There are as many Islams as there are Moslems. There are as many Christianities as there are Christians. And there are twice as many Judaisms as there are Jews. This is because for any one of us it’s invariably “On ze vun hand … but on ze ozer …” So in offering my colour commentary on all three Religions of the Book, I’m going to be painting with a very wide brush. I make no apology for that because, well, what good would it do me?
The first thing I want to say is that orthogonal to the distinction between Jews, Christians, and Moslems, is the distinction between a set of metaphysical claims and a set of instructions on how to live. Historically, the latter always precedes the former, though in the telling of our foundation myths the order is invariably reversed. That is, first God created the heavens and the earth. Then, a bit later, He flooded it. Then, later still, came His encounter with Abraham. And only then did He hand down His Law to Moses, and/or to Jesus, and/or to Mohammed.
But in fact that’s not how it actually happened. How do I know? Because He told me. First there were people in need of law. Only then came the metaphysical stories. Why? What work did those stories do? Did these stories in some way justify the law? It’s hard to see how. First, beyond what the law does for us, it doesn’t need justification. And second, there’s nothing in these stories that does seem to be justifying the law. So the metaphysics must be doing something else. What else? The same thing secular metaphysics is doing. It’s explaining why the world’s this way rather than some other.
Does every civilization need an explanation for why the world’s this way rather than some other? Probably not. But it does provide a base upon which the regularities we identify in the world can supervene. For example, if you ask what caused this, and then what caused that, and so on, eventually you’re going to want to know what caused the whole thing. And since even a cave man knows better than to be satisfied with an infinite regress, what you get is the Uncaused Cause, or the Grounding of all Being, or, as it came be called, God.
Anthropologists of religion tell us that originally God – or more commonly the gods – bore only natural properties like sunshine or rain or wind, but no moral properties. Or if they did they were conceived of as either a) good, b) evil, or c) complicated. Which, not surprisingly, is pretty much how we think of ourselves or each other.
These anthropologists have advanced various theories about how these traits got combined into one Being, though of course they haven’t really. None of our three religions has transcended the need to personify the forces of both light and darkness. And not just “the better [and worse] angels of our nature” but also the myriad other facets of being human. Hence the mother of God, the pantheon of saints, and so on. The amalgam of theism and Greek metaphysics drives us ‘upwards’ to theoretical monotheism, but we’re forever pulled back down. Our inherent polytheism will not be denied.
As plausible a story as any as to how polytheism devolved into monotheism, or at least monolatry, is that in the wake of conquest it’s almost invariably less costly to absorb the gods of the vanquished than try to kill them off. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Yahweh, God, and Allah are names for the same god. What’s at issue between us, then, is not so much who God is, but rather a) what He’s been up to, and b) what He wants from us.
When going to war we need our God on our side, and this means we need our respective histories with Him to reflect this partiality. Thus we get the switch between Isaac and Ishmael in the two competing accounts of the Abrahamic Covenant. We get the Book of Exodus, notwithstanding scholars are now saying none of it ever really happened. And we get Jesus’ infamous “Lo, I turn to the Gentiles!”, from which we get the supersessionism that poisoned Jewish-Christian relations right from the get-go and culminated in the Shoah, which in turn gave rise to the Naqba, which has since given rise to coming up now to seventy years of internecine warfare that will come to an end when hell freezes over.
That God’s moral judgments are projections of our own is shown conclusively by Plato’s Euthyphro. So apart from the Problem of Evil, a.k.a. theodicy, there’s nothing philosophically perplexing about what God wants from us that’s any different from what we want from ourselves. But it’s the metaphysics of God that is, for me at least, utterly fascinating.
That a coherent metaphysics for post-apologetic theism is impossible goes without saying. Or if it needs to be said, it can be shown, and then said, pretty quickly. But that is not a proof for the nonexistence of God. It’s only a proof for the nonexistence of the kind of God of whom the requisite metaphysics is incoherent. So yes, the God of (what’s sometimes called) high theology is one whose existence is a piece of cake to refute. But the God of low theology is not such an easy target.
It’s not an easy target, complains the atheist, only because it’s a moving one.
But I’m not so sure about that. I think there is a stand-its-ground conception of God the metaphysics for whom, though implausible, need not be incoherent. And it’s this which makes me (what I call) a sympathetic atheist, by which I mean I do not think one has to be crazy to believe in God, provided her conception of Him is of this coherent variety. The reason why theism is such an easy target for atheists is because too many theists want to have their cake and eat it too. The low theology God does all the explanatory work that needs to be done by their belief in God. And yet they’re greedy. They want their God to do additional explanatory work, work He can’t do and, more to the point, work that doesn’t need to be done.
To see this, imagine two possible worlds, one of which has a grounding to its being, the other of which does not. Beyond the having of this grounding, what property, pray tell, had by the one is not had by the other? None. So, it would seem, it’s not, as some atheists have argued, that being can be its own grounding. It’s that being isn’t the kind of thing that needs a grounding in the first place.
Grounding-talk is patter. As are any of the pseudo-properties one would like to assign to the God of high theology – omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, all-loving, eternal, and so on.
The key to the proof that this kind of talk is mere patter is (what I call) the univocality requirement, which is the insistence that any words predicated of God must be univocal with those same words predicated of anything else, since otherwise we don’t know what’s being said. And if we don’t know what’s being said, neither does the speaker. And if he doesn’t know what he’s saying, then, to paraphrase Rudolf Carnap, he should just shut the fuck up!
This is not to say there couldn’t be something ‘out there’, so to speak, which is ineffable. In fact I’m reasonably confident there is. But if it’s ineffable then we can’t say anything about it. And if we’re not going to say anything about it, then let’s talk about something else.
So here’s the summary of my argumentative strategy. From the univocality requirement we get the unintelligibility of high theology. And from its unintelligibility we get its vacuity.
It’s an unforgiving line of argument. One might even call it brutal. But it’s pretty much the same argument I use in dismissing the lion’s share of what masquerades as philosophy on the Continent. It’s why the first thing I say when I wake up every morning is not, “Thank God I was not born a woman!” – which, as a Jewish male, is what I’m supposed to thank Him for – but rather, “Thank God I was tenured into a proper analytic philosophy department!”
Now if only I could get my foaming-at-the-mouth atheist colleagues, when I’m on my way to teach my Phil of Religion class, to let me pass their open doorways without their mocking me with, “Off to Bible study are we? Well, break a leg. Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to make light of genuflecting.!”