“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Psalm 14:1 KJV
Happy April Fools’ Day. Drawing my inspiration from the Psalmist, I thought it would be particularly fitting to talk about atheism today. In the tradition of Gaunilo, I shall write, as it were, on behalf of the fool. Some atheists might balk at this reclamation of ‘fool.’ We’re ‘brights’ remember? Relax. Don’t get hung up on labels. The fact is, atheism is much misunderstood, and there’s a lot of misinformation about what exactly it is and what it entails. Calling ourselves ‘brights’ and holding ‘Reason Rallies’ is not going to help our public image. It’s condescending to suggest that ‘brights’ have a monopoly on reason; they don’t. I’ve never understood the propensity of ‘free-thinkers’ to rally around a celebrity atheist like Richard Dawkins with cult-like devotion. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Why would we mirror the very religious fervor we criticize? Ironically, like churches, these secular conclaves are usually preaching to the choir. Since the popular proponents of atheism, are, ironically, responsible for many of the misunderstandings about atheism, it’s time to set the record straight.
First, what is atheism? Actually, I think Psalm 14:1 offers a useful definition. Atheism is the claim that there is no God. Whoa! I hear some atheists object: atheism is simply the lack of belief in God, or unbelief. But, of course, simple lack of belief in God, or unbelief, is ambiguous. It describes a range of unbelieving positions. For example, it describes agnostics (people who don’t know if there’s a God), so-called ‘apatheists’ (people who don’t care if there’s a God), practical atheists (people who live as though there is no God), weak atheists (people who don’t think there’s any evidence for God’s existence, but claim that we can’t know that God doesn’t exist), strong atheists (people who claim that we can know that God doesn’t exist), and what I’ll call moderate atheists (people who think that we have good inductive grounds for thinking God doesn’t exist, but these are short of a disproof). So I think we need to define atheism in stronger terms than mere ‘unbelief.’
Why do some atheists have a problem with this stronger claim? I don’t know. It’s baffling to me. But as a cursory tour of popular atheist websites and message boards will tell you, it’s a big deal. But I think if you press these atheists, they actually want to make a stronger claim than that they ‘lack belief in God.’ For example, Dawkins argues like this: Most believers are ‘atheists’ with respect to most of the gods humanity has believed in over the millennia. Take Zeus, for example. Nobody these days believes in Zeus, but surely we don’t want to say that we’re merely agnostic about Zeus’ existence. We’re pretty sure Zeus doesn’t exist. That’s precisely my point. If we’re not merely agnostic with respect to Zeus, we’re making a stronger claim than that we ‘lack belief in Zeus.’ So Dawkins is a ‘moderate/leaning to strong atheist’ (I think he rates himself as a 6.9 on a 7 point scale). Side note: Dawkins is wrong, of course, that believers are ‘atheists with respect to Zeus.’ Believers aren’t atheists in any respect because they believe in at least one God. By definition, they can’t be atheists; atheists don’t believe in any gods. We should be able to agree on that much.
Another way atheist popularizers misrepresent atheism, is to conflate it with naturalism. The two are not synonymous. Atheism is a negation: it says there is no God. Naturalism says that the natural world is all there is. The only sorts of things that exist are natural objects that can be described by our best science. Thus naturalism entails both ontological and epistemological claims. Now, of course, naturalism entails atheism. If you are a naturalist, you are also an atheist. But the converse is not necessarily true; one can be an atheist without necessarily being a naturalist. Alvin Plantinga defines naturalism as the belief that there is no such person as God or anything like God. That seems to be right. By contrast, one could be an atheist with respect to the Judeo-Christian God, but merely agnostic with respect to a deistic god. Likewise, one could be an atheist with respect to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God, but agnostic with respect to an impressively powerful, knowledgeable, and good god. Granted, atheism and naturalism often go hand in hand, but there’s no logically necessary relationship between them. Also, atheism is not scientism, the view that the only source of knowledge is science. Scientism is arguably the epistemological corollary to naturalism that I mentioned earlier. But atheism simpliciter is not committed to scientism either. However, most celebrity atheists and their followers are committed to scientism, such that the general public can be forgiven for thinking that it’s simply part and parcel of the definition of atheism.
Furthermore, atheism does not necessarily entail hatred of religion or disdain or disrespect for religious people and institutions. The new atheists clearly do disdain religion, but that is an add-on to atheism, not part of the definition of atheism. It’s certainly possible for an atheist to think that religion is, or at least can be, a source of social benefit. It’s also no part of the definition of atheism to claim that theists are irrational for believing in God. This strikes me as one of the major differences between popular atheism and academic atheism. In the academy, at least among philosophers who specialize in philosophy of religion (here I’m referring to atheists who specialize in this field) and epistemology, it is rare to find anyone claiming that belief in God is irrational, or that belief in God cannot be affirmed by any rational person. By contrast, the new atheists say this ad nauseum. But simply repeating a claim doesn’t make it true or even intellectually respectable.
Finally — and this should be obvious — atheism does not equal liberalism. You cannot infer anything about a person’s politics from the mere fact that she’s an atheist. Atheists only agree on one thing: there isn’t a God. They disagree on almost everything else, including politics. Getting atheists on the same page is like herding cats. However, the perception seems to be that atheists are mostly leftists — perhaps remnants of the communist boogeyman — who want to seize political power and remove all references to God, and the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage, that remain in our culture. There is a vocal minority of atheists who fit this stereotype, but most do not. I would never want to remove the vestiges of Christendom from our culture. I resonate with them deeply on a poetic level. Nor would I want to promote ignorance of the Bible. It’s a book everyone should read, if for no other reason than to understand the world in which we live. The Bible should also — dare I say it — be taught to children (just not in science class). It’s an aspect of education that’s been sadly sacrificed in the name of political correctness. The fact is, atheists don’t clamour for political power. When atheism makes the news, due to legal action in some red state, it’s usually because the religious majority has unwittingly infringed on an atheist’s civil rights. However, I suspect that in the majority of these cases, the parties to the discussion work it out, and it never makes it to the courts, or into the news. But atheists, like any minority, can succumb to the temptation to play the victim and develop a persecution complex. I can’t think of a less helpful approach. What’s needed is clarity about what atheism means and what it doesn’t. Unfortunately, the so-called ‘brights’ are just muddying the issue further.