1. Definitions of “Atheism”
“Atheism” is typically defined in terms of “theism”. Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is often defined as “the belief that God exists”, but here “belief” means “something believed”. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If, however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The “a-” in “atheism” must be understood as negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of “without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).
This definition has the added virtue of making atheism a direct answer to one of the most important metaphysical questions in philosophy of religion, namely, “Is there a God?” There are only two possible direct answers to this question: “yes”, which is theism, and “no”, which is atheism. Answers like “I don’t know”, “no one knows”, “I don’t care”, “an affirmative answer has never been established”, or “the question is meaningless” are not direct answers to this question.
While identifying atheism with the metaphysical claim that there is no God (or that there are no gods) is particularly useful for doing philosophy, it is important to recognize that the term “atheism” is polysemous—i.e., it has more than one related meaning—even within philosophy. For example, many writers at least implicitly identify atheism with a positive metaphysical theory like naturalism or even materialism. Given this sense of the word, the meaning of “atheism” is not straightforwardly derived from the meaning of “theism”. While this might seem etymologically bizarre, perhaps a case can be made for the claim that something like (metaphysical) naturalism was originally labeled “atheism” only because of the cultural dominance of non-naturalist forms of theism, not because the view being labeled was nothing more than the denial of theism. On this view, there would have been atheists even if no theists ever existed—they just wouldn’t have been called “atheists”. (Baggini  suggests this line of thought, though his “official” definition is the standard metaphysical one.) Although this definition of “atheism” is a legitimate one, it is often accompanied by fallacious inferences from the (alleged) falsity or probable falsity of atheism (= naturalism) to the truth or probable truth of theism.
Departing even more radically from the norm in philosophy, a few philosophers and quite a few non-philosophers claim that “atheism” shouldn’t be defined as a proposition at all, even if theism is a proposition. Instead, “atheism” should be defined as a psychological state: the state of not believing in the existence of God (or gods). This view was famously proposed by the philosopher Antony Flew and arguably played a role in his (1972) defense of an alleged presumption of “atheism”. The editors of the Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Bullivant & Ruse 2013) also favor this definition and one of them, Stephen Bullivant (2013), defends it on grounds of scholarly utility. His argument is that this definition can best serve as an umbrella term for a wide variety of positions that have been identified with atheism. Scholars can then use adjectives like “strong” and “weak” to develop a taxonomy that differentiates various specific atheisms. Unfortunately, this argument overlooks the fact that, if atheism is defined as a psychological state, then no proposition can count as a form of atheism because a proposition is not a psychological state. This undermines his argument in defense of Flew’s definition; for it implies that what he calls “strong atheism”—the proposition (or belief in the sense of “something believed”) that there is no God—is not really a variety of atheism at all. In short, his proposed “umbrella” term leaves strong atheism out in the rain.
Although Flew’s definition of “atheism” fails as an umbrella term, it is certainly a legitimate definition in the sense that it reports how a significant number of people use the term. Again, there is more than one “correct” definition of “atheism”. The issue for philosophy is which definition is the most useful for scholarly or, more narrowly, philosophical purposes. In other contexts, of course, the issue of how to define “atheism” or “atheist” may look very different. For example, in some contexts the crucial issue may be which definition of “atheist” (as opposed to “atheism”) is the most useful politically, especially in light of the bigotry that those who identify as atheists face. The fact that there is strength in numbers may recommend a very inclusive definition of “atheist” that brings anyone who is not a theist into the fold. Having said that, one would think that it would further no good cause, political or otherwise, to attack fellow non-theists who do not identify as atheists simply because they choose to use the term “atheist” in some other, equally legitimate sense.
If atheism is usually and best understood in philosophy as the metaphysical claim that God does not exist, then what, one might wonder, should philosophers do with the popular term, “New Atheism”? Philosophers write articles on and have devoted journal issues (French & Wettstein 2013) to the New Atheism, but there is nothing close to a consensus on how that term should be defined. Fortunately, there is no real need for one, because the term “New Atheism” does not pick out some distinctive philosophical position or phenomenon. Instead, it is a popular label for a movement prominently represented by four authors—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—whose work is uniformly critical of religion, but beyond that appears to be unified only by timing and popularity. Further, one might question what is new about the New Atheism. The specific criticisms of religion and of arguments used to defend religion are not new. For example, an arguably more sophisticated and convincing version of Dawkins’ central atheistic argument can be found in Hume’s Dialogues (Wielenberg 2009). Also, while Dennett (2006) makes a passionate call for the scientific study of religion as a natural phenomenon, such study existed long before this call. Indeed, even the cognitive science of religion was well established by the 1990s, and the anthropology of religion can be traced back at least to the nineteenth century. Shifting from content to style, many are surprised by the militancy of some New Atheists, but there were plenty of aggressive atheists who were quite disrespectful to religion long before Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. (Dennett is not especially militant.) Finally, the stereotype that New Atheism is religious or quasi-religious or ideological in some unprecedented way is clearly a false one and one that New Atheists reject. (For elaboration of these points, see Zenk 2013.)
Another subcategory of atheism is “friendly atheism”, which William Rowe (1979) defines as the position that, although God does not exist, some (intellectually sophisticated) people are justified in believing that God exists. Rowe, a friendly atheist himself, contrasts friendly atheism with unfriendly atheism and indifferent atheism. Unfriendly atheism is the view that atheism is true and that no (sophisticated) theistic belief is justified. In spite of its highly misleading name, this view might be held by the friendliest, most open-minded and religiously tolerant person imaginable. Finally, although Rowe refers to “indifferent atheism” as a “position”, it is not a proposition but instead a psychological state, specifically, the state of being an atheist who is neither friendly nor unfriendly—that is, who neither believes that friendly atheism is true nor believes that unfriendly atheism is true.
Perhaps an even more interesting distinction is between pro-God atheism and anti-God atheism. A pro-God atheist like John Schellenberg (who coined the term) is someone who in some real sense loves God or at least the idea of God, who tries very hard to imagine what sorts of wonderful worlds such a being might create (instead of just assuming that such a being would create a world something like the world we observe), and who (at least partly) for that very reason believes that God does not exist. Such an atheist might be sympathetic to the following sentiments:
It is an insult to God to believe in God. For on the one hand it is to suppose that he has perpetrated acts of incalculable cruelty. On the other hand, it is to suppose that he has perversely given his human creatures an instrument—their intellect—which must inevitably lead them, if they are dispassionate and honest, to deny his existence. It is tempting to conclude that if he exists, it is the atheists and agnostics that he loves best, among those with any pretensions to education. For they are the ones who have taken him most seriously. (Strawson 1990)
By contrast, anti-God atheists like Thomas Nagel (1997: 130–131) find the whole idea of a God offensive and hence not only believe but also hope very much that no such being exists. Nagel is often called an “antitheist” (e.g., Kahane 2011), but that term is purposely avoided here, as it has many different senses (Kahane 2011: note 9). Also, in none of those senses is one required to be an atheist in order to be an antitheist, so antitheism is not a variety of atheism.
2. Definitions of “Agnosticism”
The terms “agnostic” and “agnosticism” were famously coined in the late nineteenth century by the English biologist, T.H. Huxley. He said that he originally
invented the word “Agnostic” to denote people who, like [himself], confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with the utmost confidence. (1884)
including of course the matter of God’s existence. He did not, however, define “agnosticism” simply as the state of being an agnostic. Instead, he often used that term to refer to a normative epistemological principle, something similar to (though weaker than) what we now call “evidentialism”. Roughly, Huxley’s principle says that it is wrong to say that one knows or believes that a proposition is true without logically satisfactory evidence (Huxley 1884 and 1889). But it was Huxley’s application of this principle to theistic and atheistic belief that ultimately had the greatest influence on the meaning of the term. He argued that, since neither of those beliefs is adequately supported by evidence, we ought to suspend judgment on the issue of whether or not there is a God.
Nowadays, the term “agnostic” is often used (when the issue is God’s existence) to refer to those who follow the recommendation expressed in the conclusion of Huxley’s argument: an agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there is a God but believes neither that it is true nor that it is false. Not surprisingly, then, the term “agnosticism” is often defined, both in and outside of philosophy, not as a principle or any other sort of proposition but instead as the psychological state of being an agnostic. Call this the “psychological” sense of the term. It is certainly useful to have a term to refer to people who are neither theists nor atheists, but philosophers might wish that some other term besides “agnostic” (“theological skeptic”, perhaps?) were used. The problem is that it is also very useful for philosophical purposes to have a name for the epistemological position that follows from the premise of Huxley’s argument, the position that neither theism nor atheism is known, or most ambitiously, that neither the belief that God exists nor the belief that God does not exist has positive epistemic status of any sort. Just as the metaphysical question of God’s existence is central to philosophy of religion, so too is the epistemological question of whether or not theism or atheism is known or has some other sort of positive epistemic status. And given the etymology of “agnostic”, what better term could there be for a negative answer to that epistemological question than “agnosticism”? Further, as suggested earlier, it is, for very good reason, typical in philosophy to use the suffix “-ism” to refer to a proposition instead of to a state or condition, since only the former can sensibly be tested by argument.
If, however, “agnosticism” is defined as a proposition, then “agnostic” must be defined in terms of “agnosticism” instead of the other way around. Specifically, “agnostic” must be defined as a person who believes that the proposition “agnosticism” is true instead of “agnosticism” being defined as the state of being an agnostic. And if the proposition in question is that neither theism nor atheism is known to be true, then the term “agnostic” can no longer serve as a label for those who are neither theists nor atheists since one can consistently believe that atheism (or theism) is true while denying that atheism (or theism) is known to be true.
When used in this epistemological sense, the term “agnosticism” can very naturally be extended beyond the issue of what is or can be known to cover a large family of positions, depending on what sort of “positive epistemic status” is at issue. For example, it might be identified with any of the following positions: that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief is justified, that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief is rationally required, that neither belief is rationally permissible, that neither has warrant, that neither is reasonable, or that neither is probable. Also, in order to avoid the vexed issue of the nature of knowledge, one can simply distinguish as distinct members of the “agnosticism family” each of the following claims about intellectually sophisticated people: (i) neither theism nor atheism is adequately supported by the internal states of such people, (ii) neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief coheres with the rest of their beliefs, (iii) neither theistic nor atheistic belief results from reliable belief-producing processes, (iv) neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief results from faculties aimed at truth that are functioning properly in an appropriate environment, and so on.
Notice too that, even if agnosticism were defined as the rather extreme position that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief ever has positive epistemic status of any sort, it wouldn’t follow by definition that no agnostic is either a theist or an atheist. Some fideists, for example, believe that neither atheistic belief nor theistic belief is supported or sanctioned in any way at all by reason because reason leaves the matter of God’s existence completely unresolved. Yet they have faith that God exists and such faith (at least in some cases) involves belief. Thus, some fideists are extreme agnostics in the epistemological sense even though they are not agnostics in the psychological sense.
