Of Atheists and Straw Gods


This thoughtful piece by Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian makes a clear case for why so many of the current debates surrounding the existence of God fall short of the mark. Defining one's terms is central to any successful debate, and it's here that we encounter the clearest obstacle to this vexed topic.

Burkeman is an admitted skeptic where belief in God is concerned, but, he contends, these debates are frequently unhelpful because both sides misunderstand what historic monotheism means by the word "God." His recommendation is that atheists read David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss as a primer on the subject: “God, in short, isn't one very impressive thing among many things that might or might not exist; ‘not just some especially resplendent object among all the objects illuminated by the light of being,’ as Hart puts it. Rather, God is ‘the light of being itself’, the answer to the question of why there's existence to begin with. In other words, that wisecrack about how atheists merely believe in one less god than theists do, though it makes a funny line in a Tim Minchin song, is just a category error. Monotheism's God isn't like one of the Greek gods, except that he happens to have no god friends. It's an utterly different kind of concept.”

In other words, the target of a good deal of these attacks (and defenses) is a god that traditional Christians and theists of all stripes don’t believe in. Rather than waste time attacking or defending a straw god, Burkeman recommends that we at least come to a point of mutual understanding on what believers mean when they invoke "God." It is my sincere hope that those of us with a vested interest in this question--believer and skeptic alike-- will take his advice, and that this discussion will take on a more constructive tone.

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