Cosmic variance

What I keep saying! But Sean Carrol says it a lot better in a review of Eagleton’s review of Dawkins.

Okay, very good. God, in this conception, is not some thing out there in the world (or even outside the world), available to be poked and prodded and have his beard tugged upon…The previous excerpt, which defined God as “the condition of possibility,” seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves…But – inevitably – Eagleton does go ahead and burden this innocent-seeming concept with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage. God created the universe “out of love,” is capable of “regret,” and “is an artist.” That’s crazy talk. What could it possibly mean to say that “The condition of possibility is an artist, capable of regret”? Nothing at all…And once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

This is (she enunciated with quiet intensity) what I keep saying. You can’t do both.

The problematic nature of this transition – from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth – is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism. Attempts to fit this square peg into a manifestly round hole lead us smack into all of the classical theological dilemmas: “Can God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself cannot eat it?” The reason why problems such as this are so vexing is not because our limited human capacities fail to measure up when confronted with the divine; it’s because they are legitimately unanswerable questions, arising from a set of mutually inconsistent assumptions.

That’s exactly it. Takes a cosmologist to say it so clearly. It’s not just a minor bump, it’s a deal-breaker. So Eagleton’s blithe one minute having God be ineffable and not like Gore or an octopus or his foot and the next minute having it be all kinds of specific and particular and just so and not otherwise – won’t work, and makes him look silly. Pick one and stick to it, but don’t pretend it can be both.

78 Responses to “Cosmic variance”

  • #65



    … I should have realized there would be a Wikipedia entry to explain things.

  • #66

    outeast, are you all right?! Did it swallow you mid-sentence?

  • #67

    ‘(wouldn’t he have treated women a bit better if he were female?)’

    You obviously don’t know many women.

  • #68

    Me: Is god male?

    Religious idiot: Yes.

    M: Does he have a penis, and how big is it?

    Ri: erm ……

    M: If god is male, is there a Mrs god? Or does god have hairy palms?


  • #69

    Me: Is god male?

    Religious idiot: Yes.

    These disputes are so much more fun when you are up against an imaginary ‘religious idiot’ strawman of your own devising, of course.

  • #70
    Merlijn de Smit

    There are some writers on theology who make a point of using She and Her, to start balancing things out a bit, so to say. I think it is somewhat more elegant than using gender-neutral pronouns such as ve or zie or whatever.

  • #71

    I don’t like that option, really – I feel it’s actually far more gendered than ‘he’ (not least since English grammar has traditionally made use of ‘he’ as the default where gender is unknown).

    I realize that many women (in particular) would vehemently disagree. It’sa only the sense I have…

    Perhaps in discussions of God ‘it’ would be better than either ‘he’ or ‘she’.

  • #72

    Dear Jon M; The religious idiots really are that stupid, I’m afraid.

    One of the two lots round here (arrgh!) publicly state that “we believe the bible to be inerrant.”

    How they reconcile Genesis I with Genesis II, never mind anything else, is beyond me…….

  • #73

    “I realize that many women (in particular) would vehemently disagree.”

    Oh, god – would we. That sums it all up, really. ‘He’ is not gendered but ‘she’ is – don’t you realize what a mess that buys into? You must, if you know we would vehemently disagree. It translates to what most people unconsciously believe: male is normal, female is peculiar. That’s not a useful thing for most people to believe!

    On the more central (here) point, calling it either he or she makes it a person, which, since that is the very thing that is contested, seems a strange thing to do.

  • #74

    If sophisticated theologians really believe that God is ‘the condition of possibility ‘ or whatever, why do we never hear sermons about it? Where are the hymns, the stained glass windows?

    Instead we hear what god loves, hates, wants, etc. Apparently he wants us to kneel, genuflect, write cheques and get judgemental about what people do with their genitals.

    If it is futile to critique the anthropomorphic god because that is not the ‘real’ god, then drop that aspect. And see how many adherents you have left.

  • #75

    Or to put it another way – since it’s possible enough that sophisticated theologians really do believe god is the condition of possibility or the sheen on the gravy or what have you while the people in the pews believe something else – why does the possible fact that sophisticated theologians believe god is the sheen on the gravy mean that we ought not to examine and ask questions about what unsophisticated theologians and believers believe? I don’t get it. I don’t see the force of the claim.

    Unless it’s just a way of defending academic credentials and prestige and professionalism and pretty green turf that only fellows may walk on.

  • #76

    That sums it all up, really. ‘He’ is not gendered but ‘she’ is – don’t you realize what a mess that buys into?

    …says OB, pointedly ignoring that:

    a) My comment pertained to the use of the feminine pronoun in preference to the masculine (as opposed to the better altenative of an explicitly ungendered pronoun) for an unsexed* being, and

    b) that I explicitly based this on the fact that there is in English (to quote the Oxford Guide to Style) ‘no third-person singular pronoun to denote common gender, and no possessive adjective referring to both men and women… [T]the traditional convention was to use he, him, his for both sexes.’

    I agree that the convention is shifting, but it remains true that masculine pronouns have a heritege of sexual neutrality in English while feminine pronouns do not. The sentence ‘Every deity in the Norse pantheon had his own role’ does not dictate the sex of the deity: the notion that the use of the masculine pronoun to refer to both sexes is necessarily sexist is as thoroughly ridiculous a linguistic fallacy as rejecting ‘history’ in favour of ‘herstory’.

    Two caveats:

    It is true that sexing God is a weird thing to do, and that as I already said the use of ‘it’ might make more sense. I also said I myself was using He, etc., as an ironic nod to theological convention, and not for historical linguistic reasons: since I am a philosophical materialist all discussion of the nature of God is no more than an intellectual exercise, and there’s plenty of room for a little irony.

    Secondly, I am also aware that the Biblical use of ‘He’ is explicitly sexed and is not used in the linguistically gendered but sex-neutral sense I discussed above: the Biblical God is male (was not Adam made in His image?). Again I stress that my references to the exclusive potenial sex-neutrality of the masculine pronoun were made in response to the reference ‘solution’ of using the female pronoun in its place – which is no solution.

    *Note: For clarity, in this comment I am using ‘gender’, ‘masculine’, and ‘feminine’ to refer to grammatical gender, ‘male’, ‘female’, and ‘sex’ to refer to the biological. This distinction is rarely necessary in English as we do not have gender/sex ambiguities other than that which underlies this – ah – discussion.

  • #77

    Addendum: when I said we do not have gender/sex ambiguities I did of course mean linguistically – I was not attempting sociological commentary on sexuality or dismissing the importance of the Manly Scale of Absolute Gender.:)

  • #78

    “sexing God is a weird thing to do”

    Especially when the only reason for having sexes at all is to reproduce – slippery slope to polytheism, is what that is…