It is also worth mentioning that, even in Huxley’s time, some apophatic theists embraced the term “agnostic”, claiming that all good Christians worshipped an “unknown God”. More recently, some atheists proudly call themselves “agnostic atheists”, although with further reflection the symmetry between this position and fideism might give them pause. More likely, though, what is being claimed by these self-identified agnostic atheists is that, while their belief that God does not exist has positive epistemic status of some sort (minimally, it is not irrational), it does not have the sort of positive epistemic status that can turn true belief into knowledge.
No doubt both senses of “agnosticism”, the psychological and the epistemological, will continue to be used both inside and outside of philosophy. Hopefully, context will help to disambiguate. In the remainder of this entry, however, the term “agnosticism” will be used in its epistemological sense. This makes a huge difference to the issue of justification. Consider, for example, this passage written by the agnostic, Anthony Kenny (1983: 84–85):
I do not myself know of any argument for the existence of God which I find convincing; in all of them I think I can find flaws. Equally, I do not know of any argument against the existence of God which is totally convincing; in the arguments I know against the existence of God I can equally find flaws. So that my own position on the existence of God is agnostic.
It is one thing to ask whether Kenny’s inability to find arguments that convince him of God’s existence or non-existence justifies him personally in suspending judgment about the existence of God. It is quite another to ask whether this inability (or anything else) would justify his believing that no one (or at least no one who is sufficiently intelligent and well-informed) has a justified belief about God’s existence.
If agnosticism (in one sense of the word) is the position that neither theism nor atheism is known, then it might be useful to use the term “gnosticism” to refer to the contradictory of that position, that is, to the position that either theism or atheism is known. That view would, of course, come in two flavors: theistic gnosticism—the view that theism is known (and hence atheism is not)—and atheistic gnosticism—the view that atheism is known (and hence theism is not).
3. Global Atheism Versus Local Atheisms
Jeanine Diller (2016) points out that, just as most theists have a particular concept of God in mind when they assert that God exists, most atheists have a particular concept of God in mind when they assert that God does not exist. Indeed, many atheists are only vaguely aware of the variety of concepts of God that there are. For example, there are the Gods of classical and neo-classical theism: the Anselmian God, for instance, or, more modestly, the all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good creator-God that receives so much attention in contemporary philosophy of religion. There are also the Gods of specific Western theistic religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism, which may or may not be best understood as classical or neo-classical Gods. There are also panentheistic and process theistic Gods, as well as a variety of other God-concepts, both of Western and non-Western origin, that are largely ignored by even the most well-informed atheists. (Philosophically sophisticated theists, for their part, often act as if refuting naturalism establishes the existence of the particular sort of God in which they believe.) Diller distinguishes local atheism, which denies the existence of one sort of God, from global atheism, which is the proposition that there are no Gods of any sort—that all legitimate concepts of God lack instances.
Global atheism is a very difficult position to justify (Diller 2016: 11–16). Indeed, very few atheists have any good reason to believe that it is true since the vast majority of atheists have made no attempt to reflect on more than one or two of the many legitimate concepts of God that exist both inside and outside of various religious communities. Nor have they reflected on what criteria must be satisfied in order for a concept of God to count as “legitimate”, let alone on the possibility of legitimate God concepts that have not yet been conceived and on the implications of that possibility for the issue of whether or not global atheism is justified. Furthermore, the most ambitious atheistic arguments popular with philosophers, which attempt to show that the concept of God is incoherent or that God’s existence is logically incompatible either with the existence of certain sorts of evil or with the existence of certain sorts of non-belief [Schellenberg 2007]), certainly won’t suffice to justify global atheism; for even if they are sound, they assume that to be God a being must be omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good, and as the character Cleanthes points out at the beginning of Part XI of Hume’s Dialogues (see also Nagasawa 2008), there are religiously adequate God-concepts that don’t require God to have those attributes.
Global atheists might object that, even if atheism and (metaphysical) naturalism are not identical, a belief in the former can be based on a belief in the latter; in other words, if one has good arguments for the view that nature is a closed system, then that removes any burden to consider each God-concept separately, so long as all legitimate concepts of God imply that God is a supernatural entity—that is, an entity that is not natural, yet affects nature. Whether or not this strategy for justifying global atheism works depends on whether it is possible to define “naturalism” narrowly enough to imply the non-existence of all Gods but not so narrowly that no convincing arguments can be given for its truth. This is no easy task, especially given recent work on naturalist forms of theism (e.g., Bishop 2008; Buckareff & Nagasawa 2016: Part V; Diller & Kasher 2013: Part X; and Ellis 2014). Nor is it obvious that evidential arguments from evil can be extended to cover all legitimate God concepts, though if all genuine theisms entail that ultimate reality is both aligned with the good and salvific (in some religiously adequate sense of “ultimate” and “salvific”), then perhaps they can. The crucial point, however, is that no one has yet made that case.
Concerning the issue of what exactly counts as a legitimate or religiously adequate concept of God, various approaches might be taken. One general strategy is to identify the religious role or roles that anything deserving of the name or title “God” must play and then distinguish legitimate or illegitimate concepts of God depending on whether anything falling under the concept in question could or would successfully play that role. (See, for example, Le Poidevin 2010: 52; and Leftow 2016: 66–71.)
A second approach (compatible with the first) assumes plausibly that the word “God” is a title instead of a proper name and then asks what qualifications are required to bear that title (Pike 1970). The fact that most titles indicate either rank or function suggests that the meaning of “God” has something to do either with occupying a position in a hierarchy or performing some function. For example, the common dictionary definition of “God” as the Supreme Being and the Anselmian idea of God as the greatest possible being suggest that the title “God” is rank-indicating, while the definition of “God” as “ruler of the universe” fits well with the view that “God” is function-indicating and explains why the ordinary class noun, “god”, might be defined as “ruler of some part of the universe or of some sphere of human activity” (e.g., Neptune, god of the sea, and Mars, god of war).
A third approach (compatible with the first two) is to start from the close connection in meaning between “God” and “worship”. Worship appears to be essential to theistic religions and thus an essential role that any being must play to qualify for the title “God” is to be an appropriate object of worship. Indeed, although there is risk of circularity here if “worship” is defined in terms of the actions or attitudes appropriately directed towards “God”, it would not be obviously mistaken to claim that being worthy of some form of religious worship is not just necessary for divinity but sufficient as well, especially if worthiness of worship entails worthiness of allegiance. Of course, forms of worship vary widely from one religion to another, so even if worthiness of worship is the sole defining feature of a God, that doesn’t mean that beliefs about what these Gods are like won’t vary widely from one religion to another. In some religions, especially (but not only) certain Western monotheistic ones, worship involves total devotion and unconditional commitment. To be worthy of that sort of worship (if that is even possible when the pool of potential worshipers are autonomous agents like most adult humans) requires an especially impressive God, though it is controversial whether or not it requires a perfect one.
If the ambiguity that results from defining “God” in terms of worthiness of worship is virtuous, then one might be tempted to adopt the following account of global atheism and its opposite, “versatile theism”:
global atheism: there are no beings worthy of religious worship.
versatile theism: there exists at least one being that is worthy of some form of religious worship.
Notice that on this account of “global atheism”, the atheist only denies the existence of beings that are worthy of worship. Thus, not even a global atheist is committed to denying the existence of everything that someone has called a god or “God”. For example, even if the ancient Egyptians worshipped the Sun and regarded it as worthy of such worship, the global atheist need not deny the existence of the Sun. Instead, the global atheist can claim that the ancient Egyptians were mistaken in thinking that the Sun is worthy of religious worship.
Similarly, consider this passage at the beginning of Section XI of David Hume’s Natural History of Religion:
If we examine, without prejudice, the ancient heathen mythology, as contained in the poets, we shall not discover in it any such monstrous absurdity, as we may at first be apt to apprehend. Where is the difficulty in conceiving, that the same powers or principles, whatever they were, which formed this visible world, men and animals, produced also a species of intelligent creatures, of more refined substance and greater authority than the rest? That these creatures may be capricious, revengeful, passionate, voluptuous, is easily conceived; nor is any circumstance more apt, among ourselves, to engender such vices, than the license of absolute authority. And in short, the whole mythological system is so natural, that, in the vast variety of planets and world[s], contained in this universe, it seems more than probable, that, somewhere or other, it is really carried into execution. (Hume  1956: 53, emphasis added)
There is much debate about whether Hume was an atheist or a deist or neither, but no one uses this passage to support the view that he was actually a polytheist. Perhaps this is because, even if there are natural alien beings that, much like the ancient Greek and Roman gods, are far superior in power to humans but quite similar in their moral and other psychological qualities, presumably no one, at least nowadays, would be tempted to regard them as worthy of religious worship.
One possible flaw in the proposed account of global atheism is that it seems to imply overlap between deism and atheism. Of course, it wasn’t that long ago when all deists were widely regarded as atheists. These days, however, the term “deistic atheist” or “atheistic deist” has an oxymoronic ring to it. Of course, not all deists would count as atheists on the proposed account, but some would. For example, consider a deist who believes that, while a supernatural person intentionally designed the universe, that deity did not specifically intend for intelligent life to evolve and has no interest whatsoever in the condition or fate of such life. Such a deity would not be worthy of anyone’s worship, especially if worthiness of worship entails worthiness of allegiance, and so would arguably not be a (theistic) god, which implies that an atheist could on the proposed definition consistently believe in the existence of such a deity. Perhaps, then, “global atheism” should be defined as the position that both versatile theism and (versatile) deism are false—that there are no beings worthy of religious worship and also no cosmic creators or intelligent designers whether worthy of worship (and allegiance) or not. Even this account of “global atheism”, however, may not be sufficiently inclusive since there are religious roles closely associated with the title “God” (and thus arguably legitimate notions of God) that could be played by something that is neither an appropriate object of worship nor a cosmic designer or creator.
4. An Argument for Agnosticism
According to one relatively modest form of agnosticism, neither versatile theism nor its denial, global atheism, is known to be true. Robin Le Poidevin (2010: 76) argues for this position as follows:
- (1)There is no firm basis upon which to judge that theism or atheism is intrinsically more probable than the other.
- (2)There is no firm basis upon which to judge that the total evidence favors theism or atheism over the other.
- (3)There is no firm basis upon which to judge that theism or atheism is more probable than the other.
- (4)Agnosticism is true: neither theism nor atheism is known to be true.
Le Poidevin takes “theism” in its broadest sense (which I call to refer to the proposition that there exists a being that is the ultimate and intentional cause of the universe’s existence and the ultimate source of love and moral knowledge (2010: 52). (He doesn’t use the term “versatile theism”, but this would be his account of its meaning.) By the “intrinsic probability” of a proposition, he means, roughly, the probability that a proposition has “before the evidence starts to come in” (2010: 49). This probability depends solely on a priori considerations like the intrinsic features of the content of the proposition in question (e.g., the size of that content).
