Both the theologian, advancing abstract definitions of Deity as the Ground of Being, transcendent of language and intellection, the impersonal prime mover, hardly so limited and vengeful and silly as an Old-Bearded-Man-in-the-Sky, as the theologically uninformed would suppose It; and the scientifically minded atheist, denying all things above or outside nature outright—are both opposed to the anthropomorphic, interventionist, personal God. Yet it is this God or Gods, in some form or another, under some name or another, that have captured and held the imagination of the majority of religious people for centuries and across cultures and traditions.
The Buddha established Buddhism, but this quickly becomes Hinayana Buddhism, a minority faith, while the chockablock, boddhisattva-infested Mahayana Buddhism coded its superior popular appeal into its very name (Mahayana = Greater Vehicle, the bandwagon everyone was getting on). In Hinduism, too, the ancient abstract ideas of the Upanishads are catnip to the few, while most Hindus worship, with incense and flame, prayer and fasting, any of thirty-three thousand Gods and Goddesses, each of whom has his or her own distinct character and backstory. This dichotomy holds true of Christianity (Bonhoeffer’s readers are outnumbered by megachurch attendees).
Similarly, all of these religious thought-worlds have contained atheistic voices, throughout history; it is important to remember that Siddhartha Gautama studied with ancient Hindu atheists (the Charuvaka School—Charuvaka means well-spoken and implies, “What they say sounds good, but don’t be taken in.”) Atheism in the West goes back to Voltaire—and long before that as well. Edward Gibbon, recall, describes the pagan Gods of the Age of the Antonines as being “equally false”—though he specifies they are all equally false to the philosophers. In fact few societies have allowed and tolerated atheistic ideas so well as the classical Mediterranean civilizations, with its Epicureans and Stoics—though it is worth noting that the works of Epicurus didn’t survive (an epic by the Epicurean poet-philosopher Lucretius survives only partially), just as the treatises of the Charuvaka school didn’t survive in ancient India. They didn’t survive because—unlike the Vedas, unlike Homer—they weren’t preserved.
So both the theologians of transcendence and this-worldly atheists have existed, with all their arguments and sophistry, for centuries, everywhere. Yet they have consistently failed to carry the masses (and they continue to do so, statistically speaking, in the modern world). The intellectuals need these kinds of arguments and counterarguments, the same old debate. The majority of believers believe—and they believe what is absurd, to paraphrase Tertullian. The original context of that phrase involves causality—I believe it because it is absurd. This is the central idea of “fideism,” which sounds like a made-up word, and probably is—basically the idea (the belief) that faith trumps reason when it comes to arriving at certain theological truths. This faith-reason antagonism is the staple of internet comment threads and university symposia pitting Believers against Nonbelievers.
Yawn. Let’s leave that debate to Sam Harris and your philosopastor-of-choice and consider the whole situation from the perspective of storytellers. A personal, interventionist, anthropoid God makes for a good story, and it is the good story that captures the imagination of most religious people. It’s like expecting crowds to flock to your free academic lecture in the lobby of a movie theater; they will pay money to walk right past you. The most viral story in the West (and worldwide, at this point) has all the appeal of magical realism and fantasy: It begins with an impossibility (a virgin birth) and ends with one, too (a resurrection). In between, there’s a prophesied hero who is really the son of God. Before that story, the world’s most viral story was the originally Indian, but subsequently pan-Asian story of the Ramayana: It stars a prince from a city that still exists today, invading an island that still exists today. Except that there are talking monkeys. And a talking vulture. And a ten-headed demon. And oh yeah, the hero is actually an incarnation of God.
Once again we see the superior hardiness and adaptive advantages of hybrid vigor, the biological concept I am always harping on: The great religions are really great religious stories (including that of the Buddha, whose enlightenment is inherently supernatural, that is, transcendent of human nature; and comes at the end of his Jataka-tale reincarnations). These stories benefit from the hybridization of the real and the supernatural (cf. the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and J. K. Rowling). Similarly, their metaphysical ideas benefit from the hybridization of the rational and the irrational.
This point strikes me as crucial: That the irrational, far from being something to fear or suppress or overcome through good science, far from being something to regard as primitive or less than human, is actually the leaven in the dough, the shine in the light. People want irrationality in their relationship to God and their thinking about God—in the same way they want irrationality in their love. (God is love, according to the apostle John.) I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be loved rationally, just as I don’t want to love rationally: I want there to be rationality in my love, but it’s the irrationality in love that gives it authority, intensity, truth, reality. This “irrationality” is not the same as superstition or the tenacious insistence on the counterfactual—though it seems, among minds of rigid zealotry, to take those forms. I mean an irrationality that builds on reason as on a foundation, as love does. It does not so much override rationality as stand upon it, and by this standing-upon, reaches understanding. This understanding is higher than the twin towers built by theologian and atheist—towers either thinker drafts using the blunt tips of point and counterpoint, and builds using the dumb bricks of words.