The Incomprehensibility Argument Against Religious Knowledge

Apologists say that reason leads to belief in God.  Some will argue that any attempt by atheists to advance reasons for rejecting belief in God leads to an internal incoherence, because without God there cannot be any basis for relying on our powers of reason.  But how reliable would reason be if theism were true?

By “theism” I mean here the belief in a God who is infinite and omniscient.  Such a being would be as far above we humans (in terms of his knowledge, reasoning and understanding) as a human is above an ant.  In fact, this might be an understatement, since it does not fully express the difference between the infinite and the finite.

An ant could have no insight into human wishes or motives.  Any attempt by an ant to understand human behaviour or actions in terms of its own antly priorities would be doomed to failure.  

By the same token, any attempt by humans to understand God’s actions, wishes or motivations must be doomed to failure, for exactly the same reason as the ant’s attempt to understand humans.

Why would the theist claim to have any knowledge about God?  Whatever she says she knows about him comes from her finite, fallible, flawed understanding of the world and how God has chosen to reveal himself in it.  She believes herself to be made in God’s image and thinks that this guarantees her rationality.  But this begs the question, because her reasons for believing that she is made in God’s image depend on her abilty to reason correctly about God and his word. 

She works on the premise that God would not deceive her.  But why should God not deceive her?  Her human understanding is that deception is wrong and that God would not do wrong.  But God being so far above her in all things, might have reasons for deceiving her –  and the whole human race.   Her understanding that deception is “wrong” might be nothing more than a reflection of her own limitations. Perhaps from God’s sublime point of view, deception is a great good.  

The theist must accept that her “reasoning” about God, about truth, about knowledge, might all be nothing more than filthy rags of unreason in God’s eyes.  

The theist can say that God exists but thereafter must fall silent.  She cannot know his nature, how he wishes to be worshipped, what doctrines are true about him, how best she might please him.

She cannot even speak on secular subjects.  God, for his own reasons, might have deceived her on every single thought or belief she has.  She cannot know that she knows anything about anything.  

Ultimately, the theist must reject the very reasoning which led her to claim God’s existence in the first place.

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5 thoughts on “The Incomprehensibility Argument Against Religious Knowledge

  1. What can I say?
    Excellent post. I agree with everything.
    I particularly enjoyed the Wittgensteinian tone of this: “The theist can say that God exists but thereafter must fall silent.”

      • The Incomprehensibility Argument Against Religious Knowledge?
        There is already a problem in the title: what is religious knowledge? How many theists actually claim “I know…” anything at all about God? They can know what is said in their sacred texts. They can know what their predecessors have said about the contents of their sacred texts (theologians etc). They can know a great deal about what people have said about God. If that is what is meant by religious knowledge, then not only is there no argument against it, no argument is required. The arguments can begin when there is the claim, “I know that God exists and that Christ died for our sins.” The choice between saying “I know” and saying “I believe” is a significant one.
        As you show when you point out: “By “theism” I mean here the belief in a God who is infinite and omniscient.” 
        Seen from either a philosophical or a linguistic point of view, talking about infinite and omniscient is practically worthless. Who can genuinely conceive of infinity, omniscience or omnipotence? Sure, I have concepts of very long, very knowledgeable and very powerful. But “omni..”?
        The word “all” is only useful when it is contextualised – “All the students in this classroom.” But all-knowing and all-powerful is beyond our powers of conception.
        Most Christians actually use the “omni” prefix when talking about a superior version of themselves. And the problems raised by anthropomorphising God have already been endlessly discussed elsewhere. However, here is a typical example:
        “By the same token, any attempt by humans to understand God’s actions, wishes or motivations must be doomed to failure….”
        Sentient beings have actions, wishes and motivations, therefore we assume that God is a super-sentient, and therefore limited, being. In other words – not God.
        Other examples can be seen where you make guesses concerning what a theist thinks or believes and you say things like
        “how he wishes to be worshipped
        how best she might please him.”
        If a theist actually uses such language (and many do, of course) you are fully justified in pointing out to them, “God, for his own reasons, might have deceived her on every single thought or belief she has.” You enter into and perpetuate the anthropomorphological language.
        Inasmuch as many theists will not identify with your understandable but often erroneous characterisation, you take the risk of committing the strawman fallacy. Just as I could be accused of committing the “no-true-Scotsman” blunder.

  2. It might have been better if I had said “belief” rather than “knowledge”. Point taken.

    Everything I say on this site by way of argument is subject to the caveat that it will only ever apply to some Christians.

    A few months ago I read a post by an Eastern Orthodox blogger entitled something like “10 popular arguments against Christianity and why they fail.” On reading his examples it turned out that most of the examples he used were arguments against as doctrines which he, as a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, also rejected. So it wasn’t that the arguments failed. In fact, from his perspective they worked rather well against the doctrines they sought to disprove. It was just that he embraced different doctrines which those arguments weren’t seeking to disprove.

    I can never set up an argument which will apply to every Christian doctrine ever entertained. I only seek to challenge those which are entertained by many Christians in the West.

    I agree that there are difficulties in talking about an all-knowing, all-powerful being when such powers are not only outside our experience but outside our comprehension. But then again, that was rather my point.

    Christians do talk about God in anthropomorphic terms. “People” includes Jesus who invited his audience to reason that if a father would not give his son a stone when his son asked for bread then it would follow that God would also give his children what they needed when asked. That is a straight anthropomorphic comparison.

    When Christians say “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son” they are drawing on people’s understanding of how a parent feels towards an only child and the kind of love that it would demonstrate to sacrifice that only child for another’s good.

    I don’t think you are committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but I do think you may be projecting your own views about God which (IMHO) are not that widely shared in the Christian community.

    • You’re right – Christians do talk about God in anthropomorphic terms, as did Christ. You can’t get much more anthropomorphic than Father and Son! That is the problem inherent in…talking.
      And, of course, context is everything. You’re writing in a blog which is not called “counterchristian” but “counterapologist”. So you are right to use the language used by Christian apologists. You attack them on their own ground, using their own weapons. Those who live by words will die by words, so to speak.

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