"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

On Charlie Hebdo

It’s almost impossible to know where to start to write about the Charlie Hebdo atrocity. The blood spilt in this tragedy has already been overtaken by ink and pixels with commentary from every quarter and political viewpoint. It is particularly unfortunate that the personality of “Charlie” the magazine has almost occluded the real people that have sadly lost their lives, especially since many of us who have adopted #JeSuisCharlie (myself included) have never read it. But it’s inevitable since this attack, aimed directly at the most treasured values of liberal democracy, has ramifications far beyond the limited circulation of one Parisian publication.
Charlie Hebdo post attack cover
Free speech, freedom of the press and the right of artists in all media to criticise and ridicule sacred cows are the foundations of a truly free society. It does not matter if, as some suggest, Charlie Hebdo was over provocative or even racist in its portrayal of Islamism. Even if the humour is not to everyone’s taste it is worthy of protection because as soon as we allow that some sections of our communities are never to be offended all useful debate about society will be effectively shut down. In particular we cannot protect religious sensibilities as they are often the quickest to take offence at the slightest of provocation and although I prefer to avoid slippery slope arguments the situations in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia should be salutary enough to deter us from pursuing that path.
Nearly a week on from this tragedy, as the remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo are about to release a defiant new issue with an unprecedented three million copy print run expected to be in demand worldwide, the mainstream media are still grappling with how to deal with the “problem” of reporting the story without re-publishing the images which sparked the attack. But I see no moral dilemma here. In any news story I would expect a newspaper or website to publish relevant illustrative photographs or images. Short of graphic depictions of bloody slaughter or gross obscenity pertinent images would normally accompany the narrative and there is no doubt in my mind that should be the case with this story. I understand that newspapers may not want to endanger themselves or their staff but if ever there was a case for holding a journalistic line, even if that meant rival publications colluding to gain safety in numbers, this was it.
In the event if the Jihadists aim was to suppress caricatures of Mohammed being circulated they were obviously unaware of the Streisand effect since Charlie Hebdo’s images of the prophet have now become ubiquitous on social media and will also appear prominently in the next edition.
I have no sympathy with the idea that re-publishing such images will further alienate and offend mainstream Muslim opinion: Muslims are not the intended target. However, the ideology that underpins attempts to suppress our freedom of expression is fair game and it is difficult to imagine how this could be effectively satirised without using the speech or images it aims to censor. Satire entails mockery and defiance of power; Islamism aims to be powerful so it is the islamist’s fault their shibboleths are in the firing line.
Very few people would want to gratuitously give offence to a section of our community, most of us aim to be polite and at least tolerant of the foibles of our neighbours. But tolerance is a two way street and in a pluralistic society it is beholden on mainstream Islam not to go looking for offense where it is not intended or to attempt to inflict its taboos on other worldviews. If, as Anjem Choudary says, “Muslims don’t believe in the concept of freedom of expression” they are at liberty to live their lives that way but must accept that liberal democracies do believe in it passionately and so will sometimes be exposed to views that conflict with their beliefs. Although, while it may be a theological truth I suspect that most Muslims in the west are much happier with freedom of expression than Choudary suggests. Islam is not the monolith of consistent belief and practice it is sometimes assumed to be and my hope now is that liberal minded Muslims will use this opportunity to seize their religion back from the fundamentalists and the fascism of the Islamists


