dismiss the significance of the experience. While one can, perhaps, enjoy such an experience of encountering the numinous while believing it’s nothing more than a side effect of chemical surges, one cannot treat it as the profoundly important and transformative event which it immediately seems to be.

And it is better—morally better, I think—to do the latter: to dwell in that experience fully, to immerse oneself in the sense of union with a deeper truth, in short, to respond to and relate to the experience as if it were veridical. It is better, first of all, because of the substance of the experience itself, because it would be better if the world were as this experience represents it as being; and secondly, because living as if the world is like this is a better way to live.

In short, my reasons for endorsing the decision to respond to the numinous affirmatively are moral ones—because no other reasons are decisive. When all the philosophizing and empirical study is done, the existence of the transcendent God who conforms with numinous experience (as opposed to the various gods of the imagination) is neither decisively refuted nor positively established. I think philosophy can show that belief in the transcendent is reasonable (as I argue in my book)—but not in the sense that reason demands such belief.

And so, when one’s life brushes up against the numinous, when vistas of joyful possibility seem to open up (if only for a moment) to kindle our deepest yearnings and inspire our capacity for compassion and forgiveness—when we encounter a God Who puts all our idolatrous imaginings to shame, we have a choice to make. It won’t be made for us by a knock-down argument or a decisive bit of empirical evidence. I think the best way to make that choice is to tap into the very consideration that, at their best, motivates the New Atheists’ outrage against the great sea of imaginary gods: Love for the good.

Were there such a thing as a diabolical mystical experience (an experience that cannot be adequately conceptualized, that seems to be of something fundamental and ultimate, but which feels like an encounter with something unremittingly horrific), the very same reasoning would apply in reverse: to dwell in such an experience fully, to immerse oneself in it, to respond and relate to it as if it were the ultimate transcendent truth about the nature of reality—well, that would be a terrible thing to do, because it would be better if the world were not like this; because it would be better to live as if the world were not like this.

My own sense, however, is that while there are experiences of evil that defy imagination or ready conceptualization, they don’t resonate with what I’m inclined to call the flavor of the Absolute. They don’t feel like an encounter with the root of all being, but feel instead like an encounter with something that exists in opposition to being. And for me, what is most telling is the fact that those who have had the most profound sense of the reality of evil and who then come to have an encounter with the numinous are transformed by the latter, as if the latter puts the former into perspective rather than the reverse. This, it seems, is one of the chief lessons of William James’ study of the religion of so-called “sick souls.”

Love for the good, then, cries out against the diabolical theology that traps the Godhead within the sphere of empirically-defined imagination. And it cries out against deifying our quasi-mystical experiences of evil. But when it comes to the numinous, and the question of whether we should embrace it as veridical or dismiss it as “a bit of undigested beef,” that same love for the good cries out for embrace.