"ATHEISTS," "BELIEVERS," AND THE
"FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE"
South Park, Spaghetti Monsters, and the real verses the phony God
“What we’ve got here is, failure to communicate.”
Sometimes we lack clear communication when we need it most.
For example: Does God exist, or not?
Not a small matter, that.
It might seem like the most important things in life ought to get the most scrutiny.
But all too often, The Big Questions get ignored. Or dismissed. Or they lead immediately to some sort of verbal train wreck.
When “Atheists” and “Believers”* actually talk about this question, the conversation often becomes one of two types of train wreck: either the “loud” kind, or the “quiet.”
This is the “quiet” version:
“No, there is no God.”
“Yes, there is.”
“No, there isn’t.”
“Yes, there is.”
“No, there isn’t!”
“Yes, there is!”
- and so on. Beyond this point, all roads usually end in stalemate, and the conversation goes silent.
Bickering like this often leaves the impression that conversations about spirituality and The Big Questions are a pointless waste of time. Like the Captain and Luke in Cool Hand Luke, sometimes it can seem like there are just two different sides, and there always will be, and any effort to change things is hopeless.
The reasoning behind this generally goes something like this: “everyone has ‘opinions’ on the matter, and everybody is allowed to have their opinions, however mistaken they might be. So, since talking about it leads to conflict, and it’s all supposedly just a subjective matter of personal taste anyway, let’s just talk about more important things, like the weather or celebrity gossip.” The result of this is a soft tyranny of small talk.
That’s the “quiet” approach.
The second, “loud” approach – which has become much more popular recently – is to do battle. This happens when the conversation takes a Nietzschian, “will to power” turn. The object of the game – er, “conversation” – isn’t to learn, understand, or communicate. It’s to win, at all costs. One side simply tries to knock the other out – either verbally, emotionally, or physically – and whoever is left standing “wins” the “argument.” Truth is decided by verbal dogfighting. The trophy usually goes to the most ruthless.
But sometimes, things get more interesting.
Every so often, conversations reach a level higher than the “stalemate” and “brawl” approaches.
They’re fruitful. Everybody involved comes out richer for it.
When this happens, flashes of insight resolve the underlying problem that’s generating the argument. Both sides arrive at a solution they agree on.
This might even be possible with “New Atheists” and “Believers.”
The friction between these two groups is well known. One side says there is no God. The other side there is. Each side thinks the other is mistaken. Standstill.
It can sometimes seem to be a stale debate.
But every so often, clear communication actually takes place. Someone dives into the conversation and “debugs” what’s going on.
That actually happened recently, in a lecture by a popular Catholic Bishop.
Some of the conclusions he reached might be surprising.
“Why the New Atheists Are Right” is part of the title of the lecture.
In this lecture, Bishop Robert Barron takes a fairly deep, nuanced dive into the “God” question.
He brings up many points that have been made by a number of the New Atheists, addresses them, explains the source of several misunderstandings, and untangles more than a few threads.
For example, he says that:
* The “New Atheists” are right in some ways.
* Yet they’re also way off on some very important, fundamental ideas.
* The reasons for some of these problems lie on his (the Barron’s) side.
* Atheistic attacks can ultimately help the “Believer” side become stronger.
It’s revealing, on a few levels.
It clarifies some key points in regards to the subject matter itself, but indirectly, it also illuminates how dysfunctional the usual level of conversation often is.
But why? What’s behind this “failure to communicate“?
Some of the confusion seems to trace back to the “modern worldview crush,” which is a side-effect of both a shrinking world and living through “The Death of God.” This “crush” happens when individuals with different worldviews who hold wildly different fundamental assumptions about life try to communicate. They rarely discuss their fundamental assumptions. Something they aren’t even aware of them. Even when they do take this into consideration, they tend to stick only to the surface-level “facts.” But they often ignore fact selection, fact interpretation, and the worldview that drives those interpretations. Unsurprisingly, then, things don’t go well. It can be like two blindfolded people trying to play ping-pong in a dark room. The frequent result, again, is either stalemate or verbal/emotional/physical violence.