Sunday, 21 December 2014

Why I believe in Father Christmas

I’m a big fan of Santa. This syncretic quasi-religious staple character of Christmas serves a useful purpose both for parents and the young children that are encouraged to believe in him.
For one thing he can be a proxy for parents and relatives as a source of presents and treats. Children don’t have to know that they are entirely dependent on their families for everything and at least once a year they can rely on something from someone they don’t feel a need to be totally beholden to. Also the extent to which they have been “naughty or nice” can be a good incentive for self-reflection in the run up to Christmas without any real dire consequences following either way (I mean, do any parents ever not give presents from Santa when their kids misbehave?)
But for me the real utility of Santa is at the point where children start to doubt his existence. Most parents eventually observe their children applying a little bit of critical thought to the whole shtick; “How does he fit down the chimney?”, “But, we haven’t got a chimney”, “How does he get to all the children in one night?”, “How come he looks different in every shop with a grotto?”
Ultimately, all children see the absurdity of Santa, but more interestingly most also take longer to let go of the idea altogether and it is common for children to pretend to their parents and younger siblings that they still believe. This is a good exercise in both scepticism and diplomacy; skills to be encouraged in children and adults alike.
It would be better if all children managed to make the logical leap from a non-existent Santa to a non-existent deity but the extent of religious belief belies any pretence of that possibility although this watershed moment at the crux of credulity does inspire some to question the claims of religion sooner or later. But more to the point it is an early object lesson in the tolerance of other people’s cherished delusions.
I have often said that beliefs don’t deserve uncritical respect but one should respect the right of people to hold whatever beliefs they like (note: this does not entail respecting the believer, adults should take epistemic responsibility for what they believe) and the ability to indulge a younger child’s Santa belief or a parents delusion that you still believe is a skill applicable to adult life.
This, apart from the obvious irony, is why I was struck by this story of a Norfolk curate who told primary school children that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.
During the carol service, the curate asked children what they thought was the meaning of Christmas. When a child answered "Father Christmas", she told them he was not real. One parent said on Facebook that Mrs McPhee had "put me off taking my children to church just in case something else gets said".
Rev Margaret McPhee has since apologised to the school for her comment and I am sure she sincerely regrets it. However it does illustrate how glibly people of faith will disabuse a child of its sincerely held belief in one supernatural being while trying to defend the existence of another.
As an atheist but particularly as a humanist I am, more and more, finding myself in contact with children and adults with beliefs in various deities and while I openly state that I do not believe in gods would not dream of telling a young child directly and unasked that Allah or Jesus or Santa weren’t real. It is reasonable though for them to know that not everyone believes the same thing and it would have been enough for the curate to acknowledge that Santa and his elves are important for some people at Christmas before relating the church’s entirely rational position vis-à-vis virgin births, heraldic angels and miraculous stars etc.
This is not the same as answering an honestly asked question. A child who asks directly of an adult whether Santa is real deserves a factual answer as does the child who asks directly about God. However, much as it’s fun to draw equivalences between God and Santa the answer to their respective existence cannot be identical. We know unequivocally that Santa is a fiction and should say so when it’s appropriate while explaining why some people maintain the pretence. God however is a much more slippery concept and when a child asks if God exists then is the perfect time to explain how there are so many ideas about what a god might be that they cannot all be correct and that possibly all are wrong.
This is when the previous experience of letting go of one fantastical figure can help them explore their doubts about another while at the same time negotiating the minefield of living with those who still cling to belief.
Anyway, enough! I still have a stocking to hang and mince pies to put out (must remember a carrot for Rudolph).

Happy Xmas

Monday, 15 September 2014

Muslims or monsters?

Over the weekend David Cameron made a statement following a COBRA meeting in response to the appalling murder of British aid worker David Haines. The takeaway sound bite was ”ISIS are not Muslims but monsters”.
Now I understand the realpolitik behind such statements but in this instance and in the way this was phrased it is less than helpful .
Not Muslims?
To start with who is David Cameron to determine who is or isn’t a Muslim and why does he think himself sufficiently theologically equipped to declare Islam necessarily a religion of peace? It’s just vacuous rhetoric with no other purpose than to pander to the sensibilities of moderate Muslims and even on this measure I suspect it will fail. Moderates will only feel patronised.
It’s also self-evidently wrong. Whether or not ISIS conform to Cameron’s view of what Muslims should be the Jihadists self-identify as Muslims and moreover consider themselves to be the true face of Islam. Also, trivially, if they are not Muslims what are they? Perhaps Anglican heretics or lapsed Catholics or maybe they kill to the glory of L. Ron Hubbard and we’ve just mistaken their battered copies of Dianetics for the Qur’an.
“Muslim or monster” is a puerile and dangerous juxtaposition to make. They are not mutually exclusive any more than Christian and monster or Hindu and monster are as it is perfectly possible to be both a follower of a faith and a monster. It plays into the false idea that to be religious is to be moral and that the truly devout cannot behave immorally
All religions are religions of peace to those who follow them peacefully and all are capable of being justifications of violence to those who would be violent (although I maintain that Islam has peculiarities which make radicalism easier to justify). The extent to which the majority of Muslims are “good” is, I suggest, precisely the extent to which people in general are “good”. I would expect most human beings to find moral outrage in the behaviour of ISIS regardless of their religious allegiances and I would expect the majority of Muslims to condemn them as not being representative of Islam. But to suggest ISIS are not Muslims is absurd and a blatant use of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy.
I get that western politicians are anxious not to demonise Muslims in general and they are right to do this. Muslims in general are not demons or any other kind of monster but pretending that radical islamists are not Muslims at all is to neglect a great deal of the ideology that motivates them. Neither will a white Middle England Anglican telling a potential British jihadist that they are doing Islam wrong persuade them from heading to Syria. If anything it will be a greater motivation.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Is there something about Islam?

