Can you know if you believe in God?

It's Sunday, so let's go to church. From the promo for Saving God :
In this book, Mark Johnston argues that God needs to be saved not only from the distortions of the "undergraduate atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) but, more importantly, from the idolatrous tendencies of religion itself.
The business about idolatrous tendencies sounds intriguing, and so does the attack on "undergraduate atheists." I take it they're undergraduate atheists, in Johnston's view, because they attack undergraduate theism. This is an insult you hear a lot. It's sort of odd, since the critics insult "the new atheists" by insulting 99.9% of believers. But OK. Dawkins & Co. are dismissers of religion, not just the religion of the masses. So the "post-graduate theism" of the .1% can't be ignored by them.

Judging from the first chapter, which can be downloaded for free, post-graduate theism is definitely not simple-minded stuff. Here's an idea that's tantalizingly counterintuitive. Johnston says believing in God isn't just thinking that God exists. If there's a devil, the devil presumably thinks that God exists, but the devil doesn't believe in God.

Believing in God "requires a certain success in hitting the correct target. Or, more exactly, it requires the arrow of God to have had you, or your religious tradition, as its target." You can't just look inward to find out if you stand in the proper relation to God to be a believer in him (her, it).

This is very, very post-graduate stuff. Here's the most counterintuitive part--at least as I read the argument. If the relation of believing in is between a believer and a something "out there," then if there isn't that something, nobody stands in that relation. If atheists are right, then there's no God, and there are no theists!


I'm awfully curious to see what Johnston thinks God is. In the first chapter and promo we can see he believes God is nothing supernatural, and God is not the idol described in scripture. But Johnston thinks God is still a source of salvation--believing in God will help us cope with the difficulties of life. What, then, is God? If I want to find out, I guess I'm going to have to break down and buy the book.


Mephistopheles said...
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Faust said...

I don't think that your reading that:

If the relation of believing in is between a believer and a something "out there," then if there isn't that something, nobody stands in that relation. If atheists are right, then there's no God, and there are no theists!

is quite right. All I see him saying is that if God was an ordinary proper name it would be possible to have false beliefs about what we think we are refering to. But no, he says, it's a descriptive name. It's meaning is always thus derived from that which it describes. So it's not that there are "no theists." It's that theists are deeply confused idolaters. Corresponding to the confused idolaters are the anti-idolaters: the confused atheists who think they are attacking God when they are just attacking various idols. In contrast to such atheists are "real" atheists:

Real atheism, as opposed to mere disbelief in Yahweh, Allah, and the Holy Trinity, is the conviction either that there is no Highest One, or that if there were there is no reason to suppose that it could, or would, offer us salvation.

Essentially he is saying that

1. "God" is a descriptive name and, Anselm-like, this description by definition refers to the "Highest One."

2. If we can make sense of a thing that is the Highest One, we must also show how contact/interaction/comprehension of the Highest One offers some (significant) relief from the suffering that is "inhernet in the large scale defects of human life."

So the rest of the book is a kind of unpacking of this Anselm-like "Highest One" concept and it's possible linkage to a kind of "salvation."

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Here's the sort of passage I had in mind when I wrote the post--

Once you understand the meaning of “God,” you should be able to see that even if you believe
that God (the Highest One) exists, and even if that belief is true, and even though you sincerely believe in a god, you may be very far from believing in God. The wrong god may have captured your attention and your heart. Believing in God is not a mere psychological state. It is more akin to an achievement. For it involves hitting the mark, that is, direct­ing your faith and trust toward the one who is in fact the Highest One.

This means that you are in no better position just to decide to believe in God than you are in a position just to decide to win your first mara­thon without ever having trained for it. And our position may be worse than that, for winning a marathon is an individual achievement, some­
thing that lies within the capacity of a few of us. But there is no chance of believing in God, unless God has disclosed himself to us. The
achievement of believing in God can come about only in the wake of God’s self-revelation. And no religion, no practice or set of beliefs, how­ever appealing, can make itself enlivened by God’s self-revelation.

If believing in God is an "achievement," and not in the head, and partly something due to God himself, etc. etc., then I don't see how there could possibly be theists, if there's no God. It seems like this is a clear corollary of what he is saying. Isn't it?

Faust said...

OK I think I see what you are saying now. You are suggesting that if "believing in God" requires that "God" "disclose" "himself" to the petitioner, then if God does not extist it is not possible to complete the act of divine archery discussed here. You can't hit the mark, win the archery contest, if there is no target to hit. Is this what you are saying?

Jean Kazez said...


God's to to disclose himself, plus the "petitioner" has to have the proper faith and trust. So believing in is a relation between two things, both of which must be real for it to exist.

Faust said...

Ok got it. The stuff I brought in above is still relevant here though. Note how he brings in this category "real" atheists. He contrasts this with atheists who merely deny Yaweh, Allah, and The Holy Trinity. If one subscribes to his "Highest One" descriptive name thesis, i.e. the denial that God is a proper name, then you are already well past "theism" as this argument is your first signal that he is going to develop a set of concepts that take you past ordinary theism.