Le Poidevin defends the first premise of this argument by stating that, while intrinsic probability plausibly depends inversely on the specificity of a claim (the less specific the claim, the more ways there are for it to be true and so the more probable it is that it is true), it is impossible to show that versatile theism is more specific or less specific than its denial. This defense appears to be incomplete, for Le Poidevin never shows that the intrinsic probability of a proposition depends only on its specificity, and there are good reasons to believe that this is not the case (see, for example, Swinburne 2001: 80–102). Le Poidevin could respond, however, that specificity is the only uncontroversial criterion of intrinsic probability, and this lack of consensus on other criteria is all that is needed to adequately defend premise (1).
One way to defend the second premise is to review the relevant evidence and argue that it is ambiguous (Le Poidevin 2010: chapter 4; and Draper 2002). Another way is to point out that atheism, which is just the proposition that theism is false, is compatible with a variety of very different hypotheses, and these hypotheses vary widely in how well they account for the total evidence. Thus, to assess how well atheism accounts for the total evidence, one would have to calculate a weighted average of how well these different atheistic hypotheses account for the total evidence, where the weights would be the different intrinsic probabilities of each of these atheistic hypotheses. This task seems prohibitively difficult (Draper 2016) and in any case has not been attempted, which supports the claim that there is no firm basis upon which to judge whether the total evidence supports theism or atheism.
So-called “Reformed epistemologists” (e.g., Plantinga 2000) might challenge the second premise of the argument on the grounds that many beliefs about God, like many beliefs about the past, are “properly basic”—a result of the functioning of a basic cognitive faculty called the “sensus divinitatis”—and so are, in effect, a part of the total evidence with respect to which the probability of any statement depends. The agnostic, however, might reply that this sense of the divine, unlike memory, operates at most sporadically and far from universally. Also, unlike other basic cognitive faculties, it can easily be resisted, and the existence of the beliefs it is supposed to produce can easily be explained without supposing that the faculty exists at all. Thus, the analogy to memory is weak. Therefore, in the absence of some firmer basis upon which to judge that beliefs about God are properly a part of the foundation of some theists’ belief systems, premise (2) stands.
Of course, even if the two premises of Le Poidevin’s argument are true, it doesn’t follow that the argument is a good one. For the argument also contains two inferences (from steps 1 and 2 to step 3 and from step 3 to step 4), neither of which is obviously correct. Concerning the first inference, suppose, for example, that even though there is no firm basis upon which to judge which of theism and atheism is intrinsically more probable (that is, Le Poidevin’s first premise is true), there is firm basis upon which to judge that theism is not many times more probable intrinsically than some specific version of atheism, say, reductive physicalism. And suppose that, even though there is no firm basis upon which to judge which of theism and atheism is favored by the total evidence (that is, Le Poidevin’s second premise is true), there is firm basis upon which to judge that the total evidence very strongly favors reductive physicalism over theism (in the sense that it is antecedently very many times more probable given reductive physicalism than it is given theism). Then it follows that both of Le Poidevin’s premises are true and yet (3) is false: there is a firm basis (that includes the odds version of Bayes’ theorem applied to theism and reductive physicalism instead of to theism and atheism) to judge that reductive physicalism is more probable or even many times more probable than theism and hence that theism is probably or even very probably false. Arguably, no similar strategy could be used to show that theism is probably true in spite of Le Poidevin’s premises both being true. So it may be that Le Poidevin’s premises, if adequately supported, establish that theistic gnosticism is false (that is, that either agnosticism or atheistic gnosticism is true) even if they don’t establish that agnosticism is true.
5. An Argument for Global Atheism?
Almost all well-known arguments for atheism are arguments for a particular version of local atheism. One possible exception to this rule is an argument recently made popular by some New Atheists, although it was not invented by them. Gary Gutting (2013) calls this argument the “no arguments argument” for atheism:
- (1)The absence of good reasons to believe that God exists is itself a good reason to believe that God does not exist.
- (2)There is no good reason to believe that God exists.
- (3)There is good reason to believe that God does not exist.
Notice the obvious relevance of this argument to agnosticism. According to one prominent member of the agnosticism family, we have no good reason to believe that God exists and no good reason to believe that God does not exist. Clearly, if the first premise of this argument is true, then this version of agnosticism must be false.
Can the no arguments argument be construed as an argument for global atheism? One might object that it is not, strictly speaking, an argument for any sort of atheism since its conclusion is not that atheism is true but instead that there is good reason to believe that atheism is true. But that is just a quibble. Ultimately, whether this argument can be used to defend global atheism depends on how its first premise is defended.
The usual way of defending it is to derive it from some general principle according to which lacking grounds for claims of a certain sort is good reason to reject those claims. The restriction of this principle to claims “of a certain sort” is crucial, since the principle that the absence of grounds for a claim is in all cases a good reason to believe that the claim is false is rather obviously false. One might, for example, lack grounds for believing that the next time one flips a coin it will come up heads, but that is not a good reason to believe that it won’t come up heads.
A more promising approach restricts the principle to existence claims, thereby turning it into a version of Ockham’s razor. According to this version of the principle, the absence of grounds supporting a positive existential statement (like “God exists”—however “God” is understood) is a good reason to believe that the statement is false (McLaughlin 1984). One objection to this principle is that not every sort of thing is such that, if it existed, then we would likely have good reason to believe that it exists. Consider, for example, intelligent life in distant galaxies (cf. Morris 1985).
Perhaps, however, an even more narrowly restricted principle would do the trick: whenever the assumption that a positive existential claim is true would lead one to expect to have grounds for its truth, the absence of such grounds is a good reason to believe that the claim is false. It might then be argued that (i) a God would be likely to provide us with convincing evidence of Her existence and so (ii) the absence of such evidence is a good reason to believe that God does not exist. This transforms the no arguments argument into an argument from divine hiddenness. It also transforms it into at best an argument for local atheism, since even if the God of, say, classical theism would not hide, not all legitimate God-concepts are such that a being instantiating that concept would be likely to provide us with convincing evidence of its existence.
6. Two Arguments for Local Atheism
6.1 How to Argue for Local Atheism
The sort of God in whose non-existence philosophers seem most interested is the eternal, non-physical, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent (i.e., morally perfect) creator-God worshipped by many theologically orthodox Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Let’s call the proposition that a God of this sort exists “omni-theism”. One interesting question, then, is how best to argue for atheism understood locally as the proposition that omni-theism is false.
It is often claimed that a good argument for atheism is impossible because, while it is at least possible to prove that something of a certain sort exists, it is impossible to prove that nothing of that sort exists. One reason to reject this claim is that the descriptions of some kinds of objects are self-contradictory. For example, we can prove that no circular square exists because such an object would have to be both circular and non-circular, which is impossible. Thus, one way to argue for the nonexistence of the God of omni-theism (or “omni-God” for short) is to argue that such a God is an impossible object like a circular square.
Many attempts have been made to construct such arguments. For example, it has been claimed that an omnibenevolent being would be impeccable and so incapable of wrongdoing, while an omnipotent being would be quite capable of doing things that would be wrong to do. There are, however, sophisticated and plausible replies to arguments like these. More importantly, even if such an argument succeeded, omni-theists could plausibly claim that, by “omnipotent”, they mean, not maximally powerful, but optimally powerful, where the optimal degree of power may not be maximal if maximal power rules out possessing the optimal degree of some other perfection like moral goodness.
Similar problems face attempts to show that omni-theism must be false because it is incompatible with certain known facts about the world. Such arguments typically depend on detailed and contested interpretations of divine attributes like omnibenevolence.
A very different approach is based on the idea that disproof need not be demonstrative. The goal of this approach is to show that the existence of an omni-God is so improbable that confident belief in the non-existence of such a God is justified. Two such arguments are discussed in detail below: the “low priors argument” and the “decisive evidence argument”. Each of these arguments employs the same specific strategy, which is to argue that some alternative hypothesis to omni-theism is many times more probable than omni-theism. This doesn’t imply that the alternative hypothesis is probably true, but it does imply that omni-theism is very probably false. In the case of the second argument, the alternative hypothesis (aesthetic deism) is arguably a form of theism, and even in the case of the first argument it is arguable that the alternative hypothesis (source physicalism) is compatible with some forms of theism (in particular ones in which God is an emergent entity). This is not a problem for either argument, however, precisely because both are arguments for local atheism instead of global atheism.
6.2 The Low Priors Argument
The basic idea behind the low priors argument is that, even if the agnostic is right that, when it comes to God’s existence, the evidence is ambiguous or absent altogether, what follows is not that theism has a middling probability all things considered, but instead that theism is very probably false. This is said to follow because theism starts out with a very low probability before taking into account any evidence. (“Evidence” in this context refers to factors extrinsic to a hypothesis that raise or lower its probability.) Since ambiguous or absent evidence has no effect on that prior or intrinsic probability, the posterior or all-things-considered probability of theism is also very low. If, however, theism is very probably false, then atheism must be very probably true and this implies (according to the defender of the argument) that atheistic belief is justified. (This last alleged implication is examined in section 7.)
This sort of argument is very relevant to the issue of which of atheism and theism is the appropriate “default” position. If theism has a sufficiently low intrinsic probability, then atheism is arguably the correct default position in the sense that ambiguous or absent evidence will justify, not suspending judgment on the issue of God’s existence, but instead believing that God does not exist. This is why Le Poidevin’s argument for agnosticism includes, not just a premise asserting that the relevant evidence is ambiguous, but also one asserting that, at least in the case of versatile theism, we are in the dark when it comes to the issue of which of theism and atheism has a higher intrinsic probability. Unfortunately, much discussion of the issue of which position is the correct “default position” or of who has the “burden of proof” gets sidetracked by bad analogies to Santa Claus, flying spaghetti monsters, and Bertrand Russell’s ( 1997) famous china teapot in elliptical orbit around the sun (see Garvey 2010 and van Inwagen 2012 for criticism of some of these analogies). The low priors argument implicitly addresses this important issue in a much more sophisticated and promising way.
In the version of the low priors argument formulated below, the basic approach described above is improved by comparing omni-theism, not simply to its denial, but instead to a more specific atheistic hypothesis called “source physicalism”. Unlike ontological physicalism, source physicalism is a claim about the source of mental entities, not about their nature. Source physicalists, whether they are ontological physicalists or ontological dualists, believe that the physical world existed before the mental world and caused the mental world to come into existence, which implies that all mental entities are causally dependent on physical entities. Further, even if they are ontological dualists, source physicalists need not claim that mental entities never cause physical entities or other mental entities, but they must claim that there would be no mental entities were it not for the prior existence (and causal powers) of one or more physical entities. The argument proceeds as follows:
- (1)The total evidence does not favor omni-theism over source physicalism.
- (2)Source physicalism is many times more probable intrinsically than omni-theism.
- (3)Source physicalism is many times more probable than omni-theism.
- (4)Omni-theism is very probably false.
- (5)Atheism (understood here as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably true.
Only the argument’s two premises—steps (1) and (2)—are controversial. The other steps in the argument all clearly follow from previous steps.
