Is God a vertebrate without substance?

June 21, 2014 • 8:01 am

I believe it was H. L. Mencken who used the term “vertebrate without substance” to describe the beliefs of Christians about God; the term, of course, was meant to mock the superstitions for what they are, shorn of numinous language. Mencken was a true strident atheist, as good with mockery as was his successor Hitchens.

But my point is that this is, in fact, how many Christians (and add to that Jews and Muslims) think of their god: as a person without a body.  And that person has humanlike thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

This was brought home to me today when I went shopping, as is my wont on Saturday mornings. There was no good rock music on (they don’t produce it any longer), so I decided to listen to Christian radio in the car, which I did for about an hour. I listened to two stations, and both of them constantly promoted the idea of God as a gaseous vertebrate—just like us, but more powerful.

One show, for children, was about a girl who wanted to become a personal trainer, but had shown little talent for the job, and was frustrated because she didn’t know what to do with her life. “I want to be somebody,” she wailed. Her father, who tried to soothe her, had his own problem: he was overweight and was on a diet. Eventually he told her that God would show her the way, but it would take a while, just like the long while he’d have to wait to shed his extra pounds.  Then a voice-over came on and gave the lesson: God has plans for all of us, and listens to our needs, but he will effect his plans for us in his own time. We must wait. But we should be reassured that he knows what is good for us, loves us, and will, in time, show us the way.

This God, of course, was humanoid: the emotions he evinced were love, understanding, empathy, and the desire to interfere in our lives so we could be fulfilled. And, of course, he was touted as actually listening to prayer, for the child was told to consider her options “prayerfully”.

Those gaseous theologians like David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong, of course, decry the concept of such a humanlike God. That’s not the real God, says Hart, and those atheists who argue against it are wasting their time. The real god is ineffable (though somehow Hart knows that He/She/Hir/It loves us); it is a Ground of Being.

What I want to know is this. If Hart and his ilk think that 99% of Christians have the wrong concept of God, why aren’t they trying to correct it? Why are they writing books aimed at fellow scholars instead of, say, the average Christian, or the average Christian child? Why are they wasting time bashing atheists instead of telling their coreligionists—or all religionists—the truth about God? It would seem to me far more important for them to do that rather than argue with atheists that we’re Getting it Rong.

The reason, of course, is that theologians don’t really care what the average person believes, for their palaver is aimed at other theologians. As Dan Barker told me, “Theology is a subject without an object. The only thing theologians study is other theologians.”

And that’s the truth. Perhaps if someone like Hart got out more, and if he really cared about how religion is perceived by people, he wouldn’t be aiming his tortuous and torturous verbiage at atheists and other religious scholars. He’d be writing popular books telling everyone that he’s right and they’re wrong about God.

Finally, when I tried to find the name of the radio station and the show (without luck), I did find this on the website of a local Christian station, Shine FM.  Presumably Hart would tell us that this isn’t the real Heaven!

Screen shot 2014-06-21 at 9.46.32 AM

92 thoughts on “Is God a vertebrate without substance?

  1. Wow! A whole hour of Christian radio. I can’t stand 10 minutes of the Catholic station a friend listens to in her car.

    1. Jerry is tougher than the rest of us — he’s gotten through multiple books of theology, remember.

      1. When I first skimmed your comment I read “Jerry” as “Jesus!!”

        As it registered in my brain I had to stop skimming and go back to your comment. Must be something akin to a Freudian Slip.

      1. It’s almost closer to a parasitologist doing research by allowing themselves to be attacked by ticks that may or may not be carrying Lyme disease.

        1. We’re talking about a guy who not only let a botfly larva chew on his skull, but actually reads theology – for SCIENCE! Add to that voluntarily listening to Christian radio for a whole hour, and a disturbing pattern is forming. Is it time for an intervention, Prof CC?

    2. The xtian band frontman who got in trouble for trying to get somone to kill his wife, sorry fogotten the name, claimed his band and pretty much every xtian band he had come across were atheists. Article in one of the UK papers last week.

    1. BTW, Dawkins misquoted this as “gaseous invertebrate” in one of his books. I sent him a tongue-in-cheek faux outrage letter to which he never replied. 🙂

  2. Reminds of a saying from my youth as a contract software developer in the military/aerospace/defence industry:

    Our managers may be spineless but they are the backbone of the company.

  3. Garret from Shine Afternoons, his little list of people he can’t wait to visit when he too is with them up there next to jebus, and his cheesy-assed park bench photo are three new things going onto my already lengthy list of shit to forget I ever heard of.

