Ever since Antony Flew published his short parable of the invisible gardener, atheists have complained that theism is a hypothesis forever in retreat. Or, to shift metaphors, rebutting theism is like nailing the proverbial jelly to the wall: as soon as you drive the hammer in, the jelly breaks free, sliding on to greener pastures (oops, that’s another shift in metaphor; this is getting out of hand).
Here’s a typical statement from A.C. Grayling who describes the “religious apologist” in a perpetual retreat into mystery:
“The last resort of the religious apologist is, familiarly, to invoke ineffability. The apologist challenged to explain what is meant by the word ‘god’ is apt to say that god is a mystery, too great for our finite minds to comprehend. Again, familiarly, this closes down conversation, which of course is a useful result for the apologist.” (The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 25.)
Yeah, well, you know what else “closes down conversation”, Mr. Grayling? Sweeping indictments of vaguely defined groups like “religious apologist”.
Alas, Grayling is engaged in a classic case of poisoning the well. Now, if I were to echo Grayling’s rhetorical method, I would say that poisoning the well is a “useful result” for the humanist apologist like Grayling. But the truth is that it isn’t really “useful” for anything beyond indoctrinating people within one’s doxastic community. And, ironically enough, that’s precisely what Grayling is doing here: he’s laying the groundwork for cavalier and sweeping dismissals of dissenters from one’s doxastic position based on the assumption that they are irrational and only concerned with propping up their beliefs rather than seeking truth.
Ironically enough, by engaging in this behavior, Grayling makes himself liable to the very charge he levels at others, namely the charge that he is more concerned with perpetuating belief in his in-group rather than pursuing truth.
As for the appeal to mystery, the reality is that we all find ourselves at times accepting particular things as true without knowing how they are true or even when some good evidence suggests they are false.
For example, any good philosopher can provide reasons why the average layperson should question the existence of objective moral values and obligations and embrace nihilism instead. That average layperson may not know how to rebut those arguments. As a result, the layperson may find the status of the moral universe has been placed in peril. But then she holds her newborn infant in her arms and she knows with every fiber of her being that there is good and evil, right and wrong. Though she cannot, as yet, rebut the arguments of her adept philosophical interlocutor, she retains her convictions by taking a step into mystery. In the words of Art Garfunkel:
But the ending always comes at last
Endings always come too fast
They come too fast
But they pass too slow
I love you and that’s all I know
Is this step into mystery something unique to theists? Hardly! I’ve met many atheists over the years who were dissatisfied with some aspect of their worldview. For example, like our hypothetical layperson, some did not know how to sustain a satisfactory conception of the good and the right within an atheistic moral universe. They were persuaded that nihilism must be wrong: they just didn’t know how. And so, they backed into mystery as readily as any “religious apologist”. Did they do something wrong? I don’t think so. Eventually, each one of us must decide our comfort level with mystery, but it is facile and deluded to think that one does not, or ought not, ever retreat into mystery.
To read a proper treatment of mystery and its role in Christian theology in particular, I recommend James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of its Presence, Character and Epistemic Status .
In conclusion, I am puzzled how a philosopher as adept as Grayling would indulge in such flat-footed analysis. Indeed, you might even say that is something of a mystery.