Way Beyond Atheism

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By Paul Wallace

Last year I delivered a presentation at a nearby college about science and faith. I spoke of my attraction to so-called negative, or apophatic, theology. This theology is more prominent in the Eastern churches, but is definitely present in the West as well, and builds on more conventional theology by breaking it down in a systematic series of negations. It may sound strange—that it builds by negation—but that’s an important paradox.

After the presentation a fellow near the front raised his hand and asked how this theology is different from atheism. I was taken aback, but not because his question offended me. Instead, it struck me just how well the questioner had understood what I had said. I fumbled around a bit, hardly knowing what to tell him. I escaped with some cryptic-sounding remark like, This theology is beyond atheism. I meant it when I said it, although I didn’t understand it at the time. But I do now.

Too-Simple Atheisms

It was a gentleman named Denys Turner who helped me figure it out. Turner is a professor of theology at Yale. Last week I read a remarkable essay of his called “Apophaticism, Idolatry, and the Claims of Reason.” In it he tells this story.

Some years ago, and in younger, more foolhardy days, finding myself in a tight spot in a public debate with a philosopher atheist at Bristol University, I made a wager with my audience: I would give anyone present five minutes to explain his or her reasons for atheism and if, after that, I could not guess correctly the Christian denomination in which that person had been brought up, I would buy her a pint of beer. As luck would have it I was not broke at the subsequent revels.

It turns out that he was not broke because no one took the bet. But the story points out a very interesting idea that Turner pursues in the course of his essay: The atheisms of most committed, principled atheists are often not more than mirror images—inversions—of the theisms they negate. In On Interpretation, Aristotle wrote, “Affirmations and their corresponding negations are one in the same knowledge”; therefore, one can discern from many atheisms their corresponding affirmative theologies.

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. Why this is so is not clear; perhaps it is because in many cases theism was abandoned before it was allowed time to develop into something of substance.

“Atheists reject too little,” Turner writes, “This is why their atheisms lack theological interest. The routine principled atheist has but tinkered with religion.” This statement, with which I agree, will be unpacked in the remainder of this essay. In order to speak more specifically about this, I decided to investigate a single atheist’s stated beliefs. Since I have a few Richard Dawkins books on my living room shelf, and because his point of view is known to many, I decided on him.

Dawkins’ Inverted Theism

In The God Delusion, Dawkins presents his central argument against the existence of God in the fourth chapter. His thinking goes something like this: The universe is a complex thing. Therefore the God of the Christians, who, Christians say, made the universe, must be at least as complex as the universe God made. Therefore we are left with an even bigger problem than before: Who made this ultra-complex God? A hyper-complex megaGod? It makes plain sense, according to Occam’s razor, to stop before we get to the first God. The complex universe is enough. Ergo, in all likelihood, God does not exist.

This argument, which boils down to Well, who made God, then?, assumes that God is a thing like any other thing. It assumes that God must exist in the same way the moon exists, in the same way Dawkins himself exists. As Terry Eagleton wrote in his now-infamous review of The God Delusion, Dawkins seems to think that God is “a celestial super-object or divine UFO,” a creature like other creatures, only bigger and smarter: a kind of uberthing, but a thing nonetheless.

If God is a thing like any other thing, then his argument is really good: Any thing-making machine, which is itself a thing like any other thing, must be at least as complex as the thing it makes. In the case of God, the problem is worse, because of the standard Christian claim that God not only created the universe, but sustains it as well. So, if God is a thing like other things then Dawkins’ point is well made.

But nowhere does Dawkins get outside of himself and ask, Is my assumption that God is a thing like any other thing really necessary? On what is this assumption grounded? Where did it come from?

The truth is, despite all his claims to the contrary, Dawkins is a fundamentalist. In the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, he attempts to distinguish himself from religious fundamentalists by insisting that “nothing will change their minds.” This is true; the average religious fundamentalist is dogmatically rigid and fixed in place. In his own eyes, however, Dawkins is a paragon of broad-minded humility; he writes, “If all the evidence in the universe turned in favor of creationism, I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediately change my mind.” But Dawkins completely overlooks the real issue, which has nothing at all to do with creationism or evolution.