  4. God is just a word lacking a coherent definition. Gaseous indeed, though I usually say vaporous.

  5. Religious people can’t criticise the theological views of other religions. They can only criticise the historical claims or moral views of other religions. When you try to prove an idea is some part of reality you can’t use physical evidence that science uses, you can’t actually prove anything. This is why most claims of the existence of one god can be used to to claim the existence of any god. This goes both ways, you can not criticise one religion without criticising your own.

        1. Bwah! Bwah! Grammar Nazi Alert.

          “Grounds of Being”. Or maybe it should be “Ground-round Beings”

  6. Sophistimicated Theologians say that atheists are stupid to believe God = Beardie (when ST’s actually claim God = Ground of Being) because Sophistimicated Theologians feel insecure about their intellect, especially around scientists, and need to denigrate atheists in order to make themselves feel more secure. They don’t correct the 99% of all Christians who believe God= Beardie because calling Christians dumb would not assauge their feelings of insecurity.

  7. “how many Christians … think of their god: as a person without a body””

    When I think of the word “God”, I tend to think of Leonardo’s imagery.

    For theists, I think of it as a “bait and switch”. They imagine God as a human being, white, male, bearded, but they’re only willing to vocally defend the bodiless spirit.

    Same thing they do with prayer….they operate as if God is like Santa Claus, but when confronted with the ineffectiveness of prayer, they point out that God isn’t Santa Claus.

  8. I’ll have respectfully disagree on the rock music part. Good rock music is still being produced. You just won’t hear it on the radio anymore.

    1. I have taken to listening to streamed music through iTunes Radio. I will never part with my cherished collection of 50’s and 60’s popular music but I have to admit that there is plenty of Alternative Music that is at least as good as any of that older material.

      1. I’m listening to streaming latin jazz right now. Girl From Ipanema and Brazil ’66 on Top 40 am radio (just before FM rock was available) hooked me on this stuff instantly. Indie rock streaming channels remind me a little of early FM rock radio.

  9. I’ll give Armstrong a bit more credit then Bentley and his salads here.
    The second book in her “God trilogy” is in fact anti-fundamentalist, while the third is anti-atheist. (“The Battle for God” and “The Case for God” respectively.)
    (Come to think of it Frank Schaeffer has written TWO anti-fundamentalist books for his one book critiquing gnu atheism. The first two are “Crazy for God” and “Sex Mom and God” and the latter is “Patience with God”. I haven’t read CfG but I highly recommend SM&G)

    If you think God as something supra-personal who masquerades as a person now and then, the position becomes IMO more coherent, and I suspect this may be Hart’s position though probably not Karen Armstrong’s. (The original formulator of the phrase “Ground of Being”, Paul Tillich, has been suspected by a few of being a closet atheist.)

    However IMO the clincher that America’s God is a human construction is its the alternately cornball and cruel character, its weird combination of sentimentality and sadism. Anyone who believes non-Christians are damned for eternity cannot be a good or moral person. (This probably exempts Mr. Hart and his salads as he is Eastern Orthoodox and they’re fairly mellow about the fate of non-believers.)

    Jerry Coyne, are there no jazz or classical stations in Chicago? BTW, the next time you tangle with David Bentley Hart you will probably enjoy posting this image with it.

  10. What about Exodus 33, wherein He allows Moses a peek at his butt? (“And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.”) Doesn’t sound to me a bit like the same god who is the “ground of all being.”

    1. Jesus is a bit of a flasher too in the Book of Mormon. When Jesus first appeared to Joseph Smith he did so in an “exceedingly white” robe and Smith saw that “he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.” From the testimony of Joseph Smith in the introduction.

  11. Makes me remember the frequent assertion by church people that “God is in you” “he dwells within,” or “allow him into your heart,” etc. After enough education informing me of the facts about human anatomy and physiology, I asked the Sabbath School discussion leader — “Where exactly is he when he is in you? Mixed in with blood? Cells? Particular cells? Which organelles?” There was mostly a look of frustration from him of course, and likely annoyance. That I think was my first attempt at shearing away the numinous language to try to get to reality, some 30 years ago.

    1. Fun fact: people used to think the seat of the mind was the heart (Aristotle, for one, and the Ancient Egyptians). According to the FFRF, biblical writers thought the same, hence lines such as “The fool has said in his heart” and so on.

      It amuses me to think that this pumping organ is still being treated as the seat of emotion, rather than the basal ganglia or limbic system. Then again, “he lives on in your basal ganglia” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

      1. 🙂 Not the same ring, indeed. “He will nuzzle your neurons always…” perhaps?.

        I do get the poetic appeal – holding a loved one in your heart, etc. Or knowing someone so well that it’s as if they are in your brain and having some “control” of your thoughts. I’m certain that many church-folk see it as a Being being inside you somewhere and sitting at the controls.