A thorough examination of the arguments for and against premise (1) is obviously impossible here, but it is worth mentioning that a defense of this premise need not claim that the known facts typically thought by natural theologians to favor omni-theism over competing hypotheses like source physicalism have no force. Instead, it could be claimed that whatever force they have is offset at least to some significant degree by more specific facts favoring source physicalism over omni-theism. Natural theologians routinely ignore these more specific facts and thus appear to commit what might be called “the fallacy of understated evidence”. More precisely, the point is this. Even when natural theologians successfully identify some general fact about a topic that is more probable given omni-theism than given source physicalism, they ignore other more specific facts about that same topic, facts that, given the general fact, appear to be significantly more probable given source physicalism than given omni-theism.
For example, even if omni-theism is supported by the general fact that the universe is complex, one should not ignore the more specific fact, discovered by scientists, that underlying this complexity at the level at which we experience the universe, is a much simpler early universe from which this complexity arose, and also a much simpler contemporary universe at the micro-level, one consisting of a relatively small number of different kinds of particles all of which exist in one of a relatively small number of different states. In short, it is important to take into account, not just the general fact that the universe that we directly experience with our senses is extremely complex, but also the more specific fact that two sorts of hidden simplicity within the universe can explain that complexity. Given that a complex universe exists, this more specific fact is exactly what one would expect on source physicalism, because, as the best natural theologians (e.g., Swinburne 2004) say, the complexity of the universe cries out for explanation in terms of something simpler. There is, however, no reason at all to expect this more specific fact on omni-theism since, if those same natural theologians are correct, then a simple God provides a simple explanation for the observed complexity of the universe whether or not that complexity is also explained by any simpler mediate physical causes.
Another example concerns consciousness. Its existence really does seem to be more likely given omni-theism than given source physicalism (and thus to raise the ratio of the probability of omni-theism to the probability of source physicalism). But we know a lot more about consciousness than just that it exists. We also know, thanks in part to the relatively new discipline of neuroscience, that conscious states in general and even the very integrity of our personalities, not to mention the apparent unity of the self, are dependent to a very high degree on physical events occurring in the brain. Given the general fact that consciousness exists, we have reason on source physicalism that we do not have on theism to expect these more specific facts. Given theism, it would not be surprising at all if our minds were more independent of the brain than they in fact are. After all, if omni-theism is true, then at least one mind, God’s, does not depend at all on anything physical. Thus, when the available evidence about consciousness is fully stated, it is far from clear that it significantly favors omni-theism.
Similar problems threaten to undermine appeals to fine-tuning—that is, appeals to the fact that a number of apparently independent physical parameters have values that, while not fixed by current physical theory, nevertheless happen to fall within a relatively narrow “life-permitting” range assuming no changes to other parameters. Arguably, given that fine-tuning is required for intelligent life and that an omni-God has reason to create intelligent life, we have more reason to expect fine-tuning on omni-theism than on source physicalism. Given such fine-tuning, however, it is far more surprising on omni-theism than on source physicalism that our universe is not teeming with intelligent life and that the most impressive intelligent organisms we know to exist are merely human: self-centered and aggressive primates who far too often kill, rape, and torture each other.
In fairness to omni-theism, however, most of those humans are moral agents and many have religious experiences apparently of God. The problem is that, while the existence of moral agents is “predicted” by omni-theism better than by source physicalism, it is also true that, given their existence, the variety and frequency of easily avoidable conditions that promote morally bad behavior and that severely limit the freedom, agency, and autonomy of countless human beings are much more likely on source physicalism. And while religious experiences apparently of God are no doubt more to be expected if an omni-God exists than if human beings are the product of blind physical forces, it is also true that, given that such experiences do occur, various facts about their distribution that should be surprising to theists are exactly what one would expect on source physicalism, such as the fact that many people never have them and the fact that those who do have them almost always have either a prior belief in God or extensive exposure to a theistic religion.
It seems, then, that when it comes to evidence favoring omni-theism over source physicalism, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Further, when combined with the fact that what we know about the level of well-being of sentient beings and the extent of their suffering is arguably vastly more probable on source physicalism than on theism, a very strong though admittedly controversial case for premise (1) can be made.
What about premise (2)? Again, a serious case can be made for its truth. Such a case first compares source physicalism, not to omni-theism, but to its opposite, source idealism. Source idealists believe that the mental world existed before the physical world and caused the physical world to come into existence. This view is consistent with both ontological idealism and ontological dualism, and also with physical entities having both physical and mental effects. It entails, however, that all physical entities are, ultimately, causally dependent on one or more mental entities, and so is not consistent with ontological physicalism. The symmetry of source physicalism and source idealism is a good pro tanto reason to believe they are equally probable intrinsically. They are equally specific, they have the same ontological commitments, neither can be formulated more elegantly than the other, and each appears to be equally coherent and equally intelligible. They differ on the issue of what is causally dependent on what, but if Hume is right and causal dependence relations can only be discovered by observation and not a priori, then that won’t affect the intrinsic probabilities of the two hypotheses.
Omni-theism, however, is a very specific version of source idealism; it entails that source idealism is true but goes far beyond source idealism by making a number of very specific claims about the sort of “mental world” that produced the physical world. For example, it adds the claim that a single mind created the physical universe and that this mind is not just powerful but specifically omnipotent and not just knowledgeable but specifically omniscient. In addition, it presupposes a number of controversial metaphysical and meta-ethical claims by asserting in addition that this being is both eternal and objectively morally perfect. If any of these specific claims and presuppositions is false, then omni-theism is false. Thus, omni-theism is a very specific and thus intrinsically very risky form of source idealism, and thus is many times less probable intrinsically than source idealism. Therefore, if, as argued above, source physicalism and source idealism are equally probable intrinsically, then it follows that premise (2) is true: source physicalism is many times more probable intrinsically than omni-theism.
6.3 The Decisive Evidence Argument
Notice that the general strategy of the particular version of the low priors argument discussed above is to find an alternative to omni-theism that is much less specific than omni-theism (and partly for that reason much more probable intrinsically), while at the same time having enough content of the right sort to fit the totality of the relevant data at least as well as theism does. In other words, the goal is to find a runner like source physicalism that begins the race with a large head start and thus wins by a large margin because it runs the race for supporting evidence and thus for probability at roughly the same speed as omni-theism does. This doesn’t show that source physicalism is probable (a “large margin” in this context means a large ratio of one probability to another, not a large difference between the probabilities), because there may be even better runners in the race; it does, however, show that omni-theism loses the race by a large margin and thus is very probably false.
An alternative strategy is to find a runner that begins the race tied with omni-theism, but runs the race for evidential support much faster than omni-theism does, thus once again winning the race by a margin that is sufficiently large for the rest of the argument to go through. A good name for an argument pursuing this second strategy is the “decisive evidence argument”. The choice of alternative hypothesis is crucial here just as it was in the low priors argument. One promising choice is “aesthetic deism”. (Another would be a more detailed version of source physicalism that, unlike source physicalism in general, makes the relevant data antecedently much more probable than theism does.) In order to help ensure that omni-theism and aesthetic deism begin the race at the same starting line—that is, have the same intrinsic probability—“aesthetic deism” is best defined in such a way that it is almost identical to omni-theism. Thus, it may be stipulated that, like omni-theism, aesthetic deism implies that an eternal, non-physical, omnipotent, and omniscient being created the physical world. The only difference, then, between the God of omni-theism and the deity of aesthetic deism is what motivates them. An omni-theistic God would be morally perfect and so strongly motivated by considerations of the well-being of sentient creatures. An aesthetic deistic God, on the other hand, would prioritize aesthetic goods over moral ones. While such a being would want a beautiful universe, perhaps the best metaphor here is not that of a cosmic artist, but instead that of a cosmic playwright: an author of nature who wants above all to write an interesting story.
As everyone knows, good stories never begin with the line “and they lived happily ever after”, and that line is the last line of any story that contains it. Further, containing such a line is hardly necessary for a story to be good. If aesthetic deism is true, then it may very well be true that, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (emphasis added). In any case, the hypothesis of aesthetic deism makes “predictions” about the condition of sentient beings in the world that are very different from the ones that the hypothesis of omni-theism makes. After all, what makes a good story good is often some intense struggle between good and evil, and all good stories contain some mixture of benefit and harm. This suggests that the observed mixture of good and evil in our world decisively favors aesthetic deism over omni-theism. And if that’s right, then aesthetic deism pulls far ahead of omni-theism in the race for probability, thereby proving that omni-theism is very improbable.
Here is one possible formulation of this argument:
- (1)Aesthetic deism is at least as probable intrinsically as omni-theism.
- (2)The total evidence excluding “the data of good and evil” does not favor omni-theism over aesthetic deism.
- (3)Given the total evidence excluding the data of good and evil, the data of good and evil strongly favor aesthetic deism over omni-theism.
- (4)Aesthetic deism is many times more probable than omni-theism.
- (5)Omni-theism is very probably false.
- (6)Atheism (understood here as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably true.
Steps (4)–(6) of this argument are the same as steps (3)–(5) of the low priors argument except that “source physicalism” in step (3) of the low priors argument is replaced by “aesthetic deism” in step (4) of the decisive evidence argument. This makes no difference as far as the inference from step (4) to step (5) is concerned. That inference, like the inferences from steps (1)–(3) to step (4) and from step (5) to step (6), is clearly correct. The key question, then, is whether premises (1), (2), and (3) are all true.
In spite of the nearly complete overlap between omni-theism and aesthetic deism, Richard Swinburne (2004: 96–109) would challenge premise (1) on the grounds that aesthetic deism, unlike omni-theism, must posit a bad desire to account for why the deity does not do what is morally best. Omni-theism need not do this, according to Swinburne, because what is morally best just is what is overall best, and thus an omniscient being will of necessity do what is morally best so long as it has no desires other than the desires it has simply by virtue of knowing what the best thing to do is in any given situation. This challenge depends, however, on a highly questionable motivational intellectualism: it succeeds only if merely believing that an action is good entails a desire to do it. On most theories of motivation, there is a logical gap between the intellect and desire. If such a gap exists, then it would seem that omni-theism is no more probable intrinsically than aesthetic deism.
It’s hard to think of a plausible challenge to premise (2) because, at least when it comes to the usual evidence taken to favor theism over competing hypotheses like naturalism, aesthetic deism accounts for that evidence at least as well as omni-theism does. For example, a deity interested in good narrative would want a world that is complex and yet ordered, that contains beauty, consciousness, intelligence, and moral agency. Perhaps there is more reason to expect the existence of libertarian free will on omni-theism than on aesthetic deism; but unless one starts from the truth of omni-theism, there seems to be little reason to believe that we have such freedom. And even if one takes seriously introspective or other non-theological evidence for libertarian free will, it is not difficult to construct a “de-odicy” here: a good explanation in terms of aesthetic deism either of the existence of libertarian free will or of why there is apparently strong but ultimately misleading evidence for its existence. For example, if open theists are right that not even an omniscient being can know with certainty what (libertarian) free choices will be made in the future, then aesthetic deism could account for libertarian free will and other sorts of indeterminacy by claiming that a story with genuine surprises is better than one that is completely predictable. Alternatively, what might be important for the story is only that the characters think they have free will, not that they really have it.
