"As a rule, the New Atheists’ concept of God is simply that of some very immense and powerful being among other beings, who serves as the first cause of all other things only in the sense that he is prior to and larger than all other causes." So writes David Bentley Hart in his article "Believe it or Not", to be found here on the website of the magazine First Things. (When the article was originally published, it led to a "flame war" of angry comments from atheists which ran to the hundreds. It seems the comments have now been removed.)
Hart is expressing a frustration that is (I think) familiar to many religious believers in their discussion with atheists (and not just New Atheists, but civilized and emotionally mature atheists too). Time and again, we seem to run into the assumption that the idea of God is a rather bizarre one, an idea that had to come from somewhere-- from a "God of the gaps" attempt to explain the natural world, or from a distant ancestral memory of a tribal elder, or from some Freudian yearning for a father figure writ large. There is also the common assumption that the desire for God is a substitute for something else, a sublimation of the sexual urge or (in the Marxist view) an opium that should no longer be necessary when our material and cultural and intellectual needs are met, and when our social alienation is brought to an end. A fulfilling job, ample leisure, plenty of sex, and no social injustices to fret about-- and who would bother with praying anymore?
The hostility against religious education-- a form of abuse, as some of the more bullish New Atheists claim-- is that it takes innocent, healthy-minded, wonder-filled children and implants a mental virus in their brains. Without the interfence of some crafty Jesuit or vicar, we are to take it, they would be happy with bunsen burners and trips to the museum.
I find it incredible to think that anybody actually believes this stuff.
God is not an idea. God is the idea. The human mind-- surely any mind capable of conceptual thought-- inevitably moves to the idea of the primordial, the superlative, the ultimate, and God is that idea. God is the horizon of all ideas.
When a man looks at the light of dawn and is filled with a sense of beauty, it is only natural for him to wonder whether there is such a thing as Ultimate Beauty, something more beautiful than anything else, something more beautiful than anything else could be.
When a woman feels utterly happy and fulfilled-- say, she finds a new job and feels as though she is made for this job-- surely there is not bizarre to think that she might find herself pondering happiness and fulfilment, and wondering if there is a perfect and definitive happiness available to the human soul, and if that feeling of being meant for something might somewhere find a satisfaction that cannot be exceeded.
When I think about the nature of intelligence, it occurs to me that intelligence is an apprehension of reality. But it also occurs to me that the perfect intelligence would not be a mere apprehension of reality, but would in fact contain reality; there would be no gap between the truth and the thoughts.
If you think of thoughts as fishing lines, then for me, God is like the tug of a powerful fish at the end of every such fishing line. He is like the terminus of every train of thought.
The idea that the yearning for God is simply a sublimation of some other, cruder or more prosaic yearning, is laughable. Because even when all our animal needs and all our higher yearnings have been satisfied, if such a thing were possible, we would still feel a hunger for the transcendant, the sublime, the unbounded and unsurpassable-- what Saint Anselm famously described as "that than which nothing greater can be conceived."
But if you see in this yearning nothing more than a fantasy about some Mega-Alien, or a projection of some infantile libido, then perhaps you are not quite as advanced or intellectually adventurous as you think you are.