Divinity of Doubt: The God Question, by Vincent Bugliosi (New York: Vanguard Press, 2011, ISBN 978-1-59315-629-9) 352 pp. Cloth, $26.99.
Vincent Bugliosi has been a personal hero of mine since I saw the CBS television movie Helter Skelter in 1976. He successfully prosecuted the self-styled Antichrist Charles Manson in the face of police incompetence and cultist threats to his life. You may remember the scene in which Bugliosi (portrayed by George DiCenzo) interviewed an ex-member of the Manson Family who provided the key piece of information regarding Manson’s motive for the Tate and La Bianca murders. It seems that Manson deemed himself a combination of Jesus and Satan destined to foment an apocalyptic race war and to rule what would be left of the world. In this he would be fulfilling biblical prophecy as interpreted, he imagined, by the Beatles’ White Album. Manson’s religion was utterly insane, and in Divinity of Doubt Vincent Bugliosi explains how conventional, orthodox Christianity is just as crazy.
Our author’s title is a double entendre: doubt is divine, and the God of religion is highly doubtful. Bugliosi is out of patience with both sides in the current wars over theism. He contends for a third option between, or beyond, theism and atheism, namely agnosticism. He credits the term to Thomas Henry Huxley but redefines it in a manner Huxley rejected. Huxley said that, in denominating himself an agnostic, he meant that he did not know whether God exists and didn’t see how one could have such knowledge. By the same token, Huxley admitted that he did not claim to know that God’s existence was unknowable. Perhaps new evidence or arguments or some new approach might one day settle the question. (Huxley hardly needed to coin a new term for this, as it matches exactly the ancient philosophy of skepticism.) But Bugliosi says he is convinced one can never settle the question. That does seem to be the sense in which the term agnostic is popularly used. No one has the copyright on it. Maybe it would clarify things if all agreed to adopt Bugliosi’s version and leave Huxley’s under the heading of Skepticism (keeping the capital S).
More serious trouble arises when Bugliosi characterizes the atheism of writers such as new atheism heroes Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins as no less a matter of irrational faith than the theism these gentlemen attack. As I understand it, these writers are technically agnostic. They do not have a faith commitment to there not being a God, but neither do they hang suspended in the gulf of uncertainty as agnostics purportedly do. It is just that they do not see sufficient reason to take the God idea seriously. It remains conceivable that God is in his heaven—and that Mars is somewhere inhabited by four-armed Tharks—but, really, is there any reason to think so? Theism seems to Dawkins and company not to be what William James called a “live option”—one well worth considering even if uncertain.
But Bugliosi’s main gripe against the new atheists (excluding Daniel C. Dennett) is that they harp too much on religion and not enough on God. It is easy to focus on the silliness and the shameful record of religions, but neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth agreed with such criticism: he insisted that Christianity, like other religions, stood under judgment of the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and that it very often failed the test. This didn’t, however, mean that there is no God. This is how Barth was able to write an introduction to Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity in which Feuerbach demonstrates the self-centered wishful thinking underlying the Christian religion. Barth agreed with him. Away with all that so as to clear the field for the real revelation of God in Jesus Christ! Bugliosi doesn’t go that far, but he, too, warns that to disprove religion is not to disprove God, which he thinks one cannot do in any case.
Strangely, Bugliosi comes pretty close to repeating the same error when he devotes most of the book, and most of his vitriol, to the flaws of one particular religion: Christianity. (He attached a quick chapter on the other major religions, but it comes across as an afterthought.) We may be sure beyond reasonable doubt that the God of Christianity (and of Judaism for that matter, when the Old Testament comes up for discussion) does not exist—even cannot exist—because he is a walking, talking contradiction in terms: a god of infinite love, mercy, and justice who commands the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents (millions, in Noah’s flood), stands idly by when millions of Jews are turned to ashes and lampshades, and pledges to send everyone to hell who does not “accept Jesus as savior.”
Bugliosi’s style is caustically funny, and he pulls no punches, describing this and that major Christian tenet as “idiotic,” “lunatic,” and “mad.” And he backs it up. The book has a bracing, frank commonsense tone. Throughout the book resounds the note: Christian believer, you have no right to define God in your own moral and logical terms as long as it carries your theology forward, only to retreat into a fog of contented intellectual laziness when your belief crashes like a bumper car in an amusement park against the very same standards of ethics and reason you say you cherish. You finally give up and say, “Well, really God’s ways are unknowable to mortals, so I can’t answer your objection.” But that isn’t what you said a minute ago when you were telling me exactly what God thinks and wants me to do and believe. If you admit God is so inscrutable, you belong on my team—the agnostics!
Bugliosi has no trouble demonstrating the hopeless silliness of foundational doctrines like the atoning death of Jesus, the Trinity of the Godhead, and divine providence. He decimates the practice of prayer as objectively as if he were visiting from another planet whose inhabitants had never heard of it and cannot make sense of it. Indeed, he shows how Christian confidence virtually boils down to the boneheaded assumption that “our religion is true because we were born into it.”
The only god Bugliosi is willing to ad mit even might exist is the hands-off deity of deism. This rationalistic creed affirms a god who created the world to run like a machine according to mechanistic natural laws and gave human beings the brains to surmise moral truth, as well as God’s existence, without benefit of miracles or revelation. He gave them freedom and responsibility, so it is useless to try to pester him with prayers.
Such a transcendent god, Bugliosi reasons, might actually exist. If he did, it would explain where the first “singularity” came from before the Big Bang and how evolution eventually bridged the gap between bacteria and Bach. But Bugliosi dismisses intelligent-design creationism as ill-conceived. He tries his level best to recognize a good argument and a bad one wherever each occurs. He doesn’t want to claim that any argument proves (or disproves) more than it does. And that is why he prefers agnosticism: if God were provable, someone would have proven him long ago. But you never know!
You would know, however, if God were to take up Bugliosi on his challenge. If God wants to convince us he exists, why doesn’t he appear in the skies one night, announcing himself and informing the human race it has no more excuse to doubt him. But would that settle the question? I am by no means sure.
Let us see if we can go Bugliosi one better. Philosopher D.Z. Smith once raised the question of what it would take to convince a Viking warrior, waking up after a battle in wh
ich he had lost consciousness, that he had really arrived in Valhalla. How fancy, how transcendent would the feasting hall have to be to qualify? Or if you were a member of The 700 Club and one day Pat Robertson came on the air covering the Second Coming, with a radiant Jesus descending upon the Mount of Olives—would you automatically believe it? Even as a faithful believer in Armageddon and the Rapture, wouldn’t you find yourself wondering, “Wait a minute! Is this a trick? A movie? Special effects?” How “special” would it have to be to satisfy you? And then you would begin to wonder what you had expected it to be like.
I love an old Penthouse cartoon depicting two guys wrapped in dingy sheets and sitting on a splitting Naugahyde couch under a naked lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. On the wall tilts a cracked plaque emblazoned with the word Heaven. As he fingers his wire halo, one man says to the other, “Somehow I always thought it would be classier than this!”