Finally, there is premise (3), which asserts that the data of good and evil decisively favors aesthetic deism over theism. In this context, the “data of good and evil” include everything we know about how sentient beings, including humans, are benefitted or harmed. A full discussion of this premise is not possible here, but recognition of its plausibility appears to be as old as the problem of evil itself. Consider, for example, the Book of Job, whose protagonist, a righteous man who suffers horrifically, accuses God of lacking sufficient commitment to the moral value of justice. The vast majority of commentators agree that God does not directly respond to Job’s charge. Instead, speaking out of the whirlwind, He describes His design of the cosmos and of the animal kingdom in a way clearly intended to emphasize His power and the grandeur of His creation. Were it not for theological worries about God’s moral perfection, the most natural interpretation of this part of the story would be either that God agrees with Job’s charge that He is unjust or that God denies that Job can sensibly apply terms like “just” and “unjust” to Him because He and Job are not members of any shared moral community (Morriston forthcoming; for an opposing view, see Stump 2010: chapter 9). This is why Job’s first response to God’s speech (before capitulating in his second response) is just to refuse to repeat his (unanswered) accusation. On this interpretation, the creator that confronts Job is not the God he expected and definitely not the God of omni-theism, but rather a being much more like the deity of aesthetic deism.
Those who claim that a God might allow evil because it is the inevitable result of the universe being governed by laws of nature also lend support, though unintentionally, to the idea that, if there is an author of nature, then that being is more likely motivated by aesthetic concerns than moral ones. For example, it may be that producing a universe governed by a few laws expressible as elegant mathematical equations is an impressive accomplishment, not just because of the wisdom and power required for such a task, but also because of the aesthetic value of such a universe. That value may very well depend, however, on the creator’s choosing not to intervene regularly in nature to protect His creatures from harm.
Much of the aesthetic value of the animal kingdom may also depend on its being the result of a long evolutionary process driven by mechanisms like natural selection. As Darwin (1859) famously said in the last lines of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
Unfortunately, such a process, if it is to produce sentient life, may also entail much suffering and countless early deaths. One questionable assumption of some natural order theodicists is to think that such connections between aesthetic goods and suffering provide a moral justification for God’s allowing horrific suffering. It is arguably far more plausible that in such a scenario the value of preventing horrendous suffering would, from a moral point of view, far outweigh the value of regularity, sublimity, and narrative. If so, then a morally perfect God would not trade the former for the latter though a deity motivated primarily by aesthetic reasons no doubt would.
To summarize, nearly everyone agrees that the world contains both goods and evils. Pleasure and pain, love and hate, achievement and failure, flourishing and languishing, and virtue and vice all exist in great abundance. In spite of that, some see signs of cosmic teleology. Those who defend the version of the decisive evidence argument stated above need not deny the teleology. They do need to show that it is far easier to make sense of the “strange mixture of good and ill, which appears in life” (Hume Dialogues, XI, 14) when that teleology is interpreted as amoral instead of as moral (cf. Mulgan 2015 and Murphy 2017) and in particular when it is interpreted as directed towards aesthetic ends instead of towards moral ends.
7. An Argument against Agnosticism
The topic in section 4 was Le Poidevin’s argument for the truth of a modest form of agnosticism. In this section, an argument for the falsity of a more ambitious form of agnosticism will be examined. Because the sort of agnosticism addressed in this section is more ambitious than the sort defended by Le Poidevin, it is conceivable that both arguments succeed in establishing their conclusions.
In Le Poidevin’s argument, the term “agnosticism” refers to the position that neither versatile theism nor global atheism is known to be true. In this section, “agnosticism” refers to the position that neither the belief that omni-theism is true nor the belief that it is false is rationally permissible. This form of agnosticism is more ambitious because knowledge is stronger (in the logical sense) than rational permissibility: it can be rationally permissible to believe propositions that are not known to be true, but a proposition cannot be known to be true by someone who is not rationally permitted to believe it. Thus, an appropriate name for this form of agnosticism is “strong agnosticism”.
Another difference concerns the object of the two forms of agnosticism. The agnosticism in Le Poidevin’s argument concerned versatile theism versus global atheism. In this section, the target is omni-theism versus the local atheistic position that omni-theism is false. The previous section focused on two arguments for the conclusion that this form of local atheism is very probably true. In this section, the question is whether or not that conclusion, if established, could ground a successful argument against strong agnosticism.
Such an argument can be formulated as follows:
- (1)Atheism (understood here as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably true.
- (2)If atheism is very probably true, then atheistic belief is rationally permissible.
- (3)Atheistic belief is rationally permissible.
- (4)If strong agnosticism (about omni-theism) is true (that is, if withholding judgment about the truth or falsity of omni-theism is rationally required), then atheistic belief is not rationally permissible.
- (5)Strong agnosticism (about omni-theism) is false.
Premise (1) was defended in section 6, premise (4) is true by the definition of “strong agnosticism”, and steps (3) and (5) follow from earlier steps by modus ponens and modus tollens, respectively. This leaves premise (2), the premise that, if atheism is very probably true, then atheistic belief is rationally permissible.
One might attempt to defend this premise by claiming that the probabilities in premise (2) are rational credences and hence the truth of the so-called Lockean thesis (Foley 1992) justifies (2):
It is rational for a person S to believe a proposition P if and only if it is rational for S’s credence in P to be sufficiently high to make S’s attitude towards P one of belief.
The Lockean thesis, however, is itself in need of justification. Fortunately, though, nothing so strong as the Lockean thesis is needed to defend premise (2). For one thing, all the defender of (2) needs is an “if”, not an “if and only if”. Also, the defender of (2) need not equate, as the Lockean thesis does, the attitude of belief with having a high credence. Thus, all that is required is the following more modest thesis (call it “T”):
- (T) If it is rationally permissible for S’s credence in a proposition P to be (very) high, then it is rationally permissible for S to believe P.
Even this more modest thesis, however, is controversial, because adopting it commits one to the position that rational (i.e., rationally permissible) belief is not closed under conjunction. In other words, it commits one to the position that it is possible for each of a number of beliefs to be rational even though the additional belief that those beliefs are all true is not rational.
To see why this is so, imagine that a million lottery tickets have been sold. Each player purchased only a single ticket, and exactly one of the players is certain to win. Now imagine further that an informed observer has a distinct belief about each of the million individual players that that particular player will lose. According to thesis T, each of those million beliefs is rational. For example, if Sue is one of the players, then according to T the observer’s belief that Sue will lose is rational because it is rational for the observer to have a (very) high credence in the proposition that Sue will lose. Since, however, it is certain that someone will win, it is also rational for the observer to believe that some player will win. It is not rational, however, to have contradictory beliefs, so it is not rational for the observer to believe that no player will win. This implies, however, that rational belief is not closed under conjunction, for the proposition that no player will win just is the conjunction of all of the propositions that say of some individual player that they will lose.
Defenders of premise (2) will claim, very plausibly, that the implication of T that rational belief is not closed under conjunction is completely innocuous. Isn’t it obvious, for example, that it would not be rational for a fallible human being to believe that all of their many beliefs are true, even if each of those beliefs were rational? Others (e.g., Oppy 1994: 151), however, regard the conclusion that rational belief is not closed under conjunction as unacceptable and will for that reason reject premise (2). So even if it can be shown that omni-theism is very probably false, it still won’t be obvious to everyone that it is rationally permissible to be a local atheist about omni-theism and thus it still won’t be obvious to everyone that strong agnosticism about omni-theism is false.
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- Foley, Richard, 1992, “The Epistemology of Belief and the Epistemology of Degrees of Belief”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 29(2): 111–121.
- French, Peter A. and Howard K. Wettstein (eds.), 2013, “Special Issue: The New Atheism and Its Critics”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 37(1).
- Garvey, Brian, 2010, “Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot”, Ars Disputandi, 10: 9–22.
- Gutting, Gary, 2013, “Religious Agnosticism”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 37(1): 51–67. doi:10.1111/misp.12002
- Hume, David,  1956, The Natural History of Religion, H.E. Root (ed.), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, originally published in 1757. [Hume 1757 available online (1889 edition)]
- –––,  2007, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Dorothy Coleman (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [References are to the part and paragraph number.]
- Huxley, Thomas Henry, 1884, “Agnosticism: A Symposium”, The Agnostic Annual, Charles Watts (ed.), pp. 5–6. [Huxley 1884 available online]
- –––, 1889, “Agnosticism and Christianity”, reprinted in his Collected Essays, Volume 5: Science and the Christian Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1894, pp. 309–365. [Huxley  1894 available online]
- Kahane, Guy, 2011, “Should We Want God to Exist?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 82(3): 674–696. doi:10.1111/j.1933-1592.2010.00426.x
- Kenny, Anthony, 1983, Faith and Reason, (Bampton lectures in America, no. 22), New York: Columbia University Press.
- Le Poidevin, Robin, 2010, Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/actrade/9780199575268.001.0001
- Leftow, Brian, 2016, “Naturalistic Pantheism”, in Buckareff and Nagasawa 2016: 64–87.
- McLaughlin, Robert, 1984, “Necessary agnosticism?” Analysis 44(4): 198–202. doi:10.1093/analys/44.4.198
- Morris, Thomas V., 1985, “Agnosticism”, Analysis 45(4): 219–224. doi:10.1093/analys/45.4.219
- Morriston, Wes, forthcoming, “Protest and Enlightenment in the Book of Job”, in Paul Draper and J.L. Schellenberg (eds.), Renewing Philosophy of Religion: Exploratory Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press, chap. 13.
- Mulgan, Tim, 2015, Purpose in the Universe: The Moral and Metaphysical Case for Ananthropocentric Purposivism, Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199646142.001.0001
- Murphy, Mark C., 2017, God’s Own Ethics: Norms of Divine Agency and the Argument from Evil, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Nagasawa, Yujin, 2008, “A New Defence of Anselmian Theism”, Philosophical Quarterly, 58(233): 577–596. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9213.2008.578.x
- Nagel, Thomas, 1997, The Last Word, Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/0195149831.001.0001
- Oppy, Graham, 1994, “Weak Agnosticism Defended”, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 36(3): 147–67. doi:10.1007/BF01316921
- Pike, Nelson, 1970, God and Timelessness, New York: Schocken Books.
- Plantinga, Alvin, 2000, Warranted Christian Belief, Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/0195131932.001.0001
- Rowe, William L., 1979, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”, American Philosophical Quarterly, 16(4): 335–341.
- Russell, Bertrand, 1997, “Is There a God? ”, in John G. Slater and Peter Köllner (eds.), The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943–68, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 542–548.
- Schellenberg, J.L., 2007, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
- Strawson, Galen, 1990, “Review of Created from Animals, by James Rachels”, The Independent, London, June 24.
