The so-called great debate in religion is about whether God exists. Is God real or just a fiction? This debate turns out to be a tempest in a teapot, a sideshow betraying our underestimation of the stakes raised by the concept of God.
Ask yourself whether you think numbers exist — not the symbols we use to refer to numbers, such as the squiggles “2” or “5” but the numbers themselves. Do they exist? If you hesitate to answer in the affirmative, that’s likely because you’re assuming that only things exist, meaning particular things that occupy a finite portion of space and that come and go in time. Numbers don’t do that, so of course they don’t exist; you find the number 3 itself by travelling to a particular planet and looking under the right rock. But you also don’t want to say that numbers are unreal, since we rely on them every day.
In the same way God obviously, by definition doesn’t exist: you won’t find God by looking anywhere in particular in the universe. That’s because we presuppose that existence is natural and that to prove something exists is to naturalize the thing, to show that the thing is limited to certain dimensions, for example. The entire debate about whether God exists is therefore science-centered. We all have science in mind when we bow to convention and ask whether God exists.
We can be excused for presupposing science in that way, because there’s no alternative conception of what’s real that’s as rigorous and well-defined as the scientific one. Science explains how everything that’s apparent in the universe comes to be and how they’re composed of various layers of complex arrangements of parts, down to the atomic and the subatomic.
Nevertheless, to assume that for God to exist, the deity would have to be a natural entity is to speak nonsensically, since the monotheistic concept of God is precisely of something supernatural, something not bound by natural limits. To say that the supernatural must be natural is like saying the square has to be circular.
But is the concept of God therefore nonsensical? Do we get lost in mystical obfuscations when we speak of supernatural, immaterial and timeless reality, especially when we assign natural attributes to God such as a mind and a personality? Of course the concept of God is thereby confused and incoherent. As mystics say, God is ineffable, so to attempt to reduce God to what we can understand or express with limiting words and concepts is to miss the point of religion.
To think about God and religion is to grapple with a deeper, more unsettling question than any having to do just with some philosophical or theological technicality. The challenge presented by the concept of God is that all of existence and all our standards of intelligibility and normality are parochial. “God” is a name for that which transcends the sphere of human comprehension.
In short, the question of God’s existence is really the question of what H.P. Lovecraft called “cosmicism.” Cosmicism is the suspicion that we disgrace ourselves by showing too much pride in human accomplishments, because everything we take for granted, including all our vaunted science and technology and art may be just like tempests swirling in a little teapot. We may be missing much of what’s real in a larger, anti-human domain because we cling to our prejudices and habits.
God as Noumenon
The philosopher Immanuel Kant set the groundwork for this discussion when he distinguished between phenomena and noumena. The former includes everything we can make sense of, given the type of mind we have, whereas the latter are the things as they are independent of how we understand them. Noumena are necessarily empty, as far as we can tell, because our act of understanding things humanizes, naturalizes, or otherwise circumscribes their inhuman dimensions.
But, Kant added — and he might as well have had a sinister grin on his face as he did so — we can know one and only one thing about prehumanized, noumenal reality, which is that it’s there. Like “God,” “noumenon” is a placeholder expressing a twinge of humility, since we ought to expect that although we can’t help but understand things from a viewpoint, even when we’re being “objective,” we don’t create reality with that viewpoint. We take a view on a preexisting world and the light we shine in the darkness has our signature all over it.
You might be wondering what the limits of human objectivity could be. Science deals with models, and a working model enables us to predict and control the system we’re investigating. To think objectively is to set aside your personal preoccupations and to adopt instead the perspective of our species. Thus, if I’m thinking personally or subjectively about pizza, I’d say I have certain preferred toppings and pizza places. But if I’m thinking objectively, I posit the pizza as an object, which means I break the pizza into its natural parts and I model the thing, assigning it physical attributes such as a temperature, a degree of solidity and an age.
We like to think of those physical categories as being noumenal or essential to reality. But the reductive aspect of scientific understanding gives the game away, because the universe comes to us as an unreduced plenum. We break the universe down into parts and layers and systems, because we aim to conquer nature by dividing it in that fashion. No part of nature can be noumenally understood without understanding the entire universe, without knowing the universe’s true name, as it were.