All of this leads to fundamental, colossal, Kong-sized misunderstandings that often go undetected. This can result in each side mistakenly declaring the other ignorant, dumb, sick, or evil.
But here’s where things can get even more interesting.
When we debug some of these misunderstandings, we sometimes discover that a significant part of the friction between “atheists” and “believers” itself is based on a mistake.
South Park can be a guide here.
Highly esteemed theologians Trey Parker and Matt Stone boil this down pretty well.
In one episode (S6 Episode 1), a celebrity (Jared) decides to try to help the citizens of South Park lose weight. He recommends the solution that worked for him: hiring “aides,” or nutrition and fitness experts. He then offers to fund this for everyone in town, and announces that he “wants to give everyone aides.” The citizens of South Park misunderstand, and think he’s trying to give everyone A.I.D.S. (the disease.)
Drama ensues. The entire town is soon in an uproar. Both sides baffle each other: Jared can’t understand why everyone seems to hate him, and the citizens can’t understand why he would want to give everyone – children included – a deadly disease. The entire scene spirals into escalating moral outrage and lunacy. Eventually, the citizens are moments away from hanging Jared in the center of town square. With seconds to spare, they suddenly realize the misunderstanding. “Oooh, you meant ‘aides’? We thought you meant A.I.D.S.! Ha! Wow!” They all laugh it off, and everyone goes home. Fairy tale ending.
This little fable is an exercise in absurdity.
But what if something like this is actually happening in our most important conversations about life? What if that absurd South Park episode could illustrate at least some of the conversations between atheists and believers?
So where, exactly, is this “failure to communicate”?
If two different interpretations of a single word caused all the trouble in South Park, what’s the equivalent in the believer-atheist debate?
The trouble seems to orbit different interpretations or definitions of the word “God.”
Catholic Bishop Robert Barron describes what seems to be the heart of the problem:
“The contemporary atheists are doing battle, essentially, with caricatures.”
“God,” as understood by some atheists, is absurd. They define “God” in a particular way – what Barron would describe as a “caricature” – and then point out the flaws in the idea of putting “faith” in that caricature.
“And therefore, it is absolutely right to say to them, as Herbert McCabe did, ‘you’re absolutely right.’”
As it turns out, at least some Believers often don’t believe in that definition of God, either.
So, the dysfunctional process seems to go something like this: 1) adopt a wrong idea about God (or a caricature); 2) point out absurdities in that wrong idea; 3) reject the idea of God entirely based on those absurdities.
This can lead to the colossal misunderstandings. Two different groups use the same word, but with different meanings. They fight to the bitter end about whether God exists or not without ever clearly defining what they meant by the word “God.”
But sometimes, the fog clears.
In some cases, atheists and believers realize they’re fighting over false problems.
It’s the “Don Quixote” fallacy. Quixote saw windmills, imagined they were dragons, and attacked. But in this case, instead of windmills, atheists and believers attack each other. Each side attacks what it imagines reality to be, instead of checking it out to see if that’s actually the case. They mischaracterize each other, and then attack those mischaracterizations.
But defining “God” properly, in the beginning, would have prevented the problems from arising in the first place.
That’s the live-action South Park re-enactment.
Bishop Barron explores this in some depth.
He addresses some of the key issues raised by the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens). He embraces their arguments, appreciates all the ways they’re on target, and then proceeds to explain the ways a clarification of the correct meaning of the word “God” can resolve them.
He opens with a sample conversation roughly along these lines:
Atheist: “I don’t believe in God.”
Believer: “Well, what do you mean by ‘God’?”
Atheist: (Explains – “God” is X, Y, and Z.)
Believer: “Well, I can assure you, I don’t believe in that God either.”
