projection, polytheism & judaeo-christian ‘atheism’

One of the standard atheist charges against belief in a god (especially since Feuerbach) is that humans invent a ‘god’ who is nothing more than a ‘projection’ of their own need to believe.  The central idea is that all beliefs about ‘gods’ simply reflect what humans want or assume a ‘god’ to be like.

Quickly, I’ll say that although this would be one of the strongest challenges to theism, it is anything but a knock-down argument.  Not only does it leave entirely unchallenged the notion of a real, actual, but yet unknowable god ((which is something most forms of theism – in different degrees – say about their god)) with essence and qualities other than imagined or known by humans, but it also assumes that a ‘god’ would automatically be unable to reveal himself through the god-like desires and assumptions of humans ((I note that ‘assumptions’ is not a very charitable term to theism.  For example, negative theology is an immensely rational, logical and delusion-countering way of thinking about what qualities a ‘god’ must have.)).  Nonetheless, even apart from these points much more can be observed.

First of all, we should note that the charge of ‘projection’ is precisely the charge that the biblical prophets level against the polytheistic ‘gods’ that the nations believed in.  Isaiah 44 has a deliciously illustrative example of the classic monotheistic mockery of polytheism – a kind of monotheistic ‘atheism’, if you like ((Which is also seen in the creation story, where all the things listed in the 6 days of creation – sun, moon, stars, sky, earth, sea, birds, beasts, etc. – reflect the polytheistic array of ‘gods’ of the surrounding nations)).  Isaiah effectively says that these polytheistic people take a tree, cut it down, use one half to cook dinner and warm themselves, and then take the other half, carve it into the shape of an image and bow down to it as a god.  Polytheism, atheists and monotheists agree, is human projection.

Also, having noted the similarity between the critiques of both Feuerbachian atheism and monotheistic ‘atheism’, we should not the key point of departure.  Revelation.

Contrary to humans imagining or desiring their way to God, the Bible speaks of a God who reveals himself.  Romans 1 speaks of the idolatry of the Roman pantheon (resulting in the idolatrous lifestyle of gluttonous eating and indulgent sexuality – faithful worship of the idol gods of food and sex), and contrasts this with the God who is ‘plainly seen’ as creator because of the created world.  The wider New Testament presents the person of Jesus Christ as the exact, final and full revelation of God – sharpening, completing and bringing into focus everything that had ever been revealed about God.

Martin Luther has a particularly striking understanding of this.  For Luther, even reason was unreliable to gain true knowledge of God.  For Luther (following the lead of the NT authors), God was fully known in and through Jesus – and particularly through Jesus’ surprising, detestible, un-godly, weak and shameful death on the Cross.  He contrasted ‘theologians of glory’, who speak of God’s bright glory and strength, with true ‘theologians of the Cross’, who speak of God’s suffering, shame and ‘weakness’ on the Cross.

I’ve seen a video of Dawkins mocking Jesus on the Cross as small-minded and insignificant.  What he is doing, perhaps unknowingly, is agreeing in principle that God would be ‘powerful’, ‘big-minded’ and ‘significant’ as imagined by humans – and mocking Jesus for not being like that.  The New Testament writers however, knowingly proclaimed this strange, weak, local, and dying God – whose gospel sounded foolish to Greek ears and was an offensive stumbling block to the Jews.