Peter Steinberger: "An Exercise in Chutzpah"

The Problem with God

This week our featured book is The Problem with God: Why Atheists, True Believers, and Even Agnostics Must All Be Wrong, by Peter J. Steinberger. In today’s post, we have the introduction to The Problem with God, in which Steinberger explains his claim that the question of God’s existence is “literally a non-question,” that it is “it is literally, utterly, completely, entirely and eternally impossible even to conceive of what a meaningful answer would look like.”

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An Exercise in Chutzpah
Peter J. Steinberger

My book is, one would have to say, an exercise in chutzpah – and not in a good sense.

At one level, the argument is pretty simple. Humans – by which I mean all humans, and always – think of the world as a structure of cause and effect according to which everything that exists must have been caused to exist by something other than itself. Of course, since the world itself exists, this means that the world must have been caused to exist in the first place. There must have been a First Cause, something or someone to get the ball rolling. A Creator. An Unmoved Mover. God. Trouble is, if the First Cause exists – and remember, everything that exists must have been caused to exist by something other than itself – then something must have caused the First Cause to exist, in which case the First Cause is not the First Cause. And so on, ad infinitum. So to talk about God is to invoke the “concept” of something that cannot have been caused to exist by something other than itself and must have been caused to exist by something other than itself. That’s not a concept. It’s nonsense, gobbledygook, mumbo-jumbo. It is, to quote Thomas Hobbes from a slightly different context, “mere sound.” As such, it cannot be an intelligible topic for conversation. The existence of God can be neither affirmed, nor denied, nor even doubted.

So why chutzpah? Three things. First, I’ve written a book on a topic for which I have no credentials, no formal training, no experience, no bona fides. I’m neither a theologian nor a religious studies person nor a philosopher of religion. I’m a political philosopher – all of my other books have been studies in the theory of politics – and so here I am writing on a topic about which I am, in principle, ignorant and unqualified. Second, I’ve written a book intended for the general reader – something that’s supposed to be clear, accessible, perhaps even entertaining – and this is an activity in which I have little experience. My other books have all been scholarly monographs written explicitly for specialists in my field, and this means that I’ve now attempted a kind of writing for which I am, in principle, seriously unprepared. Finally, if all that wasn’t enough, I’ve written a book that purports to take on all comers. In the world of religious thought, one would imagine that pretty much everyone is either a theist, an atheist or an agnostic. There seem to be no other possibilities. In arguing that all of them must be wrong, I’ve chosen to pursue what is, let’s face it, a pretty lonesome path.

I’m generally not big on chutzpah. I am not by nature a contrarian or a scold. I’m no great risk taker. And I have great respect for training, preparation and expertise. So why write a book on a topic about which I’m a rank amateur, a book in which I’m trespassing on other people’s territory, and a book that has no natural allies, hence is likely to be slammed from all sides? Two reasons. First of all, I really do think my argument is right, and I can’t for the life of me understand why so much of what is written these days about God doesn’t consider at least some version of it, if only to refute it. I’m referring to, among other things, the well-known books by and about Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Hawking, Harris and the rest. Seems to me that they’ve been systematically ignoring the pachyderm in the parlor, and I find it enormously frustrating. Second, if my argument is wrong, I’d simply like to know why. I like figuring things out, and on this particular question – the question of God – I think I have. But amateur that I am, I could well be in error; and so if someone can show me where I’ve messed up, that would be progress.

In this sense, the goal is less to win the argument – though that would be nice – than to get the argument back on track.

But there’s still a bit more to be said. For the argument of my book concludes with what I believe to be objective, rock-solid, irrefutable proof that this – by which I mean the world as we know it – cannot be all there is, as per utterly, completely, entirely and demonstrably impossible. The story has, in effect, a surprise ending. It’s a pretty big surprise – I actually think it might be kind of staggering – and in the scheme of things it’s an extremely happy one. But it’s also unintelligible without the larger argument of the book. So in that sense, the question of whether or not my argument is correct could be, let us say, not without real consequence.

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