It has come to my attention that some atheists on the internet are trying to redefine the words “atheism” and “atheist” to mean anyone who simply lacks a belief in gods. This definition would include babies, agnostics, and people who have not come to a conclusion about the existence of gods.
Some proponents of this definition can be found in the alt.atheism newsgroup and at the following web sites:
A “lack of belief” definition is a bad definition for many reasons. It is not commonly used. It is not defined that way in any reputable dictionary. It is too broad because most agnostics and babies don’t consider themselves atheists. And it makes no sense for an “-ism” to be a based on a lack of belief.
These atheists are usually motivated to redefine the word “atheist” because they want to enlarge the definition of “atheist” to include as many people as possible, or because they perceive it to be an advantage in debates with theists. Unfortunately, some of these people have used lies and distortions to support their opinions, and some have made extremely ignorant and grossly incorrect statements that may reflect badly on all atheists. I will correct some of these incorrect statements later in this essay.
But first I will try to illustrate the problem by using three groups of people:
Group A believes that gods do not exist (atheists).
Group B neither believes that at least one god exists nor do they believe that gods do not exist. This would include agnostics, babies, and the undecided.
Group C believes that at least one god exists (theists).
It is generally agreed that the people in group A are atheists and the people in group C are not. The main point of disagreement is whether the people in group B are considered atheists or not. The people who want a “lack of belief” definition would define group B as atheists while most people, and all reputable dictionaries, do not. Many of the people who are pushing a “lack of belief” definition call group A “strong atheists” and call group B “weak atheists.
One of the main problems of a “lack of belief” definition is that it is too broad. If someone told you they were an atheist, you would still not know if they were agnostic, undecided, believed that gods don’t exist, or never thought about it. This makes the word nearly useless
Another problem with a “lack of belief” definition is that it is not accepted by the vast majority of people. I personally don’t know anyone who considers babies atheists because they lack belief in gods. I also don’t know of any people who are agnostic or undecided about the existence of God who call themselves atheists.
The lack of public acceptance for a “lack of belief” definition of “atheism” is reflected in the fact that no reputable dictionary has a “lack of belief” definition for either “atheism” or “atheist”. However, this has not kept a few morons from incorrectly claiming that various dictionary definitions have a “lack of belief” definition. On page three I have posted and examined many reputable dictionary definitions. On page four I have posted excerpts from reputable Encyclopedias such as Encyclopedia Britannica.
Some of people who want to redefine the words “atheism” and “atheist” to mean “a lack of belief in the existence of gods” have used some incredibly stupid arguments to support their position. I will list some of these arguments and examine them in detail.
|Clickable Index to Stupid Arguments:
Stupid Argument #1: The etymology of the word “atheism” means “a lack of belief”.
A commonly repeated error is that the word “atheism” was derived from the prefix “a-“, meaning “without”, and the word “theism”, meaning a belief in God. Therefore they claim that “atheism” means “without a belief in God”. This is incorrect because the etymology of the word “atheism” derives from the Greek word “atheos” meaning “godless”. The “-ism” suffix, which can be roughly mean “belief”, was added later. The etymology of the word means “godless belief” not “without a belief in gods”.
A couple of etymologies from respected dictionaries are shown below:
Etymology of “atheism”: Middle French athéisme, from athée atheist, from Greek atheos godless, from a- + theos god
Etymology of “atheism”: French athéisme, from athée, atheist, from Greek atheos, godless : a-, without; see a–1 + theos, god
I see this lie quite often on the internet. The truth of the matter is that no reputable dictionary has a “lack of belief” definition. See page 3 for more on this subject.
Stupid Argument #3: Most Dictionary Definitions of “Atheism” are Wrong Because They are Written by Biased Christians.
This absurd claim is totally unsupported by any facts, much like the gigantic government conspiracy to cover-up UFO landings.
Stupid Argument #4: Only Atheists get to Define What the Word “Atheist” Means.
This argument is absurd for two reasons. First of all, words are defined by common usage, not by the people who fit that definition. For example the word “handicapped” is defined by common usage not just by handicapped people.
Secondly, a “lack of belief” definition for the word “atheist” would include so many agnostics, babies, infants, and the undecided that the self-identified atheists would be a very small minority. Babies and infants would make up a majority of the “lack of belief” atheists and I haven’t heard of any of them who could express a coherent definition.
Stupid Argument #5: Most Atheists Want a “Lack of Belief” Definition.