What is at issue here is, Dawkins refuses to examine the ground on which he stands: science itself. That is, Dawkins may change his mind about evolution, but nothing will change his mind about science. He will never question—in a serious way—the sufficiency of science as a guide to truth. Perhaps he thinks the success of science makes it a self-evident choice when it comes to grounding his worldview; what he does not and will not consider is the very real possibility that science is so successful precisely because it is so limited. To reject this possibility out-of-hand is nothing but intellectual laziness. Dawkins is dogmatically rigid and fixed in place. He is a fundamentalist.

He must be, because the only theology he has ever successfully attacked is fundamentalism, an embarrassingly easy target. But it’s the only theology he knows, the only theology he can imagine. Therefore, per Turner, it’s the only theology his own atheism is equipped to deny, which he himself demonstrates beautifully in Chapter 3 of The God Delusion. This is the part of the book in which he addresses and summarily dismisses, in less than ten pages and with all the subtlety of a tire iron, the work of Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. Unlike these theologians, Dawkins refuses to step outside of himself and take a critical look at his own assumptions.

“Well,” it may be countered, “religious people also refuse to step outside their religion and critique their views.” This would be quite a good argument, if it were true.

The Negative Way

There is within Christian theology a great tradition of negating “God.” By this I mean the negation of everything we think we know about God, every concept we carry about God, every image we imagine of God, everything that God “is” to us. In order to demonstrate how this works, we will consider three levels of statements about God. In addition, four different images of God from the Bible will be used: (a) God is a fire, (b) God is a king, (c) God is love, and (d) God is being itself (I AM). These four are presented in order of increasing abstraction.

The first level of God-talk is simple affirmation. It is typical for Christians to use statements like those above when speaking of God. This is conventional cataphatic, or positive, theology. This is the way nearly all popular theology in the West is done, whether in worship, in personal devotions, or in Bible study. These are positive statements signifying what theologians call the “God of the Attributes”; that is, the God that can be named.

The second level is simple negation, in the manner of Aristotle. It is less typical for Christians to deny things of God, but it is done. I think every Christian would agree that God is not a fire, really, nor is God the ruling male member of a royal family. These are obvious cases of negation that should cause no one any difficulty. It is a bit harder for Christians to say things like “God is not love,” but theologians have said things like this for centuries, and have meant it too. What this comes down to is, God is not that warm feeling or even that sincerely other-centered state of the will that often goes by the name of love. Whatever our highest conception of love might be, God is very much not that.

The third level is the most difficult but the most important. This is second-order negation, or the inversion of the inversion. Here we would say, “God is not a fire, but God is not a not-fire either,” and “God is not love, but neither is God not-love.” God transcends the (human-based) distinction between love and not-love. Obviously what is happening here is a deliberate straining of verbal logic. It may sound like mere mental gymnastics or game-playing, but it has a very serious purpose: To question and test language, to step outside of ourselves and ask ourselves what we are doing when we talk about God, to critique the very ground upon which theology stands, to search for that place—if there is a place—where concepts fail.

Also on this third level is found the insistence, made for centuries by theologians throughout Christendom, that God transcends the distinction of being and not-being. Therefore, if we use the conventional definition of existence, God does not exist. Our category of existence does not apply to God. Put another way, the word “exist” cannot be used univocally of things and God. These are artificial categories imagined and used by human beings; they are manifestly not divine attributes. In the end, to speak correctly, there are no divine attributes. Which means that God is not distinct from creation, nor is God not-distinct from creation. That is, in God there is no distinction at all, nor is there non-distinction. No affirmation or denial properly applies to God.

