A Critique of David Bentley Hart

by Benjamin Studebaker

I ran across an odd argument from David Bentley Hart being articulated by Damon Linker, a fellow whose views I have been critical of before. The charge is that atheists and secularists have misunderstood what god is and have consequently attacked a straw man representation of religious views. The argument is dredges up a slew of old fallacies, and is an excellent case study in what not to do.

Linker, in summarizing Hart’s position, claims that the religious do not believe that god is a contingent cause of the way the universe is, but that god is the very possibility of objective existence:

On the contrary, according to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God “exists” in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.

He further claims that, by disputing the existence of god, secularists must necessarily dispute the existence of existence:

In a move sure to enrage atheists, Hart even goes so far as to argue that faith in this classical notion of God can never be “wholly and coherently rejected” — and not only because it may very well be self-contradictory to prove the nonexistence of an absolute, transcendent ground of existence.

The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) “that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.”

Hart and Linker are making several problematic moves all at once:

  1. They’re playing the definitions game.
  2. They’re assuming that all atheists are objectivists.
  3. They’re assuming that objective reality requires a deity.

I’d like to elaborate on each of these.

The Definitions Game

Hart and Linker are not actually contesting the atheist position that the universe contains no intervening being. While there may indeed be many people across many religions that do not view god in this rather hammy, literalist way, those people are not generally the subject of the atheist critique. Atheists have most frequently pursued those who believe in the power of prayer, or a god that rewards and punishes. These beliefs imply not a god that is merely the essence of objective existence itself, but a god that takes action within the plane of existence. Most religious people, particularly in the United States, hold positions that require a definition of god that goes beyond Hart and Linker’s conception. 83% of Americans believe that god answers prayers, 74% believe in heaven, and 59% believe in hell.

The conception of god that Hart and Linker affirm may well be popular among portions of many disparate religions, but it is a conception that remains far and away abstract from the conceptions of the rank and file religious in modern society. It therefore has little relevancy to the argument the atheists are making. Indeed, Hart and Linker’s position implies that they ought to be arguing with the modern atheist movement that “god” as the interventionist being as understood by most regular churchgoers does not exist. They may defend a different definition, a different understanding of god, but one conception of god cannot be used in defense of another.

This argument by appeal to definition is a familiar error, and one I recall running across many a time when I was in high school debate. I cannot refute your argument by using a different definition of a term you use that you would not accept. If you define “green” as “blue”, and claim that the sky is green you are, on your own terms, correct. Hart and Linker have not offered anything that defends the conception of god that atheists are attacking from their attack. It is as if the atheists are taking sledgehammers to a statue and Hart and Linker respond by unveiling another statue 50 yards away–the statue that is under attack continues to crumble.

But what about that new statue? Is the conception of god Hart and Linker offer up itself a good conception?

Atheists Do Not Have to Be Objectivists

If god is objective reality itself, then god can be denied by denying the existence objective reality. Many different secularists do this, from subjectivists to solipsists to nihilists. Subjectivists claim that there is no evidence for an objective reality that exists independently of the subjective beings that occupy it, that human beings construct their own sense of reality and their own meanings. They would not recognize, as Linker and Hart do, independent conceptions of the truth, the good, or the beautiful. Solipsists put themselves in the place where Hart and Linker find god–they believe that they themselves are the creators of the world they inhabit and everything in it. Nihilists deny all meaning, deeming all human conceptions illusory.

Now, Hart and Linker would recognize what I mentioned the other day–that these views are skeptical, they point out reasons why we cannot be sure that an objective plane of reality exists, but the assertions they make that such a plane does not exist are just that, assertions. A proof of subjectivism, solipsism, or nihilism is impossible. In the face of uncertainty, why choose to deny the existence of an objective plane of existence? I myself do not think that these views offer sufficient justification for that move. But perhaps objectivism is itself coherent without god?

Objectivism Needs No God

Does the objective plane of existence need a force to make it possible, sustain it through time, unify it, or give it actuality? Does there need to be a god in order for us to have a notion of the good, or of morality more broadly? And if not, is “god” the best way to conceptualize morality?

Hume’s is-ought problem implies that the answer is no. There are two kinds of questions, questions of what is, and questions of what people should do. When people seek meaning in the universe, when they seek to know what the good life is or what is right or wrong, they are asking questions not of what is, but of what should be done. Questions of what is can influence the scope of possible answers to what we should do–we cannot be morally obliged to do something that cannot be done–but questions of what is do not themselves answer questions of what should be done. Questions of what should be done require an input from the one who answers. He must have ends or goals, some need or want of some kind. Religions typically presume that those ends are god’s ends, and they often attempt to tell us precisely what god’s ends are. But not only is there significant difficulty in knowing what it is that god wants (after all, there are multiple religions with very different answers to that question), but whatever we take god’s will to be, it does not follow that we should do anything just because god wills it.

Instead, human beings could decide what they should do based on what they universally seek. Yesterday, I offered four ancient things that all mentally healthy human beings in all places and times have wanted–sustenance, comfort, companionship, and security. These things are wanted by all people, regardless of perspective, and their universality implies a level of objectivity to them. A moral system that makes it its goal to grant people’s wishes for these things as best it can is a moral system that serves man rather than rules over him while remaining universal and objective. God need not conceive the good, men can. If there is no god we do not seem to need him to guide us; if there is a god there is no obvious reason why he should be paid much attention to. Why should his conception of the good, divorced from human wishes and ends, supersede our own?

If the answer is, “because if you do not do what god wants, you’re a sinner who will be sent to hell” or “because god will reward you in heaven”, we’re back in the interventionist box, and Hart and Linker have not offered us a different conception from the one they admit the atheists to have deeply undermined.  Not only that, but on that view the religious are using morality instrumentally in order to get something from god. Instead of seeking sustenance, comfort, companionship and security, they are seeking salvation. They are no less self-focused than the humanists they deride, the only difference being that they have chosen to appease a being that may not exist, whose will is unknown and unknowable, rather than carve out their own path. Any god worth his salt would reward the man who tenaciously seeks out the good all on his own long, or together with his comrades, before he rewarded sycophants and flatterers attempting to stack the deck with their thinly veiled manipulations.