When Atheists Really Do Reject the Wrong God (Sort Of)

Introduction

If you are an atheist who reads as much theology as I do (which is difficult, unless you are either Jerry Coyne, a religion studies scholar, or a deconvert from a Fundamentalist cult) then you’ve probably come across the claim that atheists reject the wrong god. Often, this is expressed from a sophisticated theologian conceding that they agree with the arguments made in some popular atheist book, but those are not arguments against the god they believe in. I call this the Straw Gods Argument, after the Straw Man Fallacy.

In this post, I will first explain what the Straw Gods Argument is and what forms I’ve seen it take. Afterwards, I will explain why I don’t think that it is convincing. Finally, I will deliver on the title of this blog post and present a case where an atheist really did reject a straw god (sort of). I’ve divided this article into sections so that those who have a particular interest don’t have to wade through all of my text.

I now proceed to discuss what the Straw Gods Argument is and some examples of where it has appeared.

What is the Straw Gods Argument?

The Straw Gods Argument is simply the argument, made by some theologians, that the god atheists reject is not the god accepted by that theologian. Proponents will often say things like, “I don’t accept that God either.” It’s often coupled with the idea that if only atheists had been exposed to the right conception of God, they’d be believers, too.

N.T. Wright provides a perfect example of this argument in his Jesus and the Identity of God:

For seven years I was College Chaplain and [sic] Worcester College, Oxford.  Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance.  Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.”

I developed stock response: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?”  This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word “God” as a univocal, always meaning the same thing.  So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally “intervening” to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven.  Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of “spy-in-the-sky” theology: “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god.  I don’t believe in that god either.”

At this point the undergraduate would look startled.  Then, perhaps, a faint look of recognition; it was sometimes rumored that half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists.  “No,” I would say; “I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.”

I’ve twice had the accusation thrown against me that I was arguing against a Straw God.

First, when I did a debate at Liberty University and one of the Christians in the audience tweeted that one of my arguments was convincing — but only against a false idol.

Second, when I was operating a pro-choice table and an adamant Catholic approached to talk to me (I would say he was a priest but he talked about his wife). We talked about a variety of topics, and it turned, not surprisingly, to religion (which I was honestly more comfortable talking about anyway). He related that he had never met someone who had left a proper version of Christianity. All ex-Christians, according to him, had been taught a version of God that was authoritarian, a kind of dictator in the sky. The implication seemed to be that had they been instructed with a kind of God that was loving they would never have left.

I did not tell him that before coming to Virginia, the idea of anything other than a loving god was a very distant concept. Although I deconverted early in life, the religious members of my family had always stressed how loving God is and never seemed to be all that certain that Hell exists. The God I learned about from my mother was a God that was big enough for everyone — a god who loved all people and who never turned you away, even if you don’t believe that He exists. How could a loving god not forgive everyone and bring everyone to heaven?, I can imagine my mother wondering. But then there’s Hitler and I certainly hope he’s burning in Hell! God might burn you for committing genocide, but not for having a difference of opinion. And all of that nasty stuff in the Bible, most of it in the Old Testament, were human errors in a book that was almost certainly not written by God.

I also did not tell him that I spent a year going to a Unitarian Universalist Church, where the only deity that ever made an appearance was the kind of ultra-liberal quasi-Christian deity who saves even the most ardent atheist (the doctrine of Universal Salvation). As far as I can tell, that’s far more loving than a Catholic deity who sees fit to either burn or annihilate (depending on the eschatology) someone who dies without accepting the Church as God’s representative on Earth.

In my experience, the Straw Gods Argument typically takes a few different forms:
1. The god that the atheist has in mind is too small. This must be why the atheist rejected God; but theologians like me are careful enough to point out how big God really is (or perhaps we’ve failed to point out how big God is and, as Christians, we need to improve on that). English Bible scholar J.B. Philips wrote an entire book on this topic entitled God Too SmallFor Philips, incorrect conceptions of God include policemen, parental hangovers, grand old men, meek-and-wild Jesuses, absolutely perfect deities, and so on.

2. Christians introduced doctrine x and that’s when everything went wrong. If only we can go back to conceiving of God in the right way (or develop a new theology that avoids these errors) then everyone could believe! Gavin Hyman makes this move in his A Short History Of Atheism, where he claims that a conceptual shift in how God’s transcendence was conceived led to a conception of God that could not be sustained.

3. There are multiple levels of explanation for reality. One level is scientific while another is theological. Atheists have chosen to reject the theological level of explanation, so when they try to squeeze God into their understanding of the world, God doesn’t fit. Therefore, they reject God. Georgetown theologian John Haught makes this claim in a variety of places (and I have been told that theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest John Polkinghorne also asserts this claim).

