The Pot Calling the Kettle Black: David Hart’s Rant against Atheism and Naturalism in “The Experience of God”

the-experience-of-godTheologian and philosopher David Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss has made something of a ripple since being published about a year ago in 2013. Shortly after its publication, columnist Oliver Burkeman wrote a review for The Guardian, titled “The One Theology Book All Atheists Really Should Read,” insisting that Hart’s new book is, well, a book that all atheists should take the time to read. The reason why is because many atheists have (allegedly) been attacking the wrong idea of God all along, whereas Hart explains and defends the actual theologian’s conception of God, and shows through a cross-cultural survey of theology that atheists are not really attacking the strongest arguments for God, nor the actual beliefs of many theists and/or supernaturalists. For a rebuttal to this notion by a secular philosopher, see Daniel Linford’s “Do Atheists Reject the ‘Wrong Kind of God’? Not Likely.”

Burkeman writes:

“One reason that modern-day debates between atheists and religious believers are so bad-tempered, tedious, and infuriating is that neither side invests much effort in figuring out what the other actually means when they use the word ‘God’. This is an embarrassing oversight, especially for the atheist side (on which my sympathies generally lie). After all, scientific rationalists are supposed to care deeply about evidence. So you might imagine they’d want to be sure that the God they’re denying is the one in which most believers really believe. No ‘case against God’, however watertight, means much if it’s directed at the wrong target.”

Now, let me say right off the bat that I think that Burkeman has accurately described the rhetoric and behavior of *some* atheists. After all, I would hardly call Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion the strongest atheist critique of the theological arguments for God out there. But does it really need to be? Dawkins wrote a popular book directed towards a lay audience, the main purpose of which was to argue against the normativity of religion and God in Western culture. After all, “New Atheism” is primarily a cultural/social/political movement directed towards increasing secularization and removing religion from everyday life. New Atheism *is not* a philosophical or theological movement directed towards answering the most arcane questions of philosophy, nor does it even really espouse a particular worldview or metaphysical model of reality.

Now, where then are atheists to turn if they wish to interact with and counter the strongest theological arguments for God? To the writings of atheist philosophers and a-theologians, who specialize in philosophy of religion and the arguments for God.

That is why, for much of this review, I will be comparing Hart’s definition of God, and his descriptions of God’s attributes, with those provided by atheist philosopher of religion Graham Oppy. Unlike Dawkins, Oppy is more representative of academic atheist philosophy, and a better source to consult on whether atheists have been interacting with the correct understanding of God. In his book Arguing About Gods, for example, Oppy provides a critical survey of all of the major theological arguments for God throughout history, and “discusses the work of a wide array of philosophers, including Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Kant, Hume, and, more recently, Plantinga, Dembski, White, Dawkins, Bergman, Gale, and Pruss.” Even Christian apologist William Lane Craig has written a relatively praiseworthy, though critical review of Oppy’s work, calling it “a wide-ranging and penetrating critique of the arguments of natural theology.” Has Oppy, after all this research and work, simply been arguing against the wrong conception of God?

In my own view, David Hart fails to give a fair representation of atheist philosophy and naturalism in The Experience of God, by focusing the bulk of his critique on popular New Atheist writers, rather than focusing on the best atheist authorities on these issues. Because of this, Hart’s book is an example of the pot calling the kettle black.

In the first chapter, “‘God’ Is Not a Proper Name,” Hart (pg. 16) boldly states:

“I am convinced that the case for belief in God is inductively so much stronger than the case for unbelief that true philosophical atheism must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes and conceptual limitations.”

Now, first off, bear in mind that over 70% of professional philosophy faculty are atheist, and even in philosophical disciplines like philosophy of religion–where there is a higher rate of theism–studies show that more people become atheist after studying philosophy of religion, rather than vice versa [1]. Helen De Cruz in a qualitative study about the motivations and beliefs of professional philosophers of religion has found that more philosophers of religion, who experience belief revision as the result of their studies, tend to move from theism to atheism:

“An interesting theme that emerged was philosophical training and engagement led to belief revision. The direction of this revision was most frequently in the direction from theism to atheism, in line with recent work in cognitive science of religion that indicates that analytic reasoning and active reflection discourage religious belief. Several authors stated that they held unreflective religious beliefs before they studied philosophy, which they subsequently began to question, and abandon, as a result.”

So, if atheism “must be regarded as a superstition,” as Hart claims, neither the professional philosophical community as a whole, nor even philosophers specializing in philosophy of religion who undergo belief revision as the result of their studies, have supported any such trend.

But I was even more annoyed by Hart’s use of the word “infantile” to describe atheists (put in bold above). When I first read this, I thought of a quote from popular new atheist author Christopher Hitchens:

“Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms – had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs).”

