God, Idols and Atheism: Discussing what matters most – Part I

I can’t remember a time when I was interested in the debate about the existence of God. I was first exposed to what was commonly called ‘apologetics’ which typically took the form of debates or ‘reasoned’ arguments regarding the existence of God. I suppose I found some of the conversations interesting but lacked any traction for how I experienced life. Later I resonated with Dostoevsky’s fictional account in The Idiot of an encounter with an atheist saying “it was as if that was not at all what he was talking about all the while, and it struck me precisely because before, too . . . however many books I’ve read on the subject, it has always seemed to me that they were talking or writing books that were not all about that, though it looked as if it was about that.”

I sensed that in these debates and declarations people were more interested in defending Reason or attacking an enemy then considering the mess of the biblical tradition and the way we experience faith and life. In the last few years I have begun to more fully articulate what I only sensed years ago. And this last January we spent three Sundays in Adult Education to reflect on our experience and understanding of atheism. What follows is a summary of the first session I shared.

Do All Questions Have Answers

“If there are a variety of positions on ‘the death of God’, this is not because it is hard to decide one way or another, to agree or disagree, but rather because such a proclamation is not ultimately about responding with a yes or a no.”
– Daniel Barber, Deleuze and the Naming of God

There are two expressions at work in this quote. First, there is the personal element to the question of God. Those invested in the question of God will find themselves somewhere along the range of possible options. It is ‘not hard to decide one way or another’. Atheists and believers alike often claim an inability to think or believe otherwise; that the position is, at least to them, self-evident. From there we agree and disagree on various details and aspects. This is the question of maintaining personal integrity to the differing experiences and contexts we live in.

We have differing understandings as to what constitutes valid knowledge in our lives. This appears to be true of believers and atheists alike. Both sides can apply to what could be called Abstract or Absolute knowledge. Here there are appeals to Nature, Reason, and Science and it is often supposed that everyone has a shared or common understanding of these things and so a universal answer to this question should emerge if only those other people would just open their eyes!

There are others (among those who affirm or deny the existence of God) who appeal to what I would call personal and experienced knowledge. These are unique and unrepeatable accounts and sources of knowledge. A believer might claim experience of a miracle or transcendent presence while an atheist might claim a lack of such experience or she might experience persistent negative experiences from religion to an extent that it renders her simply incapable of ascribing it any validity.

Both of these approaches to knowledge and understanding are important and we all need to navigate how we find integrity and orientation for living. The trouble, as I see it, is that these approaches to knowledge and understanding often get put into the service of expressions that demand a final answer assuming the question of God’s existence is ultimately about responding with a yes or a no.

What I hoped to draw out in my sessions is that when we are forced into such a response or thinking that such a response constitutes what is most important then we are likely being deceived; that indeed there are other ‘forces’ that will benefit from us being distracted in this way or thinking the matter is settled.

“We are led to believe that problems are given ready-made, and that they disappear in the responses or solutions. . . . According to this infantile prejudice, the master sets a problem, our task is to solve it, and the result is accredited true or false by a powerful authority. It is also a social prejudice with the visible interest of maintaining us in an infantile state, which calls upon us to solve problems that come from elsewhere, consoling or distracting us by telling us that we have won simply by being able to respond.”
– Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

To think that the answer to the question of God’s existence is the most important is to remain in an infantile state, to be distracted by those who benefit from our blindness. So what does matter most? To talk about what matters most we quickly get caught up in questions of value, questions of how we use our time and direct our attention. We find that these questions quickly give rise to conflicting and competing powers and authorities. I suggested that value, time and attention are deeply theological questions. These are questions of worship and devotion.

If it is true that we can be distracted from what ultimately matters by focusing on answering the question of God’s existence then one alternative is to acknowledge that humans are worshipping beings and therefore the gods still and always have existed. If we consider that what matters most in life looks a lot like what we mean by worship then the conversation begins to shift and can, perhaps, open up into much fruitful and generative expressions. The question of God’s existence is not ultimately about responding with a yes or no but about learning to know your idols and being able to live into what matters most.

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