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Posted by on Sep 5, 2008 in Could it be obvious there's no God?, god | 34 comments

God, poetry and emotion

Following on from the previous post on God and indefinability, I have been thinking a bit more about Sam’s sophisticated theology.

I have been suggesting, rather bluntly (!), that Sam is (unwittingly) falling for, and applying, several rhetorical devices in order to try to deal with the problem of evil. These include:

(i) Playing the mystery card (See my The God of Eth)
(ii) Now you see it, now you don’t
(iii) Pseudo-profundity

I think there are lots more sleights-of-hand and rhetorical devices in play here, too. Perhaps I should go right through them all in detail at some point. My view (again, to state it bluntly) is that, once you’ve unpacked and disarmed all these various ploys and manoeuvres, what remains – the actual content of theism (to the extent that there actually is any content left in “sophisticated” theism once all the sleights-of-hand, etc. have been exposed) – is pretty obviously a load of cobblers.

But perhaps there isn’t any content at all? I’m not sure.

I just read the Book of Job and have been thinking about the poetic and inspirational use of language. Religion makes very great use of it, of course. Lots of “Lo!”s and words ending “-eth”. Here’s a bit:

9:4 He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength: who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?

9:5 Which removeth the mountains, and they know not: which overturneth them in his anger.

9:6 Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.

9:7 Which commandeth the sun, and it riseth not; and sealeth up the stars.

9:8 Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea.

9:9 Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south.

9:10 Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number.

You get the idea. But, other than bigging up God, what is actually said here? Well this:

“Who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?”

It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is clearly supposed to be “No one! So fear him! He gets angry!” It’s a veiled threat. But the actual answer is pretty obviously “Loads of people (me included!)”

And there are also some scientifically inaccurate claims, such as that the earth is set on pillars.

Now the sophisticated theologian will tell us not to take these passages so literally. But then what’s left? Just the expression of a sort of reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude. This text is designed to press our emotional buttons and get us reverberating in tune with it (three key emotions being awe, reverence and fear).

Being reasonably emotionally literate, I know when my buttons are being pressed. Spielberg is a master, of course. At the end of E.T., I can see exactly how Spielberg is manipulating me emotionally through very careful control of the music, script, etc. It’s almost formulaic. Yet I still start blubbing.

I get exactly the same feeling reading the Bible – and especially this passage from Job. The emotional and psychological manipulation is pretty transparent, I think. You can almost feel your buttons being pressed.

There is a mystery about why there is anything at all. We are awestruck by nature. And rightly so. Religions take these basic feelings of awe and mystery and build on them – using poetic, inspirational language.

But when you strip away the poetry and get down to the actual content of a particular religion, what’s left?

Claims, which, shorn of all the emotional button-pressing, and jotted down on the back of an envelope, are pretty obviously ridiculous.

Imagine writing down the core claims of Christianity – including the resurrection, etc., – in a matter-of-fact, bullet-point style and giving them to say, a Chinese person unfamiliar with Western religion. Their likely reaction would be, “You believe that?” Why?! The claims just don’t work any more once stripped of all the emotional and other psychological packaging.

On the other hand, remove these claims from a religion and what’s left? No content as such: just the reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude (which may also be happy-clappy or self-loathing, etc. etc. depending on which sect you end up in).

It seems the sophisticated theologian who rejects the ridiculous stuff is then just left with little more than the attitude. Of course, they think there’s something more. There still a sort of content left, they suppose. But when you ask them what the content of their belief is, they say – “Well, I can’t say, exactly – you see, it’s, um, ineffable, it’s a mystery.”

Hmm. My suspicion is they have simply projected an ineffable “something” to be the focus of all the emotional, psychological baggage they still find themselves left with.


  1. In a pre-something society the resurrection and miracles of jesus was a proof of christianity – now you could argue they are something you have to swallow to get to the interesting bits ? But what are the interesting bits ? Philosophically they seem a bit thin – but culturally ? The devil may have all the best arguments but we have the best schools.

  2. What I am saying is that Religion is primarily a cultural Phenomenon – Its aim could be percieved is to allow people to cope with the experience of suffering. Blow the wind of reason through it and leave only a gossamer thread of truth – as long as I know what that it is ill be happy to remain a christian as a spider is to be left weaving its web. Why not read Feuerbach or Vattimo – solid reliable christian atheists. The debate over theism is no more a debate over religion than the argument over historical atrocities. Lets establish the truth of how exactly power can enact its abuses – of the reasonableness of a theistic god – and then leave religion to deal with consequences : bundling the two together just gets noisy. But boy does it sell books…

  3. “…the sophisticated theologian will tell us not to take these passages so literally. But then what’s left?”What sort of answer are you seeking? That is, what would qualify as substantial content?