This argument is usually presented as fact without any actual surveys to back it up. The first problem with this is the “babies and infants” problem described above. The second problem is that most scientific surveys of religious beliefs show that only a minority of the non-religious people self-identify as atheists. For example the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows that 13.2% of the US population self-identified as “no religion” while 0.4% self-identified as atheists and 0.5% self-identified as agnostics. The 2000 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year also shows similar numbers.
Stupid Argument #6: The Phrase “Tom does not believe in the existence of God” does not mean “Tom believes that God does not exist.”
This idiotic argument is sometimes presented by brain dead morons who don’t understand basic English grammar. I really don’t expect most people to know that “raising” is the technical name for the location of the negative in the first sentence, or that raising simply shifts the negative from the subordinate clause where it logically belongs to the main clause, especially when the main clause’s verb is suppose, think, believe, seem, or the like. (Here are two links from The Columbia Guide to Standard American English that explain it: Link 1, Link 2)
However, I find it impossible to believe that anyone with half a brain would use this argument. The English language is literally filled with many common examples of raising. I’ll post a few for clarity:
A) “I don’t believe the mail has arrived” means “I believe the mail has not arrived”. It does not mean that I don’t have any beliefs about the mail arriving.
B) “I do not believe we missed the last bus” means “I believe we did not miss the last bus”. It does not mean that I don’t have any beliefs about missing the last bus.
C) “I don’t think the kicker can make a 55 yard field goal” means “I think that the kicker can not make a 55 yard field goal”. It does not mean that I did not think about the kicker making a field goal.
D) “I don’t believe in the existence of deities” means “I believe that deities do not exist”. It does not mean that I don’t have any beliefs about the existence of deities.
Stupid Argument #7: A “Lack of Belief” Definition is Useful in Debates.
Some people think that a “lack of belief” definition of atheist shifts the burden of proof to the theist and requires them to prove the existence of their god. The truth of the matter is that the theist’s claim of a supernatural god with magical powers is an extraordinary claim and requires substantial evidence if it is to be logically believed. The burden of proof is on the theist regardless of the definition of the word “atheist”.
As an analogy, if someone claimed that flying pigs existed, then they would have the burden of proof to prove this regardless of whether I told them I “lacked belief” in the existence of flying pigs or if I told them that I believed that flying pigs did not exist.
Stupid Argument #8: All Atheists Lack a Belief in Gods so Anyone who Lacks a Belief in Gods is an Atheist.
This argument is so damn stupid that it is rarely expressed explicitly. Usually it is only vaguely implied by statements such as “the only thing atheists have in common is a lack of belief in gods”
The logical mistake here should be self-evident to any adult with half a brain, so I won’t explain it. But if you are in a child in elementary school, try to figure it out with this analogy: All dogs have fur so anything with fur is a dog.
| atheist:one who believes that there is no deity atheism:1 archaic : UNGODLINESS, WICKEDNESS
2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity
disbelief: the act of disbelieving : mental rejection of something as untrue
transitive senses : to hold not worthy of belief : not believe
agnostic: a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and prob. unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god
|atheist:someone who believes that God does not exist atheism: the belief that God does not exist|
From the Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Ed. 1989
1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.
2. One who practically denies the existence of a God by disregard of moral obligation to Him; a godless man.
B. attrib. as adj. Atheistic, impious.
[Note: The last word usage example for sense #1 is: 1876 GLADSTONE in Contemp. Rev. June 22 By the Atheist I understand the man who not only holds off, like the sceptic, from the affirmative, but who drives himself, or is driven, to the negative assertion in regard to the whole Unseen, or to the existence of God.]
Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness (practical atheism).Agnostic:
A. n. One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.
[Suggested by Prof. Huxley at a party held previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical Society, at Mr. James Knowles’s house on Clapham Common, one evening in 1869, in my hearing. He took it from St. Paul’s mention of the altar to ‘the Unknown God.’ R. H. HUTTON in letter 13 Mar. 1881.]B. adj. Of or pertaining to agnostics or their theory.
1. trans. Not to believe or credit; to refuse credence to:
a. a statement or (alleged) fact: To reject the truth or reality of. (With simple obj. or obj. clause.)
|atheist:One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.atheism: 1a. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods. b. The doctrine that there is no God or gods.
2. Godlessness; immorality.
disbelief: Refusal or reluctance to believe.