      2. And the classical Chinese schools.

        Not surprising, since people do *seem* to feel there, and you can’t learn much about human bodies if you are forbidden from doing dissections of them.

  12. Shakespeare produced the best definition of theology ever penned and he titled a play with those words: “Much Ado About Nothing”!

  13. I think that many theologians are trapped – like priests who still preach when they no longer believe a word of it. You have to build an ever more elaborate house of cards to distract yourself from admitting to yourself that the edifice is ridiculous.

    Trapped or not, theologians must know very well that their BS isn’t going to be of the slightest interest to children; certainly the heirarchy of the churches know it. So even if the seminarians are perfectly well aware that the faithful are being lied to concerning the basis of the churches’ preachings, they know that roping in adherents as young children is paramount. Without the sunk cost of an emotional investment in the church, very few adults would buy the snake oil.

  14. So Shine gets to heaven and tries to speak to her grandparents, but they are busy trying to speak to their grandparents who are busy trying to speak to their grandparents…

    Another reason I stopped going to Sunday school.

    1. There is something else that this person is missing in their fantasy about heaven. Their grandparents aren’t going to want to be in heaven as napping-on-the-porch eighty year olds. They want to be twenty again – young and strong and good looking. They won’t even recognize their grandparents.

    2. Same happened to me. I also imagined that long chain of people. It just worsened when I realized that the further in time one of your ancestors is, more people he/she has as descendants. So,the whole thing is a big circle of people crowded together with someone in the center (Adam & Eve? Noah? the first hominid infused with spirit?).

      Those were my thoughts during mass. And I realized everything was a load of crap.

    3. And who the hell wants to talk to David? He was a total asshole. Have you even read any of these stories people?

  15. Martin Luther King Jr. also held to a “personalistic” God and that theology allegedly led him into social justice.

    See the review of God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of MLK, Jr. by Rufus Burrow: “Emerging as a philosophical movement in the early 1900s, personalism is a type of philosophical idealism that has a number of affinities with Christianity, such as a focus on a personal God and the sanctity of persons.

    Burrow points to similarities and dissimilarities between personalism and the social gospel movement with its call to churchgoers to involve themselves in the welfare of both individuals and society.

    He argues that King’s adoption of personalism represented the fusion of his black Christian faith and his commitment not only to the social gospel of Rauschenbusch, but most especially to the social gospelism practiced by his grandfather, father, and black preacher-scholars at Morehouse College.
    U of Notre Dame Press

    Any comment on King’s view of theism?

    1. “Any comment on King’s view of theism?”

      Yeah. Did he really NEED it to point out that racism is bad?

      1. Yes, MLK did. Back when I was a teenager most White people were racists to one degree or another. Even in my very small town in the Midwest there was prejudice against Asians.

        And, often, non-Whites were reverse prejudiced. I gave a Black girl (who I had a crush for) a ride home from a protest rally. She made me stop several blocks from her apartment so her brothers wouldn’t beat me up.

        Furthermore, even “liberal” people often said, you need to give Southerners time to adjust to integration.”
        Note the not-so-subtle racism of even that comment. A large proportion of Southerners were Black (African-Americans), but when most people thought of the South they thought of Whites!

        Furthermore, I lived through the many scenes of racial conflict. I still remember Little Rock, Birmingham, the church bombings, the freedom rides, the death of the 4 Civil Rights workers, etc.

        1. I suspect you missed reasonshark’s point. There’s no question as to the rascism of the time and place where you grew up. The question was whether MKL required belief in a personal god in order to notice that racism was a bad thing. IMO he didn’t given the fact that many other people who recognize the moral problem of racism manage to do so without believing in deities.

          1. Thanks for offering a clarification. I understand.

            As for whether King thought we needed to believe in an invisible deity, here’s his own words:
            “The first is this-the first principle of value that we need to rediscover is
            this-that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is
            a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe, just as abiding
            as the physical laws. (Lord help us) I’m not so sure we all believe that…
            But I’m here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some
            things are wrong. (Yes) Eternally so, absolutely so. It’s wrong to hate.”

            From Martin’s speech “Rediscovering Lost Values, Feb. 1954

            As for your statement “many other people who recognize the moral problem of racism manage to do so without believing in deities”
            I think Martin would have agreed with you that is so.

            During the Civil Rights Movement, at least one, of King’s inner circle was an atheist.

            King’s point is that ethics must be grounded in true reality, not be a human or cultural construct.

            Much of his own deep conviction for human rights and nonviolence came from his faith in God as Truth, Justice, and Love.

            Atheists can and do come to their deep ethical convictions a different way.