  4. What sort of answer am I seeking? None in particular. The question is: what sort of answer are you giving?! Do you know yourself?

  5. Stephen, I live in China and can indeed confirm that the average Chinese reaction to the beliefs of Christianity is of one of bemused bafflement. It’s interesting to note though, just how many Chinese who come from strict Conservative communist families (or went to hardcore party schools)who go abroad to university come back as Christians. Once they’ve been abroad they see through a lot of the bullshit they were taught at school, but are left with a communism-sized hole in tehir world view

  6. It is a bit unfair to complain that Bible has a lot of words ending “-eth” as you were reading the King James version. It is a kind of old and languages do change. There should be more modern versions available in English (I am quite happy with the modern Finnish one).What makes religion interesting is that “Oh wow!” attitude or, more likely, “Oh wow!”experience. You and I haven’t had it, but many people have.The writer of Job tried to explain the “Oh wow!” by talking of pillars of the earth. More modern version of the same explaining can be found in e.g. the Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action series reading, but for most of the readers of this blog just white noise. And they might be right.

  7. Let me be more specific then. You’re criticising emotional language. What role do emotions play in your philosophical weltanschaaung?

  8. I have no problem with emotions or emotional language. I just can’t see how “sophisticated” theology, at the limit, amounts to anything more than emoting.After all, atheists can emote too, and go “Oh Wow!” at nature and be struck by the mystery of why there’s anything at all. I’m happy with that. I just don’t see how sophisticated theism, at the limit, differs. Why is it theism?

  9. Sam asks what we would expect.Well, as we ar dealing with a law or set of rules which is imposed on us in at least an non-democratic way, even totalitarian, this would be my answer:The magic spell which Jezus used to heal the sick would help.This would at least help to prove that the bible is supernatural in origin. Since obviously, all ‘prove ‘ of its divinity is based on mere roumors.What would help after that, is a clear set of laws-in-principle like the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights. Not the incoherent, often ambiguous, and indeed “pseudo-deep” utterings which have clearly endless number of different interpretations.

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  11. with dawkins’ book still lingering in the background of this debate can I ask the rev.dr. incitatus to expand idea that quantum mechannics is no hiding ground to debunk dawkins.Can what god is be isolated to be discussed – or does subject and object blur that god simply would simply have to be – like say gravity or electromagnetism.An unfalsifible software patch ?Is god actually an identifiable thing to be discussed – or to go into all that continental philosophy stuff an “event inside a name” ?I read an interview with Rabbimeister Jonathon Sacks who said having a problem with suffering was itself a sign of faith – doing something about it was faith. Propositional Concepts – what is x,y,z so we can discuss it – were an obsession of greek philosophy and a distraction for european thought.p.s. the full quote from wikipedia about dawkins and quantum :Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times, while finding that “Dawkins’ attack on the creationists is devastatingly effective”, considers him “maddeningly inconsistent”. He argues that, since Dawkins accepts that current theories about the universe (such as quantum theory) may be “already knocking at the door of the unfathomable” and that the universe may be “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”, “the thought of how limited our comprehension is should introduce a certain diffidence into our attempted refutations of those who think they have the answer”.

  12. Those of us who attempt to consider these matters rationally don’t think we have all the answers. But we don’t think “God” is an answer.Jung had some interesting things to say in his “Answer to Job”.

  13. Stephen said,“And there are also some scientifically inaccurate claims, such as that the earth is set on pillars.”Perhaps this is reference to the D-braneworld hypothesis in string theory? Strings stuck to branes… bit like columns…Kidding.

  14. Sam In the last threadlet you said “… You’d need to show that it was taught by the founder of that religion. Which you could probably do in the case of Islam, but you can’t in the case of Christianity.”Well we haven’t actually been able to pin down the founder(s) yet have we? Aside from the doubt about Jesus’ historicity I would suggest that modern Christianity owes more to the work of those who got the whole Church project rolling.