1. A refusal to comply with or satisfy a request.
2a. A refusal to grant the truth of a statement or allegation; a contradiction. b. Law The opposing by a defendant of an allegation of the plaintiff.
3a. A refusal to accept or believe something, such as a doctrine or belief. b. Psychology An unconscious defense mechanism characterized by refusal to acknowledge painful realities, thoughts, or feelings.
4. The act of disowning or disavowing; repudiation.
5. Abstinence; self-denial.
1a. One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God. b. One who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism.
2. One who is doubtful or noncommittal about something.
1. Relating to or being an agnostic.
2. Doubtful or noncommittal: “Though I am agnostic on what terms to use, I have no doubt that human infants come with an enormous ‘acquisitiveness’ for discovering patterns” (William H. Calvin, New York Times Book Review August 10, 1997).
| atheist:1. One who disbelieves or denies the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being.
2. A godless person. [Obs.] Syn. — Infidel; unbeliever. See Infidel.
1. The disbelief or denial of the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being.
disbelief:The act of disbelieving;; a state of the mind in which one is fully persuaded that an opinion, assertion, or doctrine is not true; refusal of assent, credit, or credence; denial of belief.
Syn. — Distrust; unbelief; incredulity; doubt; skepticism. — Disbelief, Unbelief. Unbelief is a mere failure to admit; disbelief is a positive rejection. One may be an unbeliever in Christianity from ignorance or want of inquiry; a unbeliever has the proofs before him, and incurs the guilt of setting them aside. Unbelief is usually open to conviction; disbelief is already convinced as to the falsity of that which it rejects. Men often tell a story in such a manner that we regard everything they say with unbelief. Familiarity with the worst parts of human nature often leads us into a disbelief in many good qualities which really exist among men.
Not to believe; to refuse belief or credence to; to hold not to be true or actual.
(intransitive verb) To answer in negative; to declare an assertion not to be true.
1. The act of gainsaying, refusing, or disowning; negation; — the contrary of affirmation.
(noun) One who professes ignorance, or denies that we have any knowledge, save of phenomena; one who supports agnosticism, neither affirming nor denying the existence of a personal Deity, a future life, etc.
That doctrine which, professing ignorance, neither asserts nor denies. Specifically: (Theol.) The doctrine that the existence of a personal Deity, an unseen world, etc., can be neither proved nor disproved, because of the necessary limits of the human mind (as sometimes charged upon Hamilton and Mansel), or because of the insufficiency of the evidence furnished by physical and physical data, to warrant a positive conclusion (as taught by the school of Herbert Spencer); — opposed alike dogmatic skepticism and to dogmatic theism.
From the MSN Encarta Dictionary
|atheism:disbelief in the existence of God or deities atheist:somebody who does not believe in God or deities disbelief: the feeling of not believing or of not being able to believe somebody or something|
Note: If you click on these entries you should note that the bold type at the the beginning of each definition (i.e. “unbelief in God or deities“ and “unbeliever in God or deities“) is a “Quick Definition” that is unique to the Microsoft Encarta Dictionaries. Only the full definitions are quoted above.
The following is a quote from the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary:
|Another important point highlighted by our research was that people often find it difficult to find their way through longer dictionary entries. The words in our language often have more than one meaning. A dictionary divides each of these meanings up and defines each one separately. These are called “senses”. The word “take”, for example, has over 40 senses. To help you find just the right meaning fast, we have included “Quick Definitions” in boldface capitalized type at the start of each sense of a word with more than three meanings. The “Quick Definitions” give the broad meanings. They are followed by the full definitions. This makes these longer entries easier to navigate.|
From The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001.
atheism: denial of the existence of God or gods and of any supernatural existence, to be distinguished from agnosticism, which holds that the existence cannot be proved. The term atheism has been used as an accusation against all who attack established orthodoxy, as in the trial of Socrates. There were few avowed atheists from classical times until the 19th cent., when popular belief in a conflict between religion and science brought forth preachers of the gospel of atheism, such as Robert G. Ingersoll. There are today many individuals and groups professing atheism. The 20th cent. has seen many individuals and groups professing atheism, including Bertrand Russell and Madalyn Murry O’Hair.
agnosticism: form of skepticism that holds that the existence of God cannot be logically proved or disproved. Among prominent agnostics have been Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and T. H. Huxley (who coined the word agnostic in 1869). Immanuel Kant was an agnostic who argued that belief in divinity can rest only on faith. Agnosticism is not to be confused with atheism, which asserts that there is no God.