Notice how both Hart and Hitchens are using a similar insults to describe those who do not share their views as babies, infants, children, etc. Now, Hitchens was a popular writer known for his acerbic witticisms and frankness, but Hart is a professional philosopher publishing a book for Yale University Press who should be held to a higher standard of academic civility. Moreover, Hart is arguing that new atheists are being too dismissive of the concept of God. And yet Hart is turning around and using their exact insults and condescending remarks? I had hoped for a book like this to be more civil, frankly.

Hart moves on to identify atheists who do not understand the concept of God and are not interacting with best arguments for God in their writings. Hart (pg. 21) states:

“If one is going to go to all the trouble of writing a book about the deficiencies of religious ideas, one should probably also go to the trouble of first learning what those ideas are. The major religions do, after all, boast some very sophisticated and subtle philosophical and spiritual traditions, and the best way for the enterprising infidel to avoid recapitulating arguments that have been soundly defeated in the past is to make some effort to understand those traditions.”

Hart continues on the same page to identify physicist Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis, as well as biologist Richard Dawkins The God Delusion as books that did not do this research. Regarding the latter, Hart (pg. 21) states:

“[Dawkins] devoted several pages of The God Delusion to a discussion of the ‘Five Ways’ of Thomas Aquinas but never thought to avail himself of the services of some scholar of ancient and mediaeval thought who might have explained them to him, perhaps while strolling beside the somberly gliding Thames on some long, lustrous Oxford afternoon.”

Regardless of what Richard Dawkins does “on some long, lustrous Oxford afternoon,” Graham Oppy–an atheist philosopher specializing in theological thought–has several pages of footnoted philosophical analysis about the first three of Aquinas’ Five Ways in Arguing About Gods (pp. 98-107).

Has Hart, as someone aiming to show the deficiencies of atheist ideas, gone through “the trouble of first learning what those ideas are”? Surprisingly, despite Hart’s derogatory statements against popular atheist writers, professional atheist philosophers of religion are only seldomly discussed the chapters of The Experience of God (admittedly, J.L. Mackie gets some brief discussion on pp. 115 and 120). Instead, the primary way that Hart interacts with these atheist philosophers, who are actual professionals in their respective fields, is to shove away a few brief notes in his bibliographical postscript at the end. On pg. 350 (literally the last page before the index), Hart briefly mentions J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism, Jordan Howard Sobel’s Logic and Theism, and Graham Oppy’s Arguing About Gods. Does Hart interact with these works? Not really. He mostly dismisses them with the following generalized statement:

“I admit that I believe that all of the arguments in these books can be defeated by the better arguments to be found on the side of belief in God, but not without real effort and thought.”

Rather than making this effort in The Experience of God, however, Hart instead uses the main content of the book to go after more scientific atheist authors, like Dawkins and Stenger, who are not experts in philosophy of religion, without interacting much with the atheist philosophers who are Hart’s academic peers. It would be like if Mackie, Sobel, and Oppy constructed their arguments against theism by primarily interacting with the works of popular Christian apologists, like C.S. Lewis, without interacting much with the works of professional theologians, and instead only mentioned such theological works in a note at the back of their books. Hart hypocritically does all of this while repeatedly polemicizing atheists for allegedly not interacting with the strongest arguments on the other side.

One of Hart’s major contentions against atheists is that they are not critiquing the correct conception of God. Hart (pg. 28) states:

“There are two senses in which ‘God’ or ‘god’ can properly be used. Most modern languages generally distinguish between the two usages as I have done here, by writing only one of them with an uppercase first letter, as though it were a proper name which it is not. Most of us understand that ‘God’ (or its equivalent) means the one God who is the source of all things, whereas ‘god’ (or its equivalent) indicates one or another of a plurality of beings who inhabit the cosmos and reign over its various regions. This is not, however, merely a distinction of numbering, between monotheism and polytheism, as though the issue were merely that of determining how many ‘divine entities’ one happens to think there are. It is a distinction, instead, between two entirely different kinds of reality, belonging to two entirely disparate conceptual orders.”

Now, I can appreciate the distinction that Hart is drawing here. Some atheists (and even some theists) often think of “God” as a some superhero who inhabits the world and is capable of performing miraculous deeds. God can raise the dead, he can create the universe, but, if there is no evidence for such a being within the universe, then he does not exist. But, Hart is countering that this is the wrong conception of “God,” aligning closer with the lesser conception of a “god.” Instead, “God” is not just a powerful entity within the universe, he is the source of all being itself. Hart (pg. 30) explains:

“[God] is not a ‘being,’ at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the the infinite wellspring of all that is.”