The panel at WHC Oxford with moderator Jim Al-Khalili
Earlier in August I attended the World Humanist Conference held in Oxford. Among the many interesting sessions and presentations one of the most thought provoking was a panel discussion called “Is there something about Islam?” in which Alom Shaha, Maajid Nawaz, Keenan Malik and Maryam Namazie debated whether Islam is peculiarly prone to violence and fundamentalism.
Keenan Malik, in particular, argued that Islam like any other religion is open to interpretation.
“Jihadi literalists, so-called ‘bridge builders’ like Tariq Ramadan […] and liberals like Irshad Manji all read the same Qur’an. And each reads it differently, finding in it different views about women’s rights, homosexuality, apostasy, free speech and so on. Each picks and chooses the values that they consider to be Islamic.”
This is true of course, but to point out that to be a Muslim does not necessarily mean you will be a radical is a truism that only the paranoid and prejudiced would reject. It is also true that other religions have their extremists and that most religions have at some time or other been used and abused in the service of atrocity, but it is impossible to ignore the frequency and intensity with which Islam is the prime culprit today.
Radicals are also spawned by secular causes; environmentalism, feminism, animal rights, nationalism and racial equality to name a few. Most to some degree have had their share of violent protests, sporadic riots, bombings and death threats but these really are confined to a very small minority of the people who support such causes and a sustained commitment to violent extremism in these cases is rare.
Radical Islam however is building a consistent narrative of violent jihad recruiting and growing to the extent that it can now sustain a well-equipped and effective army in Syria and Iraq.
I.S. may not represent the Islam of the vast majority of Muslims around the world, certainly not the Shia or the Sufis, but they are attracting recruits in droves from Asian Sunni communities in the U.K and Europe despite the horror with which their actions are reported here. It attracts finance from wealthy Muslim countries and, according to a recent report, a 92% approval rating from citizens of Saudi Arabia.
I disagree with Keenan Malik and also blogger Simon Frankel Pratt with whom I had a brief Facebook discussion on the subject. Whilst individuals may have their own routes and reasons to radicalisation they cannot pursue them in isolation, they need a framework and an internally consistent narrative in order to sustain their zeal and justify behaving in ways that in other circumstances would be anathema to them. No other religion in the modern world has the ideology, history, theology and motive to support violence in way that Islam does.
In the first place Islam has always had a strong territorial and political dimension. The traditional history of its early expansion is one of conquest and occupation with the establishment of the faith achieved in a matter of decades following the death of Mohammed. Whether this and the exploits of the first Caliphs, scimitar and Qur’an in hand, are true or not they are written into the Hadith and Sunnah and are a ready justification for modern day jihad. I can think of no other religion that claims to have spread in this way or would want to be associated with forced conversions today even if they happened in the past.
Secondly Islam is socially normative to a high degree. It is not only a religion to be believed it also has to be practiced in ways that can demonstrate that belief. Dietary laws, praying in one direction at specific times of day, fasting and pilgrimage are signals to other Muslims that they are part of a bigger community with obligations to conform. This also makes it easier for other norms such as Hijab to emerge even though they may not be a strict requirement of the religion.
The Qur’an is highly prescriptive. To find a parallel you could look to Leviticus or Deuteronomy in the Bible but the Qur’an is almost entirely comprised of this kind of legalistic theology whereas the Bible drowns it out in history and myth then arguably dispenses with it entirely in the New Testament. Muslims are taught to see their scriptures as authoritative and the Sharia legal system is based entirely on the Qur’an and Hadith. It is still possible to pick and choose liberal interpretations but much harder to refute the conservative ones
The principle schism in Islam between Sunni and Shia runs very deep and traditionally stems from a dispute over who should have succeeded Mohammed as leader of the faith. It is no accident that the main victims of I.S. are Shia Muslims, heresy being a worse crime than being of another religion entirely. Islam is not uniquely but nevertheless very well primed for the “othering” of heretics and apostates and dehumanising potential enemies.
Simon Frankel Pratt kindly pointed me to an article by Clark McCauleya* & Sophia Moskalenkoa called Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways Toward Terrorism which is worth a read as it explores the mechanisms by which individuals may become radicalised in diverse situations. They call this the “pyramid model”
”From base to apex, higher levels of the pyramid are associated with decreased numbers but increased radicalization of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. Thus one way of thinking about radicalization is that it is the gradient that distinguishes terrorists from their base of sympathizers. How do individuals move from the base to the extremes of terrorist violence at the apex?”
a path that is summarised in the table below.
But in my view Islam short circuits this process by providing a ready-made ladder to the apex and a fast-track means of fulfilment for the wannabe radical. The emphasis on martyrdom, the supra-nationalism, the prescriptivism and the historical justification all make Islam a potent draw for those who would find political cause or personal glory in its name. Islamism is a thing. It is a political movement with substantial theological support and history on its side. Although the vast majority of believers may wish to reject it conservative Islam is shifting the perceptions of what it is to be a Muslim towards its own narrow interpretation, often aided and abetted by western media portrayals of Islam in precisely this way.
Liberal Islam is also a thing so there doesn’t have to be “something about Islam” but for now the conservative view has the platform and the charisma to attract young Muslims who are otherwise disaffected and, more than other causes or other faiths, the doctrines to retain them.

