Debating God: Gary Gutting questions Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting at The New York Times Opinionator has been exploring philosophers’ approaches to the question of the existence of God. In his final post in the series, he questions himself about the views of those philosophers and his own answer to the question, “Does God exist?” (following the link will get you to all of the articles in the series).

Among the most interesting bits:

His criticism of “naive” atheism:

The weakest intellectual aspect of current atheism is its naïve enchantment with pseudo-scientific biological and psychological explanations of why people believe. There are no doubt all sorts of disreputable sources for religious belief, and the same goes for rejections of religion. But it’s just silly to say that there’s solid scientific evidence that religious belief in general has causes that undermine its claims to truth. Here I think Antony in her interview was right on target: “Theists are insulted by such conjectures (which is all they are) and I don’t blame them. It’s presumptuous to tell someone else why she believes what she believes — if you want to know, start by asking her.”


That one’s rational reasons for belief do not permit the labeling of one’ opponents beliefs as irrational:

Here what I’m saying about religion is what many rightly say about other strongly disputed areas such as ethics and politics: people on both sides can be reasonable in holding their positions, but neither side has a basis for saying that their opponents are irrational. This, I think, was what Keith DeRose was getting at when he said that no one knows whether or not God exists.

How he can be an agnostic and a Catholic:

Because, despite my agnosticism, I still think it’s worth pursuing the question of whether God exists, and for me the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition has great value in that pursuit.

And, the crucial role played by critical reason in preventing fanaticism:

That’s because religious faith without a strong role for critical reason readily falls into fanaticism. I thought this was one lesson of my interview with Sajjad Rizvi. He showed the historical connection of Islam with traditions of philosophical reflection that have tempered excesses of blind faith. Although such traditions are still effective in many parts of the Muslim world, it’s undeniable that there are places where they have failed and a fanatical mutation has gone out of control.

Breaking up with God: I didn’t lose my faith I left it.

An interview with Sarah Sentilles, author of Breaking up with God: A Love Story.

The title seems to be a takeoff from Lauren Winner’s Girl meets God, but given my recent posts here and here, it probably deserves a mention.

For me, this is the money quote from the interview with Sentilles:

People assume I’m an atheist, but I’m not. I don’t know what I am, but if I had to choose a label I’d choose agnostic. When I say that people usually ask me if I think God exists, and I usually give them the answer that my teacher, Gordon Kaufman, used to give me: The question of God’s existence isn’t the right question because it won’t get you very far. It’s a question human beings can’t answer. If we take God’s mystery seriously, then we can never know. I think there are better questions that we can be answering: What does a particular vision of God do to those who submit to it and to those who won’t submit to it? What difference is my version of God making? Who is it harming? In one of his books, Kaufman writes, “The central question for theology… is a practical question. How are we to live? To what should we devote ourselves? To what causes give ourselves?” He argues that theology that does not contribute significantly to struggles against inhumanity and injustice has lost sight of its point of being.

Full disclosure: Gordon Kaufman was one of my professors, too. He was also a member and sometime pastor of the Mennonite Congregation of Boston, to which I belonged during the 1980s.

That ultimately God is mystery is not a radical or heretical notion. Going back to the early church (at least to the writings of Pseudo-Dionysus) the idea of negative theology, that the only true statements one could make about God were about what God is not, is a perfectly acceptable, if somewhat difficult to understand, methodology. Of course, Sentilles goes further in the interview, making clear that much of her problem is not about the notion of God, but about institutional religion. I am always saddened when people come to that point because for me the Incarnation is all about the messiness of the mystery of God being contained, experienced, and expressed in the ordinary, human, and accessible.


Atheism and Agnosticism–Some Links

Martin Amis wrote an appeal to Christopher Hitchens that he should convert from atheism to agnosticism. In a marvelous essay that provides fascinatin detail about Hitchens’ life in addition to anecdotes about his skill as a debater, Amis attacks Hitchens’ atheism (as well as atheism in general):

The atheistic position merits an adjective that no one would dream of applying to you: it is lenten. And agnosticism, I respectfully suggest, is a slightly more logical and decorous response to our situation – to the indecipherable grandeur of what is now being (hesitantly) called the multiverse. The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a “higher intelligence” – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.

Here is Mark Vernon’s response. His take:

For me it’s as much, probably more, the immensity of our inner, rather than outer, space that makes agnosticism so appealing. We are the creature who can plunge into the depths of existence; life at its most real comes to us as a troubling, glorious excess. It’s why we suffer and love. It’s surely something of that energy that Hitchens so powerful channels too.

A thoughtful review by Eric Reitan of Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt: The God Question. Reitan finds the premise of Bugliosi’s book lame: that we simply don’t know whether God exists. For Reitan, that’s obvious, perhaps especially to devout Christians who use language of faith rather than knowledge when talking about God’s existence. Reitan sees the interesting question to be: What do we do in the face of such uncertainty? Bugliosi doesn’t answer that question and Reitan marshalls arguments from Kierkegaard and James to argue his point.

An interview with A.C. Grayling, author of The Humanist Bible: How can you be a militant atheist? It’s like sleeping furiously’.

And then there’s this.