The Problem of Defining God: Finding Unity with Atheists in Wonder and Community

I don't believe in this god either.

I don’t believe in this god either.

Part of the problem of the public discourse on religion is that, like so many other issues, the discussion gets framed by the radical fringes.  On one side, you have the fundamentalist theists (mostly Christians in the US) who have a literal interpretation of the Bible and a narrow vision of God and religion.  On the other side, you have the fundamentalist atheists (led by Dawkins, Harris, et. al.) who likewise adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible and a narrow vision of God and religion.  While these extreme positions sell most of the books and soak up most of the media oxygen, the vast majority of people (both believers and non-believers) view this discussion in much the same way as they would view a food fight between two-year olds: there is some nominal entertainment value but the level of intellectual discourse is nonexistent and there is a huge mess that needs to be cleaned up. 

Fortunately, the silent majority on both sides is starting to make their voices heard. Thanks to Debilis of Fide Dubitandum for pointing to an interesting article at National Review by Nicholas Frankovich.  The title of the article is “Do Atheists Exist?”.

The backdrop of the article is the atheistic “church” of the Sunday Assembly.  Per the website, their Public Charter is as follows:

“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrate life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more.”

While the Sunday Assembly professes to be “godless” their website portrays a vision very different than the fundamentalist New Atheists.  They speak of wonder, purpose, connection, service and community; the same things that most religions emphasize.  While the Sunday Assembly may not believe in an Abrahamic God, as Frankovich points out, they certainly do believe in a higher power, even if they avoid that term.  While Christians and other theists may disagree with the Sunday Assembly on ultimate reality, we have much in common through the elements of wonder and service that unite us and distancing ourselves from the fundamentalists, whether they be theists or atheists.

I encourage you to read Frankovich’s entire article here, but set forth below is an extended summary:

In embracing altruism, the Assembly touches on moral theology, as do Habermas and Pera, but unlike them it does so from a position it has staked out on the near outskirts of metaphysics, which lends the godless church much of its warmth. The third part of the Assembly’s motto, “Live better, help often, wonder more,” reflects a value attractive to souls seeking relief from the cool, or chill, as they experience it, of the secular climate in which they live. “Our modern culture is restless at the barriers of the human sphere,” Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age. “The sense that there is something more presses in.”

Wonder more: No one disputes that atheism is compatible with wonder at the physical universe and how it works. Wonder at how it came to be just so, however, soon leads to wonder at how it came to be at all, a question that atheists typically sidestep. The pleasure of contemplating it is forbidden fruit to which the Sunday Assembly approaches nearer than a good atheist ought.

Philosophically if not historically, the theism of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam and major religious currents outside the Western tradition, begins with the observation that the mystery of being is irreducibly mysterious, absolutely immune to attempts at demystifying it. The articulation of thought about what that mystery is — “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is,” in Wittgenstein’s succinct rendition of the matter — has been so honed by succeeding generations of thinkers descended from the union of Greek philosophy and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology that it’s now difficult for anyone, whether theist or atheist, to improve on their exact formulations. So the atheist seeking to communicate an accurate answer to the question “Why is there not nothing?” will find himself borrowing theologically inflected terminology. Inescapably, he affirms the most fundamental of theological precepts. He agrees with it implicitly. He asserts that he doesn’t. His disagreement is first of all with himself.

A dramatic declaration of atheism is usually an assertion of disbelief in a god no one else believes in either. Judging the shadowy masculine presence at the center of the Hebrew Bible to be a tyrannical father figure and a lie — Richard Dawkins calls him “the most unpleasant character in all fiction” — atheists who cross over into militant antitheism make quite the show of manfully defying the Lord’s authority to command them. They plant their flag in the ground. There they stand, they can do no other.

They lose their footing when they recoil as they do, reflexively, from classical theism as well. They don’t trust it. If it’s related to Him, they’re not interested; they won’t be seduced. They plug their ears to keep from hearing too distinctly the siren song of sweet reason, which they dodge, rather than confront. Either they see plainly or they intuit that God in his aspect as God of the philosophers is ground on which reason offers no apparent means of escape or resistance. We might as well try to refute the multiplication tables. They are what they are.

* * *

So now we know that something of what Moses experienced when God visited him on Mount Horeb is available to anyone who will only take enough thought. The mystery of being induces wonder, or awe, commensurate with our willingness to engage it. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that anything exists.

Q: Why is there something rather than nothing?

A: God, although maybe we need a new name for him

* * *

To define “nothing” is to say what it is, when what it’s intended to convey is an absence of being. You can’t talk about nothing without treating it as something. And so, on close inspection, the question “Why is there not nothing?” turns out to be paradoxical — as we should expect, given that “when the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question,” as Wittgenstein observed. Still, it’s hard to let the question go; we intuit the intended meaning even as it eludes our ability to capture it in precise language. While the word “nothing” is self-contradictory and irrational when strictly interpreted, it does, like the number zero in mathematics, serve a purpose when used gingerly or with enough qualification.