  15. Joshua,Prof Martin’s argument is immediately rendered rickety by the following statement,“Showing that God’s existence is possible but unlikely will do.”No, it won’t, imho, for two related reasons.First, the entire God thing is considered miraculous, and therefore, inherently improbable. So making an empirical argument challenging the probability of God isn’t going to cut much ice with a faith in his existence, of which the improbability of it all is a prerequisite factor for the belief system in the first place. Second, by taking this route Martin is likely to end up running afoul of something akin to the inverse gambler’s fallacy, which is the usual stomping ground of creationists. Statistics are incredibly limited when it comes to trying to assess the probability of an event occurring when it has already (albeit allegedly in this case) occurred. Much like throwing a dozen coins in the air and noting the sequence of heads and tails, if one retroactively applied a probability test to the emerging sequence, we would find that its probability was incredibly low. But as Hacking describes (and others before him) such a test is invalid. Now, in this instance, the results of the coin toss have come down to us in a most indirect manner, but that doesn’t change the fact that its if scientifically unsound to dismiss these assertions on the basis of a posthoc assessment of probability.As we’ve discussed here, it is difficult to bring any evidence to bear inre the existence or non-existence of something we cannot readily define. The only time we can bring empirical force to bear on this question is inre more clearly defined God’s. e.g. Olympian Gods, Mormon theology, and certain literal interpretations of the Christian narrative are arguably falsifiable.But I agree with Dennett that the woollier, touchy-feely definitions of God are unassailable by current empirical paradigms.

  16. Rev. Dr. Incitatus “It is difficult to bring any evidence to bear inre the existence or non-existence of something we cannot readily define.”Yes but theists keep insisting on various definitions of the word “God”. Usually when they do so the tests of consistency etc are sufficient to allow disproof. If they have any sort of integrity they modify their claims and a little later we go round the loop again. So what is the essential defining idea of a god? What do all hypothesized gods have in common? If the theists would agree on this then we could at last attempt to settle the question about whether a disproof of this particular form is possible. Just how woolly can a definition be before it looses all meaning?

  17. how about a “event inside the name” thats one of my favourite wooly jumpers – gets me through a lot of hymns – does anyone here do derrida – or is he post-modern psycho babble. Someone told me Dawkins doesnt do the postmodern . Which is amusing since just when I thought the po-mo circus was grinding to a halt he has created a new minority to keep the wheels of revisionism turning : the alienated atheist.

  18. Sam asked Stephen: “What sort of answer are you seeking? That is, what would count as substantial content?”Now I don’t want to answer on Stephen’s behalf, especially since he has already done so himself. However, I will say what I’m seeking.What I’m seeking is an answer to the following question: What claims do you, as a sophisticated Christian theologian, take to be literally true?The claims in question could be claims about God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Spirit, etc., or simply Biblical claims. Roughly, they should be claims such that you are a Christian partially in virtue of taking of taking them to be literally true.

  19. Hi Greg, thanks for the serious answer.With respect to God I’m not sure I’d want to claim that _anything_ is literally true about God; I don’t think that’s how the language works (it would end up making God the member of a set). I think the privileging of ‘literal’ defeats the purpose of talking coherently about God, at least within the Christian tradition.However, with respect to Jesus I’d say several things “as a Christian theologian” that I believe to be literally true, eg that Jesus was born in Israel c 4BC, grew up an orthodox Jew, taught and healed in the small villages in Galilee, went to Jerusalem, attacked the authorities, had a last meal with his disciples, was crucified and was resurrected on the third day.I think a non-Christian can straightforwardly agree with all of those except the last.

  20. Following up on Greg’s question, Sam – are their any other miraculous things in the Old or New Testament that you think literally happened, or probably literally happened? Water into wine? Casting out of devils into herd of pigs? Parting of Red Sea? Are there miracles you are pretty sure did not happen? If so, why?Do you believe that such miracles are also happening today, done by e.g. U.S. Christian ministers (ever watch God TV?!)?Be good to get a sense of what you believe and what you don’t, and why.

  21. Hi Stephen,For a longer take on my views on miracles see here. My view of the world is essentially ‘monist’, that is I think there is only one sort of ‘stuff’. So I don’t accept anything supernatural in the popular and Modern sense of that term. I do think, however, that there are lots of very strange and odd things in the world, and I think that miracles happen, in the sense of ‘signs’ rather than interventions.So I think that there are such things as miraculous (=’sign’) healings which take place today – I’ve met too many people that this has happened to to deny it – but I don’t think that the ‘laws of physics’ have been suspended for them to take place. That’s not where the significance lies.Similarly, in Biblical terms, there are lots of stories which I don’t see as literally true, eg the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Their meaning is primarily theological. I think there is a spectrum of events, from healings and exorcisms at one end, which I don’t have much difficulty accepting at more or less face value (dependent on the story of course) to the more theologically developed stories (eg parting the Red Sea) which have clearly been heavily embellished over time. The point of these latter stories isn’t really about power so much as they are about the character of God. So for a lot of the New Testament stories (eg calming the storm) I tend to be a bit ambivalent about whether the events happened exactly as described, because the stories, understood in that way, are not weight-bearing for me.I see the resurrection as a special case, sui generis, and I’ve talked about that here and here.