Notice that this second sense of negation, the “negation of the negation,” does not simply return us to our positive statements, e.g., from “God is not love” back to the original affirmation, “God is love.” Instead, it challenges the very basis of our discursive thought and dialogue: language and image. It pulls out from under us our tacit assumption that language and image are sufficient to describe reality.

The End of the Matter: “Every Kind of Atheist”

Now I can explain what I meant when I told the fellow at the college that negative theology is beyond atheism. It is this: Most principled atheists do not go beyond the second level of thought, that of simple denial. They refuse to go further, to seriously question the ground beneath their feet. And, by holding on, consciously or not, to their unjustified assumptions, they end up rejecting far too little.

There are predictable counter-arguments. First, one may say that this kind of theology represents the beliefs of only a tiny fraction of Christians; atheists rightly focus on the more conventional theology of the average churchgoer. But atheists say that Christianity is false, that God does not exist. Asking them to defend their position in light of mature theology is doing nothing but taking them for their word and respecting their intelligence.

Also, one may say that negative theology is content-free and useless because it nullifies the use of rational thought. In a sense this is a valid argument. But one can go beyond negative theology while bearing in mind its lessons. In fact, negative theology constitutes the central nervous system, if you will, of the entire Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas that Dawkins so happily and ignorantly mocks. In this work, Thomas employs analogical language in order to speak freely of God’s attributes without the possibility of confusing them with the attributes of, say, fire or kingship or love or being.

Finally one may say that negative theology is just a mind game that has nothing to do with reality; certainly people who do such theology never really stop believing in God. If only this were true. The language of the apophatic theologian is the kind of speech that does what it says, so when one says or writes, “God does not exist,” and spends time with that assumption, working out all its consequences, it has the effect of removing “God” from one’s life. This may happen slowly or quickly, but it happens. This is one of the most powerful aspects of negative theology: It cleanses the mind not only of assumptions about God, but of idols (like science, say) that can so easily replace God.

Most atheists reject far too little. They only have to be one kind of atheist: The atheist who stands against some kind of ridiculous super-object in the sky, who stands against a child’s theology. Christians, who, like Jews, are commanded to have no gods before God, do not have the luxury of disbelieving in so few things. 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.

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10 Responses to Way Beyond Atheism

  1. 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.

    Pretty interesting!! So Christians need to be reject pagan Gods, vedic gods , greek gods etc in order to be true Christians. Reject everything but Christianity. In quran, reject everything but Allah and for vaisnavas reject everything but Krnsa/Visnu.

    • Bhaktivinoda Thakura did not reject everything but Krsna/Visnu and Hindus have historically been very tolerant of other’s beliefs. Hindu Muslim riots seem to be a newer phenomena.

    • Reject everything but Christianity. In quran, reject everything but Allah and for vaisnavas reject everything but Krnsa/Visnu.

      As Maharaja stated, you’re some way off here. Granted, the South Indian Narayana-centred Vaisnava traditions are often sectarian to the extreme, and there is a reason why I, for example, find the Krishnaist sects of the northern half of the subcontinent much more accommodating in many respects. Maybe you’re referring to some of the more fanatical expressions of the teachings of one or more of these schools, but the fact is, traditionally, the customs of the Haridasis, Radhavallabhis, Caitanyaites, Vallabhites and Nimbarkis alike stand in sharp contrast to the southern attitudes vis-à-vis, say, Lord Siva. In large measure, the occasional exclusivist propensities that you rightly decry may stem from certain preaching necessities that some acaryas deemed appropriate for their times; hence the automatic dichotomy for some between the Godhead and demigods, when the English term ‘demigod’ is really a poor translation of the Sanskrit word ‘deva.’ Then again, getting into a discussion on semantics isn’t quite my intention here. In Radha-Krishnaism generally, though a touch more in the Advaita Parivara of Caitanya Vaisnavism, and in the Nimbarka sampradaya, Lord Siva is held in very high esteem. Many Nimbarkis even worship a Linga daily in their temples. The cosmography of Caitanyaism goes as far as reserving nothing less than Sadasivaloka, an eternal, supramundane paradise, beyond the temporal cosmos, for him and his closest associates and followers. It equally allows for the brahmajyoti, where monistically-inclined souls may assume an undifferentiated existence for eternity.

