For most of human history, theism was treated as a given. To be sure, there were differences of opinion on the issue. Are there many gods or one? Does he communicate through law? Or prophets? If so, which ones? Might he have become incarnate at some time in human history? These questions and countless others have been answered in many different ways by the world’s great religious traditions. But the underlying presumption in favor of some form of theism remained a constant.
This is no longer the case. Where atheists of old worked to conceal their skepticism for fear of punishment or social ostracism, today they collect hefty book advances and enjoy widespread public adoration. And no wonder: A recent poll shows that one in five Americans has no religious preference, more than double the number reported in 1990 — and the highest rate since the number began to be tracked in the 1930s. According to another survey, nearly a third of Americans under the age of 30 describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or "spiritual but not religious," making the millennial generation the most religiously unaffiliated of any on record.
For those who have led the charge against the forces of faith — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Grayling, and numerous other wannabes — this change is a welcome sign that the American people have at long last begun to dispel their atavistic ignorance and reconcile themselves to the scientific account of the universe, which is utterly incompatible with any form of theism.
One of the many virtues of theologian David Bentley Hart’s stunning new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is that it demolishes this facile, self-satisfied position, exposing how completely it relies on a straw man account of God for its cogency. Atheism may well be true; a society of secularists might get along just fine without any form of piety. But until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy.
Without meaning to downplay the very real differences among and within the world’s religions, Hart nonetheless maintains that underlying those differences is a commonly shared cluster of claims about God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and various forms of ancient paganism. (He also finds continuities with a number of Buddhist concepts, though he doesn’t press the case.)
The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps). Then they use the findings of science to show that there is no evidence for such an immensely powerful object or thing. And ipso facto, there is no God.
But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.
Scientists are heroically proficient at detecting the laws that govern the natural world. They interrogate phenomena, trace effects back to their contingent causes, and then those causes back to even prior causes, developing and testing theories that seek to explain the temporal sequence. In the case of cosmology, that sequence extends all the way back to origins of the universe — to the first contingent cause of every subsequent cause over the past 13.82 billion years or so.
God concerns something else entirely. He is certainly not one of the many contingent causes within the natural world. But neither is he the first contingent cause, setting off the Big Bang from some blast-resistant fallout shelter lodged, somehow, outside of and prior to the universe as we know it.
On the contrary, according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God "exists" in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.
This can be a difficult concept to grasp, but Hart does an exceptionally good job of explaining it — as he does the way this classical idea of God makes sense of the experience and unity of consciousness, as well as the ecstatic longing for the good and the beautiful that lies at the heart of moral experience.
In a move sure to enrage atheists, Hart even goes so far as to argue that faith in this classical notion of God can never be "wholly and coherently rejected" — and not only because it may very well be self-contradictory to prove the nonexistence of an absolute, transcendent ground of existence.
The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) "that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not."
That bracing and bold assertion, like the others that pack nearly every page of The Experience of God, should be questioned and subjected to scrutiny. But it should also be pondered. For provoking deep thought about the profoundest human questions, and for taking an intelligent stand in defense of faith and against its complacent, cultured despisers, Hart deserves the gratitude of a large and appreciative audience.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- What is driving the increasingly weird behavior of the polar jet stream?
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- Christians have no moral rationale for spanking their children
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- Should you hope to die at 75? Absolutely not.
- Stop hating on cyclists
- Why America should team up with Bashar al-Assad's regime
Subscribe to the Week