What Hart is getting at is that “God” is not just an object within the universe, but is instead the immanent source of being, upon which everything that is contingent depends. Hart (pg. 30) clarifies:

“In another sense [God] is ‘being itself,’ in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss…”

Now, as I have said, I can appreciate the distinction that Hart is drawing here. However, I do have to question whether the theology that Hart outlines above truly reflects the historical teachings of many world religions, such as Christianity. Consider how the apostle Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) describes his understanding of God in relation to the earth:

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

As NT scholar Bart Ehrman (God’s Problem, pp. 243-244) explains about Paul’s understanding of God’s placement in respect to the earth in these verses:

“The entire passage presupposes an ancient cosmology in which the universe we live in consists of three levels (sometimes called the three-storied universe). There is the level where we human beings now live, on the flat earth. There is the realm below us where the dead exist (e.g., in Sheol). And there is the realm above us, where God — and now Christ — lives. In this understanding, Christ was once with us on our level, then he died and went to the lower level. But he was raised from the dead, to our level, and then ascended to the level above us … to meet the Lord above, in the air. That’s how Paul thought — completely like an ancient person who didn’t realize that this world is round … In our cosmology, there is no such thing as up and down, literally speaking.”

creation1

In placing God literally in heaven, above the earth, Paul (one of Christianity’s earliest founders) is clearly understanding God as “something posed over against the universe,” despite whatever arcane philosophical verbiage later theologians like Hart want to use to defend Christian theism in modern times. A lot of atheists, thus, tend to dismiss the theologian’s God as unreflective of ordinary theistic beliefs. I have sympathies for this view, but theologians like Hart are theists to, and if an atheist wishes to be robust in denying every kind of theism that exists, including the most formal and articulated version of the theologian’s God, then they need to interact with the arguments for the theologian’s God as well.

Have atheists not been interacting with and arguing against the theologian’s conception of “God”? Have atheists all been striking the wrong target? Well, let’s look into the works of actual atheist philosophers rather than just popular atheist writers.

Here is how professional atheist philosopher of religion Graham Oppy defines “God” in The Best Argument Against God (pp. 11-12):

“On a natural ‘minimal’ conception, God is the source, or ground, or originating cause of everything that can have a source, or ground, or originating cause. In particular, on this ‘minimal’ conception, God is the cause of the existence of the natural world, and the source or ground or origin of most – if not all – of its significant features. On ‘standard’ conceptions, God possess a range of further attributes: for example, most theists agree that God is supremely powerful (‘omnipotent’), supremely wise and knowledgeable (‘omniscient’), and perfectly good (‘omnibenevolent’) … There are many further attributes that some theists attribute to God. Contested ‘generic’ attributes include, among others: simplicity, infinity, impassibility, personality, consciousness, freedom, perfection, necessity, eternity, and agency.”

Now, does Oppy’s definition of “God” sound very different from Hart’s definition of “God” above? Not at all. In fact, I think that Oppy has possibly even done a better job of clearly describing theology and the attributes of “God” than even Hart has. That is because Oppy is a professional atheist philosopher of religion, not just some popular new atheist writer. In The Best Argument Against God, Oppy does not build a case against “god,” but defends an entire metaphysical case that this view of “God” is not necessary to answering major philosophical questions. Oppy argues that “God” need not be necessary for the source of all being. Does Hart interact with, at any substantive length, these stronger atheist critiques of “God”? Not really.

The closest Hart comes to really critiquing the best arguments against God is when he attempts to critique the metaphysical view of naturalism. After all, naturalism is an alternative worldview that excludes the supernatural and God as a necessary condition for reality. Now, I am a naturalist, but I have no problem with Hart critiquing naturalism in a scholarly manner. In fact, I welcome it. That is what scholars do.

However, Hart’s critique of naturalism is little more than a dismissive and condescending rant, where he brushes aside with a few assertions the idea of naturalism as a coherent alternative account of reality. Hart (pg. 17) states:

“This, it seems to me, ought to be an essentially inoffensive assertion. The only fully consistent alternative to belief in God, properly understood, is some version of ‘materialism’ or ‘physicalism’ or (to use the term most widely preferred at present) ‘naturalism’; and naturalism—the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order, and certainly nothing supernatural — is an incorrigibly incoherent concept, and one that is ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking.”

First off, many atheist philosophers would disagree that some version of materialism, physicalism, or naturalism is the “only consistent alternative to belief in God.” For example, professional philosopher Stephen Law (another atheist philosopher that Hart does not interact with) has recently cautioned against atheism being defined with naturalism. As Law explains:

“Though I personally lean towards naturalism, I’m by no means committed to it. I’m one of the 35% of professional philosophers that’s neither theist nor naturalist.”

Does Hart interact with these 35% of atheist philosophers who are not naturalists, and yet have arguments against theism? Not really.