- Stump, Eleonore, 2010, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering, Oxford: Clarendon Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199277421.001.0001
- Swinburne, Richard, 2001, Epistemic Justification, Oxford: Clarendon Press. doi:10.1093/0199243794.001.0001
- –––, 2004, The Existence of God, second edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199271672.001.0001
- van Inwagen, Peter, 2012, “Russell’s China Teapot”, in Dariusz Lukasiewicz and Roger Pouivet (eds.), The Right to Believe: Perspectives in Religious Epistemology, Heusenstamm: Ontos Verlag, pp. 11–26.
- Wielenberg, Erik J., 2009, “Dawkins’ Gambit, Hume’s Aroma, and God’s Simplicity”, Philosophia Christi, 11(1): 111–125.
- Zenk, Thomas, 2013, “New Atheism”, in Bullivant and Ruse 2013: 245–260.
The author is grateful to the students in his Fall 2016 seminar on atheism and agnosticism: John Absher, Matthew Fritz, Alžbeta Hájková, Vincent Jacobson, Daniel Linford, Adam Nuske, Bianca Oprea, and Luke Wilson. They contributed in a variety of ways to making this entry much better than it would otherwise have been. The author is also grateful to Jeanine Diller and Jeffrey Lowder for helpful comments on a preliminary draft of this entry.
by Ken Ammi
Published: 18 June 2009 (GMT+10)
For many other articles on this topic, see Atheism, agnosticism and humanism: godless religions—Questions and Answers
1. Definition of “Atheism”
There is confusion and debate about the term “atheism” and its definition.
The term “atheism” finds its etymology in the Greek combination of “a” and “theos”. What “atheos” means is, as with any term, subject to context (and perhaps personal interpretation). Note that if an atheist states, “I do not believe in God”, this is technically not a statement about God’s existence or lack thereof. Does atheos mean “no God”, “without God”, “lack God belief” or “God does not exist”?
Early Christians were referred to as “atheists” because they did not believe in the Greek or Roman gods. Yet, while they positively affirmed the non-existence of those gods they likely believed that those gods were deceptive demons whom they did believe existed (1 Corinthians 8:4–6).
Let us consider other Greek-derived “a” words:
- “Amusement”—no, without, or lack of musing, but does this mean that musing does not exist, that the person is merely not musing at the moment, that there is merely no musing upon a particular topic, etc.?
- “Agnostic”—no, without, or lack of gnosis (knowledge), but does this mean that knowledge does not exist, or merely that none exists with regards to a particular topic, or merely that it may exist but we lack it?
Generally, as popularized by the New Atheist movement, atheists prefer the definition of “atheism” as “lacking belief in god(s)”. Thus, by applying the term “atheist” to themselves, such atheists are not technically making a statement about God’s existence or lack thereof.
This definition has been popularized, at least, since Charles Bradlaugh (circa 1876). It appears to be preferred so as to escape the philosophic difficulty of proving a negative—God does not exist—and in order to shift the burden of proof to the theist, since the theist is making the positive affirmation that God exists.
On a polemical note there are two things to consider:
- Meeting atheists on their own ground: if they want to define atheism as a mere lack of God belief, grant it and continue the discussion.
- Making them see whence their position comes and where it leads.
In reference to the above mentioned term “agnostic”, note that Thomas Henry Huxley coined this term in 1869.1 He explained that he noted two extremes: one was the atheist who positively affirmed God’s non-existence (claiming to know that God did not exist) and the other was the theists who positively affirmed God’s existence (claiming to know that God exists). Huxley said that he did not possess enough evidence to affirm positively either position. Thus, he coined a term which he saw as a middle position, which was that of lacking knowledge to decide either way (whether such knowledge actually exists outside of his personal knowledge or may someday be discovered is another issue).
As we will see next, there are various sects of atheism. There is a vast difference between the friendly atheist next door and the activists. Generally, even the activist types who are typified by the New Atheist movement will define “atheism” as a mere lack of belief in God. However, it is important to note that their activism demonstrates that their atheism is anything but mere lack: it is an anti-“religion”, anti-“faith” and anti-“God” movement.
1.1 Variations of Atheism
Atheists may be categorized under various technical terms as well as sociopolitical and cultural ones, which may overlap depending on the individual atheist’s preferences:
- Strong atheism, positive atheism, explicit atheism or critical atheism: generally refers to those who positively affirm God’s non-existence. Some current atheists, perhaps influenced by the deleterious effects of the New Atheist movement, actually think that this definition of atheism is a hoax concocted by theists in order to make atheists appear foolish. Yet, this is a traditional definition and one found in various dictionaries, encyclopedias, philosophical textbooks.2
- Weak atheism, negative atheism or implicit atheism: generally refers to those who would claim merely to lack a God belief. They would generally claim that they do not believe in God because God’s existence has not been proven (or evidenced). It may or may not be in the future. This sect is similar to agnosticism.
- Militant atheism or antitheism: generally refers to atheists who consider belief in God as dangerous superstitious ignorance and seek to abolish it or, at the very least, remove it from the public sphere (public meaning from politics, culture at large, etc.).
Some atheists claim that atheism is a religion3 and others have attempted to establish secular/civic/atheistic religions which we will elucidate below.
Michael Shermer, editor of The Skeptic magazine, draws a distinction between the atheist who claims, “there is no God” and the non-theist who claims to have “no belief in God”.4
As to the sociopolitical and/or cultural terms, these abound and some are: Brights, Freethinkers, Humanists, Naturalists, Rationalists, Skeptics, Secular Humanists and Materialists.
Some atheists squabble about terminology. For example, “American Atheists” webmaster wrote, “Atheists are NOT ‘secular humanists’, ‘freethinkers’, ‘rationalists’ or ‘ethical culturalists’ … Often, people who are Atheists find it useful to masquerade behind such labels”5 while the “Freedom from Religion Foundation”, claims that, “Freethinkers include atheists, agnostics and rationalists”.6
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2 Atheism as nature worship or neo-paganism
By “nature worship” and “neo-paganism” I refer to the atheist’s tendency to replace a sense of awe of God and seeking transcendence by relating to God with seeking awe and transcendence in nature. This natural high, as it were, is not merely enjoyed but it is enjoined and said to be holier than theism.
Referring to our ability to “step off the Earth and look back at ourselves,” as was done in Voyager 2, Carl Sagan stated,
“I find that a chilling, spine-tingling, exciting, perspective-raising, consciousness-raising experience. It’s said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.”7
The very first episode of his televised series entitled Cosmos, began with Carl Sagan stating,
“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as of a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
Presupposing a God-free reality, why atheists seek transcendent experiences remains unanswered.
Michael Shermer stated that his study of evolution was, “far more enlightening and transcendent, spiritual, than anything I had experienced in seven years of being a born again Christian.”8
Michael Shermer made reference to “the spiritual side of science”, which he referred to as “sciensuality”:
“If religion and spirituality are supposed to generate awe and humility in the fact of the creator, what could be more awesome and humbling than the deep space discovered by Hubble and the cosmologists and the deep time discovered by Darwin and the evolutionists? Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. And Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.”9
Michael Ruse; philosophy professor (University of Guelph), ardent evolutionist and professedly an ex-Christian who has argued for the ACLU against the “balanced treatment” (of creation and evolution in schools) bill in the USA, wrote:
“Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion—a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality … This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today…
"As a social reformer therefore, Huxley, known in the papers as ‘Pope Huxley’, was determined to find a substitute for Christianity. Evolution, with its stress on unbroken law—which could be used to reflect messages of social progress—was the perfect candidate. Life is on an upwardly moving escalator…
“Indeed, recognizing that a good religion needs a moral message as well as a history and promise of future reward, Huxley increasingly turned from Darwin (who was not very good at providing these things) toward another English evolutionist. Herbert Spencer—prolific writer and immensely popular philosopher to the masses—shared Huxley’s vision of evolution as a kind of metaphysics rather than a straight science…
“Evolution now has its mystical visionary, its Saint John of the Cross. Harvard entomologist and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson tells us that we now have an ‘alternative mythology’ to defeat traditional religion … If people want to make a religion of evolution, that is their business … The important point is that we should recognize when people are going beyond the strict science, moving into moral and social claims, thinking of their theory as an all-embracing world picture.”10
Addressing fellow atheist Jonathan Miller, Richard Dawkins stated:
“you and I probably do have … feelings that may very well be akin to a kind of mystical wonder when we contemplate the stars, when we contemplate the galaxies, when we contemplate life, the sheer expanse of geological time. I experience, and I expect you experience, internal feelings which sound pretty much like um, what mystics feel, and they call it God. If—and I’ve been called a very religious person for that reason—if I am called a religious person, then my retort to that is, ‘Well, you’re playing with words’, because what the vast majority of people mean by religious is something utterly different from this sort of transcendent, mystical experience [ … ]
“The transcendent sense … the transcendent, mystic sense, that people who are both religious and non-religious in my usage of the term, is something very very different. In that sense, I probably am a religious person. You probably are a religious person. But that doesn’t mean we think that there is a supernatural being that interferes with the world, that does anything, that manipulates anything, or by the way, that it’s worth praying to or asking forgiveness of sins from, etc. [ … ]
“I prefer to use words like religion, like God, in the way that the vast majority of people in the world would understand them, and to reserve a different kind of language for the feeling that we share with possibly your clergyman [ … ] the sense of wonder that one gets as a scientist contemplating the cosmos, or contemplating mitochondria is actually much grander than anything that you will get by contemplating the traditional objects of religious mysticism.”11
[the un-bracketed ellipses appear in the original transcript denoting Richard Dawkins’ halting way of speaking, the bracketed ones were added]
Richard Dawkins, in Is Science a Religion? said,
“science does have some of religion’s virtues … All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it’s exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe—almost worship—this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide. And it does so beyond the wildest dreams of saints and mystics…
“Science can offer a vision of life and the universe which, as I’ve already remarked, for humbling poetic inspiration far outclasses any of the mutually contradictory faiths and disappointingly recent traditions of the world’s religions…
“The universe at large couldn’t possibly be anything other than indifferent to Christ, his birth, his passion, and his death … I want to return now to the charge that science is just a faith. The more extreme version of that charge—and one that I often encounter as both a scientist and a rationalist—is an accusation of zealotry and bigotry in scientists themselves as great as that found in religious people. Sometimes there may be a little bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We’re content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don’t kill them.”