* * *

It’s become too familiar, this ordinary English word for what we tend to talk around rather than talk about. So forget “God.” Call him “Nothing,” if you prefer:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Nothing, and the Word was Nothing.” The key to understanding John 1:1 turns on the verbs, not the nouns. Dawkins in his awe before the Nothing sounds like Heidegger but without Heidegger’s awareness of the unfathomable profundity of what it means “to be.”

Notice how “nothing” can function for the atheist as “God” does for the theist. Are the two only using different linguistic tokens in parallel efforts to express the same ineffable thought? Their fear and trembling at the prospect of the “eternal nada,” Jones and Evans explain, moves them to cultivate their appreciation for the physical world (Christians call it “Creation”) that tickles our sense organs in the here and now: “Transcendence can be found in a breath of wind on your face or in a mouthful of custard tart,” they write. They pronounce nature “awesome,” a word whose recently acquired colloquial sense still shades into its older, literal sense. Open the door to just that much transcendence, however, and all of it comes rushing in, like a strong wind. Atheists instinctively try to resist it, while those of us who have been blown away by it recommend the experience.

“Wonder more,” the Sunday Assembly urges, and adherents of monotheistic religions echo the advice back to them. No, following wonder to its logical conclusion does not by itself make an atheist suddenly Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. It only means he’s not an atheist. Someone should tell him.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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8 Responses to The Problem of Defining God: Finding Unity with Atheists in Wonder and Community

  1. James Cross says:

    Good post. I think I come at this more from the scientific side than the religious side but probably do not end up too far off from yours or Frankovich’s view.

    I tried to work some of this out in this post:

    http://broadspeculations.com/2013/03/23/beyond-belief-divine-knowledge/

    My view may seem somewhat like that of the Sunday Assembly but an atheist blog read it and latched on to my use of the expression “Divine Ground”. I was trying to use the term to mean some sort of underlying reality that we approach in a spiritual manner but not the same as God which has become laden with sectarian connotations. In retrospect, I searched around and most people regard “Divine Ground” to be the same as “God” so I am still searching for a better term.

    • James. Thank you for the kind words and for the link to your outstanding article. I agree with your analysis that the need for community is a deep human concern and your use of Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy” and the term “Divine Ground” seem appropriate to describe a universal human phenomenon. Perhaps the term “wonder” or “collective consciousness” will have more appeal to atheists but I believe they are getting at the same thing.

      This discussion reminds of Oprah Winfrey’s exchange with swimmer and self-proclaimed atheist Diana Nyad where Ms. Nyad professed awe at the wonder of creation and Ms. Winfrey defined the source of that awe and wonder as coming from God:

      “Well I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not the bearded guy in the sky.”

      Thank you again for your comment and link to your article.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

      • Eva says:

        Fascinating. ‘God’ is wonder and awe.
        Im going to have to print this post out and highlight bits to truly appreciate it fully, I think.

  2. ptero9 says:

    Hi William,
    You would think that since our “aliveness” and our consciousness, at present at least, cannot be explained or their source clearly known, it would be apparent that the nature of the universe remains mysterious. The words, “God”, or “Divine” do not, thankfully determine the underlying thing/event that they refer to.

  3. In it end, it’s all about the names we use and our perceptions. “Divine Ground” works for me, but prefer to think of our Creator as “Cosmic Consciousness.”

  4. opreach says:

    Great post, William. I read an article this morning – don’t know where – that there is “danger” of a schism in the new Sunday Assembly. Sounds like they have the same problems as the rest of us in creating communities. Peace, Pat

  5. William Meyers says:

    I attend a Unitarian Universalist church from time to time so I have heard this hollow drivel and the false equivalence between Richard Dawkins and fundamentalist before > It seems just a way of saying what we might not know might be explained by the supernatural yet even if we have no evidence , hogwash .

    • William:

      Thank you for your comments. I am not arguing a “God of the Gaps” to explain phenomenon that we do not have a current scientific explanation for. That is the equivalent of Richard Dawkins Flying Spaghetti Monster; an entity that exists within the four dimensional universe that we are able to measure via our senses and scientific measurement. It is also consistent with many theological fundamentalists who assign to “God” the direct cause of everything.

      My concept of “God” (although I find that this term is often more confusing than helpful) gets at the core of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the purpose (if anything) of there being something rather than nothing? These philosophical concepts are beyond the realm of scientific proof. The philosophical “evidence” comes from discerning the questions of why do I react the way I do when I hold a child for the first time, look into the eyes of my wife, care for a dying friend, look at the grandeur of a full moon on freshly fallen snow. Science can explain the chemical reactions behind the feelings and describe the evolutionary process of how they came to be, but it cannot answer why they exist in the first place. The answers very well could be that there is no meaning but even posing that question goes well beyond the intellectual inquiry of Dawkins, et. al.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

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