Definitions of God and the Motte-and-Bailey fallacy

Recently, I got involved in an online discussion about whether spirituality was compatible with atheism (see previous post Atheism and Spirituality) and foolishly did not clarify what the term “god” referred to. But it was clear from the general context that those arguing atheism was incompatible with spirituality were assuming spirituality required belief in God and were using a concept of God (singular) largely consistent with the standard Christian God who is conceived of as an eternal being who created the universe and life, and who is both transcendent (wholly independent of the material universe) and involved in the world.

In particular, most Christians seem to believe that God has laid down a set of moral rules to be followed, although they often disagree on what these are. God is usually conceived of as omnipotent and omniscient. Christians with modern religious values tend to see God as loving and benevolent, whereas those with pre-modern values tend to see God as someone who is jealous, to be feared and who punishes those who don’t follow his rules or worship him. Above all, the monotheistic God(s) are mostly seen by their followers as personal Gods. In contrast, many theologians and philosophers have conceptualized God as impersonal, not involved with material creation, or as congruent with the universe (pantheism) or with the Ground of Being.

In the online discussion I said:

“The complete lack of evidence for any god-like interference in the activities of the small corner of the universe I live in, or in the broader dynamics of the universe that can be detected from earth, is sufficient evidence for the lack of existence of the specific entities mentioned in major world religions. Silly attempts to redefine these entities as entirely different entities that are undetectable by humans or don’t have any interaction with humans can safely be ignored, as such entities have no relevance to either the claims of these religions or to my life.”

I received an angry reply from someone who accused me of insulting her by assuming she had a primitive conception of God, and I needed to educate myself about the true nature of God, as the ground and source of being. My reply:

“If you want to redefine your god as either “the ground of being” or “instant coffee granules” I am happy to believe your particular god exists, but I will immediately discount any and all claims that instant coffee granules care about sexual behaviour, orientation or reproductive choices, or a whole host of other issues.”

In the last few days, I came across a discussion of “God as the ground of being” which much better expressed my gut reaction that such definitions of God mean that the question of whether God exists becomes a nonsensical question. If God is equated with reality, the only question becomes “What is the nature of reality?” And in fact that is not what the vast majority of God believers actually mean by God and their belief in God.

Alex SL commented on the Crooked Timbers blog that the redefinition of God as the ground of being was a motte and bailey fallacy. This is a fallacy where an arguer conflates two positions which share some similarity. The motte position is easy to defend, but the bailey position is much more controversial. The arguer can claim that the bailey has not been refuted, because the critic refused to attack the motte. Alex SL illustrates how the redefinition of God is an example of this fallacy as follows:

Community worships a bearded guy on a cloud who helps them win football games and cures diseases if they pray enough. Sophisticated theologian ™ looks on, doesn’t correct them.
Atheist walks past and has a giggle.
Sophisticated theologian steps in and says, “you foolish, boorish atheist, you misunderstand completely how our religion works; we believe in an impersonal ground of being, nothing more.”
Atheist walks off.
Community goes back to praying to bearded man on cloud for personal health and fortune, uses holy book to justify bigotry against minorities, etc. Sophisticated theologian looks on, doesn’t correct them.

The redefinition of God (the motte) becomes defensible and difficult to refute to exactly the degree it then becomes meaningless and not what the vast majority of people understand the term god to mean, in other words it is not what any real-life discussion or concerns such as “will I persist after biological death” or “will god punish us if we don’t kill the heretics in our midst” are about (the bailey).