Apophatic Atheists

The sentence below came to my mind the other day during my contemplations, and I am must say, “I agree with it”:

When God and self disappear, the divine becomes known.
— Sabio

Here is a fun article on “Negative Theology” (apophatic theology).  It captures part of what I meant by the above statement and part of why I am not an “anti-religion” Atheist.  Here are a two fun quotes from the article:

  • “Atheists don’t go far enough”
  • “The routine principled atheist has but tinkered with religion.”

So, I am an atheist, but an certain type of atheist — I don’t believe in an intervening, miracle god who saves only those under his banner.  I can’t even begin to imagine a Christianity that is really apophatic.  So perhaps, as the article says, that shows more about me than anything else perhaps.  But when my mystical mind draw towards an apophatic theology and displays itself,  it sound like no theism I know.  So thus, I am still an Atheist albeit as a mere epiphenomenon.

Question to readers:  Any other Apophatic Atheists out there?  Am I merely befuddled?

HT:  Thanks to Adam at “Fly like a Crow” for recommending this article was “right up my alley”.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

12 responses to “Apophatic Atheists

  1. Oops, I mis-read the post title to be saying “Apoplectic Atheists” 🙂

  2. Ian

    Well yes, okay, the point is valid that most atheists don’t believe in some particular set of conceptions of God. Surely that is a pretty banal conclusion. Most theists don’t believe in some particular models of other theists views too.

    But then his double negation stuff was rubbish. And you can see that because he says one particular thing, over and over, in all his examples. He says “God is …”: “God is X”, “God is not X”, “God is not not X”.

    But surely the point of being an atheist is that “God” has no referent. “God is not not Love” is exactly and precisely the same as saying “Slkdjfwoiew is not not Toffee”. Only the former you can do from a Yale theology lectureship, the latter rightly brings you derision. To do even apophatic theology is to assume the referent, even if a conceptual one. The use of the word God, the notion of divinity, the description of it as theology, at once undermine what he claims to be doing, as far as I can see.

  3. Ash

    Some quick responses:

    ‘The atheisms of most committed, principled atheists are often not more than mirror images—inversions—of the theisms they negate.”

    This is an unsupportable assertion. That might be the case sometimes, but I think most principled atheists are global in their position—they don’t just reject the Christian god, say, but all theistic claims involving any kind of personal and/or supernatural being that fits the general description of a deity.

    “Turner also writes that, very often, the theisms attacked by atheists are not very interesting; therefore, the atheisms of most committed, principled atheists are not very interesting.”

    That’s because the “uninteresting” theisms are the ones held by 99% of theists. But atheists also think that the other 1% of theisms are uninteresting, too.

    “This is why their atheisms lack theological interest.”

    I’m not sure this person understands what atheism is. Atheism should lack theological interest: atheism isn’t a theology, it’s atheology.

    “The routine principled atheist has but tinkered with religion.”

    And yet we are more knowledgeable about religion than its adherents (except for Mormons I think).

    “What is at issue here is, Dawkins refuses to examine the ground on which he stands: science itself.”

    Okay, he lost me here. Dawkins is fully aware of the philosophical limitations of science. This says absolutely nothing about the failure of theism to make their case, even the “there is a god, but it is an interesting god that is so vague and abstract that we can only define it in negative terms.”

    Some people just can handle the idea that some people really, really don’t believe in gods of any kind, no matter how “interesting” (i.e. impossible to define or refute). It short-circuits their brains for some reason. So, they keep moving the goalposts back and back and back, and say “see, those fundamentalist atheists are just so obstinate and blind to the god I believe exists.”

    Yeah, yeah. Whatever.

  4. @Ash – There is actually some scientific support for the thesis that the most committed atheists are mirror images of theists. From Scientific American, a new study shows that people with Asperger’s tend to be the only true atheists:

    “The people with Asperger’s were significantly less likely to offer such anti-teleological explanations than the atheists, indicating they were not engaged in teleological thinking at all. (The atheists, in contrast, revealed themselves to be reasoning teleologically, but then they rejected those thoughts.)”

    Since I have mild Asperger’s, I see this study as vindication for the facts that 1) I was a superior atheist, 2) I was disgusted with most atheists, 3) I am not uncomfortable with Calvinism.

