The Problem with God

The Problem with God: Why Atheists, True Believers, and Even Agnostics Must All Be Wrong

PETER J. STEINBERGER
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/stei16354
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  • Book Info
    The Problem with God
    Book Description:

    Whether people praise, worship, criticize, or reject God, they all presuppose at least a rough notion of what it means to talk about God. Turning the certainty of this assumption on its head, a respected educator and humanist shows that when we talk about God, we are in fact talking about nothing at all -- there is literally no such idea -- and so all of the arguments we hear from atheists, true believers, and agnostics are and will always be empty and self-defeating.

    Peter J. Steinberger's commonsense account is by no means disheartening or upsetting, leaving readers without anything meaningful to hold on to. To the contrary, he demonstrates how impossible it is for the common world of ordinary experience to be all there is. With patience, clarity, and good humor, Steinberger helps readers think critically and constructively about various presuppositions and modes of being in the world. By coming to grips with our own deep-seated beliefs, we can understand how traditional ways asserting, denying, or even just wondering about God's existence prevent us from seeing the truth -- which, it turns out, is far more interesting and encouraging than anyone would have thought.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53520-5
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. 1 THE PROBLEM WITH GOD
    (pp. 1-18)

    Late one night in the summer of 1969, sitting at a red light on the corner of Webster Avenue and Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, I had an epiphany.

    Now traditionally an epiphany is a kind of religious experience. For example, there’s something called the Feast of the Epiphany. You may have never heard of it, and if you haven’t you’d hardly be alone, but in certain Catholic circles it’s actually a fairly big deal. The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the moment when the Magi—the three wise men—suddenly realize the divinity of Jesus. That was their...

  4. 2 WHAT IN GOD’S NAME AM I DOING?
    (pp. 19-36)

    Before I try to explain why—before, that is, I attempt to prove to you that there is not and can never be a concept of an Unmoved Mover, hence of God—let me take a small step backward and say a few things about just what it is that I’m doing here. What am I up to? What’s my plan? What’s this little book really all about?

    And the first thing I want to say is that I’m not doing theology. I’m not a theologian, and I don’t pretend to be. You are not reading a theological treatise.

    Now...

  5. 3 THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
    (pp. 37-60)

    It’s impossible to believe in God and also impossible to disbelieve in God, because the question of God is impossible to ask.

    So what do I mean by “impossible”?

    Now different things can be impossible in different ways. Or rather: there are different kinds of impossibility. Let’s start with a very simple example. It’s impossible—just impossible—for me to dunk a basketball. And there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do about it. This, by the way, is another one of the things that’s enormously frustrating for me. I’d like nothing better than to be able to dunk. But I’m...

  6. 4 EVEN IF THE FLESH IS WILLING
    (pp. 61-70)

    Interestingly, some people have tried to use pretty much the same kind of argument that I’ve been making in order to make pretty much the opposite point. They claim that my kind of argument—with a couple of important twists here and there—actually proves the existence of God. These are true believers. Theists. They think the existence of God is demonstrable, and they claim that my argument—or something rather like it—provides the demonstration.

    Take, for example, Samuel Clarke. There are, I suppose, thousands of Sam Clarkes out there, but the one I’m talking about is the Reverend...

  7. 5 ATHEISM . . .
    (pp. 71-84)

    The atheist believes—or, rather, claims to believe—that God doesn’t exist.¹ But God has to exist. Remember, under the logic of cause and effect, the world, if it exists, must have had a cause. After all, everything that exists was necessarily caused by something other than itself whose existence preceded it, and applies to the world as much as to anything, since the world exists.² What could it possibly mean to say that the world exists but it never got started? So the existence of the world absolutely requires that there was a First Cause—an Unmoved Mover, God—...

  8. 6 . . . AND AGNOSTICISM
    (pp. 85-90)

    Agnosticism won’t work either.

    Now, at first blush agnosticism seems to be a pretty reasonable way of looking at things. The agnostic simply says: we don’t know. We don’t have enough information—yet—to determine whether or not God exists. And without sufficient information, we simply can’t decide. We’re ignorant. Perhaps someday we’ll figure it out. Perhaps someday the data will come our way. But for now—and for the foreseeable future—the question is, as we say, moot.

    The agnostic thinks that theists are wrong—and worse. The trouble with theists is that they believe in God without sufficient...

  9. 7 FULL FAITH AND NO CREDIT
    (pp. 91-100)

    All of which brings us back to faith.

    One of the most important things to remember about faith is that you can never have just simply faith, all by itself. Faith always means faith in something, or faith that something exists or that something will happen. There’s always something about which you have faith. But of course, this means that you can’t have faith in something or about something unless you have at least some idea of what that “something” might be. You must have an idea of the thing in which you have faith.

    So for example, you can...

  10. 8 IT’S ALL IN A GOOD CAUSE
    (pp. 101-122)

    Most of what I’ve said so far presupposes that all of us, pretty much all the time, think about things—and must think about things—in terms of cause and effect. Everything that exists must have been caused to exist by something other than itself. Everything, in other words, is an effect of a cause. Moreover, in all cases without exception, the cause comes first, the effect comes later. Maybe only slightly later—maybe only a split-second, maybe a nano-second—but later nonetheless. The effect cannot come before the cause.

    But is all this really true? Are we really stuck...

  11. 9 DETECTIVE FICTION
    (pp. 123-130)

    Before we get to the good news, however, there’s one item that needs to be cleared up.

    Some people will insist that the account I have presented thus far is perfectly consistent with a certain way of believing in God. Specifically, what I’m ignoring is the idea of “mystery.” Yes, some critics will say, God is a mystery indeed. A deep, dark mystery. But because something’s a mystery doesn’t mean it’s impossible; and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t believe in it.

    This, apparently, is what they used to teach kids in certain parochial schools. Maybe they still do. I’m...

  12. 10 AN INKLING OF . . .
    (pp. 131-152)

    In a very strange and very surprising way, Plato—yes Plato, of all people—points us in the direction of good news. This is strange and surprising because Plato wrote before the problem with God was a recognizable problem, at least recognizable from our point of view. It’s strange and surprising because Plato was, of course, one of the very earliest contributors to the Western tradition of serious thought—meaning he was one of the ones who got the whole thing going—and you’d have imagined that by now his writings would have become long since obsolete.¹ They’re not. And...

  13. 11 . . . THE TRUTH
    (pp. 153-166)

    We want God to exist because we want to make sense of the world. And we want to make sense of the world because we want to know who we are and how we got here and what we’re supposed to do and why we’re supposed to do it. We seek guidance and we seek meaning.

    We want to live in a world where life—our life—has some larger purpose. Because the thought that there’s really no larger purpose is, at least for many of us, pretty troubling. The thought that the world is nothing more than a system...

  14. AFTERWORD: NOT ENOUGH?
    (pp. 167-182)

    Would you like to read some more? The literature is beyond huge. It’s absolutely mammoth. At least some of it is really, really interesting—often brilliant—but far beyond what most readers of this book will want to take on. Here, however, is a tiny handful of high-quality items that would provide a more extensive introduction to at least some of the things I’ve been talking about.

    A good place to begin would be Aristotle himself, specifically, Book Lambda (or “L”) of his Metaphysics. That’s where we encounter, I believe for the very first time, the notion of an Unmoved...

  15. AMPLIFICATIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS (AKA “NOTES”)
    (pp. 183-204)
  16. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 205-206)
  17. INDEX OF NAMES
    (pp. 207-210)