Over at TruthDig, Troy Jollimore has a great review of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. He shows that she doesn’t have much of a case, and deftly dismantles the ludicrous idea of apophatic theology, the idea that, as Jollimore puts it, “God is ineffable and that talk about God literally has no content at all.”
Jollimore is an associate professor of philosophy at Cal State Chico, and though I’ve not heard of him before, he’s produced an impressive list of reviews (see his piece on Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God), and seems to be a trenchant voice of reason in the faith/science debates.
I won’t excerpt his piece in extenso since it’s a joy to read in its entirety, but here are a few tidbits:
Ultimately it is doubtful that apophaticism can be made to work. If the concept of “God” is genuinely empty, as it needs to be if evidence and rational criticism are to be considered irrelevant to God-talk, then in a quite literal sense people who talk about God cannot say and do not know what they are talking about. (If I walk around constantly referring to “bizzers,” and rebuff any request for clarification by saying “I will not place limits on bizzers by defining them, for bizzers transcend all human attempts to come to know them,” I am simply talking nonsense.) In her more radical mode, Armstrong wants to preserve religious talk from questions of truth—in our ordinary sense of “truth”—by draining them of content. But when we lose content we do not only lose truth, we lose meaning as well. The apophatic retort to the skeptic, then, seems to reduce to: “You don’t know what you’re talking about—indeed, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. So how dare you contradict me!”
. . . But there I go, talking about religious believers again, when Armstrong has shown that religion is not a matter of belief—right? Well, as I said above, she has tried to show that, but not convincingly; and even if she could show it, it is not clear that that could somehow defend religion as actually practiced in our world. (In light of polls indicating that a large majority of Americans believe in a personal God, and that less than 40 percent of them believe in evolution, Armstrong’s claim that apophaticism represents the religious mainstream—at least in this country—is pretty hard to swallow.) Indeed there are many moments in “The Case for God” when Armstrong seems to drift away from apophaticism and into a deeply subjectivist view of religious truth, which holds that true religious beliefs are essentially private and can be obtained only through committed individual practice. Surprisingly, Armstrong does not seem to notice that this view is not only distinct from apophaticism, it is deeply opposed in spirit.
So another bit of “sophisticated” theology is shown to be intellectually vacuous. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that apophatic theology is a crock, but Jollimore does a great job of picking out its flaws.
Where, I ask, is all the sophisticated theology that we atheists are supposed to have ignored? All the stuff I read — Eagleton, Haught, Armstrong, ad nauseum, is laughable: pathetic attempts to rationalize the existence of God in a world where he not only refuses to exhibit himself, but runs the show as if he doesn’t care.