Barron explains that atheists often don’t offer real arguments against the real God, but against a “not-very-impressive straw God.” They create “pseudo-problems” by misunderstanding “God,” and then attacking that misunderstanding.
Barron isn’t alone in his assessment.
Several prominent scholars have described the New Atheists as being misinformed on key topics.
C. Stephen Evans, for example, says, “the New Atheists show a lack of philosophical understanding and sophistication.” Philosopher Michael Ruse said “I think Dawkins is ignorant of just about every aspect of philosophy and theology and it shows.” Psychologist Jonathan Haidt said “…when I read the new atheist books, I see…battlefields strewn with the corpses of straw men.” And so on. A collection of these (including several of the above) have been compiled in A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism by Peter S. Williams.)
David Bentley Hart says this on the first page of his book:
“…while there has been a great deal of public debate about belief in God in recent years…the concept of God around which the arguments have run their seemingly interminable courses has remained strangely obscure the whole time. The more scrutiny one accords these debates, moreover, the more evident it becomes that often the contending parties are not even talking about the same thing; and I would go as far as to say that on most occasions none of them is talking about God in any coherent sense at all.”
(The Experience of God, 1 (italics ours))
Instead of both sides bashing each other, Barron works to understand how both sides became so divided, and why there often seems to be so much misunderstanding.
He references two examples to illustrate this. He then proceeds to unpack the ways each of these conclusions are based on misunderstandings of the real God, and corrects them.
First is the idea of God as the “flying spaghetti monster.”
Atheists sometimes reference God as “a fantastical imaginary being for whom there is no trace of evidence” (like the spaghetti monster.) This God, they assert, is both imaginary and unnecessary.
Atheists often refer to a well-known story where Pièrre Simon LaPlace was describing a theory of the universe to Napolean. Napolean asked him how God fit into that system. LaPlace’s famously replied: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
The implication is that God is something like a “flying spaghetti monster,” a “fantastical imaginary being for whom there is no trace of evidence.” Along these lines, atheists such as Richard Dawkins seems to imagine that believers think the universe exists, and then, in addition to that, there’s also a supernatural entity who designed the universe and intervenes in it with miracles.
But as Barron explains, Dawkins is defining God as some agent or entity within the universe, and operating with and alongside other agents and entities. This view defines God as merely a being in the world, a being that dwells in or alongside the cosmos. God, by this definition, is one being among many. This view defines “God” as a reality in the world whose existence or non-existence can be determined through rational, scientific investigation, and exists at the same level as conventional, empirically verifiable causes. An assumption underlying LaPlace’s comment, for example – and Napolean’s question – is that God is one of the mechanical causes that contribute to the motion of the planets, as one cause among many.
But this view is mistaken, Barron asserts. As he describes, God and creatures are not competing for space on the same metaphysical playing field. In the conversation between LaPlace and Napolean, both men thought of God as like other worldly agents. God isn’t an ingredient of the universe. God is never reducible to the level of a creaturely nature. He could never, even in principle, become the object of an empirical or scientific investigation. He could never be defined or categorized by an inquiring mind. God created the mind that is doing the defining.
In this sense, God is “radically other.” Because he brought the whole of the finite universe into existence, God can’t be an ingredient of the universe. He must be “other” in a way that transcends any and all modes of “otherness.”
An illustration referenced by Hart (not Barron) depicts this sense of the “radically other.” Someone might say, “I’ve read every single word of Hamlet, but I’ve found no evidence whatsoever of this alleged ‘Shakespeare.’” Or, similarly, “I’ve taken this entire truck apart, and inspected every single piece, and I’ve found no evidence whatsoever of this ‘Henry Ford.’”
Shakespeare isn’t a character in Hamlet, Henry Ford isn’t any kind of truck part, and God isn’t any component or physical cause located within the universe.
This echoes a similar accusation atheists make of God.
A second key idea is that of “God as a kind of cosmic dictator.”
This depicts God as a kind of tyrannical ruler that imposes unpleasant things on us.
