The Straw God of Atheism


When someone invokes a caricature of one’s opponent for the sake of easily winning an argument, we are apt to say that they have set up “straw man” to serve as their target. And generally, by using that phrase, we imply that those who engage in such a strategy are not playing fair, or are engaged in taking “cheap shots” and thus need not be taken seriously.

          I think that any survey of recent books promoting atheism — and there are many such to be sure —  will show much the same tactic at work.  And no doubt the Bible, especially the part that Christians call “The Old Testament”, especially when quoted in a lop-sided manner, often makes this tactic easy to accomplish.  Too often, God is pictured in these pages as a capricious, jealous, and sometimes blood-thirsty tyrant. And even granted that the New Testament presents God more as a caring, providential “Father”, still, there are still overtones of the almighty and strict judge who will some day hold us all accountable for every thought, word, and action. So in many ways, I think that believers who take the Bible too literally have only themselves to blame if they often invite ridicule.

          Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how often those who presumably should know better show themselves as frustrated and angry with those whose concept of God is considerably more sophisticated.  Sigmund Freud, the great founder of modern psychiatry, fumed over those “philosophers” and “deists” who “stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense; calling ‘God’ some vague abstraction they have created for themselves”… “although their God is nothing but an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrine” (this quoted from Chap. VI of Freud’s 1927 The Future of an Illusion).  Contemporary atheists, like the often-interviewed biologist Richard Dawkins — who has recently founded a new website for clergy who have become atheists (see www., and philsopher Daniel Dennett do little better.  Both of these latter (Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 209, and Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 269) particularly target the retired Episcopalian Bishop and religious writer John Shelby Spong for his endorsement of theologian Paul Tillich’s description of God as “The Ground of Being”.

          In this, both Dawkins and Dennett only display their ignorance of the Christian theology.  It was St. Augustine who about sixteen centuries ago characterized God as “Being as such” or “Being in Itself” (ens ipse) and the great 14th Century Rhineland mystic and theologian Johann Eckhart, who spoke of God as the “Ground” (der Grund ) of our existence.  Tillich seems to have been (back when he coined this phrase back in the 1950s) only borrowing and combining ideas that were strongly rooted in the mainstream of Christian tradition.

          Granted that many believers find Spong’s “non-theistic” view of God a bit confusing or off-putting.  However, what Spong is opposing is exactly those ideas of the strawman-God that Dawkins, Dennett, and others find so ridiculous.  The shame is that so many Christians and other believers still find such childish language and ideas (e.g., “the Man Upstairs”) of God so satisfying, or that there are members of the clergy whose theological training was so superficial that they fall victim to these same distortions.

          The fact is that there is a long-standing tradition, not just in Christian but in all theological thought that has held that God can ultimately be known only by what God isn’t.  This apophatic (meaning “beyond speech” or “beyond expression”) approach can only be circumvented by the use of analogy — which is to say that God is “something like” this or that, but not entirely or even really.  (This is why Buddhism, which after all, has had about four centuries more experience in this than has Christianity, is occasionally and mistakenly called “atheistic” — because it generally refrains, out of reverence for this highest mystery, to give it a name at all, but rather to speak only of achieving an ultimate union with it, which they term the state of nirvana.)

          In any case, I think that if there is any value in what Dawkins, Dennett, and others of their like are doing, it could be in waking up believers — as well as the clergy who instruct them — to the necessity of going more deeply into both the depths and as well as the heights of their own tradition.


R W Kropf     4/11/2012                                                    Straw God.doc    12-04-11.html