Monday, 21 July 2014

An Imam a Christian and a Humanist walk into a school...

No, it’s not the start of a cheesy joke, rather the way quite an interesting day began…
Just to give a bit of background, a few months ago I attended a course run by the British Humanist Association (BHA) designed to train humanists to assist schools with a revised religious education curriculum that requires teachers to include secular points of view as well as those of the mainstream religions. There are about a hundred of us registered so far and R.E teachers can request assistance via the Humanism for Schools website from BHA volunteers who will help by supplying classroom materials, participating in classrooms directly or speaking at assemblies. We have a range of year group appropriate resources we can draw on.
Anyway, recently I received an email from the Humanism for Schools coordinator asking if I was able to be the humanist representative on a diversity panel for a year 9 group (13 to 14 yrs) alongside a Muslim Imam and an Anglican Vicar. Of course I was happy to oblige.
The event involved half a dozen or so forty-five minute sessions as a series of classes rotated between us and other cultural diversity events. The pupils had an interesting range of questions which each of us answered in turn according to our particular worldview.
The Imam was a particularly interesting person; an affable retired G.P originally from India and without a rational notion in his head. He fielded a question on evolution by insisting “nobody ever saw a human hand appear on a monkey’s arm” and was very insistent that it was impossible to be a moral person without Allah. However in a conversation I had with him during a break he made a very interesting point about the radicalisation of British Asian Muslims which he illustrated by referring to his own “embracing” of Islam. He had been brought up in a traditional Muslim family while in India and learned the Qur’an by rote in Arabic which is apparently the norm despite being unable to speak or understand the language. Consequently until the age of forty, when he finally read it in translation, he had no idea what the Qur’an actually said other than what was told to him. If this is typical of Asian Muslims it becomes easy to see how a hard line interpretation of Islam could be imposed on them without having any other frame of reference. By the time any of them read a translation they can understand (if they ever do as some Imams teach that all translations are corrupt) their minds are already primed for Jihad.
The Vicar was of the “trendy” variety, one of your followers of Jesus types with a naïve pick and mix liberal theology. He had the utmost conviction in the historicity of Jesus claiming it was “better documented than any event in history” (me pointing out that one primary source doesn’t count fell on deaf ears) and, to his credit, insisted in every session that Christianity was the one true religion which is far more honest in my opinion than mealy-mouthed ecumenicalism.
He fielded the first of the “do you believe in evolution” questions with, wait for it… “It’s only a theory” and… “It’s like a whirlwind in a junkyard accidentally making a Jumbo Jet”…Yep! He actually went there. After I was forced to make a small diversion into the actual predictions made by Darwinian natural selection he confined subsequent answers to saying it must still be “God guided”. But, I suppose that’s the best you can expect.
Throughout the day we fielded perceptive questions on; the existence of God, miracles, evolution, contraception, homosexuality and abortion. We all gave answers from our own perspective and for the most part did not pursue the arguments between us but left the different worldviews to hang there for the pupils to absorb.
It’s difficult to know whether any converts were made by anyone that day, which really was not the objective from my point of view (the Imam however came loaded with Islamic literature so maybe he had a different agenda), but several of the classes said they had never knowingly met a humanist or even heard of humanism before so for that alone I considered the day fully worthwhile.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Liberal belief is not harmless