Some atheists describe God as a kind of boss of a cosmic police state. According to this depiction, all aspects of private and public life are submitted to a permanent higher supervision. There’s a close association with religion and political totalitarianism, where God “watches and governs the world from the outside, and imposes his rules on a recalcitrant human freedom.” The only kind of relationship with God, they assert, is one of submission to a tyrant.
Barron responds to the accusation that by saying, “It’s just the opposite.”
How does that work?
A few clarifications can help clarify. The above view posits a ‘pre-existing reality.’ That is to say, it implies a kind of “created thing” that exists before the Creator created anything. After all, there would need to be something for the Creator to “impose his will on.” That thing (or person, in our case) would have to exist first in order to be imposed on.
The fallacy in that depiction is clear. The idea is that there’s creation, and then there’s God that “imposes” himself onto creation (that is, onto you or me). So, there’s creation, and then there’s God, external to creation, imposing himself upon a creation that doesn’t want to be imposed upon. But who created what God is supposed to be imposing himself on? Is the idea that God created a universe that doesn’t want to be imposed upon, and then imposes himself on it?
That interpretation is a long way from genuine, classical orthodoxy, which holds that God created creation. That is, God created that original “created thing.” As Barron states, “God brings not just part, but the whole of reality into being.” We can’t really say that creation is received by the Creator as an outside influence (since that would presume that there was a receptacle that is not itself created.) “God creates that which receiving the act of creation.”
A distinction about the universe can be helpful here.
The universe is frequently thought of as “something that happened long ago.”
But that assumes a deistic, “clockwork” kind of worldview. According to this worldview, God set everything up many years ago – he lit the fuse on the Big Bang – and then let it run.
But according to classical theism, the origin of the universe – or “creation” – is something “happening” right now. Creation isn’t some event that happened once, long ago. It’s still happening at this moment, right now.
After all, “long ago” implies time. In order for a universe to exist, time and space had to exist first. This points to what there is beyond time and space, which starts pointing toward eternity and infinity.
Barron then quotes Thomas Merton: “Contemplative prayer is finding that place in you where you are, here and now, being created by God.”
He explains that “creation is a kind of relationship to the creator with newness of being.”
He mentions God using finite causes instrumentally, but “non-invasively.”
This “non-invasive” point is critical.
In this sense, as Barron says: “God doesn’t “push” or “pull” human wills from the outside as much as he energizes them from the inside.” He says, “…his influence is not external to the creature.”
This is a 180-degree shift from the “cosmic tyrant” approach.
It also points toward a fresh imperative to “Know Thyself.”
To illustrate this point: imagine an unhealthy guy who wants to get in shape. He joins a gym. He buys workout clothes. He has every intention of working out.
But when the moment comes, and it’s time to actually go to the gym, he doesn’t want to.
This is a moment of inner conflict, even though no one is telling him what to do, aside from himself. At this moment, he could imagine and even feel that he’s being “bossed around” or pushed into doing something he doesn’t want to do. But who is “pushing” him into doing something he doesn’t want to do? Only himself.
It’s an imperfect parallel, but it makes a point about the “push” or “pull” from the “inside” or “outside.” A dictator pushes from the outside, a “self” pulls from the inside. But what about the guy who doesn’t want to go to the gym? Is that a pull or push, from the inside or outside? All to say, it’s not always all that simple.
In a different way, there’s no “conflict” there.
There’s no “dictator” relationship in the gym example. It’s just one guy, and his imperfect relationship with himself.
This can contrast with what Barron describes: that the “lordship” of God over creation is “the most gentle ‘letting be’ of creation.”
In this sense, “creatures don’t so much have a relationship to God; they are a relationship to God.”
“God is therefore properly discovered.”
“Discovered” as what?
As “the deepest ground of a creature’s identity.”
Merton’s definition of contemplative prayer as “finding that place in you where you are, here and now, being created by God” echoes Meister Eckhart saying that “The best way to find God is to sink into him.”
