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Mistaken atheism, mistaken theism

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 28 March 2019

A recent On Line Opinion article by Arthur Dent (why not Ford Prefect?) contained the following observation in regard to George Pell:

People who claim to be in direct communion with supernatural tbeings and make a living from interceding with them on behalf of petitioners are widely regarded as dishonest or delusional.

This comment is typical of the critique of Christianity that, while it may apply to the belief of the naïve, does not take into account a central tenet of the faith found at its beginning: that God is not an object in the universe and thus cannot be investigated or described in the same language that we use for other objects. Atheism cannot rest on the lack of evidence for the existence of such a being since any evidence would assume that God was an object in the universe as other objects are. This is the Catch 22 of atheism.


My argument with both evangelicalism and atheism is that they both think of God as being a supernatural being who has created the universe in a causal fashion, hears our prayers and unaccountably grants our requests or ignores them. Evangelicalism produces naïve atheism just as atheism relies on evangelicalism for a description of a God that cannot exist. Both insist on a use of language that is, as far as possible, logical and descriptive.

Evangelicals insist that when an event is described in the Bible then it is an actual account of that event, observed and recorded by an eye witness, as we would expect in a modern newspaper or relayed by a witness in a court of law and is therefore "true". In doing so, evangelicals use biblical narratives as proof of the existence of God and his ability to reach into the mechanisms of the world. God is therefore recruited as part of the world. The absence of any sign in our time that such events occur places evangelicals on shaky ground since they have to explain how God could intrude upon the physical world in biblical times but not in ours.

The answer to this dilemma is to understand the mind of the writers of biblical narratives.

In my latest article, I explained how we inherited our insistence on factual truth from the English empiricists of the eighteenth century and that it was an error to ascribe such attitudes to Biblical writers. In this article, I will argue that it was not the aim of Biblical writers to provide evidence for the existence of a supernatural being, such a project would have been alien to them. Certainly, there are many narratives that tell of the acts of God on behalf of Israel. But these are part of the myth building of the nation, rather than argued cases from evidence in the natural world. Instead of arguments about God, the Bible gives us narratives, legends and poetry, and paradox. In doing so it uses the language of representation rather than that of description.

The language of description is limited to the concrete or the objective and it works by mapping properties of an object or events in the world that can be regarded as factual. But language strains towards representation in order to say more than the mere facts. It seeks to represent, to make present that of which it speaks. However, it is not mere imitation or reproduction but an opening into breadth and unimagined possibility. It is the enemy of ideology.

For example, the genealogies of the Bible were thought to be factual and as a way into the history of Israel until Wellhausen found that the genealogies could not be supported as historical records.


New research, that concentrated on the theological agenda of the writers, revealed interesting nuances. For example, the genealogies in the beginning of the gospel according to Matthew includes the names of four women not present in the genealogies of the Hebrew Bible, who bore children in scandalous ways. In addition to Mary, we have Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba, (the wife of Uriah). Although the pregnancies of these women were irregular in that they were not married to the men whose children they bore and in the last three included seduction, the births ensured that the line of David was continued with Jesus as the fulfilment. The role of Mary is included with the other three women as being part of God's surprising plan that disrupted the expected order of things. So, what looks like a list of facts of genealogy turns out to be a polemic that justifies Mary's being found pregnant before she was married to Joseph. In other words, Matthew's genealogy is not a list of historical facts but is his way of inserting Mary and Jesus into the history of Israel.

This is just one example of biblical texts not conforming to a modern understanding of reliable history. One of the casualties of this understanding is the search for the historical Jesus. After three quests leading up to the present day, scholars are of the opinion that the gospels are not biographies of Jesus but theological constructs loosely derived from his life, most of which is obscure. As theological constructs, they can be described as "spiritual" rather than being of the "flesh" according to the Pauline terminology.

All language about God exists in the form of metaphor because only metaphor can speak of a non-objective reality.

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This article was written under the influence of Rowan Williams' The Edge of Words. He is, of course, not responsible for any misinterpretations I have made.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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