And notice the oxymoron of under-standing or standing under the universe that already includes everything and thus that affords no such vantage point. Understanding applies only to parts of the whole, because we can have no rational idea of what the whole is; for that reason we have no such idea about what anything really, noumenally is. To objectify is to reduce; to apply science is to naturalize and to understand for the sake of controlling and feeling safer by boosting our pride and circumventing existential doubts.
Return, though, to that smirk Kant might as well have worn when he spoke of our having only a hint about noumena. The concept of the noumenon is essential to the horror genre. A monster is that which terrifies us by subverting our norms, including the norms of how our senses and mental faculties work. In scary tales, we thus often glimpse monsters peripherally, without fully registering them, because to grasp the scale of their inhumanity would be like staring at the sun.
Lovecraft’s point, in effect, was that science fiction lets us play with Kant’s dichotomy, by casting noumena as monsters or aliens lying somewhere in the vast universe, with godly, alien power and agendas that are humiliating and maddening to us.
Likewise, the monotheist’s God is just another Lovecraftian monster. Instead of dressing up the anti-humanity of noumena with tentacles and hard-to-pronounce names like “Cthulhu,” the Jew, Christian, or Muslim thinks of God as having human qualities such as a parental or political role. God turns out to be a father or a judge or a king, but these are mere vain symbols with which we flatter ourselves as we attempt to humanize the inhuman or naturalize the noumenon, thereby missing the point.
The horror of the true idea of God is why Jewish scriptures speak of the “fear of God” and it’s why the theologian Rudolph Otto defined “holiness” as a mystery that’s both terrifying and fascinating. Perhaps God’s necessary monstrousness also inspires militant Muslim “jihadists” or “terrorists” to think so little of non-Muslim life, as though Allah’s “greatness” or inhumanity were transferable from the deity to the God-fearers. Before Christianity was cowed by the Scientific Revolution and the rise of capitalism, Christian sects were likewise driven to horrific acts such as the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the witch hunts.
Religious Myths as Horror Stories
What, then, should the great debate about religion entail, given the irrelevance of the objectifying arguments and proofs? Curiously, atheists ought to affirm that God exists, whereas theists ought to deny it. Atheists tend to accept the upshot of the scientific picture of nature, which counteracts the evolutionary hubris of our species: science decenters us, by showing that as all-too human as objective truths may be, they’re often opposed to our subjective intuitions. Intuition tells us we matter to the universe, because we matter to ourselves, but science informs us otherwise. Atheistic naturalists should have no trouble accepting, then, that whatever reality fundamentally is, it would likely blow our minds and is thus aptly symbolized as a blasphemous Lovecraftian monstrosity. The noumenon transcends the phenomenon; God transcends nature. Let the atheist be the theist.
By contrast, theists leap into misunderstanding by taking their religious symbols so literally. By affirming that God exists and by weaponizing her creed, the theist is only playing with a toy conception, with a little humanized godlet that’s somehow transcendent and absolute, on the one hand, and a loving father figure and fair judge on the other.
The true great debate about whether religion is worthwhile would begin, therefore, with atheists and theists laughing at themselves as they exchange seats.
Finally, return to the numbers we want to say are real even if they don’t technically exist. We assume numbers can’t be mere fictions, because we assume fiction is just for entertainment, so if numbers were imaginary we could rewrite the script of mathematics. But we know from the fictional worlds even at the core of popular entertainment that once a storyline becomes canon, as in the Star Wars or superhero franchises, fans of the work are loathe to desecrate the canon by changing even a jot or tittle. As Smolin and Unger say in The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, we can “evoke” fictions into quasi-being. Once the rules of chess or baseball are set, the game is played out and there are objective truths about the available moves in such games.
Whether or not mathematics is game-like or fictional in that sense, we should wonder how else we might have tried to bypass the limits of our modes of understanding other than by telling stories about noumena. Once we’re humble enough to appreciate those necessary limits, but also curious about what lies beyond them, we can’t hope to discover the objective truth about what things really are, because objects are things that have been reduced, modeled, and to some extent neutralized. Objects as such are human projections, too, albeit ones not as embarrassingly subjective and petty as the divine characters featured in religious myths.
But those myths may have an advantage over science, since they’re plainly fictional stories. When confronted with the thought of a permanent dark side of the moon, as it were, with an unknowable extent of things that can never be measured or explained away, we can’t assume that even our most rational statements correspond or agree with those intrinsically-antihuman essences. All that’s left may be to tell stories, to glimpse the noumena through art, to whistle past the graveyard.