This seems to parallel another phrase: to “become what you are.”
The popular slogan is “be yourself.” Christianity might say, “stop rebelling against what you should be.” In more positive terms, it might say, “become what God meant for you to be.” St. Anthony the Great in The Philokalia said “he who knows himself knows all things.” And so on. These can start to sound like the same basic idea, expressed in different ways.
The distinction here is critical. Under a repressive totalitarian dictatorship, the individual gets suppressed. When there’s freedom, the individual is able to become who one is, or become what one was meant to be. The “real” God – as described by Barron – is the latter. The suggestion here is that God didn’t create people to suppress themselves, but to fully become themselves.
“The otherly other God can operate at the level of the ground of the will, luring it in accord with its own innermost nature, and hence can enable the human subject to be itself precisely through surrender.” (To be clear, this kind of “surrender” isn’t the negative sense many think of, but is more like the way a person can “surrender,” in a way, when they fall in love.)
These are just two examples.
These two depictions – God as “spaghetti monster” and “dictator” – illustrate just some of the misunderstandings between atheists and believers. There are plenty of others. But this points in a direction where, at least in some cases, when they’re properly informed and are communicating well, atheists and believers might sometimes agree on more than they often think.
After all, many believers apparently agree with atheists in these regards. “If God really was a spaghetti monster, or a cosmic dictator, I wouldn’t believe in him, either.”
This kind of conversation can thaw relations between the two camps. With any luck, it could even set a new tone and direction. It could mean less of the intellectual gladiator battle to the death, and more of simple, sane human beings who just want to live, understand the world, and make the most of themselves.
So there’s room for mutual respect in this.
Nietzsche described a “very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions. Rather, it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”
It’s easy to dismiss and attack critics. The greater challenge is to listen to them, discern anything valuable they might have to offer, and accept it like medicine. Barron does this, in paying genuine respect to the other side (“Why the New Atheists are Right”), and even makes some gestures of gratitude to them (they can help “clarify what the true God is not.”).
Toward the end of the talk, Barron even explores part of the underlying reasons that created some of the confusion. In his words:
“The Catholic Church has been inept at presenting its own understanding of God.”
“Inept” is a strong word.
But he goes even further:
“We found ourselves ill-equipped to defend ourselves, having long before jettisoned our own evangelical and apologetic tools.”
He then goes even further again:
“We have to formulate a new fundamental apologetics.”
So, is a “new fundamental apologetics” being formulated now? Is a fresh articulation and defense of the truth of things under construction? Is there an approach that fully absorbs and addresses the criticism of atheists, and uses it as a way to strengthen and clarify the issues for everyone involved?
Is it up to us?
In Cool Hand Luke, a group of prisoners seemed to have given up and resigned themselves to the life of incarceration. Luke came in, refused to conform, and escaped three times. Through relentless effort, he stayed unbroken, and became an inspiration.
Sure, there are failures to communicate. Yes, different sides can divide up, misunderstand each other, and think they need to fight it out.
But things can also change.
In this direction, there seems to be great potential.
* Note: The terms “atheists” and “believers” aren’t ideal. (Neither are all the quotation marks around “atheists” and “believers.”) As in politics, people often don’t like being defined in certain ways, understandably. Many define themselves differently than others define them – as “anti-theists” instead of “atheists,” for example, or as “Christians” instead of “Believers.” “Believer” implies spirituality as a practice of adopting a set of implausible beliefs, which isn’t always necessarily the case. (There’s no-nonsense spirituality, or approaches for skeptics, or more contemplative, experiential-based approaches, for example.) This article, though, is trying to give a 10,000-foot view. Toward that aim, it’s not aiming to mischaracterize anyone, just categorize broadly. There are those who are inclined to agree with the statement “God exists,” and those who don’t. That’s it. Since there aren’t better words I can think of, I’m just using the terms “Believers” and “Atheists.”