David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator. He has taught at the University of Virginia, Duke Divinity School, and Providence College (RI). A selection from his book The Experience of God from Yale University Press.
At a trivial level, one sees the confusion in some of the more shopworn witticisms of popular atheism: “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden,” for instance, or `All people are atheists in regard to Zeus, Wotan, and most other gods; I simply disbelieve in one god more.” Once, in an age long since vanished in the mists of legend, those might even have been amusing remarks, eliciting sincere rather than merely liturgical laughter; but, even so, all they have ever demonstrated is a deplorable ignorance of elementary conceptual categories.
If one truly imagines these are all comparable kinds of intellectual conviction then one is clearly confused about what is at issue. Beliefs regarding fairies are beliefs about a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional shape and rational content as beliefs regarding one’s neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all.
Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found. We can, if nothing else, disabuse ourselves of belief in certain gods by simple empirical methods; we know now, for example, that the sun is not a god named Tonatiuh, at least not one who must be nourished daily on human blood lest he cease to shine, because we have withheld his meals for centuries now without calamity.
God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for either photons or (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him, or at least find out his address.
The question of God, by contrast, is one that can and must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, potency and act, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.
Now, manifestly, one should not judge an intellectual movement by its jokes (even if one suspects that there is little more to it than its jokes). But exactly the same confusion shows itself in the arguments that many contemporary atheists make in earnest: For instance, “If God made the world, then who made God?” Or the famous dilemma drawn, in badly garbled form, from Plato’s Euthyphro, “Does God command a thing because it is good, or is it good because God commands it?”
I address both questions below (in my third and fifth chapters, respectively), so I shall not do so here. I shall, however, note that not only do these questions not pose deep quandaries for believers or insuperable difficulties for a coherent concept of God; they are not even relevant to the issue. And, until one really understands why this is so, one has not yet begun to talk about God at all. One is talking merely about some very distinguished and influential gentleman or lady named “God,” or about some discrete object that can be situated within a class of objects called “gods” (even if it should turn out that there happens to be only one occupant of that class).
As it happens, the god with whom most modern popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” (demiourgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but that came to mean a particular kind of divine “world-maker” or cosmic craftsman. In Plato’s Timaeus, the demiurge is a benevolent intermediary between the realm of eternal forms and the realm of mutability; he looks to the ideal universe -the eternal paradigm of the cosmos -and then fashions lower reality in as close a conformity to the higher as the intractable resources of material nature allow.
He is, therefore, not the source of the existence of all things but rather only the Intelligent Designer and causal agent of the world of space and time, working upon materials that lie outside and below him, under the guidance of divine principles that lie outside and above him. He is an immensely wise and powerful being, but he is also finite and dependent upon a larger reality of which he is only a part. Later Platonism interpreted the demiurge in a variety of ways, and in various schools of Gnosticism in late antiquity he reappeared as an incompetent or malevolent cosmic despot, either ignorant or jealous of the true God beyond this cosmos; but none of that is important here.
Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe “back then,” at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God.
And the same is true of all the other new atheists as far as I can tell. To be fair to all sides, however, I should also point out that the demiurge has had some fairly vociferous champions over the past few centuries, and at the moment seems to be enjoying a small resurgence in popularity. His first great modern revival came in the Deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a movement whose adherents were impatient with the metaphysical “obscurities” and doctrinal “absurdities” of traditional religion, and who preferred to think of God as some very powerful spiritual individual who designed and fabricated the universe at the beginning of things, much as a watchmaker might design and fabricate a watch and then set it running.
In David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion this is the view of God advanced by Cleanthes and then elegantly dismantled by Philo (the traditional metaphysical and theological view of God is represented by Demea, though not very well, and against him Philo marshals an altogether different -and much weaker -set of arguments). And, while Deism had more or less died out before Darwin’s day, the philosophical support, has never entirely lost its charm for some.
The recent Intelligent Design movement represents the demiurge’s boldest adventure in some considerable time. I know that it is fashionable to heap abuse upon this movement, and that is not my intention here. After all, if one looks at the extraordinary cornplexity of nature and then interprets it as a sign of superhuman intelligence, one is doing something perfectly defensible; even some atheists have done as much (the brilliant and eccentric Fred Hoyle being a notable example).
Moreover, if one already believes in God, it makes perfect sense to see, say, the ever more extraordinary discoveries of molecular biology, or the problem of protein folding, or the incredible statistical improbabilities of a whole host of cosmological conditions (and so on) as bearing witness to something miraculous and profoundly rational in the order of nature, and to ascribe these wonders to God.
But, however compelling the evidence may seem, one really ought not to reverse the order of discovery here and attempt to deduce or define God from the supposed evidence of design in nature. As either a scientific or a philosophical project, Intelligent Design theory is a deeply problematic undertaking; and, from a theological or metaphysical perspective, it is a massive distraction.