From the article “Atheism and Agnosticism” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.
in general, the critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or spiritual beings. As such, it is usually distinguished from theism, which affirms the reality of the divine and often seeks to demonstrate its existence. Atheism is also distinguished from agnosticism, which leaves open the question whether there is a god or not, professing to find the questions unanswered or unanswerable.
The dialectic of the argument between forms of belief and unbelief raises questions concerning the most perspicuous delineation, or characterization, of atheism, agnosticism, and theism. It is necessary not only to probe the warrant for atheism but also carefully to consider what is the most adequate definition of atheism. This article will start with what have been some widely accepted, but still in various ways mistaken or misleading, definitions of atheism and move to more adequate formulations that better capture the full range of atheist thought and more clearly separate unbelief from belief and atheism from agnosticism. In the course of this delineation the section also will consider key arguments for and against atheism.
Atheism as rejection of religious beliefs
A central, common core of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the affirmation of the reality of one, and only one, God. Adherents of these faiths believe that there is a God who created the universe out of nothing and who has absolute sovereignty over all his creation; this includes, of course, human beings—who are not only utterly dependent on this creative power but also sinful and who, or so the faithful must believe, can only make adequate sense of their lives by accepting, without question, God’s ordinances for them. The varieties of atheism are numerous, but all atheists reject such a set of beliefs.
Atheism, however, casts a wider net and rejects all belief in “spiritual beings,” and to the extent that belief in spiritual beings is definitive of what it means for a system to be religious, atheism rejects religion. So atheism is not only a rejection of the central conceptions of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, it is, as well, a rejection of the religious beliefs of such African religions as that of the Dinka and the Nuer, of the anthropomorphic gods of classical Greece and Rome, and of the transcendental conceptions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Generally atheism is a denial of God or of the gods, and if religion is defined in terms of belief in spiritual beings, then atheism is the rejection of all religious belief.
It is necessary, however, if a tolerably adequate understanding of atheism is to be achieved, to give a reading to “rejection of religious belief” and to come to realize how the characterization of atheism as the denial of God or the gods is inadequate.
Atheism and theism
To say that atheism is the denial of God or the gods and that it is the opposite of theism, a system of belief that affirms the reality of God and seeks to demonstrate his existence, is inadequate in a number of ways. First, not all theologians who regard themselves as defenders of the Christian faith or of Judaism or Islam regard themselves as defenders of theism. The influential 20th-century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, for example, regards the God of theism as an idol and refuses to construe God as a being, even a supreme being, among beings or as an infinite being above finite beings. God, for him, is “being-itself,” the ground of being and meaning. The particulars of Tillich’s view are in certain ways idiosyncratic, as well as being obscure and problematic, but they have been influential; and his rejection of theism, while retaining a belief in God, is not eccentric in contemporary theology, though it may very well affront the plain believer.
Second, and more important, it is not the case that all theists seek to demonstrate or even in any way rationally to establish the existence of God. Many theists regard such a demonstration as impossible, and fideistic believers (e.g., Johann Hamann and Søren Kierkegaard) regard such a demonstration, even if it were possible, as undesirable, for in their view it would undermine faith. If it could be proved, or known for certain, that God exists, people would not be in a position to accept him as their sovereign Lord humbly on faith with all the risks that entails. There are theologians who have argued that for genuine faith to be possible God must necessarily be a hidden God, the mysterious ultimate reality, whose existence and authority must be accepted simply on faith. This fideistic view has not, of course, gone without challenge from inside the major faiths, but it is of sufficient importance to make the above characterization of atheism inadequate.
Finally, and most important, not all denials of God are denials of his existence. Believers sometimes deny God while not being at all in a state of doubt that God exists. They either willfully reject what they take to be his authority by not acting in accordance with what they take to be his will, or else they simply live their lives as if God did not exist. In this important way they deny him. Such deniers are not atheists (unless we wish, misleadingly, to call them “practical atheists”). They are not even agnostics. They do not question that God exists; they deny him in other ways. An atheist denies the existence of God. As it is frequently said, atheists believe that it is false that God exists, or that God’s existence is a speculative hypothesis of an extremely low order of probability.