Stephen S. Hall, in Darwin’s Rottweiler Sir Richard Dawkins: Evolution’s Fiercest Champion, Far Too Fierce, said:
“‘Einsteinian religion is a kind of spirituality which is nonsupernatural … And that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow less than supernatural religion. Quite the contrary … .Einstein was adamant in rejecting all ideas of a personal god. It is something bigger, something grander, something that I believe any scientist can subscribe to, including those scientists whom I would call atheists. Einstein, in my terms, was an atheist, although Einstein of course was very fond of using the word God. When Einstein would use the word God, he was using it as a kind of figure of speech. When he said things like ‘God is subtle but he’s not malicious’, or ‘He does not play dice’, or ‘Did God have a choice in creating the universe?’ what he meant was things like randomness do not lie at the heart of all things. Could the universe have been any other way than the way it is? Einstein chose to use the word God to phrase such profound, deep questions. That, it seems to me, is the good part of religion which we can all subscribe to…
“What I can’t understand is why we are expected to show respect for good scientists, even great scientists, who at the same time believe in a god who does things like listen to our prayers, forgive our sins, perform cheap miracles … which go against, presumably, everything that the god of the physicist, the divine cosmologist, set up when he set up his great laws of nature. So I don’t understand a scientist who says, ‘I am a Roman Catholic’ or ‘I am a Baptist’…
“I suppose my hope would be that science—the best kind of science, the sort of science which approaches the best sort of religion, the Einsteinian spirituality that I was talking about—is so inspiring, so exciting that it should be sellable to everybody…“We have something far better to offer … Why are we freethinking secular scientists not getting into that same marketplace … and selling what we’ve got to sell? Because it’s a far better product, and all we’ve got to do is hone our salesmanship to the level that they are already doing it.” [italics in original]
Such sentiments appear to be fulfillments of the Apostle Paul’s reference to:
“ … men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man … Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity … because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind … ” (Romans 1:18b–28, ESV).
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2.1 Atheist religion
Let us consider the atheists from the 18th to the 21st centuries who express desires to establish an atheistic religion. Perhaps we should begin with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who conceived of a civil religion:
“There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject. While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the State whoever does not believe them. It can banish him, not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If any one, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.”12
Two other notable 18th century attempts are Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) who conceived of a new “Christianity” which would be founded upon Humanism and scientific socialism. The secular priesthood would consist of scientists, philosophers and engineers. Lastly, Auguste Comte (1798–1857) conceived of a religion of humanity.
Forwarding to the 21st century we will consider Gary Wolf’s interview with Sam Harris:
“We discuss what it might look like, this world without God. ‘There would be a religion of reason’, Harris says. ‘We would have realized the rational means to maximize human happiness. We may all agree that we want to have a Sabbath that we take really seriously—a lot more seriously than most religious people take it. But it would be a rational decision, and it would not be just because it’s in the Bible. We would be able to invoke the power of poetry and ritual and silent contemplation and all the variables of happiness so that we could exploit them. Call it prayer, but we would have prayer without bull**** … At some point, there is going to be enough pressure that it is just going to be too embarrassing to believe in God.’”13 [italics in original]
Gary Wolf’s interview with Daniel Dennett:
“Dennett tells me that he takes very seriously the risk of over reliance on thought … It interests me that, though Dennett is an atheist, he does not see faith merely as a useless vestige of our primitive nature, something we can, with effort, intellectualize away. No rational creature, he says, would be able to do without unexamined, sacred things … This sounds to me a little like the religion of reason that Harris foresees. ‘Yes, there could be a rational religion’, Dennett says. ‘We could have a rational policy not even to think about certain things.’ He understands that this would create constant tension between prohibition and curiosity. But the borders of our sacred beliefs could be well guarded simply by acknowledging that it is pragmatic to refuse to change them. I ask Dennett if there might not be a contradiction in his scheme. On the one hand, he aggressively confronts the faithful, attacking their sacred beliefs. On the other hand, he proposes that our inherited defaults be put outside the limits of dispute. But this would make our defaults into a religion, unimpeachable and implacable gods. And besides, are we not atheists? Sacred prohibitions are anathema to us. Dennett replies that exceptions can be made. ‘Philosophers are the ones who refuse to accept the sacred values’, he says. For instance, Socrates. I find this answer supremely odd. The image of an atheist religion whose sacred objects, called defaults, are taboo for all except philosophers—this is the material of the cruelest parody. But that’s not what Dennett means. In his scenario, the philosophers are not revered authorities but mental risk-takers and scouts. Their adventures invite ridicule, or worse. ‘Philosophers should expect to be hooted at and reviled,’ Dennett says.”13
Sam Harris, Selfless Consciousness without Faith:
“As I sat and gazed upon the surrounding hills gently sloping to an inland sea, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an ‘I’ or a ‘me’—vanished. Everything was as it had been—the cloudless sky, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water—but I no longer felt like I was separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained. As someone who is simply making his best effort to be a rational human being, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort … There is no question that people have ‘spiritual’ experiences (I use words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris) … While most of us go through life feeling like we are the thinker of our thoughts and the experiencer of our experience, from the perspective of science we know that this is a false view. There is no discrete self or ego lurking like a minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. There is no region of cortex or stream of neural processing that occupies a privileged position with respect to our personhood. There is no unchanging ‘center of narrative gravity’ … As a critic of religious faith, I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer is: many things and nothing … But what about ethics and spiritual experience? For many, religion still appears the only vehicle for what is most important in life—love, compassion, morality, and self-transcendence. To change this, we need a way of talking about human well-being that is as unconstrained by religious dogma as science is … I believe that most people are interested in spiritual life, whether they realize it or not. Every one of us has been born to seek happiness in a condition that is fundamentally unreliable … On the question of how to be most happy, the contemplative life has some important insights to offer.”
Sam Harris, A Contemplative Science:
“I recently spent a week with one hundred fellow scientists at a retreat center in rural Massachusetts. The meeting attracted a diverse group: physicists, neuroscientists, psychologists, clinicians, and a philosopher or two; all devoted to the study of the human mind … We were on a silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, engaged in a Buddhist practice known as vipassana (the Pali word for ‘seeing clearly’) … Of critical importance for the purposes of science: there are no unjustified beliefs or metaphysics that need be adopted at all … Research on the functional effects of meditation is still in its infancy, but there seems to be little question that the practice changes the brain.”
ABC Radio National, Stephen Crittenden interviews Sam Harris:
“ … mysticism is a real psychological phenomenon, that I have no doubt it genuinely transforms people. But it seems to me that we can promulgate that knowledge and pursue those experiences very much in a spirit of science, without presupposing anything on insufficient evidence.”
Sam Harris, Science Must Destroy Religion:
“Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail … scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude on their basis. We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity—birth, marriage, death, etc.—without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality. I am hopeful that the necessary transformation in our thinking will come about as our scientific understanding of ourselves matures. When we find reliable ways to make human beings more loving, less fearful, and genuinely enraptured by the fact of our appearance in the cosmos, we will have no need for divisive religious myths.”
Sam Harris, Rational Mysticism:
[In The End of Faith] “I used the words spirituality and mysticism affirmatively, in an attempt to put the range of human experience signified by these terms on a rational footing … this enterprise is not a problem with my book, or merely with Flynn, but a larger problem with secularism itself … secularism, being nothing more than the totality of such criticism, can lead its practitioners to reject important features of human experience simply because they have been traditionally associated with religious practice. … Our conventional sense of ‘self’ is, in fact, nothing more than a cognitive illusion, and dispelling this illusion opens the mind to extraordinary experiences of happiness. This is not a proposition to be accepted on faith; it is an empirical observation … The only ‘faith’ required to get such a project off the ground is the faith of scientific hypothesis. The hypothesis is this: if I use my attention in the prescribed way, it may have a specific, reproducible effect. Needless to say, what happens (or fails to happen) along any path of ‘spiritual’ practice has to be interpreted in light of some conceptual scheme, and everything must remain open to rational discussion. How this discussion proceeds will ultimately be decided by contemplative scientists … [who will] develop a mature science of the mind … The problem, however, is that there is a kernel of truth in the grandiosity and otherworldly language of religion … Most atheists appear to be certain that consciousness is entirely dependent upon (and reducible to) the workings of the brain. In the last chapter of the book, I briefly argue that this certainty is unwarranted … the truth is that scientists still do not know what the relationship between consciousness and matter is. I am not in the least suggesting that we make a religion out of this uncertainty, or do anything else with it.”
Humanist Manifesto I (1933) states,
“In order that religious humanism may be better understood we, the undersigned, desire to make certain affirmations which we believe the facts of our contemporary life demonstrate … which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion. Such a vital, fearless, and frank religion capable of furnishing adequate social goals and personal satisfactions may appear to many people as a complete break with the past … To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation.”14
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3 Why Atheism is chosen
There may be as many reasons that people choose atheism as there are individuals who make that choice. These range from philosophy or science to emotion or rebellion and various combinations of such factors.
Prominent Argentinean hyperrealism artist, Helmut Ditsch, retells part of his upbringing:
“Until my twenties, I was an atheist. Although I felt the spiritual world, I used atheism as a reaction to a very difficult childhood. My mother died when I was 8 years old. Although my father was concerned with giving us a comfortable childhood, it was … sad.”15 [emphasis added]
Joe Orso, writing on the origin of beliefs, interviewed atheist Ira Glass, who said:
“I find that I don’t seem to have a choice over whether or not I believe in God, I simply find that I do not. Either you have faith or you don’t. Either you believe or you don’t.”
Orso: “I was once talking with a Chinese friend. She asked whether I believed in God. I told her I did. I returned the question. She said ‘no,’ and I asked her why not. Her father, she explained, had told her there was no God when she was a child. She hadn’t really thought about it much since then.”16 [emphasis added]
Note carefully the words of Thomas Nagel (B.Phil., Oxford; Ph.D., Harvard), Professor of Philosophy and Law, University Professor, and Fiorello La Guardia Professor of Law. He specializes in Political Philosophy, Ethics, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Mind. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the British Academy, and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities:‘I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers’—Thomas Nagel
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”17 [emphasis added]
Consider the following words of Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific scientific writers of the last century:
“I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.”18 [emphasis added]
Gary Wolf , contributing editor to Wired magazine, includes himself in the following description: “we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth.” He wrote:
Thus, we find various motivating factors which lead to atheism and have absolutely nothing to do with science or intellect.
“At dinner parties or over drinks, I ask people to declare themselves. ‘Who here is an atheist?’ I ask.
Usually, the first response is silence, accompanied by glances all around in the hope that somebody else will speak first. Then, after a moment, somebody does, almost always a man, almost always with a defiant smile and a tone of enthusiasm. He says happily, ‘I am!’
“But it is the next comment that is telling. Somebody turns to him and says: ‘You would be.’
‘Why?’ ‘Because you enjoy [irritating] people ….’ ‘Well, that’s true.’
“This type of conversation takes place not in central Ohio, where I was born, or in Utah, where I was a teenager, but on the West Coast, among technical and scientific people, possibly the social group that is least likely among all Americans to be religious.”13
Thus, we find various motivating factors which lead to atheism and have absolutely nothing to do with science or intellect.
Paul Vitz, Professor of Psychology at New York University, made a fascinating study of the lives of some of the most influential atheists. In his book Faith of the Fatherless: the Psychology of Atheism he concluded that these persons rejected God because they rejected their own fathers. This was due to their poor relationships with their fathers, or due to their father’s absence, or due to their rebellion against their fathers.20 Along this line of research, it would be interesting to consider the effect that the death of friends and family has had on the rejection of God. From Charles Darwin to Ted Turner the death of friends and family has played a part.