To begin with, much of the early literature of this movement concerned instances of supposedly “irreducible complexity” in the biological world, and from these developed an argument for some sort of intelligent agency at work in the process of evolution. That would, of course, be a fascinating discovery if it could be shown to be true; but I do not see how in principle one ever could conclusively demonstrate such a thing. It could never be more than an argument from probability, because one cannot prove that any organism, however intricate, could not have been produced by some unguided phylogenic history.
Probability is a powerful thing, of course, but notoriously difficult to measure in the realm of biology’s complex systems of interdependence, or over intervals of time as vast as distinct geological epochs. And it would be quite embarrassing to propose this or that organism or part of an organism as a specimen of an irreducibly complex biological mechanism, only for it to emerge later that many of its components had been found in a more primitive form in some other biological mechanism, serving another purpose.
Even if all this were not so, however, seen in the light of traditional theology the argument from irreducible complexity looks irredeemably defective, because it depends on the existence of causal discontinuities in the order of nature, “gaps” where natural causality proves inadequate. But all the classical theological arguments regarding the order of the world assume just the opposite: that God’s creative power can be seen in the rational coherence of nature as a perfect whole; that the universe was not simply the factitious product of a supreme intellect but the unfolding of an omnipresent divine wisdom or logos.
For Thomas Aquinas, for instance, God creates the order of nature by infusing the things of the universe with the wonderful power of moving of themselves toward determinate ends; he uses the analogy of a shipwright able to endow timbers with the power to develop into a ship without external intervention. According to the classical arguments, universal rational order — not just this or that particular instance of complexity — is what speaks of the divine mind: a cosmic harmony as resplendently evident in the simplicity of a raindrop as in the molecular labyrinths of a living cell.
After all, there may be innumerable finite causes of complexity, but a good argument can be made that only a single infinite cause can account for perfect, universal, intelligible, mathematically describable order. If, however, one could really show that there were interruptions in that order, places where the adventitious intrusions of an organizing hand were needed to correct this or that part of the process, that might well suggest some deficiency in the fabric of creation.
It might suggest that the universe was the work of a very powerful, but also somewhat limited, designer. It certainly would not show that the universe is the creature of an omnipotent wisdom, or an immediate manifestation of the God who is the being of all things. Frankly, the total absence of a single instance of irreducible complexity would be a far more forceful argument in favor of God’s rational action in creation.
As for theistic claims drawn from the astonishing array of improbable cosmological conditions that hold our universe together, including the cosmological constant itself, or from the mathematical razor’s edge upon which all of it is so exquisitely balanced, these rest upon a number of deeply evocative arguments, and those who dismiss them casually are probably guilty of a certain intellectual dishonesty. Certainly all of the cosmos’s exquisitely fine calibrations and consonances and exactitudes should speak powerfully to anyone who believes in a transcendent creator, and they might even have the power to make a reflective unbeliever curious about supernatural explanations.
But, in the end, such arguments also remain only probabilistic, and anyone predisposed to explain them away will find plentiful ways of doing so: perhaps the extravagant hypothesis that there are vastly many universes generated by quantum fluctuations, of the sort Stephen Hawking has recently said does away with any role for God in the origin of the universe, or perhaps the even more extravagant hypothesis that every possible universe must be actual (the former hypothesis reduces the odds considerably, and the latter does away with odds altogether). But in a sense none of this really matters, because ultimately none of these arguments has much to do with God in the first place.
This is obvious if one considers the terms in which they are couched. Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order; by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice.
So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary if there were some prior set of laws — just out there, so to speak, happily floating along on the wave-functions of the quantum vacuum — that would permit the spontaneous generation of any and all universes. It never crosses his mind that the question of creation might concern the very possibility of existence as such, not only of this universe but of all the laws and physical conditions that produced it, or that the concept of God might concern a reality not temporally prior to this or that world, but logically and necessarily prior to all worlds, all physical laws, all quantum events, and even all possibilities of laws and events.
From the perspective of classical metaphysics, Hawking misses the whole point of talk of creation: God would be just as necessary even if all that existed were a collection of physical laws and quantum states, from which no ordered universe had ever arisen; for neither those laws nor those states could exist of themselves. But — and here is the crucial issue — those who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design are guilty of the same conceptual confusion; they make a claim like Hawking’s seem solvent, or at least relevant, because they themselves have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God.
By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could someday genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems.
The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.
Anyway, at this point I shall largely leave the new atheists, fundamentalists of every adherence, and Intelligent Design theorists all to their own devices, and perhaps to one another, and wish them all well, and hope that they do not waste too much time chasing after one another in circles. If I mention them below, it will be only to make a point in passing. From here onward, it is God — not gods, not the demiurge — of whom I wish to speak.