Those from an Evangelical background might recognize this argument as related to the idea that True Christians cannot deconvert. Anyone who does deconvert must not have been saved (or Born Again, baptized in the Holy Spirit, etc) to begin with. Of course, those accusations are deeply offensive to many people who have painfully deconverted from Evangelical groups, but the Evangelicals I have spoken with seem to be relatively apathetic about this. The God they love would not let His flock wander.

In the next section, I will evaluate what the Straw Gods Argument gets wrong (and how it comes closer to the truth than many atheists might suppose).

What’s wrong with the Straw Gods Argument?

To begin my discussion of what’s wrong with the Straw Gods Argument, I want to discuss two ways in which I actually find some sort of sympathy with the Straw Gods Argument. Nonetheless, these two sources of sympathy will help to highlight several things that the Straw Gods Argument gets wrong.

First. It could very well be that there is something that the theist finds attractive in religion but which the atheist is missing. I don’t mean that there is any further rational justification for belief that the atheist isn’t privy to and that theist somehow has unique access to. Rather, I am suggesting the possibility that there could be some emotional attachment, social condition, personality trait, or some other psychological/sociological factor which determines who ends up as a theist and who ends up as an atheist. This is the sort of thing which one would need empirical evidence to support or to deny. I don’t presently have that sort of evidence, but it wouldn’t totally surprise me if something like this were true. If it is true, then it might also be true that the concept of God somehow feels intuitively different to someone who ends up a theist than to someone who ends up an atheist. There would be non-rational aspects to the picture of God understood by the theist and not understood by the atheist.

So, we can imagine a weakened form of the Straw Gods Argument. The picture of God accepted by the theist differs from that rejected by the atheist. Of course, this hardly vindicates the Straw Gods Argument. Any atheist who charges that theism is less rational would actually agree with this weakened form of the Straw Gods Argument — after all, according to those atheists, what atheists would be lacking would be the casual irrationality they perceive in theists. The Straw Gods Argument can only succeed if the part of the God picture that atheists are missing is some sort of rational justification.

The theist might respond that there is a non-rational justification for belief in God, lacked by the atheist and held by the theist, but which is nonetheless not irrational. You see, they might say, the theist has faith that God exists while the atheist lacks faith and requires rational justification. Faith is not irrational, but neither is it rational. While the theist may make this claim, it seems to be nothing more than special pleading. We can take any sort of claim which fails to be supported by evidence or by argument, claim that it needs to be accepted on the basis of faith (which we define as being neither rational nor irrational), and then assert that the claim was accepted on grounds that were simply beyond rationality (as opposed to grounds that contravened rationality). Many theists would rightfully find this sort of move to be illegitimate in a wide variety of contexts. For instance, most theists would find it to be illegitimate to accept Nazism or white supremacy on these grounds. So why accept God’s existence on these grounds?

Second. While many atheists would prefer a broad definition of ‘atheist’ (anyone who lacks a belief in God), for my research, I prefer to use a more narrow definition of ‘atheist’: someone who both lacks belief in God and who lives in a context in which they have heard about God (specifically, the Abrahamic, monotheistic deity). This is because my research focuses on academics who have provided arguments against the existence of God. I am interested in what David Berman calls speculative atheists: those atheists who have provided sophisticated intellectual defences of atheism. This is distinct from the interests of someone like Phil Zuckerman, who studies how some some societies have come to disbelieve in God, and someone like Daniel Everett, who studies a society that, as far as anyone can tell, never developed belief in any gods to begin with (an Amazonian tribe called the Piraha). With my specific target in mind, my group of atheists have had to argue against specific conceptions of God. Living in a Christian society, they have rejected a specifically Christian god. Other conceptions of God are usually left entirely out of their works altogether. They don’t have to defend their views against those who would ask them to believe in Shinto spirits or Hindu gods because, to borrow a term from William James, those aren’t live options. God, religion, ritual, worship — these are all parsed through a Western and largely Christian lens, even if those doing the parsing are not themselves Christian.

Some atheists have been self-conscious about this.  For example, in his God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens states:

I now know enough about all religions to know that I would always be an infidel at all times and in all places, but my particular atheism is a Protestant atheism. It is with the splendid liturgy of he King James Bible and the Cranmer prayer book — liturgy that the fatuous Church of England has cheaply discarded — that I first disagreed.

In this quote, Hitchens is telling us that his atheism is specifically Protestant (by which he apparently means Anglican). He also tells us that he has examined other religions and rejected those as well — but his roots will always rest with the particular brand of Christianity from his youth.

So, we can imagine another weakened form of the Straw Gods Argument. Specific atheists formulated their views, at least initially, as a reaction against a particular conception of God or of religion. Had a specific atheist been first exposed to a different conception of God, they might not have reached the same conclusion.

