Posted by: Brian Robinette | January 21, 2009

Of God and Conceptual Idols

In his essay, “The Church and Atheism,” Karl Rahner, S.J., makes an observation that will serve us well throughout the semester: “The struggle against atheism is foremost and of necessity a struggle against the inadequacy of our own theism” (Theological Investigations, 21, p. 148).

This point is brilliantly developed in Michael J. Buckley’s penetrating work, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (Yale, 1987). Buckley, also a Jesuit, traces the origins of modern atheism in the 18th century as an intellectual phenomenon springing from a particular kind of theism. Noting that atheism is parasitical upon particular conceptions of God that can be historically located, Buckley shows that what is being denied by atheism very much depends upon what is first affirmed by its theistic counterpart. What this means is not only that there are many kinds of atheisms — atheism, like theism, reflects an ongoing intellectual tradition that, while superficially united in name by its negation of God or gods, is internally diverse — but that to understand any particular atheism requires understanding the theism it presupposes. Atheism in the 18th century looks different from the  atheism of the 19th, for example, and 20th century atheism (or better, its many variants) will look different from those preceding it. A historical study like Buckley’s demonstrates this very effectively. For a briefer and perhaps more accessible history of atheism that demonstrates this quite ably, see Alister McGrath’s, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday, 2004).

There are at least three takeaway points from this that are worth mentioning here:

First, we must continue to inquire into the specific form of theism that is being denied by a particular atheistic author. We can’t simply be content to imagine that all atheisms are the same, that what atheism 1 and atheism 2 are denying is equivalent. Sure, there may be considerable overlap, and in some cases very precisely; but just as there are many images and conceptions of God that people of faith affirm, so too are there many images and conceptions that a person may explicitly deny.

Second, we must be willing to consider that what an atheist explicitly denies may or may not reflect, or adequately comprehend, what theists in all their diversity affirm. And, in fact, it may be that what an atheist denies ought to be denied. That is, I can think of any number of images and concepts that function as active signifiers for many people of faith which I myself might wish to question, or outright repudiate. That doesn’t make me an atheist, though it may very well put me in company with a certain kind of atheistic criticism. (Incidentally, history is full of examples of people labeled as “atheist” for denying a particular view of God or the gods, while still retaining a belief in God. One can think of Socrates, or the early Christians.)

And, finally, we must consider the possibility that atheistic critique is a way for believers to be jolted from inadequate or possibly idolatrous views of God. For example, while I, as a believer, would be unable to accept the atheist’s denial of God as such, the challenge of atheism may be embraced in a way that allows my own experience and view of God to become purified. I might ask myself, for example, whether I have domesticated the reality of God by the way I think, through an unreflected and untested assumption about God; that perhaps my view of God is simply too small, too parochial, too much a matter of my own projections.

Which brings us back to Rahner: “This struggle against atheism is always and foremost a struggle against a view of God which is in danger of replacing the true, incomprehensible God by a human idol” (ibid.).

The question of the idol is one that may be posed to theists and atheists alike: is what you affirm, or what you deny, only a conceptual figment? Do you so cling to a particular conception of “God,” whether you affirm or deny it, that it in fact becomes an idol — something that replaces (or stands in the way of) what it signifies, something it can never capture or contain? In the acrimony that oftentimes develops when people affirm or deny something so important as “God,” it is possible that both parties in the dispute end up clinging to some “thing” (even a conceptual “thing”) that the very reality of God is eclipsed.

So, let this be a helpful admonition to those among us who would take up the charge to affirm belief in the face of its explicit rejection. Let us continue to ask ourselves: 1) what is the prior form of theism that a particular atheist denies? 2) how does this particular form of atheism compare to other forms? and 3) how might the re-affirmation of belief in the face criticism avoid becoming idolatrous? Or, said differently, how might the theist avoid  domesticating the reality of God, even under the best of intentions?



  1. Dr. Robinette your discussion about the way in which atheists can assist theology in the advancement and removal of inadequate ideas reminded of the Buddhist view of attachment. Buddhism teaches that attachment keeps a person from ultimate happiness. Attachment requires self-reference, and it requires seeing the object of attachment as separate from oneself. You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In non-attachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to. If you have unified with the whole universe, there’s nothing outside of you, so the notion of attachment becomes absurd. Who will attach to what?

    The process of developing no-attachment is a very difficult one but it seems like a beneficial endeavor. If we view God as part of us instead of an other to cling to I feel that our need to make God the ruler and puppet master will decrease. Therefore, allowing us to grow in relationship with the true, ever present, loving God of creation.

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