You Can Lead a God to Abstraction (But You Can’t Make it Exist)

A common, but sophomoric, approach taken by some theists while debating atheists is to play a semantic game of redefining religious terms. In a rational argument, this tactic demonstrates nothing short of a dishonest evasion of atheists’ arguments and a general lack of sincere examination. This semantic game ranges from the patently inane version that I call “Gotcha!” to ideas that are given serious consideration by many liberal theists.

Christian apologist, Ray Comfort, is quite proud of his patently inane “Gotcha!” variety. A summary of his game goes like this: in an interview with an evolutionary biologist, Mr. Comfort explains that in the Bible the words “soul” and “life” are synonymous. Therefore, he argues, when the Bible refers to the human “soul” it really means human “life.” When the biologist agrees that under those terms if everbody has a life, then they have a soul, Mr. Comfort exclaims “He changed his mind!”


Needless to say (at least, it should be needless to say) that this is nonsense. Mr. Comfort’s idea of a soul is much, much more than this. Missing from his game is the concept that this soul survives after the death of the body. It’s a very important detail to leave out and its absence makes Mr. Comfort both dishonest and disrespectful to the biologist in question. This tactic is pointless and worthy of our scorn.

Others who use the semantic game, however, employ it in more subtle ways that even they may not be aware of. Any atheist who first asks a theist to define what they mean by the term “god,” implicitly understands this tactic. It is the redefinition of god into a nebulous abstraction. Examples of it include, “god” is: First Cause, Love itself, “transcendental fullness of actualities” (David Hart), and “not a being, god is being” (Paul Tillich resurrected via Jeffrey Small). I do not mean to imply that these abstractions are created for the purposes of a semantic game. In fact, they are quite likely sincere defensive reactions that allow theists to retain their belief in a god in the context of a modern milieu.  It is a milieu in which tyrannical father-types are villainous at best. Having stretched the meaning of “god” into a “higher” concept the theist is now free to retain their belief in the face of scientific evidence that questions, calls into doubt, or falsifies more and more religious claims.

Sometimes theists can even get an atheist to agree with this semantic ruse. God is love itself…ok, we cannot say that there’s no evidence for love. God is being itself…Ok, we exist (well, maybe not the solipsists). But even when, or if, an atheist will make this step towards the theist’s position (usually for the sake of argument), the theist cannot then provide sound evidence that this abstraction is concomitantly a personal deity (their specific god) without a healthy dose of mental gymnastics. Sigmund Freud, whatever else we may feel about his psychoanalysis, observed this tactic in the early 1900’s:

Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense; by calling “God” some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves, they pose as deists, as believers, before the world; they may even pride themselves on having attained a higher, purer idea of God, although their God is nothing but an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrine. — The Future of an Illusion

Of course, the elephant in the room here is that this is decidedly not what most believers mean when they define “god.” In a 2008 Pew Research report, 60% believe in a personal god compared with 25% who believe it to be an impersonal force. We all could do our own informal research by asking similar questions. I have no doubt that these would demonstrate the same conclusion.

But just what do these abstractions have to do with ancient texts from remote locations on the globe? This is a particularly poignant question given that these same religious texts often contradict these “higher” abstractions. It takes a lot of strained and convoluted logic to get to “point B” in these cases, if they even make it at all.

Shifting the definitions of religious terms does not constitute sound or sufficient evidence that a god exists. In other words, we cannot presuppose a god and then define this god into existence. However, this semantic game is a powerful inoculation against doubt in the face of dis-confirming evidence. For atheists, this is the extent to which we should take it seriously.


Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin


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About JP Laughlin

Originally intent on Christian ministry, I attended the College of Charleston where I earned a BA in Religious Studies (and where I also nearly completed a BA in Biology) and where I met my wife in our New Testament class. I attended graduate school at the University of Washington and earned a MA in International Studies – Comparative Religion. My areas of focus were Religion-and-Culture and American Religion. Somewhere along the way, I escaped from the prison of religious belief and found a new joy in living.

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