Even more importantly, however, Hart is simply brushing off here the dominant view among professional philosophers as “pure magical thinking.” How can the majority of professional philosophers be naturalists (49.8% = naturalists; 25.9% = non-naturalists; Other = 24.3%), and Hart merely dismiss this view with the wave of his hand, substantively interacting with virtually none of their works? It would have been nice and appropriate if Hart had interacted more with the works of professional naturalist philosophers, such as Jack Ritchie’s Understanding Naturalism, for example.

What arguments does Hart marshal against naturalism? His arguments primarily rest on epistemic critique that naturalism is incapable of providing warrant, echoing the criticisms of Alvin Plantinga (to whom many, many naturalist philosophers have responded, and disagree with). Hart (pg. 17) states:

“If … naturalism is correct (however implausible that is), and if consciousness is then an essentially material phenomenon, then there is no reason to believe that our minds, having evolved purely though natural selection, could possibly be capable of knowing what is or is not true about reality as a whole. Our brains may necessarily have equipped us to recognize certain sorts of physical objects around us and enabled us to react to them: but, beyond that, we can assume only that nature will have selected just those behaviors in us more conducive to our survival, along with whatever thoughts and belief might be essentially or accidentally associated with them … This yields the delightful paradox that, if naturalism is true as a picture of reality, it is necessarily false as a philosophical precept…”

Do professional philosophers who specialize in epistemology (and work on the subject far more than Hart) even agree with this view? Nope. The ratio of naturalists in philosophy of epistemology (47.5% = naturalism; 26.2% = non-naturalism; Other = 26.2%) is about the same as the professional philosophical community as a whole (49.8% = naturalists; 25.9% = non-naturalists; Other = 24.3%).

How can the majority of professional philosophers of epistemology be naturalists and not recognize the problems asserted by Hart above? Perhaps we should look at what these naturalist philosophers of epistemology have to say. Take naturalist philosopher Konrad Talmont-Kaminski, for example, who specializes in:

Self@Komorow“My research interests lie in the area of epistemology and, in particular, in naturalized normativity, theory of rationality and the nature of empirical evidence. My project at the KLI is to examine superstitious beliefs as a natural cognitive phenomenon that arises due to the bounded nature of rationality. To find out more about it go to my blog – Just another deisidaimon.”

Here is how Talmont-Kaminski (“Evolution, Cognition and Value: the Ingredients for a Naturalist Philosophy,” pp. 38-39) answers Hart’s epistemic dilemma:

“The open-endedness afforded by the theory of bounded rationality goes beyond the traits of individual heuristics and consists in the capacity to develop new heuristics … In the case of evolution this is made possible by the mechanisms of variation, selection and retention. With each new paleontological find, our knowledge of how various adaptations arose is becoming ever more complete, in some case already providing us with a veritable slide-show of the intermediate forms that led to supremely functional outcomes. In the case of reasoning, the mechanisms are only now being revealed through work in a variety of the sciences of cognition as well as work in evolutionary explanations of human behaviour (for an introduction to the latter, see Laland & Brown 2002). The basic idea is that, while some heuristics may be in some way hardwired into our brains through evolution … there is not a set range of heuristics that cognition is limited to relying upon. People are capable of using their limited knowledge of their environment to identify problems with existing heuristics and to develop new heuristics that extend their abilities. Paramount examples of this capacity fill the history of scientific methodology. Thus, the double-blind method that has become standard for testing pharmaceuticals, is the result of successive developments in experimental methods that took place during the twentieth century and were a reaction to the realisation that it is not enough to simply provide a control group which is not subject to the treatment being tested. The initial use of single-blind testing, in which the researchers knew whether they were administering the placebo or the treatment under examination, also turned out to be insufficient in some cases. The reason is that the placebo effect is subtle enough to affect outcomes due to the attitude of the researcher interacting with the subject, even though that person may not be consciously altering their behaviour. The vital point is that knowledge of the environment plus existing heuristics is sufficient to develop new heuristics. There is no need for a general heuristic-generating mechanism.”

Does Hart substantively interact with researchers such as these, before asserting that naturalism is “pure magical thinking” or “implausible”? Nope. Not to mention the works of other naturalist philosophers who have responded to the epistemic problems that Hart asserts above. To name just a few: J. Wesley Robbins (“Evolutionary Naturalism, Theism, and Skepticism about the External World”), Stephen Law (“Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism Refuted”), and Paul Churchland (“Is Evolutionary Naturalism Epistemologically Self-Defeating?”).

Hart has not taken the time to substantively interact with the arguments of actual naturalist philosophers, such as those that I have listed above, and, as such, his condescending assertions against naturalism may be dismissed in exactly the same vein that Hart dismisses the writings of popular new atheists that he claims do not research the actual arguments for God.

I should also note that I do not think that Hart’s failure to interact with these scholars, nor that ratio of professional philosophers who identify as atheist or naturalist, imply that atheism or naturalism are correct. I am not making that appeal to authority. I am only pointing out that there is a substantial number of professional philosophers who would disagree with Hart’s assertions, and, if Hart wants to advance scholarly discussion, he needs to interact more with these professionals’ arguments, rather than just call naturalism “pure magical thinking,” and say that atheism “must be regarded as a superstition.”