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  23. Hi Sam,Thanks for your response. Suppose that someone–call him “Jones”–thinks that each of the following claims is literally true:a. Jesus was born in Israel c. 4 BC.b. Jesus grew up an orthodox Jew.c. Jesus taught and healed in the small villages in Galilee.d. Jesus went to Jerusalem.e. Jesus attacked the authorities.f. Jesus had a last meal with his disciples.g. Jesus was crucified.h. Jesus was resurrected on the third day [after his crucifixion].However, suppose that Jones denies that the following is literally true:-God exists.Surely Jones is not a Christian. This raises the question: What must be added to the fact that someone thinks that (a)-(h) are literally true in order for him to be a Christian? Are their other claims such that if someone took them to be literally true in addition to taking (a)-(h) to be literally true, he would be a Christian? If not, what does (or could) make the difference between the non-Christian Jones and a Christian who thinks that (a)-(h) are literally true?(BTW, I’m not assuming that every Christian is a Christian in virtue of the same facts about him or her. It may be that there are two Christians, Alex and Bob, such that Alex is a Christian in virtue of the fact that he thinks that (a)-(h) are literally true and the fact that A and Bob is a Christian in virtue of the fact that he thinks that (a)-(h) are literally true and the fact that B, where A and B are distinct.)

  24. That sums up my feelings on the matter better than I have yet managed to express. Nice one.

  25. Let me make some remarks concerning what I think we can learn from my last comment.First, I claimed that although Jones thinks that (a)-(h) are literally true, Jones is not a Christian since Jones denies that it is literally true that God exists. We can give a simple argument for this claim:1. Jones is an atheist. (This follows from the fact that Jones denies that it is literally true that God exists.)2. No atheists are Christians.3. Therefore, Jones is not a Christian.Someone might respond by denying premise (2). They might claim that there are some “Christian atheists”. (I think I have seen some people make this claim in comments on this blog.) I think that if this claim is true (which I’m not convinced of), then it doesn’t show that premise (2) is false. In particular, I think that if there are people who are correctly described as “Christian atheists”, then “Christian atheist” is analogous to “toy duck”. Just as toy ducks are not ducks, so too Christian atheists (if there are any) are not Christians.On the other hand, suppose that Christian atheists are Christian, thus showing premise (2) to be false. Then we can simply modify the argument as follows:1. Jones is an atheist.2. No atheist is a Christian theist.3. Therefore, Jones is not a Christian theist.We seem to reach the conclusion, then, that someone (like Jones) who denies that it is literally true that God exists is not a Christian theist.We can strengthen this conclusion. Suppose that Jones’ friend Smith doesn’t deny that it is literally true that God exists, but he also doesn’t affirm that it is literally true. Then Jones is not a Christian. He’s an agnostic. Or, at the very least, he’s not a Christian theist.Thus, in order to be a Christian (or at least in order to be a Christian theist), one must affirm that it is literally true that God exists. This seems to be contrary to Rev. Sam’s “sophisticated Christian theism”, which denies that any claim about God is literally true.

  26. Hi Greg, This is an interesting conversation.I would say that, to be Christian, proposition h. has to be understood in the passive sense, ie that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, that he was vindicated and justified by God over against those who had crucified him. So at least at that point there is a necessary link between following Jesus and believing in God.

  27. Hi Sam,You said: “I would say that, to be Christian, proposition h. has to be understood in the passive sense, ie that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, that he was vindicated and justified by God over against those who had crucified him.”Now you said previously that you take (h) to be literally true, and you now seem to be suggesting that, on the proper understanding of (h), it is equivalent to:(h’) Jesus was raised from the dead by God.Thus, since you take (h) to be literally true and you take (h) to be equivalent to (h’), you must take (h’) to be literally true as well. But (h’) is a claim about God. (It is not a claim solely about God, to be sure, since it is also about Jesus. But it is a claim about God, as well.) So it seems that you do take at least one claim about God to be literally true, contrary to your previous remarks.What do you think?

  28. I think that’s an excellent point, well made ;-)I’ll have a further ponder, but for now I’m happy to concede that it’s a logical contradiction. That is, I want to hang on to a) God is not a member of any set, b) God raised Jesus from the dead, c) God is not a member of the set of things which have raised Jesus from the dead….As I say , more reflection needed.

  29. It’s worse than that, Sam. Because as soon as you ask the question “WHY did God raise Jesus from the dead?” – a question to which any serious Christian must surely have an answer – the response inevitably creates yet more sets for this God to be a member of (related to his desires, requirements etc).The upshot is, you can either have the ineffable, setless deity of sophisticated theology, or you can have Christianity.Take your pick.

  30. If that IS the choice, then I’d take Christianity, but I’m still pondering the issue.

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