By Tabish Khair
July 23, 2017
I recently witnessed an acrimonious debate between a New Atheist and a couple of religious people (a Muslim and a Christian, actually). The New Atheist wanted to prove that god did not exist, and the Muslim and Christian believers were just as adamant that god existed. Finally, as often happens, all three turned to the non-participant in the room, and asked him to adjudicate. That was, alas, me.
I did not want to answer them. It is usually my policy not to comment on matters of belief and disbelief, both of which tend to be put in highly reductive terms. But they insisted. So, I gave them an honest answer: “You cannot disbelieve in god without having the concept of god, and you cannot have any conception of god without disbelieving in god.” Thankfully, they thought I was being facetious and continued their discussion without me.
But I am convinced that the main divide runs not between religion and atheism but through each of them. Thinking atheists and thinking religious believers actually share a lot, just as half-thinking atheists and half-thinking believers share a lot too.
While all religions finally deal with some personification of deity — incarnation, son of god, names or attributes of god, etc. — all religions also have a similar concept of god as beyond human comprehension of form-time-space, and as unchanging and impossible to fully define. Even so-called ‘primitive’ tribes worshipping totems have this concept, for the totem is not just a plant or an animal but something more than just that plant or animal.
In other words, the concept of god eludes human imagination and language. One of the first modern thinkers to try to go beyond the unnecessary antagonism of religion and science was the German Oxford University don, Friedrich Max Müller. In the 1870s, he explained the concept of gods, ranging from those in Vedic India to classical Greece, by arguing that these were powerful forces of nature that got personified in language over the centuries. So, initially, Apollo meant just the Sun, but later Apollo got constructed as a male god, with increasing human (and superhuman) attributes.
Max Muller’s version has long been dismissed in intellectual circles, but he had made a valid incidental point: the concept of god eludes human constructions, including those of language. Whatever we say about god does not exhaust the concept of god, and hence our beliefs can only be personal. They cannot be imposed on others. As the medieval Sufi poet, Rumi, suggests in one of his poems, any person’s conception of god can be valid only for that person; to pass it on to another person (by persuasion, argument or force) is to pass on what cannot be communicated, what is bound to be reduced in language. Many major religious thinkers have seen this too: the Muslim Avicenna or Ibn Sina (11th century) and the Christian Thomas Aquinas (13th century), among others.
The opposition to images of divinity that we find in iconoclastic religions, most obdurately Islam, is a consequence of this realisation. The divine, such religions argue, cannot be given a human shape. Hence, we have the Taliban blowing up the ancient statues of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. Incidentally, though, this does not get us out of the conundrum: there is not that much of a difference between imagining god in human or animal shapes and attributing human (or animal) attributes to god.
When we say that god is merciful or loving, we use a human concept to talk of god; it is not entirely different from saying that god is blue or wears a crown of thorns. This was the hidden gem in Max Muller’s perception: we can imagine anything only through language and our own experiences, and hence there is a tendency to personify the concept of god. It is a bit like saying that a quantum particle is both wave and particle and neither wave nor particle. What we mean is that we cannot really imagine quantum particles except by using what we have experienced in life and language: waves and particles.
The concept of god is exactly this point, which escapes our imagination. We need it for two main reasons.
One, because it is only by situating ourselves between the knowable and the unknowable that we become human.
Two, because to let go of the concept runs the risk of reducing everything to the known (which is sacrilege for the truly religious and hubris for the truly scientific) or to give up our claim on that which exceeds our current understanding.
The concept of an unknowable god roots us in our humanity, but also makes it possible for us to strive for more — including more knowledge, which only comes with the knowledge that we do not and cannot have perfect knowledge (which belongs only to ‘god’).
That is why thinking atheists cannot do away with the concept of god. That is also why the religious cannot claim to know god. We become human in exactly that space where we are not animals (whose possibility of knowledge is restricted to what they already know) and where we are never ‘god’ (whose possibility of knowledge is complete and infinite).