In general atheists only actively disbelieve in the existence of deities that are purported to have influence in the material world or that are presumed to have opinions and preferences about the way human beings conduct their affairs. As a result we are often accused of having an overly simplistic concept of God; merely attacking an old bearded strawman in the sky rather than dealing with Anselm’s unmoved mover or the Ground of Being that Thomas Aquinas and later “sophisticated” theologians like Paul Tillich, Alvin Plantinga and my latest buddy David Bentley Hart envisage. But there are reasons why most atheists ignore or are agnostic about abstract concepts of God not least because they really are un-falsifiable from a scientific point of view so having a strong opinion one way or the other would be irrational but more importantly the believer in the street is not concerned with abstract gods and neither, I suggest, is organised religion.
The gods that most religions present to their faithful are not abstract but quasi-human. They have opinions on dress, diet, sexuality and morality. They expect to be worshipped in specific ways on specific days with special words and rituals or prayed to while facing a particular direction. Some of them publish verbose and internally contradictory manuals with a limited first run distribution around a small area of the middle-east that make historical and factual claims we now know to be false and moral claims many now find abhorrent.
To me it is self-evident that these gods don’t exist in external reality nevertheless they do exist in the minds of many people and the ontological presumptions of many cultures. That is where my real beef with religion really starts.
American philosopher Peter Boghossian likes to define faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know”. Religion makes truth claims about God’s desires on the basis of very flimsy evidence yet these claims are frequently put into the service of enforcing cultural norms that have very real detrimental effects on people. They have been used to defend slavery, they are used to perpetuate misogyny and the subjugation of women, and they are used to justify the hanging of homosexuals, the stoning of rape victims and apostates. They are used to restrict access to contraception and abortion and to deny proper medical care to women hospitalised due to miscarriages. “People pretending to know things they don’t know” are preventing the education of women, opposing the teaching of science, trying to deny same sex couples access to the civil institution of marriage and stop them from adopting children. People pretending to know things they don’t know want the rest of us to pretend we know these things too.
Now if you’re a believer you may be saying to yourself  “I don’t recognise the god this atheist is complaining about, my god doesn’t advocate stoning women or discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality. My god is a loving inclusive nurturing sort of god”. Well if so congratulations on choosing a better behaved god and pretending to know nicer things about yours than some other people pretend to know about theirs but all believers, wittingly or not, are involved in the same conspiracy to pretend to know something they don’t know.
Liberal belief in a beneficent deity is, I concede, the source of much good in society. Apart from the comfort if gives to individuals, a selective reading of scripture encourages some religious communities to charity and social welfare, education programs and the like. Churches, Mosques and Synagogues offer sanctuary and community and for some that may be a necessary social lifeline. Yes, some religion in some aspects for some people is a good thing for some of the time.
But, one would have to be blind not to notice that much harm is being done in religion’s name and this is not, I believe, just because the extremists are doing it wrong. The bible that inspires the affable Rev Colin Still is the same bible that motivated Fred Phelps and the Southern Baptists. The Qur’an of “the religion of peace” is also the handbook for Boko Haram. The Jihadists and the moderates, the bigots and the liberals are just pretending to know different things about the nature of God and there is no objective way to prove who if anyone is ‘correct’ since God is unavailable for comment.
Liberal belief is not benign: it is the foundation for extremism. It renders truth claims about the nature of God socially and intellectually respectable despite having no objective measure of their worth. Even liberal belief protects itself against criticism by insisting ridicule of religion is at best impolite and at worst blasphemous giving cover to extremists who will kill over religious satire. The very premise that there exists a God that has attitudes, rules, regulations, likes and dislikes is the root of much more suffering and injustice than can be justified by the good it sometimes engenders and besides as humanists have proved again and again God really is unnecessary for human flourishing.
If theists only believed in the apophatic, un-moved mover god of sophisticated theologians I doubt I would even bother to write this blog. I have no problem with that sort of belief since; for one thing, they may be right but more to the point no-one ever got killed by arguing over the foibles of a Ground of Being.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 3 of 3

David Bentley Hart
Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject and so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn so today’s is Bliss.