      Vraja-mandala, the earthly centre of Radha-Krishna worship, is awash with shrines dedicated to Siva and members of his family. Going further, we can muse upon Mahaprabhu’s own pastimes half a millennium back. He converted the Chand Kazi not by slamming Islam, but by respectfully engaging the latter in discourse, and by interpreting certain Koranic verses in a personal monotheistic, devotional way. The Jagannath temple in Puri was also initially created as a syncretic centre of Vaisnavism, Saivism, and Saktism, and reflects a decidedly non-closed-minded approach to all of these traditions by their respective protagonists of that period. In the days of hoary antiquity, several centuries prior to the beginning of the common era, atheists like Carvaka could freely propound their atheistic philosophies in the homeland of Vaisnavism without being subjected to witch-hunts, burnt, tortured or lynched, as occurred elsewhere. It would appear that there is almost no end to the examples that could be furnished to evidence the above.

      • I agree with your assessment, especially about Carvaka and others being able to co-exist with other sects. But modern devotees don’t seem to get the fact that there was never a time when majority of people were “Krishna conscious” and there is no evidence to suggest that. “Devotees” are made to believe in the propaganda that “Krishna consciousness” was practiced by the ideal king who made sure everyone worshiped Visnu.

        I think my comment was cavalier and off-hand to a large extent and I am glad that you brought up the points above. Thanks for your elaborate description.

        • We’d in fact be fortunate to have more of Carvaka philosophy in these troubled times, if that meant more of the following, copied from the Wikipedia entry on this system of thought – the Cārvākas denounced the caste system, calling it artificial, unreal and hence unacceptable. “What is this senseless humbug about the castes and the high and low among them when the organs like the mouth, etc in the human body are the same?”

          You may wish to peruse this page in fact. It’s quite interesting.

    • To return to the subject matter of this article, it is highly intellectually stimulating indeed. Given the stages/levels which Turner expounds, I believe that the phrase ‘dialectical theology’ would be a broader, more accurate description of where he’s trying to lead his readers, than mere ‘negative theology.’ Not all that dissimilar from Steve Bohlert’s bold ideas of a postmodern, non-sectarian, universalist brand of Radha-Krishnaism, come to think of it.

      • Vikram,

        What exactly does Bohlert mean by the term postmodern? Is his Radha Krsna not an objective ontological reality, as the term implies (to me)?

        • Haribol Maharaja

          I believe that Subaldas Goswami’s theology of Universalist Radha-Krishnaism (URK) readily fits accepted definitions of postmodernism, if by that we go by Paul Feyerabend’s delineation of a knowledge system that is strongly opposed to “fixed methods” and “fixed theories,” that advocates a “pluralistic methodology” that excludes no new viewpoints, that maintains a critical stance toward the petrification, dogmatization, and self-imposed limitations of knowledge, and, just as importantly, which attempts to grasp the cultural configuration of the present.

          This is one of the very best essays on this subject I have managed to find on the web, and those who trouble themselves to go through it will easily notice that I borrow much from it in order to furnish the above partial explanation of the extremely complex, nigh-all-encompassing concept of postmodernism.

          Now, how does URK fit the bill? From Subaldas’s own website, his philosophy is defined as follows:
          ‘Universalist Radha-Krishnaism offers:
          A practical spirituality that readers may harmoniously practice in their current life situation.
          A vision of eternal spiritual life as an intimate associate of Radha-Krishna as well as the means to actualize it.
          An affirmation of God-dess’ loving presence permeating this life with goodness and grace.
          A philosophical basis and practical techniques that allow the reader to begin the path of loving devotion.
          A dynamic, creative faith, free of untenable dogma, which encourages liberty of thought and practice.’