After checking out David Hart’s The Experience of God, I was reminded of a recent statement by philosopher of religion Greg Dawes about why many philosophers are not persuaded by the theological arguments for God. In an interview with 3:AM Magazine, titled “On Theism and Explanation,” Dawes states:

“While the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a ‘handmaid’ of theology. There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead.”

I think this statement applies perfectly to David Hart’s The Experience of God:

The arguments that Hart marshals in defense of the theologian’s God *are* serious and atheists should be aware of them. Atheists should also know (and Hart should mention at the front of the book, not in a brief note in the back) that professional philosophers like Graham Oppy have already interacted with them in scholarly works.

The arguments that Hart marshals against atheism and naturalism *are not* serious. Hart fails to interact with the best arguments against God and for naturalism offered by professional atheist and naturalist philosophers.

In this way, just as Dawes observes, Hart is interesting in exploring the strongest arguments for God, but he is not interested in exploring the strongest arguments in the opposite direction. In this sense, Hart’s The Experience of God is much more about apologetics than it is about scholarship. I could understand a book like this being published by InterVarsity Press, but it should not have been been published by Yale University Press. The editors should have told Hart to go back, remove his vitriolic statements against atheists and naturalists, and to professionally interact with the scholars on the other side.

Failing to do this, Hart has only presented a strong case for theism against a weak case for atheism and naturalism, just as he accuses new atheists like Dawkins of only attacking a weak case for theism. That, if nothing else, is the pot calling the kettle black, and that is why I have to express disappointment in this book.

Another approach is that Hart could have dropped his material attacking atheism and naturalism, and just have focused on his cross-cultural survey of metaphysics and theology. That way his book would only include his stronger material, and would not have to meet the onus of interacting with more philosophers on the other side. But, since Hart wanted to claim in this book that atheism “is nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes and conceptual limitations,” I do not think that he had any intention of taking the actual views of atheists seriously. This book is instead a lot more about apologetics, and seeking to depict atheists and naturalists in a condescending and polemical fashion.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] As I discuss in my article “Trends of Atheism and Naturalism among Professional Philosophers,” a common apologetic retort to theism’s lack of support among professional philosophers is to point out that 72.3% of philosophers of religion identify as theists. A major problem with identifying professional trends within the the sub-branch of “philosophy of religion,” however, is accounting for selection bias. Studies have shown that most people who go into PoR are already believing theists, and many have an invested interest in defending theistic beliefs (in contrast, fewer atheists are interested in professionally working in PoR). For example, Helen De Cruz in a qualitative study about the motivating factors of people entering PoR, has found that some of the major motivations include :

“Faith seeking understanding: Several respondents indicated that they liked the cerebral, critical nature of philosophy of religion, and that this helps them to deepen their faith.”

And:

“Proselytism and witness: Several people who self-identify as theists indicate that proselytism and witness play a key role in why they do philosophy of religion.”

These motivations reflect how people do not often become theists from studying PoR, rather than that most people who go into PoR are already theists. In fact, Dr Cruz found that, in terms of “belief revision,” more people, whose views were changed from studying PoR, moved from theism to atheism:

“An interesting theme that emerged was philosophical training and engagement led to belief revision. The direction of this revision was most frequently in the direction from theism to atheism, in line with recent work in cognitive science of religion that indicates that analytic reasoning and active reflection discourage religious belief. Several authors stated that they held unreflective religious beliefs before they studied philosophy, which they subsequently began to question, and abandon, as a result.”

Likewise, it should be pointed out that, even if belief in theism is more common among philosophers of religion, it is still not higher than belief in theism among the general population. For example, in the United States, about 92% to 83% of adults believe in theism. While theistic beliefs vary between countries, and philosophy polls are not specified by region, this number is still greater than the 72.3% of philosophers of religion who adhere to theism.

Furthermore, many of the theistic arguments that are made in PoR pertain to other sub-branches in philosophy, so that it cannot be assumed that PoR is the end-all-be-all authority on the question of god’s existence. For example, the apologetic cosmological argument pertains to physical science, and yet 77% of philosophers of physical science are atheists and 60.7% are naturalists. Furthermore, apologists within PoR who critique naturalism, such as Alvin Plantinga, have not had their views supported within other sub-branches of philosophy that pertain to their arguments. For example, Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism is an argument that pertains to the philosophical branch of epistemology. And yet 47.5% of philosophers of epistemology are naturalists (26.2% are non-naturalists and 26.2% are “other”), which is about the same ratio as the 49.8% of professional philosophers as a whole who identify as naturalists. This shows that Plantinga’s epistemological critique of naturalism has not gained substantial support among professional philosophers of epistemology. To the contrary, such indifference suggests that many of the arguments made in PoR are often insular and are not accepted by other philosophical sub-branches that are relevant to the same issues. This disparity is probably due to the fact, noted above, that many people going into PoR are already theists, whereas this trend is not common among the professional philosophical community as a whole. Regardless, there is no statistical proof or survey evidence which suggests that studying PoR increases one’s belief in god or reconciles intellectual doubts about theism.

