Please Tell Me What "God" Means

By Sean Carroll | October 20, 2007 5:15 pm

Via 3quarksdaily, here is Richard Skinner (“poet, writer, qualified therapist and performer”) elaborating on Why Christians should take Richard Dawkins seriously. I would argue that they should take him seriously because much of what he says is true, but that’s not Skinner’s take.

Skinner suggests that Dawkins is arguing against a straw-man notion of God (stop me if you’ve heard this before). According to the straw man, God is some thing, or some person, or some something, of an essentially supernatural character, with a lot of influence over what happens in the universe, and in particular the ability to sidestep the laws of nature to which the rest of us are beholden. That’s a hopelessly simplistic and unsophisticated notion, apparently; not at all what careful theologians actually have in mind.

Nevertheless, Dawkins and his defenders typically reply, it’s precisely the notion of God that nearly all non-theologians — that is to say, the overwhelming majority of religious believers, at least in the Western world — actually believe in. Not just the most fanatic fundamentalists; that’s the God that the average person is worshipping in Church on Sunday. And, to his credit, Skinner grants this point. That, apparently, is why Christians should take Dawkins seriously — because all too often even thoughtful Christians take the easy way out, and conceptualize God as something much more tangible than He really is.

At this point, an optimist would hope to be informed, in precise language, exactly what “God” really does mean to the sophisticated believer. Something better than Terry Eagleton’s “the condition of possibility.” But no! We more or less get exactly that:

Philosophers and theologians over the centuries, grappling with what is meant by ‘God’, have resorted to a different type of language, making statements such as “God is ultimate reality”; or “God is the ground of our being”, or “God is the precondition that anything at all could exist”, and so forth. In theological discourse, they can be very helpful concepts, but the trouble with them is that if you’re not a philosopher or theologian, you feel your eyes glazing over – God has become a philosophical concept rather than a living presence.

The trouble is not that such sophisticated formulations make our eyes glaze over; the trouble is that they don’t mean anything. And I will tell you precisely what I mean by that. Consider two possible views of reality. One view, “atheism,” is completely materialistic — it describes reality as just a bunch of stuff obeying some equations, for as long as the universe exists, and that’s absolutely all there is. In the other view, God exists. What I would like to know is: what is the difference? What is the meaningful, operational, this-is-why-I-should-care difference between being a sophisticated believer and just being an atheist?

I can imagine two possibilities. One is that you sincerely can’t imagine a universe without the existence of God; that God is a logical necessity. But I have no trouble imagining a universe that exists all by itself, just obeying the laws of nature. So I would have to conclude, in that case, that you were simply attaching the meaningless label “God” to some other aspect of the universe, such as the fact that it exists. The other possibility is that there is actually some difference between the universe-with-God and the materialist universe. So what is it? How could I tell? What is it about the existence of God that has some effect on the universe? I’m not trying to spring some sort of logical trap; I sincerely want to know. Phrases like “God is ultimate reality” are either tautological or meaningless; I would like to have a specific, clear understanding of what it means to believe in God in the sophisticated non-straw-man sense.

Richard Skinner doesn’t give us that. In fact, he takes precisely the opposite lesson from these considerations: the correct tack for believers is to refuse to say what they mean by “God”!

So, if our understanding of God can be encapsulated in a nice, neat definition; a nice, neat God hypothesis; a nice, neat image; a nice, neat set of instructions – if, in other words, our understanding of God does approximate to a Dawkins version, then we are in danger of creating another golden calf. The alternative, the non-golden-calf route, is to sit light to definitions, hypotheses and images, and allow God to be God.

It’s a strategy, I suppose. Not an intellectually honest one, but one that can help you wriggle out of a lot of uncomfortable debates.

I’m a big believer that good-faith disagreements focus on the strong arguments of the opposite side, rather than setting up straw men. So please let me in on the non-straw-man position. If anyone can tell me once and for all what the correct and precise and sophisticated and non-vacuous meaning of “God” is, I promise to stick to disbelieving in that rather than any straw men.

Update: This discussion has done an even better job than I had anticipated in confirming my belief that the “sophisticated” notion of God is simply a category mistake. Some people clearly think of God in a way perfectly consistent with the supposed Dawkinsian straw man, which is fine on its own terms. Others take refuge in the Skinneresque stance that we can’t say what we mean when we talk about God, which I continue to think is simply intellectually dishonest.

The only on-topic replies I can see that don’t fall into either of those camps are ones that point to some feature of the world which would exist just as well in a purely materialistic conception, and say “I call that `God.'” To which I can only reply, you’re welcome to call it whatever you like, but it makes no difference whatsoever. Might as well just admit that you’re an atheist.

Which some people do, of course. I once invited as a guest speaker Father William Buckley, a Jesuit priest who is one of the world’s experts in the history of atheism. After giving an interesting talk on the spirituality of contemplation, he said to me “You don’t think I believe in G-O-D `God,’ do you?” I confessed that I had, but now I know better.

For people in this camp, I think their real mistake is to take a stance or feeling they have toward the world and interpret in conventionally religious language. Letting all that go is both more philosophically precise and ultimately more liberating.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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