On Atheism

Peter H Bennett, Victoria Regional Meeting

.I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

Jesus of Nazareth. John 16:12 (RSV)

 Richard Dawkins published his widely acclaimed book The God Delusion nearly twenty years ago (2006).  In it Dawkins launched a major attack on classical arguments for the existence of God, including an assault on Intelligent Design, and he pointed out in meticulous detail all that is wrong with organised religion and its momentous failings throughout the history of human civilisation.  The book spawned significant public debate and gave birth to many responses and new books such as Alister McGrath’s polemic The Dawkins Delusion.  Now it seems to me that since Dawkins’ publication many have been willing and ready to assert that they are atheists and they are quick to cite Dawkins and other notable atheists (Hitchens, Fry, Dennett, Adams) in defence of their position and views.  Such public and scholarly debates are to be welcomed and promoted as entirely warranted when it comes to assessing significant and important philosophical and theological questions that arise from claims such as God exists.  In this brief article, however, I want to argue that there is something wrong with many purported claims to atheism, namely, that many people who say they are atheists are nothing of the kind.

In support of my argument let us first get clear on what atheism actually is.

Atheism is a metaphysical position.  It is an ontological claim.  The wo/man who asserts that s/he is an atheist is using the term correctly if and only if s/he is referring to a particular mental state such that s/he gives assent to the belief that there is no God.  Holding such a position requires that one can give an account of what is meant by the term God.  In order to do this one must be able to elucidate the necessary and logical criteria for the concept of God and then one must assert that with respect to such a concept there are no extant examples.  In other words, one must know what counts as God and then deny that there is any such thing.  This is what is required to truthfully and accurately claim to be an atheist.  An atheist is someone who denies belief in God.  In order to do this coherently one must possess the concept of God.  I cannot deny the existence of unicorns unless I know what would count as a unicorn, were such a thing to exist.

So, what are the logical and necessary criteria for the application of the concept of God?  For the purposes of this article let us agree that God, were S/HE to exist, would meet the following conditions: S/HE would be an extant Being who is both transcendent and immanent; possessing the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and omni-benevolence; S/HE would be the First Cause of all causes and the creator and sustainer of all creation.  Now an atheist is someone who denies the existence of such a being.   This all seems straightforward enough, so what am I wanting to argue?  I have found that some people who assert that they are atheists do not meet the conditions I have argued for above.  So what do they mean when they say they are atheists?  I have found that they often mean one of the following three things.

First, some people say they are atheists when what they really mean is that they are very cross or very disappointed with organised, mainstream faith traditions.  There are many in our post-modern and secular Western world who have had a very negative experience with the Christian church.  There are a great many people who are very critical of mainstream organised religion.  These people will often point to the Church’s failings with respect to the way women have been and are treated, the mistreatment of those who identify as LGBTQI, the sexual and physical abuse of children, the abuse and misuse of power within the hegemonic structures of the Church.  It is not uncommon to find such people amongst Quakers which is a religious society that attracts a Christian alumnus.  Friends who feel antagonism and antipathy towards mainstream churches and even towards other faith traditions have good grounds for holding the position they do, but this position of estrangement doesn’t make them atheists.  As stated above, atheism is a metaphysical position and being angry with the Church (or even with God) does not make one an atheist.

Second, some people say they are atheists when their epistemology leads them towards doubt and even scepticism.  Although this position is much closer to atheism than the negative position outlined above, doubting that God exists doesn’t make one an atheist – it makes one an agnostic.  Atheism is an extreme epistemic and metaphysical position – it is to assert that one knows that there is no God.   It was once said of Simone de Beauvoir that only her scepticism kept her from atheism.  Agnosticism is to entertain uncertainty with respect to the existence of the Ultimate Reality characterised above.  Doubting the existence of God makes one an agnostic, not an atheist.

Third, some people describe themselves as atheists by denying the existence of a simplistic, naïve and anthropomorphized being they describe as God.  I call this the Father Christmas myth.  It refers to those who believe that God doesn’t exist but who reveal on questioning that the God whose existence they deny is not the metaphysical Ultimate Reality I described in the fourth paragraph.  Instead, they deny the existence of a being who is some sort of combination of Gandalf and Father Christmas.  Such a conception of God cannot be taken seriously for if it were to be embraced it would make us all atheists.

An atheist is someone who denies the existence of God – of an Ultimate Reality – of the Ground of Being.  To doubt the existence of such a being is to adopt agnosticism.  Being cross and angry with organised religion does not make one an atheist.  Whether or not one can be an atheist and coherently be a member of a Religious Society is another question.

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  1. Gerard Guiton (Australian Quakers)

    A good, clear and informative article. In my experience over many years both in and out of the academy, people who claim to be atheist indeed often have a firm belief in God, as Peter said, only it’s the fantasy god, and often a toxic variety. What we now need is an appraisal of both classical theism and non-dualism. Thank you, Peter.

  2. David Swain

    It must be difficult to believe in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God and live in the real world. As Holocaust survivor Primo Levi concluded: “There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God.” A believable God would not protect the world from evil, but would be in there suffering with His people.


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