Lastly, philosopher Paul Draper in “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion” has critiqued professional trends in PoR on the grounds that the philosophical sub-branch is far more polemical than other areas in philosophy, and is likewise too partisan and one-directional. I think that David Hart’s The Experience of God is a perfect example of this trend.

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13 Responses to The Pot Calling the Kettle Black: David Hart’s Rant against Atheism and Naturalism in “The Experience of God”

  1. Son of Sharecroppers says:

    Oddly, as an atheist I largely agree with Hart’s view of naturalism and the consequences that flow from accepting that our brains evolved in accordance with natural laws and thus that our understandings are accordingly limited. Fine. But then he angrily thrusts that aside, claiming that this view is “necessarily false as a precept of philosophy.” Science has provided us excellent reason to accept naturalist explanations: science is essentially materialist or naturalist, and it has been (and continues to be) wildly successful. The theory of evolution has proven to be one of the most important and powerful scientific theories of all time. Perhaps Hart should pause and consider that he should adjust his philosophical precepts, rather than reject outright such a powerfully explanatory model of the universe. After all, the last time I checked, neither faith nor philosophy qua philosophy has ever taken people to the moon; neither has ever effected a heart transplant. Neither has never set forth the incredible knowledge of our world and other worlds that science has provided. Given the knowledge that a naturalist methodology has provided us, perhaps we should be more respectful of naturalism.

  2. ratamacue0 says:

    Well, that was pointed. 😉 (Nothing wrong with that.)

    That was an interesting read. Thanks for the review.

  3. MNT says:

    Mr. Ferguson,

    I feel when Christian philosophers argue for the existence of “god” it’s merely a rhetorical game. Let’s be clear Christians til today are unable to define what “God” means. We use adjectives and definitions to describe objects. For example, we use quantitative and qualitative measurements to define what oxygen gas is.

    I can describe Narnia through logic just like Christian can try to define their “God” (which ever definition) and I may be able to convince someone Narnia is real with great arguments. Heck OJ Simpson got off with clever arguments.

    There isn’t any standard way to verify the Christian concept of “God” because there isn’t even a uniform definition of what this “God” is.

    • MNT says:

      Two additional point,

      Usually a religions “holy scripture” is suppose to define their views. Since the New Testament is full of falsehood then why accept its definition of “God” or worldview.

      I think it’s bogus for people actually any human being to use non-evidentiary basis for promoting their beliefs as true. I mean anyone who is a “supernaturalist” can push for any belief that exists in the unseen realm. Oh look the Flying Spaghetti Monster is coming to toss you! You just can’t see it, but here are some reasons why I know the monster is real…

  4. Lester Ballard says:

    “In other sense [God] is ‘being itself,’ in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss…”

    Far out, man, like, heavy.

  5. andrew says:

    “The reason why is because many atheists have (allegedly) been attacking the wrong idea of God all along.”

    If we thought there were a “right” idea of god, we wouldn’t be atheists, natch. If God were a real entity, if God actually existed, then there could be correct and incorrect descriptions of that entity. Until such is demonstrated, there’s no more “right” god than there are “right” elves, and it’s one of the believers’ oldest tricks to deflect criticism by disavowing the thing criticized.

  6. I would like to mention a brief error and correction in this article. When I first posted the article, I stated that Hart made no mention of professional atheist philosopher of religion Graham Oppy. However, Hart does make a brief note about Oppy on pg. 350. Hart’s discussion is not substantive, and it changes none of the conclusions in this review; however, that was a clear error on my part. I apologize for the mistake, and have edited the review above to remove the error and to also respond to Hart’s comments about Oppy (and a handful of other atheist philosophers) on pg. 350.

  7. GeoffSmith says:

    Just came across your blog. Anyway, I read Hart’s book and really appreciated it. I thought that his point wasn’t so much to interact with atheist thought (though he does that). I thought that his main point was to clarify classical theistic thought in the face of populist critiques.

    In his chapter on consciousness, he spent a lot of time interacting with some sophisticated advocates of physicalism. I’m not sure if you wrote your review based on the earlier chapters or not, but as the book goes on he does more of what you want, though I do think that when he did, he wasn’t actually sticking with the purpose of the book, which I understood to be dealing with

    I think the reason he doesn’t deal with Oppy and Mackie is because they aren’t the issue. Their books are very thoughtful (and pricey, though both have recently been at half-price books until the price dropped into the affordable for a teacher range).