  5. @ Ian :
    The logic mumbo jumbo also leaves me cold. Nonetheless, the method of negation led me to understand both the illusory nature of the “God” I built and had reinforced by the Christianities I touched AND the mundane understanding of “self”. Using this negation methodology I can see no way that a Christian theology could be rightfully formed without huge contortions to both their scriptures and their history. But as I said above, I think this says more of me than anything else.

  6. Laurance

    Label Junkies!

    “In Turner’s words, “In order to deny every kind of idolatry possible, a Christian must be every kind of atheist possible.” We are required to have faith in no thing at all; only then will our faith have any chance of finding its true home in God.”

    Hanging on to the word “God” at any cost. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

  7. DaCheese

    His take on Dawkins seems pretty accurate, to me. Dawkins is a scientific materialist; he doesn’t (maybe can’t?) really consider possibilities beyond the physical realm and ordinary existence. In fact many atheists** seem to lack any sense of metaphysical interest or thought. I suspect that’s what the author is getting at with regard to “interesting” vs. “uninteresting” religion. The sort of simple faith practiced by many people (not just children) is easy to defeat because it imagines God as a physical presence, rather than a metaphysical abstract.

    To me, the evidence against a materially present, interventionist God does not preclude the possibility of a god-like being existing outside of our universe, monitoring the goings-on, etc. Or, for that matter, that this world may just be a simulation, with inconceivably bizarre beings studying us, etc. [Insert obvious The Matrix references here –although I always thought that they failed by making the “real” world far too much like our own.] Those sorts of suppositions are much harder to dismiss out of hand, though of course they can never be proven either.

    In this case, I think the “more interesting” religion the author is talking about involves the mystical traditions in Christianity and other faiths. At first glance, this 2nd-order negation stuff sounds a lot like Zen koans to me. I can sort of see what he’s getting at to some extent, though I think his use of God as a special case is weirdly limiting.

    [** Present company excluded, in fact that’s a major reason why I frequent this blog…]

  8. When God and self disappear, the divine becomes known.
    – Sabio

    reminds me of a quote from Paul Tillich: “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”

    or as my theology prof often said “when you get outside of your faith, when you feel really vulnerable and small in front of infinite you should not be afraid. that is a true encounter of the Divine.”

    of course i balance my apophatic with a kataphatic and remain a theist, albeit a strange one. i like the symbols and such expressed in the tradition and the life orienting myths we hold and explore as i believe, as Tillich stated: “Man’s ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.”

    whatever you are Sabio i enjoy reading it and learning from it. keep it up!

  9. geoih

    Quote from JS Allen: “(The atheists, in contrast, revealed themselves to be reasoning teleologically, but then they rejected those thoughts.)”

    The Scientific American study strikes me as drawing too much of a conclusion from a leading question. If you ask somebody “why” something happened and they respond that there was no reason “why”, then you’re begging the question by drawing conclusions from an answer that is really only stating that the question is not relevant.

    It strikes me as being similar to asking ‘what flavor is brown’, and then making some deep conclusion about a person’s thinking process when they say that brwon doesn’t have a flavor.

  10. Hi geoih,

    The study didn’t show that Aspies say “no reason”. It showed that Aspies provide reasons that are non-teleological, while other atheists provide anti-teleological reasons instead. IOW, teleology doesn’t even factor in Aspie thinking, while it’s just as important to other atheists as it is to theists (at least, the non-schizo theists :-))

    It’s a pretty informative result, but one that I could have easily predicted without having to do an experiment. IMO, these experiments are only useful for persuading “normal” people of the obvious.

  11. @ Ash :
    If religion and “the religious experience” is all about propositional truths, much of what you say is a good corrective.

    @ Laurence :
    “Hanging on to the word ‘God’ at any cost”
    Indeed! Much of wasted discussion is based on this.

    @ DaCheese :
    Yep, you walked away with some of the impressions I had.

    @ geoih :
    “What flavor is brown?” <– Love that!

    @ JS Allen :
    Thanx for sharing about the “Apsie” thing. I agree that much thinking teleological thinks is a “normal” function of human mind. Religion feeds on it. Interesting that Aspies can’t feel it easily and Schizos are haunted by it. And many atheists are in denial — they just resent their brains !

  12. Pingback: It's Easy To Be An Atheist When Your Theology Is A Cartoon | Homebrewed Theology

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