Burying Nobodaddy: What is “God” even supposed to mean?


Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is. — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

The Divinest knowledge of God, which is received through Unknowing, is obtained in that communion which transcends the mind, when the mind, turning away from all things and then leaving even itself behind, is united to the Dazzling Rays, being from them and in them, illumined by the unsearchable depth of wisdom.

 — Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names

During that gloaming period between the medieval and the early modern, a group of inquisitors descended upon the Castilian town of Soira in the years between 1486 and 1500 in an attempt to investigate how widespread heresy was among the peasantry. Disturbed by the possibility that the copious population of conversos within that Iberian community may have been back-sliding into Judaism or Islam, the inquisitors tried to tabulate examples of blasphemy in Soira. As wasn’t uncommon among Marranos and Moriscos they discovered ostensible Catholics who abstained from pork, refused to work on the Sabbath, or avoided alcohol, but they also found something altogether more surprising. While playing a game of bowls in 1494, one Bernaldino Pajarillo shouted out in frustration: “I reject the whore of a God!” Seven years earlier, a draper identified only as Roderigo exclaimed in a similar attitude of game-based anger: “I don’t believe in God!”

Religious skepticism wasn’t limited to moments of the stubbed-toe variety, as recounted in John Edwards’s paper “Religious Faith and Doubt in Late Medieval Spain: Soira circa 1450–1500,” originally published in 1988 and appearing in the journal Past & Present, from which I’ve drawn these examples. More formal declarations of unbelief included a cleric named Diego Mexias of Aranda who stated that “there is nothing except being born and dying, and having a nice girlfriend and plenty to eat.” In 1494 another gentleman of Soira, Diego de Barrionuevo, said that “I swear to God that this hell and paradise is nothing more than a way of frightening us.” Edwards emphasizes that the “accused cover a wide social range,” including craftsmen, artisans, clerics, and scholars, as well as “a small number of tenant farmers.” He classified the variety of apostasy in Soira by noting that it included “blasphemy, which moved easily into humour and obscenity […] [and] materialistic views about this life and skepticism about an afterlife.”

What’s remarkable is the reaction of the inquisitors. When they encountered such doubts, they categorized them not as heresy, but as inaccuracy. Popular culture portrays the Middle Ages as times of grim despotism and zealous authoritarianism, and yet the Soira disbelievers were largely regarded with confusion rather than persecution. Such statements were understood as idiocy, foolishness, and absurdity. What they weren’t seen as, in an age permeated with the impossibility of not having faith, was particularly dangerous. When confronted with seeming actual atheism, and not just the bogeyman which that term rhetorically designated during the period, the Dominicans couldn’t even recognize what they had discovered among the populace. John H. Arnold notes in Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe that heresy “is always, in every circumstance, in the eye of the beholder,” and the inquisitors could recognize the statements of the Soira atheists as incorrect, muddled, even stupid, but not quite as heretical. Like the apocryphal story about the Australian aborigines unable to see Captain Cook’s armada upon the horizon because it matched nothing in their cognitive experience, so too did the inquisitors fail to identify atheism.

While it’s tempting to read the Soira skeptics as having embraced a modern materialist skepticism about God, it’s important not to project a post-Enlightenment atheism back onto them, even as there’s certainly an “emergent” quality to their thought (to borrow Raymond Williams’s language). If anything, their example confirms the sense of the medieval as a place dominated by religious faith, for when shown evidence of its opposite it’s not even recognized as such. The Dominicans feared not “Atheists” (other than in the sense which that word meant opposition to God), but Waldensians, Albigensians, and Hussites. Atheism may have been emotionally possible, but it was so far beyond the theological Overton Window of medieval thought that an encounter with an unbeliever would be a bit like talking to a skeptic of global capitalism in the year 2020. They may exist, but they don’t matter much. The religions of our respective eras are simply too all-consuming. If faith was the matrix by which the medieval mind organized itself, then declaring Christ to be a bastard, or a corpse to be feed for worms, was less dangerous than disagreeing that the Father was consubstantial with the Son. Living as we do in a “secular” era, it can be hard to conceive of how the minutia of doctrine dominated experience. Even de Barrionuevo made his statement of non-faith by recourse of swearing to God.

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