Yet it remains the case that such a characterization of atheism is inadequate in other ways. For one it is too narrow. There are atheists who believe that the very concept of God, at least in developed and less anthropomorphic forms of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, is so incoherent that certain central religious claims, such as “God is my creator to whom everything is owed,” are not genuine truth-claims; i.e., the claims could not be either true or false. Believers hold that such religious propositions are true, some atheists believe that they are false, and there are agnostics who cannot make up their minds whether to believe that they are true or false. (Agnostics think that the propositions are one or the other but believe that it is not possible to determine which.) But all three are mistaken, some atheists argue, for such putative truth-claims are not sufficiently intelligible to be genuine truth-claims that are either true or false. In reality there is nothing in them to be believed or disbelieved, though there is for the believer the powerful and humanly comforting illusion that there is. Such an atheism, it should be added, rooted for some conceptions of God in considerations about intelligibility and what it makes sense to say, has been strongly resisted by some pragmatists and logical empiricists.
While the above considerations about atheism and intelligibility show the second characterization of atheism to be too narrow, it is also the case that this characterization is in a way too broad. For there are fideistic believers, who quite unequivocally believe that when looked at objectively the proposition that God exists has a very low probability weight. They believe in God not because it is probable that he exists—they think it more probable that he does not—but because belief is thought by them to be necessary to make sense of human life. The second characterization of atheism does not distinguish a fideistic believer (a Blaise Pascal or a Kierkegaard) or an agnostic (a T.H. Huxley or a Leslie Stephen) from an atheist such as Baron d’Holbach or Thomas Paine. All believe that “There is a God” and “God protects humankind,” however emotionally important they may be, are speculative hypotheses of an extremely low order of probability. But this, since it does not distinguish believers from nonbelievers and does not distinguish agnostics from atheists, cannot be an adequate characterization of atheism.
It may be retorted that to avoid apriorism and dogmatic atheism the existence of God should be regarded as a hypothesis. There are no ontological (purely a priori) proofs or disproofs of God’s existence. It is not reasonable to rule in advance that it makes no sense to say that God exists. What the atheist can reasonably claim is that there is no evidence that there is a God, and against that background he may very well be justified in asserting that there is no God. It has been argued, however, that it is simply dogmatic for an atheist to assert that no possible evidence could ever give one grounds for believing in God. Instead, atheists should justify their unbelief by showing (if they can) how the assertion is well-taken that there is no evidence that would warrant a belief in God. If atheism is justified, the atheist will have shown that in fact there is no adequate evidence for the belief that God exists, but it should not be part of his task to try to show that there could not be any evidence for the existence of God. If the atheist could somehow survive the death of his present body (assuming that such talk makes sense) and come, much to his surprise, to stand in the presence of God, his answer should be, “Oh! Lord, you didn’t give me enough evidence!” He would have been mistaken, and realize that he had been mistaken, in his judgment that God did not exist. Still, he would not have been unjustified, in the light of the evidence available to him during his earthly life, in believing as he did. Not having any such postmortem experiences of the presence of God (assuming that he could have them), what he should say, as things stand and in the face of the evidence he actually has and is likely to be able to get, is that it is false that God exists. (Every time one legitimately asserts that a proposition is false one need not be certain that it is false. “Knowing with certainty” is not a pleonasm.) The claim is that this tentative posture is the reasonable position for the atheist to take.
An atheist who argues in this manner may also make a distinctive burden-of-proof argument. Given that God (if there is one) is by definition a very recherché reality—a reality that must be (for there to be such a reality) transcendent to the world—the burden of proof is not on the atheist to give grounds for believing that there is no reality of that order. Rather, the burden of proof is on the believer to give some evidence for God’s existence; i.e., that there is such a reality. Given what God must be, if there is a God, the theist needs to present the evidence, for such a very strange reality. He needs to show that there is more in the world than is disclosed by common experience. The empirical method, and the empirical method alone, such an atheist asserts, affords a reliable method for establishing what is in fact the case. To the claim of the theist that there are in addition to varieties of empirical facts “spiritual facts” or “transcendent facts,” such as it being the case that there is a supernatural, self-existent, eternal power, the atheist can assert that such “facts” have not been shown.