But this cannot vindicate the Straw Gods Argument either. Why? For three reasons.

A. As before, it’s only if the atheist can be shown to be lacking some rational justification had by the theist for their beliefs that the Straw God Argument can win. A sociological and historical fact about particular atheists — that their conceptions of God or of religion are often colored by their respective backgrounds — hardly constitutes a reason to think that atheists are missing some argument or piece of evidence visible to the theist.

B. This second broadening of the Straw Gods Argument is about specific atheists. What is true of individual atheists is not true of the entire population of atheists. While I do not presently have demographic data to support this conclusion, based upon the atheists I have met, I would be highly surprised if there were some denomination of Christianity (for example) that some atheist or other hadn’t deconverted from.

C. As Hitchens notes in the quote I provided, just because someone starts with some particular religious background, they still have the ability to examine a wide variety of religions. So, we can ask whether atheists tend to stop investigating religions when they deconvert or if they continue to study religions. A Pew Study found that atheists and agnostics, followed by Jews and Mormons, tend to know more about religion than others. From this, we can conclude that most atheists (at least amongst those who responded to the survey) are far from ignorant about religions other than the ones they grew up with. And from reading deconversion stories and knowing a variety of apostates, I can say that, for many atheists, deconversion was a painful process where, for a time, they desperately sought a conception of God that they could believe in. Failing to find one, they finally declared themselves to be atheists. As an example, Bart Ehrman has detailed in a number of places his personal story of moving from Evangelical, Born Again Christian to agnosticism. Ehrman is one of the premier academics working on the Bible and its history so could hardly be said to be ignorant about religion.

In the next section, I will show that one of the most famous atheists of the 18th century — Paul-Henri Thiry Baron d’Holbach — did, in a sense, argue against a Straw God (and thereby deliver on the title of this post).

Did The Baron d’Holbach Reject a Straw God?

In this section, I will consider whether Paul-Henri Thiry Baron d’Holbach, a prominent 18th century French atheist, rejected a straw version of Aquinas’s God.

First, some necessary background. Thomas Aquinas, a prominent medieval philosopher and theologian, believed that human languages contained only the terms for talking directly about matters in the creaturely realm. This poses a problem for Aquinas — how can we talk about a being like God, who is transcendent to the creaturely realm?

Aquinas’s proposed solution was the Doctrine of Analogy. We may speak about God only indirectly, via analogy. Terms that we would normally use to talk about the creaturely realm — such as words we would use to describe humans — can be applied to God, but they don’t mean the same thing when applied to God as when they are applied to creatures — such as humans.

Aquinas introduces a distinction between two different kinds of analogy — proportion and proportionality. Although named similarly, there is an important difference between these two.

Proportion, as traditionally conceived, is something like ratio. We may say that there is a proportion between two different pictures of Bob because one picture is proportionately larger. Likewise, God may be said to have wisdom, but, unlike a human, God’s wisdom is infinitely large. Importantly, proportion is a relation between two things. In the case of the pictures, there is a relation between the two pictures of Bob. In the case of God’s wisdom, there is a relation between the wisdom of a human and the wisdom of God.

Proportionality is not a relation between two things, but, instead, is a relation between relations. Remember the SAT problems that read:

splinter:wood::shard:glass

We understand this expression to mean that “splinter is to wood as shard is to glass”. There is some relation between splinters and wood that may be identified with the relation between shards and glass.

In some places, Aquinas seems to accept that we may speak about God through the analogy of proportion. For instance, in his Summa Theologicae, he writes: “names are said of God… in an analogous sense, that is, according to proportion”. Elsewhere (such as in his Commentary on the Sentences), he indicates that terms are to be said of God via the analogy of proportionality and not according to the analogy of proportion. In considering d’Holbach’s response, I will explicate how d’Holbach responded to the view that one should talk about God via the analogy of proportion. As I will show, d’Holbach was of the opinion that a god conceived of in that way could not be meaningfully spoken of. Theological language was rendered into mere non-sense.

While d’Holbach lived several hundred years after Aquinas, he did talk specifically about the analogy of proportion. For example, in section 8 of Good Sense Without God, he wrote: “If God be an infinite being, there cannot be, either in the present or future world, any relative proportion between man and his God”.

Why did d’Holbach hold the opinion that there cannot be a “relative proportion” between a finite and an infinite being? Because, according to the empiricist conception of infinity held by both Aquinas and d’Holbach, ‘infinite’ meant beyond all measure. Only if two things can be put into a determinate distance from each other can there be a proportion between them.