Gary Wolf noted,
“contrary to myth, Darwin did not become an atheist because of evolution. Instead, his growing resistance to Christianity came from his moral criticism of 19th-century doctrine, compounded by the tragedy of his daughter’s death.”13,21
The Associated Press reported on an interview with Ted Turner published in The New Yorker: 22
“CNN founder Ted Turner was suicidal after the breakup of his marriage to Jane Fonda and his loss of control of Turner Broadcasting … his marriage to Fonda broke up partly because of her decision to become a practicing Christian …22
“Turner is a strident non-believer, having lost his faith after his sister, Mary Jane, died of a painful disease called systemic lupus erythematosus. ‘I was taught that God was love and God was powerful’, Turner said. ‘And I couldn’t understand how someone so innocent should be made or allowed to suffer so.’ …“He told The New Yorker ‘his father was often drunk, beat him and sent him to military school’ and committed suicide when Turner was 24 years of age.”
Tony Snow, who was the White House Press Secretary in 2006/2007, and was a Christian, died of cancer in July 2008. He wrote an essay entitled, “Cancer’s Unexpected Blessings.”23 Consider, in contrast, how a God-centered person dealt with his own impending death:
“ … we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to answer the ‘why’ questions: Why me? Why must people suffer? Why can’t someone else get sick? We can’t answer such things, and the questions themselves often are designed more to express our anguish than to solicit an answer. The natural reaction is to turn to God and ask him to serve as a cosmic Santa. ‘Dear God, make it all go away. Make everything simpler.’ But another voice whispers: ‘You have been called.’ Your quandary has drawn you closer to God, closer to those you love, closer to the issues that matter, —and has dragged into insignificance the banal concerns that occupy our ‘normal time’. There’s another kind of response, although usually short-lived an inexplicable shudder of excitement, as if a clarifying moment of calamity has swept away everything trivial and tiny, and placed before us the challenge of important questions … even though God doesn’t promise us tomorrow, he does promise us eternity … This is love of a very special order. But so is the ability to sit back and appreciate the wonder of every created thing. The mere thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness more luminous and intense. We may not know how our contest with sickness will end, but we have felt the ineluctable touch of God.”
In contrast, consider the words of atheist William Provine, professor of the history of science at Cornell University:
“Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us, loud and clear, and I must say that these are basically Darwin’s views: there are no gods, no purposive forces of any kind, no life after death (when I die I am absolutely certain that I’m gonna be completely dead, that’s just all, that’s gonna be the end of me), there is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans either … The question is, ‘Can atheistic humanism offer us very much?’ Well sure, it can give you intellectual satisfaction, and I’m a heck of a lot more intellectually satisfied now that I don’t have to cling to the fairytales that I believed when I was a kid. So life may have no ultimate meaning but I sure think it can have lots of proximate meaning.”24
With regards to his own cancer, a brain tumor, Provine has stated that he would shoot himself in the head if his brain tumor returned.25 Apparently, one less bio-organism is irrelevant in an absolutely materialistic world.
3.1 Natural born Atheist
A subset of the question of why some people choose atheism is the atheist claim that we are all natural born atheists. In part this is incumbent upon which definition of atheism we are employing. Obviously, we are not born positively asserting God’s non-existence. Thus, the claim is that we are all born lacking a belief in God. Logically, this claim is accurate only at this point and is actually not successfully applicable beyond this point.
Atheists who make this argument claim that this argument demonstrates that man is not God-made but that God is man-made. In other words, they claim that we only believe in God because someone taught us to believe in God, often during childhood before we were able to consider the claim rationally. Yet, this claim is faulty on many levels, for example:
We are born knowing nothing at all and must be taught, and later take it upon ourselves to learn, anything and everything that we will ever know or believe, including atheism.
We are natural-born bed wetters but that does not mean that we should remain that way.
This is ultimately a form of the logically fallacious ad hominem (“to the man”). This fallacy occurs when what is supposed to be a counterargument attacks the person, the source of the original argument, while leaving the argument unanswered. Thus, just because belief in God is something that is taught does not discredit belief in God. It would be fallacious to claim that God does not exist because human beings invented the idea of God’s existence—God wants us to discover His existence: “you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
Furthermore, this claim does not consider that many people came to believe in God in adulthood and having come from a completely secular (atheistic) upbringing.
Although, perhaps we could grant the claim: if atheists want to argue that atheism requires no more intellect than that which an infant can muster, why should we argue?
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4 Atheism and ethics/morality
Here is a video debate between an atheist and the author of this article: Morality: natural or supernatural?
Technically, ethics refers to what should be and morals to what is or; prescription and description. Atheists differ on the issue of ethics and morality; some claim that there are absolutes and some do not. As to the question of whether atheists can make absolute moral statements, this is tantamount to the first year theology student who, when asked, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” responded, “Sure I do; I’ve seen it done.” Yes, atheists can make any statements about anything at all—the question is: are the statements viable?
Atheists make epistemic statements about morality but do not provide an ontological premise for ethics.26 That is to say that they can muse upon issues of morality and come to any conclusion that they please. However, these turn out to be arbitrary personal preferences that are expressed as dogmatic assertions.
Some atheists do make attempts at providing an ontological basis for ethics. These range quite widely—from considering the behavior of apes to Game Theory.
In the first case, it is, of course, being presupposed that we share a common evolutionary lineage with apes and that their behavior tells us something about ours. Even when such observations successfully correlate their behaviors to ours, it is merely a description. Moreover, from such correlations it is inferred that morality is part of our overall evolution. This amounts to intuition or urges which we are free to act upon or disregard.
In the second case investigators concoct games that they claim dissect human behavior. With regards to Game Theory, Benjamin Wiker notes,
“By using games with fewer rules than Candy Land, the Darwinian game theorists are claiming ‘to uncover the fundamental principles governing our decision-making mechanisms.’ We’d better take a closer look, starting with their presuppositions … The answer seems to be that whatever has survived must be the most fit; therefore whatever exists must have been the result of natural selection. Fairness exists; therefore, it must be the result of natural selection. Q.E.D. It is always convenient to have a theory that cannot possibly be proved wrong.”27
Another supposed basis for ethics is that “an action is unethical/immoral if it causes harm to others.” Thus, it is the nature of the consequence caused by the action that determines whether an action is ethical or unethical. The fundamental problem with this definition of ethical behavior is that an action ceases to be unethical if no adverse consequences are experienced. As such, nothing is inherently wrong; an action is only wrong if it causes harm to another.
Consider the example of adulterous behavior: under the “do no harm” definition of ethical behavior, adultery is wrong because it harms the other party in the marriage (i.e., the faithful spouse). This harm can include mental anguish, the spread of disease to the faithful party and the loss of affection from the adulterous party. An additional adverse consequence includes unwanted pregnancies outside of the marriage. However, what if an adulterous act did not lead to those outcomes (e.g., a husband, who has had a vasectomy, occasionally has sexual relations with women free from sexually transmitted diseases while on trips to foreign cities)? In such an instance would adultery cease being unethical? Would the husband’s behavior turn from ethically neutral to unethical only if he were to confess his adultery to his wife, or if he was otherwise caught, thus causing her mental anguish?
It seems that there is something else behind, or beyond, the consideration of causing harm. In fact, there must be something else. Why must there be something else? Because it is precisely by knowing that which causes others harm that I may come to know how to push their buttons, how to manipulate them, how to take advantage of them, how to suppress them, etc. I may find that I can assist my survival by causing such harm to others and so, on this view, their harm is for my benefit. There must be something beyond that which makes causing harm itself unethical.
An ethical code based on God is determined by God’s communication to man of what is ethical and unethical. This is because God’s ethical code to us is derived from God’s very triune, relational, ethical nature. This nature is ethical and relational as it is unified by virtue of God consisting of one in being and yet, diverse as it is experienced and enjoyed amongst the three persons of the Trinity. Under such an ethical code, and in contrast to any Godless moral code, a given action such as adultery is still wrong even in absence of adverse consequences to another party. Thus, under a God-authored ethical code some actions are inherently wrong.
Furthermore, the atheist has no basis for saying that it is wrong to harm others anyway. Why should it be wrong to harm others? This supposed basis for ethics fails at this very point.
Let us consider some atheist’s statements about morality:
Dan Barker, co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, claims that, “Darwin has bequeathed what is good” and refers to Jesus as “a moral monster”.28 He includes the following within his understanding of Darwinian goodness,
“I support a woman’s right to choose an abortion. I think it’s a good thing. I think abortion is actually a good thing for society. If I can borrow a religious word, a word that my mother-in-law uses, I think abortion is a blessing for many, many, many women.”29
This appears to be in keeping with his general view on human worth, value and dignity, “a fetus that’s the size of a thumb that has—what? What? Would you put it in a little locket and hang it around your neck?”30
Dan Barker has also stated, “There is no moral interpreter in the cosmos, nothing cares and nobody cares” and he bases his humanistic morality upon his reasoning whether, it will ultimately matter what happens to us or a vegetable: “ … what happens to me or a piece of broccoli, it won’t. The Sun is going to explode, we’re all gonna be gone. No one’s gonna care.”31
He does not seem to consider that the fact that the concept which holds that “There is no moral interpreter in the cosmos, nothing cares and nobody cares … we’re all gonna be gone. No one’s gonna care”, quite logically and easily, leads to inhumane immorality.
Dan Barker has further stated:
“Atheism and Freethought and true humanistic morality are, are so much more clear, so much more useful, so much more reasonable so, you know, without all the negative baggage of theology and judgment and hell and, and you know, and the supernatural. My goodness, you know, I used to believe in the supernatural and, and now to realize I don’t have to try to prop up this phony supernatural system in, in reality it’s very freeing, very relaxing. I’m not afraid of being judged and going to hell anymore. I’m responsible for my own actions, the consequences are natural and I live with them and, and it actually turns out that most atheists and agnostics are more accountable; they are more moral they, they have more responsibility in their lives because they realize that it, it’s what matters is this world not an imaginary supernatural world … true humanistic morality which is much superior to Christian morality.”32
Dan Barker has also offered motivating factors for moral actions that are quite common within atheist thought—these are self-serving motivations, whereby one should be good not for goodness’ sake but in order to benefit oneself, for example,
“if you wish to be … a healthy person” (meaning mentally healthy).
“if you wish to be labeled ‘ethical’ by other people.”
“if you wish to be viewed by your society as ‘a good person’.”
“if that’s something you wish.”33
Likewise, examples include the following statement by The Humanist Society of Scotland:
“It’s best to be honest because … I’m happier and feel better about myself if I’m honest.”34 [emphasis and ellipses in original]
However, why being honest should make us happy remains a mystery.
Reginald Finley (aka The Infidel Guy) and Matthew Davis put forth the following reason for moral behavior:
“if one does horrible things to people, that person will eventually have horrible things happen to him.”35
This is hip My Name Is Earl36 watered-down karma, but is obviously pseudo-morality based on self-preservation (perhaps aptly Darwinian).