    He does state at the beginning that the book is mostly about definitions and designations and not so much about arguments.

    One of Hart’s strengths as a writer is his ability to use biting wit well. But that is is weakness as a thinker, for he occassionally (maybe due to high IQ), casts things aside using rhetoric and assumes that everybody else will understand the logic behind his dismissiveness.

    Thanks for your post.

    • Hey Geoff,

      Thanks for your thoughts, and sorry for my belated response. I am currently in the middle of wrapping up the Spring academic quarter and also moving into a new residence. As such, I have been away from the blog for a while, and I just now got a chance to reply to your comment.

      “I thought that his point wasn’t so much to interact with atheist thought (though he does that). I thought that his main point was to clarify classical theistic thought in the face of populist critiques. In his chapter on consciousness, he spent a lot of time interacting with some sophisticated advocates of physicalism. I’m not sure if you wrote your review based on the earlier chapters or not, but as the book goes on he does more of what you want, though I do think that when he did, he wasn’t actually sticking with the purpose of the book, which I understood to be dealing with.”

      The disjointed purposes of this book is one of my major complaints against it. On the one hand, Hart wants to claim that popular atheist authors are misunderstanding the actual nature and theology of God. On the other hand, Hart also wants to provide a cross-cultural survey of theology in order to find consistent themes across various religions’ conceptions of divinity (I thought that this was a more valuable part of the book, for Religious Studies purposes). On a third hand, Hart also wants to critique physicalism and materialistic views of consciousness.

      Any one of these topics could constitute its own monograph, and by focusing on a wide range of issues (while frequently writing in a style of run-on prose), Hart stretches his analysis rather thin on some very important points. In particular, I think that Hart does a very poor job of defining atheist philosophy in the first chapters, which leads to something of a straw man when he critiques physicalism later in the book.

      I should note that I primarily wrote this review in response to Oliver Burkeman’s claim that this is a book that atheists “should read.” That I do not think is the case. There is some interesting stuff in this book, of course, but almost all of the subjects dealt with in the individual chapters have also been addressed by atheist philosophers who can give a better representation of actual atheist belief than what Hart generally provides. As such, I would never recommend that an atheist read this book, without also consulting the writings of atheist (e.g. Oppy) and naturalist (e.g. Ritchie) philosophers. Failing to do that, atheists will be given a much weaker representation of their views than what actually exists in atheist philosophy.

      I focused my critique on the first couple chapters, because that is the section of the book where Hart defines atheism in opposition to theism. And, Hart (pg. 17) states:

      “This, it seems to me, ought to be an essentially inoffensive assertion. The only fully consistent alternative to belief in God, properly understood, is some version of ‘materialism’ or ‘physicalism’ or (to use the term most widely preferred at present) ‘naturalism’; and naturalism—the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order, and certainly nothing supernatural — is an incorrigibly incoherent concept, and one that is ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking.”

      Setting Hart’s acerbic comment about “magical thinking” aside, this is simply a straw man. As Stephen Law discusses above, 35% of atheist philosophers don’t even identify as naturalists. Moreover, even most atheists who do identify as naturalists would probably not argue that it is the “only fully consistent alternative to belief in God.” Hart here is simply generalizing and doing a very poor job of charitably interacting with atheist thought. That’s a major problem for a book claiming that atheists are not interacting with the correct definition of God.

      I do agree that chapter 4 dealing with consciousness was better than the early chapters. Philosophy of mind is, after all, Hart’s speciality. However, he commits a straw man in the early chapters by equating atheism with physicalism, which means that much of the force behind the arguments in this chapter, IMO, hits the wrong target.

      I disagree that Hart “spent a lot of time interacting with some sophisticated advocates of physicalism” in the chapter. He discusses some of the arguments of J.J.C. Smart and John Searle, as well as Alex Rosenberg (who is hardly the best atheist authority on the matter). But most of the chapter is not about interacting with the arguments of materialists, per se, rather than providing arguments against materialism. And so, Hart discusses metaphysical issues such as qualia, abstract concepts, reason, transcendental experience, and intentionality, sure.

      The problem, however, is that there are atheist philosophers who also deal with these issues in far more depth than Hart seems to acknowledge in the pages of this book. Jack Ritchie in Understanding Naturalism, for example, tackles a lot of the conceptual issues that Hart raises, providing some pretty even-handed analysis (even critiquing other naturalists) that can hardly be called dogmatic. Likewise, Walter & Heckman in Physicalism and Mental Causation provide a volume that goes into great detail analyzing some of the same conceptual issues that Hart raises. So the materialist philosophy on the other side of the argument is considerably more deep and sophisticated than the impression that Hart gives. It certainly cannot be dismissed as “pure magical thinking” if one wishes to academically interact with serious materialist philosophers.