But you are correct that a "real" atheist who denies that there is a thing such as God "The Highest One" is denying that it is possible for anyone to hit the mark of salvation, which is what he means in that passage I quoted above. And in this sense yes there would be no "theists" or much better, there would be no possibility of transcendent salvation via divine disclosure.

Jean Kazez said...
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Jean Kazez said...

My resistance finally broke down and I ordered the book, so we can continue this discussion in a couple of days.

I wonder about the idea that "God" is short for "the highest one." How can it have a merely comparative meaning? What if Barack Obama is actually the highest one, of all the "ones" there actually are? Then is he God?

I imagine if I keep reading, I will learn the answer to that question!

Peter said...


I haven't read the book in question, but I think your reading of the charge of "undergraduate atheism" is incorrect. Whilst in my view it is true that Dawkins etc attack a theism that few theists (certainly few intellectual theists) hold, they are properly called undergraduate atheists because the arguments they offer are typically the sort that would embarrass a sophomore in a philosophy of religion class.

Jean Kazez said...

I think of Eagleton's review of Dawkins as the locus classicus of this charge that Dawkins & Co are just "undergraduate atheists". There the idea really is that Dawkins has aimed at simple, naive theology, and doesn't know the fancy, sophisticated stuff. See here--


I suspect Johnston is saying the same thing simply because this book does nothing to challenge Dawkins' arguments against the theism of the masses (from what I can tell) but instead proposes a very sophisticated brand of theism never addressed by any of "the new atheists."

So I do think I've got this right! But sure, people could use that phrase because they found fault with Dawkins' arguments, not because they thought he'd criticized an overly simpleminded sort of theism.

Tom said...

Hey Mean Jean,

Okay, you've got me interested enough in Johnston's book (remember when the UA was knocking itself out trying to hire the guy?) that I've ordered it.

A couple of points: Johnston isn't the first to note the distinction between belief that God exits and religious belief in God--it goes back to the epistle of James who says (I paraphrase) "You say you believe that God exits? God for you...so do the demons and it scares the crap out of them."

Second, I think that the "undergraduate atheist" description comes more from the fact that the only theistic arguments/discussion that the New Atheists deal with are those at the undergrad level. For instance, Richard Dawkins dares to take on Richard Swinburne's popular book "Does God Exist?" but never interacts at all with Swinburne's *much* more philosophically sophisticated book *The Existence of God.* Dawkins is a no-doubt a fine evolutionary biologist and popularizer of science but there is no reason to think he is up to the philosophical challenge of Swinburne's best work.

Faust said...

Jean and Tom have the right of it. Or at least have it half right. The other reason he calls them "undergraduate atheists" is actually literal, but since you are both getting the book I'll leave it at that.

Looking forward to your future posts on this subject.

Faust said...

One warning about this book: he has this odd habit of laying out an assertion and then not answering it until several chapters later, or else he answers it in bits and pieces over several chapters. You pretty much have to read the whole thing and decide if you think he's argued his point sufficiently.

And he does warn at the beginning that in somse sense his book is a bit of a jeremaid.

Anyway, till then.

Jean Kazez said...

Tom, Funny...yesterday I was on the verge of emailing you and asking if I should read this book. Plus, I was going to ask if you remember Johnston visiting UA. But then I figured..."Just do it"...and ordered the book.

I rather like the believing that/believing in point. Speaking of the bible, there's lots of discussion of the bible in Johnston. Should be interesting.

Jean Kazez said...

By the way (for anyone wondering) "mean Jean" is a nickname I somehow picked up in grad. school. It has nothing to do with my character. It just rhymes, THAT'S ALL. It was like how in high school people would say "Hi Jean, how's your hygiene?" When your name is "Jean" there are certain things you just have to put up with. Now that we've got that cleared up...

Faust said...

Well if there is one thing I haven't thought it's that you're mean. You seem a model of civility.

s. wallerstein said...

Maybe the "mean" has something to do with the Aristotelian mean. Jean is definitively not the fanatical or extremist type.

Faust said...

Golden Mean Jean?


Tom said...

Uh, sorry about the "Mean Jean" thing. It just kinda came out and for a minute there I was back in the basement of the Social Sciences building on the Arizona campus. But I agree with Jean and Faust--if Jean has a mean bone in her body, I've never seen it.

One other thing: I really didn't mean to be talking about the "exit"-ing of God last night. Although maybe I could start a new movement in liberal theology via my sleepy typos! God's not dead, He just slipped out for a bit. I'm sure He'll return eventually.

Jean Kazez said...

I think I was actually a tad more intense back in those days, so "Mean Jean" brings me back to a previous persona. Blush. It comes from having to do combat with super smart analytic philosophy types like Tom. :) In that setting, either you're intense, or you're turned into mince meat.

I'm a little worried about liberal theology... but let's save that for later. I have the feeling MJ's book's going to be liberal theology cubed.