Further, d’Holbach agreed with Aquinas that we cannot speak of God using the same sort of properties that we would apply to anything in this world, such as humans. Both had an empirical account of language, whereby any term that can be meaningfully used can be ultimately traced back to experience (though d’Holbach’s and Aquinas’s versions of empiricism had different ancestries; d’Holbach’s was from John Locke whereas Aquinas’s was from Aristotle). Since both also agreed that there was no way to have direct empirical access to God (at least in this life), there was no way to acquire the kind of language one would need to directly say something about God. Since d’Holbach had an argument against talking about God using the analogy of proportion, it would seem that, at the very least, this conception of God was blown out of the water. Any attempt to speak of a deity of that kind would be mistaken because it could only result in uttering gibberish. In section 47 of Good Sense, D’Holbach tells us:

All those qualities, ascribed to God, are totally incompatible with a being, who, by his very essence, is void of all analogy with human beings. It is true, the divines imagine they extricate themselves from this difficulty, by exaggerating the human qualities, attributed to the Divinity; they enlarge them to infinity, where they cease to understand themselves. What results from this combination of man with God? A mere chimera, of which, if any thing be affirmed, the phantom, combined with so much pains, instantly vanishes.

So, by trying to imagine an infinite, otherworldly being, theologians stop themselves from understanding anything at all. He goes on to argue that,  unable to understand anything about God, they instead make obscured statements about themselves. We can imagine some of today’s religious leaders, who defend their own homophobia by claiming that “God Hates Fags” or think of Ludwig Feuerbach’s statement “theology is anthropology”. D’Holbach tells us:

Dante, in his poem upon Paradise, relates, that the Deity appeared to him under the figure of three circles, forming an iris, whose lively colours generated each other; but that, looking steadily upon the dazzling light, he saw only his own figure. While adoring God, it is himself, that man adores.

But Aquinas has a way out. I was a little disingenuous when I first described Aquinas’s analogy of proportion. As it turns out, Aquinas realized that God could not be spoken of using the kind of analogy of proportion which d’Holbach has in mind. Instead, the term ‘proportion’ must be broadened in meaning to encompass something else. Aquinas wrote (in his Commentary on the Sentences):

…it should be said that the proposition according to the first imposition of the name signifies the disposition of quantity to quantity according to some determined excess or equality. But it is further applied / transferred to signifying every disposition of one thing to another.

That might be difficult to decipher (Aquinas usually is) but the idea is actually rather simple. The “first imposition of the name” is the original meaning of ‘proportion’ — the relation between two quantities which is “determined” by “some… excess or equality”. For instance, when we say that the ratio between 4 and 2 is 2 (4 divided by 2 is 2) we mean that there is determinate relation between those two numbers (namely, that 4 is twice 2). One way to expand the meaning of ‘proportion’ would be to say that two instances of a property — such as wisdom — can be compared for their relative magnitudes. The two pictures of Bob are related because they have relative sizes which we can compare. But a mistake would be to think that God’s wisdom can be compared with a creature’s using this sense of ‘proportion’. God’s wisdom, being beyond measure, does not have a determinate proportion to that of a human.

Yet Aquinas is insisting that ‘proportion’ can be taken in a broader sense. The term ‘proportion’ can be “further applied/transferred to signifying every disposition of one thing to another”. In other words, the term ‘proportion’ can be broadened to mean any sort of relation that there might be between two things. There isn’t a ratio between God’s wisdom and that of a human. Instead, there is some other sort of relation, but Aquinas is mysteriously quiet about what sort of relation that would be.

One way to understand what has happened is that d’Holbach has failed to address this other use of ‘proportion’. Nonetheless, Aquinas’s attempt to save proportion along these lines isn’t particularly strong. Aquinas hasn’t given us an alternative way to understand ‘proportion’ — he simply asserted that there is one.

So, on one reading of this debate, d’Holbach seems to have rejected a Straw God. D’Holbach rejected a deity conceived of using a narrower understanding of the analogy of proportion than Aquinas would have preferred. But on a different reading of this debate, Aquinas has begged the question by not telling us what the broader reading of ‘proportion’ might be. It is also true that d’Holbach, as far as I have been able to find, never deals directly against the analogy of proportionality. Nonetheless, d’Holbach does provide a variety of other arguments against the existence of God and I see no reason why several of those arguments would not apply to a god conceived of using the analogy of proportionality. A consideration of those arguments, and their strengths and weaknesses, is beyond the scope of this post and could be the topic of a future blog post.

Conclusion

I have provided several reasons to think that the Straw Gods Argument — that atheists only reject the wrong conception of God — is mistaken. In addition, I have explained why one reading of the Baron d’Holbach’s response to a particular Thomistic conception of God would involve d’Holbach rejecting a Straw God. Nonetheless, there is a second reading of the response in which the Thomists have still lost the debate.