      “I think the reason he doesn’t deal with Oppy and Mackie is because they aren’t the issue. Their books are very thoughtful (and pricey, though both have recently been at half-price books until the price dropped into the affordable for a teacher range).”

      The problem though is that Hart published this book with Yale University Press. That is an academic press, meaning that Hart should be interacting more with academics on the other side, rather than just popular authors. By targeting weaker atheist books in the first chapters, and by shoving off discussion of more sophisticated atheist philosophy to the bibliographic postscript at the end, Hart especially fails to give an accurate portrayal of the actual academic landscape on these issues. It leaves his readers with the impression that atheist philosophy is far less sophisticated than it actually is.

      Furthermore, I should note that *I do think* that a number of New Atheist authors provide serious arguments. However, it is important to use the correct author for the correct issues. Physicist Victor Stenger, for example, was not a philosopher of religion, but he was a cosmologist who was trained and equipped to analyze many of the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments used for God.

      A common assumption that I think a lot of theologians tend to make is that philosophy of religion is the “end-all-be-all” discipline for discussing the existence of God. However, I disagree. PoR is the main discipline to go to for understanding “theology,” but a lot of theological arguments relate to other philosophical and scientific disciplines. Apologetic cosmological arguments or moral arguments, for example, do not belong solely to the purview of PoR.

      Stenger may not be the person to go to for refuting classical theology. However, he does deflate a lot of the premises upon which cosmological and fine-tuning arguments are made. He does so by providing equally plausible (or more plausible) secular explanations for the same data that theologians claim is answered by God. That is the real strength behind what these atheist books outside of PoR provide. They are not designed so much to interact with theology, as much as they are designed to provide explanations outside of theology that eliminate the need for religious explanations.

      Shelly Kagan would be another good example in the field of ethical philosophy. Kagan is not a philosopher of religion, but he is an expert on ethics. And, Kagan strongly disputes the notion that God is necessary for morality. This doesn’t mean, IMO, that Kagan needs to be an expert in theology. Rather, Kagan provides equally plausible (or more plausible) secular explanations for morality that eliminate the need for theological explanations. As such, Kagan deflates many of the premises upon which theological moral arguments are made.

      That does not mean that atheists should not interact with theology, of course, but I only consider it to be one dimension of the debate. And there are atheist philosophers such as Oppy and Mackie who deal with this aspect. And, if Hart had started a book like this by focusing on their arguments, it would have given a much stronger impression of actual atheist thought. Instead, Hart spends a lot of time going after the wrong authors on the wrong issues. He wants to claim, “See, Stenger didn’t interact with classical theology correctly, so he does not even understand the idea of God, making his arguments useless!”

      However, if you go to Oppy for addressing theology and to Stenger for addressing cosmology, the problem is resolved. You have to go to the correct atheist writer for the correct issue. By targeting the wrong authors on the wrong issues, Hart dismisses much of the value that physicists like Stenger bring to the discussion, while ignoring philosophers like Oppy who address the very theological issues that Hart is raising. It’s a sneaky way of manipulating atheist bibliography to make it seem like atheists are not addressing the right issues, when, in reality, the bibliography is not being adjusted to match the correct author with the correct issue.

      “One of Hart’s strengths as a writer is his ability to use biting wit well. But that is is weakness as a thinker, for he occassionally (maybe due to high IQ), casts things aside using rhetoric and assumes that everybody else will understand the logic behind his dismissiveness.”

      And, I agree, Hart is a smart guy, no question. But there are other equally qualified philosophers who are experts on the same issues who would disagree with many of his assertions. And, if you publish a book for Yale University Press, I think you need to be more respectful in dealing with the other side. Hart’s acerbic comments in the opening of the book strongly undermine its purpose.

      Overall, my main impression of this book is that it is partisan and polemical. It seeks to present a strong case for theism against a weak case for atheism. Philosopher Paul Draper in “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion” has criticized a lot of the partisanship and polemicizing that occurs in PoR, and I think that The Experience of God is a perfect example of the problems that Draper identifies. This book has a large apologetic axe to grind, and I do not think that Yale University Press should have published such a book at the end of the day.

      • GeoffSmith says:

        You might be right about that last sentence. I found it to be a pleasant romp through Hart’s mind, but perhaps it would have been more appropriately published elsewhere, perhaps as a series online. There is certainly a place for biting wit and sarcasm in the public sphere, but in a university press book one should leave that to the footnotes.

        I really would have preferred to see him simply build his positive case.

      • GeoffSmith says:

        Also, don’t worry about your belated response. It was long enough that I would have submitted it to peer review before posting. Seriously, that was one of the most comprehensive and helpful comments I’ve ever seen on a blog. Thanks.

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