          We can also look at some excerpts from the review of his book by Dr. M. Valle, a chair­man of phi­los­o­phy of reli­gion at Scotts­dale Com­mu­nity Col­lege (AZ), in order to gain some further insights, since discussing the entire URK book on here would be a tall order indeed.

          So, what does he say? For starters, how about this:
          ‘Because God-dess doesn’t per­form phys­i­cal mir­a­cles, we can­not take scrip­tural sto­ries and mytholo­gies lit­er­ally. They are sym­bols, metaphors, and alle­gories that point to higher real­i­ties. Bohlert believes in “pro­gres­sive rev­e­la­tion”, which is the idea that God-dess never ceases to prompt new reli­gious visions and imag­in­ings in us as we con­tinue to explore this creation.’

          Does the foregoing not sound like a definite departure from traditional Vaisnava conceptions, ‘fixed methods’ or orthodox modes of acquiring knowledge? It certainly does.

          On to the next instalment –
          ‘URK is “uni­ver­sal­ist”, which is the idea that all legit­i­mate reli­gions can serve as vehi­cles for the advance­ment of the soul. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent needs and so on, and God-dess makes Him/Herself acces­si­ble in a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent ways.’

          Decidedly non-dogmatic and anti-parochialist. Again, seems postmodernist, no doubt.

          Yet another extract from the review:
          ‘Bohlert advo­cates some tra­di­tional Vaish­nava prac­tices so that peo­ple can keep God-dess in mind at all times. These include chant­ing and visu­al­iza­tion tech­niques. In Chap­ter Nine, he briefly sum­ma­rizes the daily activ­i­ties of Radha and Krishna so that the devo­tee can play a role in the Divine Play. Bohlert explic­itly rejects the asceti­cism that often char­ac­ter­izes Radha-Krishna devo­tion. The world is good–it should be enjoyed with­out crav­ing and attach­ment, while giv­ing due con­sid­er­a­tion to those around us. He writes, “God-dess […] may ask us, at the time of death, why we did not enjoy life more”’

          Sounds like a courageous blending of the old with the new, and is reflective of a method that explicitly prods one to be a free-thinker and a social liberal, all of which is unquestionably progressive.

          Lastly, we may muse upon Valle’s characterisation of Bohlert’s metaphysical ideal as follows: ‘The goal of URK, and Vaish­nav­ism in gen­eral, is not to become “one” with the whole (as in the case of Advaita schools of Hin­duism, or as in the case of Bud­dhism), but rather to enjoy a kind of indi­vid­u­al­ity in which one expe­ri­ences the bliss of ser­vice to the Divine Cou­ple in their love play, which is ulti­mately inde­scrib­able but which can be approached through mytholo­gies, espe­cially those of the famous Hindu text called the Bha­ga­vata Purana.’

          The last paragraph would lend one to believe that Radha-Krishna are very much an ontological reality for him, which was your main question I reckon. I hope that this makes it a little clearer.

          Dr. Valle’s excellent review of the URK book can be accessed here:

          Jaya Sri Radhe

        • Does the foregoing not sound like a definite departure from traditional Vaisnava conceptions, ‘fixed methods’ or orthodox modes of acquiring knowledge? It certainly does.

          Sure does. No absolute truth there.

  2. People who fail to see God in everything around them either become atheists, or fanatical ‘scripture-thumpers’ who feel it is their God given duty to make everyone in their own image.

    If God gave us freedom, why do they feel like they have to take it away from us?

    No ‘primitive’ culture has ever produced either atheists or rabid religion-mongers. Why? Because they see the Divine in everything.

    IMO a huge problem in most ‘advanced’ religions is the over-intellectualized doctrine, divorced from practical realities and practical perceptions. It is like a kirtan where the Holy Name is lost in all the noise and complicated musical arrangements.

    And in many cases atheism is merely a rebellion against such an empty religion.

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