            1. I’m sure MLK was sincere in his beliefs. And great man that he was he was most assuredly wrong in some of them.

              Your comment about the grounding of ethics is wrong, though. Ethics is a human endeavor. Before we happened to evolve there was no such discipline. It is a human construct.

              1. This is where we differ.

                I am convinced that ethics aren’t a human construct, but that ethics exist as much as mathematics.

                Not only do I think this theoretically, but everything I learned as a teacher, mental health worker, etc. confirms it.

                Rape is wrong, not because it is no longer an advantage or because being opposed to rape is a survival method for groups.

                Wrong behavior is wrong because it is contrary to what is true.

                Violating others–killing innocent people, torturing, etc. are too often justified (just look at the U.S. record:-( if ethics are a construct.

                Hope you don’t mind another King quote:-)

                I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.

                Martin Luther King

              2. Ethics is a branch of Philosophy. No humans, no Philosophy. There are no ideas floating around in space by themselves.

  16. Alan Partridge once weighed in on this matter.

    God is a…gas. He’s not a small gas, like Calor gas, but…a large gas, like oxygen or carbon dioxide. No, carbon dioxide, that’s bad isn’t it?..that’s the Devil.

    Makes about as much sense as theologians cracks at it.

  17. There are of course a veritable army of right wing conservative theologians that probably dwarf the sophisticated theologians in pure numbers. But basically they are in the business of rationalizing bible verses to demonstrate the truth of Jesus.

  18. I have long wished that some enterprising and creative survey group would do an extensive survey on the characteristics of “God” as perceived by the American people. My theory is that the results of such a survey would show such an incredible variety and inconsistency of descriptions that it would prove that “God” is indeed totally imaginary. It would at least lend credence to the question “which God are you referring to?”

  19. Yahweh in the Old Testament is an anthropomorphic entity, especially in the J source. It is here God breaths air into Adam’s nostrils to give him life and where he takes a brisk early evening constitutional around the Garden of Eden. This is raw mythology, something akin to Zeus, and many believers are eager to downplaying these things.(although they insist that the Garden of Eden events are still somehow analogous to some kind of real-world reality and thus require the salvific act of Jesus to fix. Hmmm.)

    I’d imagine many believers would prefer the standoff-ish God found in the Priestly source, who doles out sententious disembodied pronouncements from on high.

  20. One admirable thing about Christian stations – you never find yourself saying, “Jesus! I’ve been listening to this station for a half-hour and now I find it’s a Christian station.”

    Nope – every third word is either God, Jesus or Praise. They are all nearly instantly identifiable as such.

  21. One of my favorite mythological gods is proteus, the god who can change forms all the time where the word protean comes from. I think the Christian god is a way resembles proteus in his way of both having a form and not having one, being a concrete person and not, depending on the situation. So he can shape shift to fit the attributes described in songs, prayers, and scripture without contradiction.

  22. If the father in the story wanted to lose weight and the daughter wanted to be a personal trainer, why wasn’t the story about her helping her father?

    1. A religious person wouldn’t think of that in a thousand years. Wouldn’t it be akin to incest?

        1. Does that line actually appear anywhere in the Bible?

          Also, there are a ton of stories in the book about how you just have to put your faith in Dog and he’ll magically make everything okay for you, whether you’re being locked in an oven, stuck in a lion’s den, or need to walk on water.

          1. It’s from outside the Judaeochristian tradition (fide wiki) and was never even borrowed by the bibble-scribblers, which just goes to show they failed at spotting a good meme. Maybe it was actually the fuse that lit the Enlightenment!

  23. “What I want to know is this. If Hart and his ilk think that 99% of Christians have the wrong concept of God, why aren’t they trying to correct it?… It would seem to me far more important for them to do that rather than argue with atheists that we’re Getting it Rong.”

    Because the “naive” theists aren’t the ones questioning the foundations of their jobs. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and all that. That, and it’s possible they don’t really believe what they say, but throw verbiage around to hide the fact that they’re closet theists like the “naive” sort.

  24. So after you have talked with these persons in heaven and sort of caught up on things, then what? …

  25. I am a firm believer in the literal truth of the bible. The bible states that we are made in Gods image. Since the first life on this Earth were single celled bacteria God is a Prokaryote 😀 Or maybe God is a beetle ‘cos there are so many of them?

  26. “I decided to listen to Christian radio in the car, which I did for about an hour. ”


    Yet again Prof. Ceiling Cat suffers so that we don’t have to!

  27. I love Jerry Coyne so much. He is my personal savior my heart is way to small an warm and filled with fluid for him to live in so I wont ask him into my heart. But I will keep his commandments except to love squirrels.. I cant do this yet as I loath small animals

Leave a Reply