A couple days ago Justin Schieber tweeted the following sentiment:
“A lack of privacy in principle surely has some weight in the question of whether we should want God to exist.”
The great thing about a pithy tweet like this is that it succinctly summarizes a very common objection to God’s existence. Apparently there is some value in communication in 140 characters or less.
Since I hear this kind of objection to God’s existence quite often, I decided to take some time to tease out a couple replies.
In my first response to this tweet I pointed out that one reason for desiring “privacy” is because of a legitimate concern that the agency observing our actions could use that information maliciously. We all have legitimate concerns about “Big Brother” impinging on our privacy, for example. But that objection does not apply when the agent in question is a maximally good, wise, and benevolent divine being, and thus this concern cannot be a factor in the present case.
And this brings me to my second response. In this article I intend to focus on a different issue altogether: namely, the uncritical anthropomorphism that commonly under-girds this “privacy” objection.
The Problem of Uncritical Anthropomorphism
First off, let’s be clear on definitions. “Anthropomorphism” involves the attribution of human characteristics to a non-human entity, e.g. an animal, an object, or as in this case, God. (The word originates from two Greek words: Anthropos (human) and morphe (form).) Anthropomorphism is uncritical when the person invoking anthropomorphic categories is unaware that they are unwittingly projecting human characteristics onto a non-human entity.
Language about God is inescapably anthropomorphic, so it would be foolish to attempt to excise all such language from theological discourse. The key is not to remove anthropomorphic language, but rather to become aware of the extent to which such language is indeed anthropomorphic.
Unfortunately, people frequently lapse into uncritical anthropomorphism, particularly in theological discourse. For instance, on Sunday morning the pastor will say “Lord, come into this place.” In my experience, a significant portion of the congregation (and perhaps the pastor himself) will uncritically assume that language literally conveys an appeal to God to move from one place in space to another. But that seemingly simple appeal assumes in turn that (1) God is located in space, (2) God can move through space, (3) God is in time. The problem is that (1) and (2) are rejected by virtually all Christian theologians while (3) has been rejected by a majority of theologians. So whatever sense there might be in appealing to God to “come into this place”, the language does not and cannot function as a direct appeal to God to enter the building analogous to asking a human person to enter the building.
Or think about one person telling their grieving friend, “God weeps with you.” As comfort words, this is just fine. But it most certainly isn’t literal. For starters, God is a non-physical being who is bereft of tear ducts. But that isn’t the half of it. Even more basically, a majority of Christian theologians throughout history have denied that God experiences any change of emotion. This doctrine is called divine impassibility and it derives from the doctrine of divine atemporality (if God is outside time, as noted above, then God cannot undergo any sequential changes, including change of emotional state). Impassibility also follows from the concept of God as Pure Act or Prime Mover (a concept to which we’ll return below).
But even if one believes God is temporal, God’s experience of human loss is unimaginably different than our experience of that same loss. For example, God allowed that loss, he had reasons to allow that loss, and he has full knowledge of the final state of all things toward which he is guiding human history and in which this particular loss plays some providential role. So even if you think God is passible (an increasingly popular view), that does not mean that we can assume we have any clue what it means experientially for God to suffer with his human creatures who suffer.
To reiterate, I have no problem with the pastor saying “Lord, come into this place” or with the friend offering words of comfort: “God weeps with you.” But it is important that we be aware of the extent to which such language is anthropomorphic.
Atheists, uncritical anthropomorphism, and privacy
Given that lay Christians frequently lack critical reflection on the extent to which language about God is anthropomorphic, it is no surprise that atheists who are keen to offer critiques of Christian theism likewise frequently launch their critiques based on an uncritical anthropomorphism. And the language of privacy is a great example.
Christopher Hitchens used to delight in comparing life in a universe with God as akin to living in a “celestial North Korea”. In my first installment critiquing the privacy objection, I pointed out the disanalogy between a malevolent government agency and a benevolent and wise God.
But there is another problem with Hitchens’ illustration. His comparison of God to some human observer in the world reflects the same kind of uncritical anthropomorphism that one finds in the cases noted above. Hitchens clearly envisions God as acting something like a peeping tom or intrusive eavesdropper, i.e. as a discrete agent in some particular place in the world who observes our actions and thereby invades our privacy.
In my experience this uncritical anthropomorphism is woven into the DNA of the privacy objection. For example, take the case of Counter Apologist who tweeted his agreement with Schieber’s tweet by noting that he wouldn’t want anybody “perceiving” what he does all the time, for that would constitute an unacceptable violation of his “privacy”.
Like Hitchens, Counter Apologist appears to be assuming that God functions as a discrete agent in the world who observes our actions and thereby invades our privacy. But that’s not what Christian theologians mean.
Since the offending divine attribute in this case is omniscience, we should ask what it means for God to be omniscient. As with any other knowledge discourse, there is disagreement among experts in the field regarding how to cash out particular concepts. As I noted above, in academic theology there is disagreement and debate over various divine attributes. But one thing is clear: the concept of God invading our privacy as a discrete observer of our behavior in the world bears no relation to any of those concepts.
In order to see how great the gap is, I will close by considering one mainstream view of divine omniscience. So let’s take a look at the Westminster Confession and its description of divine omniscience. The picture here is informed by the Aristotelian concept of God as Pure Act and Prime Mover, i.e. God as the one that acts on all things but is not acted on by anything. The Confession declares:
“In his sight all things are open and manifest; his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature; so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain.”
Note first that God’s knowledge is not acquired over time by discretely observing unfolding events and states of affairs in the world. That is, this picture bears no relation to the anthropomorphic picture that generates the privacy concerns. Instead, God’s knowledge is eternal, infinite, and infallible.
Perhaps even more importantly, God’s knowledge is independent upon the creature. In other words, God’s knowledge is not in any sense contingent on created things themselves. For God’s knowledge to be contingent upon creation would constitute a violation of God as Pure Act and Prime Mover. Instead, God’s knowledge of all facts pertaining to creation consists of his awareness of his own decree which secures that all events and states of affairs contained in that decree will obtain.
One could certainly have substantive objections to the concept of God’s knowledge as described in the Westminster Confession. For example, one might object that divine omniscience is conceptually incoherent or one might object that this picture undermines human free will.
But while there are legitimate objections to the prospect of divine knowledge as described, a violation of human privacy is not one of them.
If atheists are only interested in engaging the uncritical anthropomorphic discourse of the pew with their equally uncritical rejoinders, they can have at it. Within that context, objections to God invading our privacy could actually score some points. But if they are interested in engaging in the world of academic theological discourse, they need to set aside uncritical anthropomorphism and heed what Christian theologians actually say about God.