I’ve been writing on the topic of Straw God Arguments (SGAs) for some time. SGA is my term for the argument, often levelled by popular liberal theologians (e.g. Karen Armstrong), that atheists reject the wrong kind of God. According to the accusation, atheists spend all of their time responding to the God of conservative theology, but that God is a false idol that should never have been accepted in the first place. According to liberal theologians, atheists perform a valuable service by showing which gods we should not believe in. However, if the theologies offered by liberal theologians have troubles of their own that render them unbelievable, it cannot be said that atheists reject the wrong gods.
In a recent interview, atheist Stephen Fry was asked what he would say to God if he met God after death. Fry states, in no uncertain terms, that God would have much to explain. We live in a world where some species of insects lay their eggs in the eyes of children and spend part of their lifecycles burrowing out. Why was that necessary for God to create? From Fry’s perspective, if God exists, then God is a “bastard” not worthy of praise or worship.
Giles Fraser, a priest in the Church of England, responded in an article in the Guardian. “I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either,” he writes. Fraser applauds Fry’s answer, stating that it is “admirable”, even if he does think it contains a mistake. From Fraser’s perspective, Fry is correct to reject a God who others worship out of fear. God, as Fry imagines Him, is an authoritarian bully and a false idol. But Fraser’s God — who Fry has (apparently) never imagined — is worth believing in. This is a classic SGA.
What is Fraser’s God like? Fraser explains that his God is one which surpasses existence. It’s not clear what he means by that, but there are some textual clues. Let’s examine them one at a time.
Fraser tells us that Fry is mistaken in supposing God is the sort of being one can meet face-to-face, which “presumes that God exists”. I can imagine a variety of reasons why one could not meet God face-to-face. For example, because God is immaterial, God is not at any time or in any place and does not possess a face. God should not be counted among the furniture of the world because God created all of the furniture. God is not part of creation but is transcendent to creation. Fair enough, though if this is what Fraser meant, I wonder why he did not spell this out for the reader.
In the final paragraph, Fraser tells us again that his God is beyond existence. He writes that “no less an authority than Thomas Aquinas rightly insists, existence itself is a questionable predicate to use of God”. From this sentence, one might suppose Fraser believes ‘exists’ should not be predicated of God for reasons similar to those provided by Aquinas. For Aquinas, the reason that the term ‘exists’ (‘ens’ in Aquinas’s latin) does not mean the same thing when discussing God as when discussing creatures is because God’s existence is identical to God’s essence (‘esse’), whereas, in creatures, essence and existence are distinct. Furthermore, God’s essence is incomprehensible to the human intellect in this life, implying that the manner of God’s existence is likewise incomprehensible. In creatures, existence is comprehensible in this life. Thus: ‘exists’ means something different when applied to God than when applied to creatures.
Unfortunately, the sentences which follow undermine the interpretation of Fraser’s comment as affirming Thomism. He writes:
For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives. Of course this is real. Frighteningly real. Real enough to live and die for even. But this is not the same as saying that God is a command and control astronaut responsible for some wicked hunger game experiment on planet earth.
What this has to do with Aquinas’s notion that existence means something different for God than it does for creatures, I haven’t a clue. I’m not sure it’s even coherent (“the name of respect we owe the planet” and “the shape we make of our lives” are the same thing?). Frankly, it seems as though Fraser referenced Thomism more to obfuscate than to clarify.
Fraser is not the first liberal theologian to reference the notion that ‘exists’ is not univocal for God and creatures. Paul Tillich referenced the notion in his Courage to Be in 1952 and in his Systematic Theology. Later, Marcus Borg (The God We Never Knew) and Karen Armstrong (The Case for God and numerous articles) would utilize the notion for their own theologies. It’s become something of a trope for liberal theologians to claim that God transcends even being. (I am confused as to why popular authors do this; I have met very few people who knew what Armstrong meant when she said that “God is not a being at all”.) I fear that Fraser has referenced the notion because it is popular and obfuscatory and not because it adds to his argument in any way. Worse: the notion is not popular among philosophers. Most philosophers follow Quine, who thought that ‘exists’ just means that there is at least one of something. To say that “God exists” would be to say that it is false that there is no God.
Perhaps I am being too harsh in accusing Fraser of obfuscation and there is something in his article that I have not understood. Be that as it may, Fraser’s attempt to explain why suffering exists is no better. As I explained previously, Fraser accepts Fry’s argument: a god who created a world of suffering should not be believed in or worshipped. Because Fraser affirms Fry’s argument, we can surmise that, for Fraser, no greater good is served by the world’s various sufferings. Nonetheless, Fraser proposes a way to make his God compatible with the suffering we observe in the world. He imagines that the existence of the suffering in our world can be explained through the incarnation of the divine Son as Jesus. He writes:
For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.
God suffers along with us and is not a passive observer. This allows God to be empathetic to us; because God empathizes with us, God can rest a metaphorical hand on our shoulders and affirm to us that “all will be well”. I imagine that, for many, this sounds intuitively appealing. However, problems are manifest.
Imagine that I create a torture chamber and kidnap a number of people. I force all of them to endure unimaginable torments that I have designed. Suppose I put myself through the same unimaginable torments. Having tormented myself, I know what it feels like to endure all of the sufferings I put my captives through. Would Fraser imagine that I am, somehow, less accountable? I wouldn’t think so. Suppose I put my hand on the shoulder of one of my captives and whisper in their ear, “all will be well”. Do they find hope in my words or do they shudder? I would imagine that they would shudder and find me reprehensible.
Yet the captives in my thought experiment are in an analogous situation to the one we find ourselves in with respect to Fraser’s God. That God has experienced the suffering experienced by humans does not render God less accountable for having created our world’s various torments. Worse: that Fraser accepts Fry’s argument meant that Fraser can imagine no greater good which human suffering can serve. God might suffer alongside us, but this can be of little consolation when all of the suffering is ultimately pointless.
Do atheists reject the wrong God? I don’t know, but Fraser’s God is not one worth accepting.