Given his teleological and platonic presumptions the first two sections Being and Consciousness make interesting if unremarkable arguments for the existence of an ultimate causational ground of something or other that Hart likes to call God. However in Bliss he provides little argument (beyond reiteration) and less evidence for a series of assertions concerning our human experiences of desire for love, morality, status and altruism et al which must, he insists, really be nothing but stops on the way to bliss; a union with the divine.
How, he wonders, can we strive to be moral if there is not some extant perfect morality or feel the urge to pursue happiness if that abstract concept is not in some sense all pervasive? He speaks as though he has already established the case but whereas the universe and, arguably, consciousness are things seeking explanation internal emotions really aren’t. They are already contingent upon physical reality, somatic organic states and consciousness (magical or otherwise) and it makes no sense to insist that they must be representative of “pure” emotions.
Hart pre-empts the obvious evolutionary rebuttal in the most bizarre way by embarking on a tirade against Richard Dawkins’ seminal concept of The Selfish Gene which having ridiculed as a terrible metaphor he then goes on to dispute by treating it as though biologists really believe genes are intentional “imps” with Machiavellian designs on our bodies and minds. In fact Hart’s entire world view seems to make him incapable of understanding the fundamental point about evolution which is that it is an entirely contingent process, unintended and undirected. He claims to get that the idea of “genes for” a particular trait is a naïve simplification of how things work yet attacks gene centric explanations for the evolutionary utility of emotion entirely on that basis and he certainly does not realise that epigenetic phenomena where the organism apparently effects the genes are themselves evolved mechanisms to cope with short term environmental changes.
Biology is a messy business and natural selection may act reflexively and on different levels from DNA through individuals and maybe even populations although as I have said before my intuition is that at bottom the gene (broadly defined) is the ultimate agent of evolutionary change. But Hart wants to turn the narrative on its head and insist that, for example, a mother’s love preserves the genes through her child, rather than genes survive which promote the emotions conducive to nurturing a child. While the observable effect would be indistinguishable either way Hart’s version is un-falsifiable and has none of the explanatory power of Darwinian selection (Ironically in consciousness Hart scorned the concept of memes as units of ideas that preferentially spread through cultures but in bliss partly exculpates Dawkins for the success of the selfish gene metaphor because it has spread organically through media to become a cultural trope. So how does he think that happened exactly? Well, he doesn’t say but I think he’d be hard pushed to supply a non-Darwinian explanation).
This section of the book contains the most word salad by far, in fact in places it’s so unintelligible the circularity of his thinking is sometimes difficult to pick out. Or perhaps that’s the point. For example he insists in various tortured ways that our quest for beauty, love and conscience is in reality our yearning for God because God is good and the good is God (so even if you’re an atheist desiring to do good you are also tacitly accepting Gods existence; handy that…) and waves away the Euthyphro dilemma as irrelevant because God’s goodness is sufficient unto itself. Hart is defining God in his own self-referential terms just like every other theist who needs their god to conform to their own concept.
It is interesting to note that although Hart constantly reminds us that God is everything, is the cause of everything, sustains everything, contains and is contained by everything as the ground of all being, consciousness and bliss his God is always referred to as “he”. For some reason this all-consuming deity (which should definitely not be anthropomorphised in any way, dearie me no!) is resolutely male even before we ascribe other characteristics such as goodness etcetera. Why, for example, shouldn’t such a deity be perfectly evil, hateful or vain or perfectly any other thing that human beings are capable of pursuing when not seeking love or the good?
All told, it’s not that this book is a poor argument for God, more that it’s an argument for a rather poor God and definitely not for the God of most believers. If Hart really accepted only this amorphous definition of God he would be almost as much an atheist as I am. As it is I started his book agnostic about such a ground of being and finished it with the same attitude. Yes, it is logically possible for Hart’s God to exist, but except from a purely metaphysical point of view it is hard to care one way or the other. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in (amongst others) Hart’s other God; the one he is not attempting to defend but the one of his professed Eastern Orthodox faith that made man “in his own image” ,incarnated in the person of Christ, and was crucified. The Eastern Orthodox God that has attitudes and preferences and speaks ambiguously through the bible of dietary laws and sexual taboos. Hart may want to avoid drawing a face on the apophatic God of Being, Consciousness and Bliss but by doing so he is arguing for no kind of God at all.

Footnote: You may have found these three posts a little tedious to read so by way of an antidote I offer this video via the much wittier and entertaining NonStampCollector.