It will, however, be argued by such atheists, against what they take to be dogmatic aprioristic atheists, that the atheist should be a fallibilist and remain open-minded about what the future may bring. There may, after all, be such transcendent facts, such metaphysical realities. It is not that such a fallibilistic atheist is really an agnostic who believes that he is not justified in either asserting that God exists or denying that he exists and that what he must reasonably do is suspend belief. On the contrary, such an atheist believes that he has very good grounds indeed, as things stand, for denying the existence of God. But he will, on the second conceptualization of what it is to be an atheist, not deny that things could be otherwise and that, if they were, he would be justified in believing in God or at least would no longer be justified in asserting that it is false that there is a God. Using reliable empirical techniques, proven methods for establishing matters of fact, the fallibilistic atheist has found nothing in the universe to make a belief that God exists justifiable or even, everything considered, the most rational option of the various options. He therefore draws the atheistical conclusion (also keeping in mind his burden-of-proof argument) that God does not exist. But he does not dogmatically in a priori fashion deny the existence of God. He remains a thorough and consistent fallibilist.
Comprehensive definition of atheism
Reflection on this should lead to a more adequate statement of what atheism is and indeed as well to what an agnostic or religious response to atheism should be. Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God for the following reasons (which reason is stressed depends on how God is being conceived): for an anthropomorphic God, the atheist rejects belief in God because it is false or probably false that there is a God; for a nonanthropomorphic God (the God of Luther and Calvin, Aquinas, and Maimonides), he rejects belief in God because the concept of such a God is either meaningless, unintelligible, contradictory, incomprehensible, or incoherent; for the God portrayed by some modern or contemporary theologians or philosophers, he rejects belief in God because the concept of God in question is such that it merely masks an atheistic substance—e.g., “God” is just another name for love, or “God” is simply a symbolic term for moral ideals.
This atheism is a much more complex notion, as are its various reflective rejections. It is clear from what has been said about the concept of God in developed forms of Judeo-Christianity that the more crucial form of atheist rejection is not the assertion that it is false that there is a God but instead the rejection of belief in God because the concept of God is said not to make sense—to be in some important way incoherent or unintelligible.
Such a broader conception of atheism, of course, includes everyone who is an atheist in the narrower sense, but the converse does not obtain. Moreover, this conception of atheism does not have to say that religious claims are meaningless. The more typical and less paradoxical and tendentious claim is that utterances such as “There is an infinite, eternal creator of the universe” are incoherent and that the conception of God reflected in such a claim is unintelligible, and in that important sense the claim is inconceivable and incredible—incapable of being a rational object of belief for a philosophically and scientifically sophisticated person touched by modernity. It is this that is a central belief of many contemporary atheists. There are good empirical grounds for believing that there are no Zeus-like spiritual beings, and as this last, more ramified form of atheism avers, if there are sound grounds for believing that the nonanthropomorphic or at least radically less anthropomorphic conceptions of God are incoherent or unintelligible, the atheist has the strongest grounds for rejecting belief in God.
Atheism is a critique and a denial of the central metaphysical beliefs of systems of salvation involving a belief in God or spiritual beings, but a sophisticated atheist does not simply claim that all such cosmological claims are false but takes it that some are so problematic that, while purporting to be factual, they actually do not succeed in making a coherent factual claim. The claims, in an important sense, do not make sense, and, while believers are under the illusion that there is something intelligible to be believed in, in reality there is not. These seemingly grand cosmological claims are in reality best understood as myths or ideological claims reflecting a confused understanding of their utterers’ situation.
It is not a well-taken rejoinder to atheistic critiques to say, as have some contemporary Protestant theologians, that belief in God is the worst form of atheism and idolatry, since the language of Jewish and Christian belief, including such sentences as “God exists” and “God created the world,” is not to be taken literally but symbolically and metaphorically. Christianity, as Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian who defends such views, once put it, is “true myth.” The claims of religion are not, on such account, to be understood as metaphysical claims trying to convey extraordinary facts but as metaphorical and analogical claims that are not understandable in any other terms. But if something is a metaphor it must at least in principle be possible to say what it is a metaphor of. Thus metaphors cannot be understandable only in metaphorical terms. There can be no unparaphrasable metaphors or symbolic expressions though, what is something else again, a user of such expressions may not be capable on demand of supplying that paraphrase. Moreover, if the language of religion becomes simply the language of myth and religious beliefs are viewed simply as powerful and often humanly compelling myths, then they are conceptions that in reality have only an atheistic substance. The believer is making no cosmological claim that the atheist is not; it is just that his talk, including his unelucidated talk of “true myths,” is language that for many people has a more powerful emotive force.
Agnosticism has a parallel development to that of atheism. An agnostic, like an atheist, asserts either that he does not know that God exists—or, more typically, that he cannot know or have sound reasons for believing that God exists—but unlike the atheist he does not think that he is justified in saying that God does not exist or, stronger still, that God cannot exist. Similarly, while some contemporary atheists say that the concept of God in developed theism does not make sense and thus that Jewish, Christian, and Islamic beliefs must be rejected, many contemporary agnostics believe that the concept of God is radically problematic. They maintain that they are not in a position to be able to decide whether, on the one hand, the terms and concepts of such religions are so problematic that such religious beliefs do not make sense or whether, on the other, though the talk is indeed radically paradoxical and in many ways incomprehensible, such talk has sufficient coherence to make reasonable a belief in an ultimate mystery. Such an agnostic recognizes that the puzzles about God cut deeper than perplexities concerning whether it is possible to attain adequate evidence for God’s existence. Rather, he sees the need to exhibit an adequate nonanthropomorphic, extralinguistic referent for “God.” (This need not commit him to the belief that there are any observations independent of theory.) Believers think that, though God is a mystery, such a referent has been secured, though what it is remains a mystery. Atheists, by contrast, believe that it has not been, and indeed some of them believe that it cannot be, secured. To talk about mystery, they maintain, is just an evasive way of talking about what is not understood. Contemporary agnostics (those agnostics who parallel the atheists characterized above) remain in doubt and are convinced that there is no rational way of resolving the doubt about whether talk in a halting fashion of God just barely secures such reference or whether it, after all, fails and that nothing religiously acceptable is referred to by “God.”
Intense religious commitment, as the history of fideism makes evident, has sometimes gone hand in hand with deep scepticism concerning man’s capacity to know God. It is agreed by all parties to the dispute between belief and unbelief that religious claims are paradoxical. Furthermore, criteria for what is meaningless and what is not or for what is intelligible and what is not are deeply contested. It is perhaps fair enough to say that there are no generally accepted criteria.
Keeping these diverse considerations in mind in the arguments between belief, agnosticism, and atheism, it is crucial to ask whether there is any good reason at all to believe that there is a personal creative reality that is beyond the bounds of space and time and transcendent to the world. Is there even a sufficient understanding of such talk so that such a reality can be the object of religious commitment? (One cannot have faith in or take on faith what one does not at all understand. People must at least in some way understand what it is that they are to have faith in to be able to have faith in it. If a person is asked to trust Irglig, he cannot do so no matter how strongly he wants to take something simply on trust.)
It appears to be a brute fact that there just is that indefinitely immense collection of finite and contingent masses or conglomerations of things and processes the phrase “the universe” refers to. People can come to feel wonder, awe, and puzzlement that there is a universe at all. But that fact, or the very fact that there is a world at all, does not license the claim that there is a noncontingent reality on which the world (the sorry collection of things entire) depends. It is not even clear that such a sense of contingency gives an understanding of what such a noncontingent thing could be. Some atheists think that the reference range of “God” is so indeterminate and the concept of God so problematic that it is impossible for someone fully aware of that reasonably to believe in God; believers, by contrast, think that, though the reference range of “God” is indeterminate, it is not so indeterminate and the concept of God so problematic as to make belief irrational or incoherent. It is known, they claim, that talk of God is problematic, but it is not known, and cannot be known, whether it is so problematic as to be without a religiously appropriate sense. Agnostics, in turn, say that there is no reasonable decision procedure. It is not known and cannot be ascertained whether or not “God” secures a religiously adequate referent. What needs to be kept in mind, in reflecting on this issue, is whether a “contingent thing” is a pleonasm and “infinite reality” is without sense and whether, when people go beyond anthropomorphism (or try to go beyond it), it is possible to have a sufficient understanding of what is referred to by “God” to make faith a coherent possibility.
Finally, it will not do to take a Pascalian or Dostoyevskian turn and claim that, intellectual absurdity or not, religious belief is necessary, since without belief in God morality does not make sense and life is meaningless. That claim is false, for even if there is no purpose to life there are purposes in life—things people care about and want to do—that can remain perfectly intact even in a godless world. God or no God, immortality or no immortality, it is vile to torture people just for the fun of it, and friendship, solidarity, love, and the attainment of self-respect are human goods even in an utterly godless world. There are intellectual puzzles about how people know that these things are good, but that is doubly true for the distinctive claims of a religious ethic. The point is that these things remain desirable and that life can have a point even in the absence of God.
Kai E. Nielsen