|Thought Map - Atheism
"Atheist" has until recently been a term of strong
disapproval amounting to condemnation. One tends to forget that for most
of human history men and women have thought that this world is created by
and impacted on
by God or gods. A large majority today would not describe
themselves as atheists in the sense that they reject belief in God. This
belief may not, however, relate strongly in practical terms to their lives.
Strictly speaking, an atheist is one who for whatever reason regards as
false the statement "God exists" or "gods exist". In
terms of argument about this position, Antony Flew  thinks that there
is a "presumption of atheism" just as in law there may be a
presumption of an accused's innocence. The presumption of atheism
... stipulates that it is up to believers in the existence and
activities of the gods or of God to provide good reason for believing,
rather than to unbelievers to provide positive reasons for not
This presumption stems, of course, from the extreme
difficulty, amounting to impossibility, of proving a negative.
If God exists then God and God's activities are
definitive in relation to the universe. If God doesn't exist, then we
necessarily derive the meaning of everything from the universe ("all that
is") rather than from some outside agent (bigger, stronger and more
perfect than the universe) or from a similar agent operating from within
the boundaries of the universe.
There seem to be two main avenues for attempting to show that God
The first is to proceed from aspects of the universe taken as evidence
which might demonstrate the existence of a being other than the universe. This is
usually known as the
A fundamental problem with this type of
argument is the leap one must necessarily make from aspects of the
universe to a conclusion that God (other than "all that is") exists. Thomas Aquinas argued that [a]
it is self-evident that everything in the universe has a cause; so [b] if
causation is an essential characteristic of the universe, the universe
must therefore also be caused by something other than itself. That cause we call "God".
The problem with this argument lies in the use of "therefore".
The logical conjunction appears valid, but on inspection there is no logical reason why
the universe should not be "un-caused".
The second way is to argue that if one can conceive of God, it's possible to go
on to rationally
demonstrate that God must exist. This is the ontological argument or an
argument "from being".
Anselm offered the proposition that there
must be "something than which nothing more perfect (greater) can be
achieved." If we can conceive of this, then the most perfect must
exist because "something than which nothing greater can be
conceived" cannot be conceived not to exist - and thus exists
necessarily. This argument, said Anselm, can be applied to God.
However, it has been shown by Emmanuel Kant, Bertrand Russell and others that this sort
of word-play depends for its apparent success on invalid use of language.
The essence of their case is that the phrase "God exists"
differs in kind from "cows exist" - although it is used as
though it were identical with it. The former contains a
word which, if an instance of it could be found in the universe, its
existence would not need proving. The latter points to an instance which
is found in the universe.
That is, we can point to an instance of
"cow" but not to an instance of "God". To
"prove" God's existence is to try to find an instance of that
which apparently has no instance in the known universe. This problem is
outside the scope of language and must therefore be dealt with by
If, as it seems, it's impossible to prove using these two methods that God exists, in what
other ways might the issue be approached?
Some suggest that it's worth looking at the meaning of the word
"God". Perhaps it's not what it seems. When we say, for example,
"God is good" or "God is all-powerful" we're using descriptive
words which are usually applied to people. That is, such descriptions are anthropomorphic
- we're talking about God as though God were a human being. A number of
1. How do we know that terms usually applied to humans can be validly
applied to God as, by
definition, a being
"greater than" the universe? Surely if we use anthropomorphic terms,
we're only in fact describing something less than, or derivative from, God.
2. If God is absolute (that is, the meaning
of the word "God" defines every other meaning) then God can't be known
except as an effect (of the absolute cause), since what is absolute
can't be known by what is finite. But if effects are aspects of the
universe, then we need only those effects to describe God. The
absoluteness of God as a meaningful concept isn't useful or even relevant.
3. Anthropomorphic words certainly describe people. But why should
only good or positive descriptions apply to God? If we describe people as evil or
weak, then why can't God also be called evil or weak? One person can be
both strong and weak in various aspects. Why can't God be both as well?
On what basis should we rate some anthropomorphic words useful and
others not? People can be described as imperfect. Why can't God be
described this way?
4. Is it possible for people to imagine anything "greater
than" themselves? That is, are not the words we use to describe God
inevitably limited to ourselves as the "highest" (most
developed) form of life known to us? We might argue that we can
describe aspects of the universe which are more complex than we are.
This is no doubt true - but only in the sense that we use mathematics to
do so. Mathematics is [a] almost certainly a formalised extension of
language and [b] an ideal system in the sense that it draws conclusions
from givens which don't necessarily exist in real life (statistics is
the science of describing "what is").
It's possible, on the other hand, that descriptions of God might be
That is, we can describe God using terms normally applied to ordinary objects in the
universe. We do so knowing fully that such terms describe God obliquely -
just as when we talk about the "river of time" we know that time
isn't a river, but only like a river.
So if we say that God is
good, we realise that God isn't truly good because God isn't human - God
is only like a good human. When we talk of God's kingdom, we liken
God to a human king knowing full well that God isn't really like that. The
word nevertheless conveys something about God (albeit a God we in some
sense invent) by using a human metaphor.
This is, I think, a perfectly valid approach. But it can equally well be
used by an atheist, who might say, "God is a ghostly delusion"
and be just as "right" as anyone else. No metaphor is sacred. If
we can use the kingly metaphor for God, we can just as well call God our
"president" or "dictator".
A number of other simple but effective atheist arguments are not easily
** Unless the matter-energy which makes up the universe is itself
eternal, God can't exist except as other than or "outside" the
universe in the normal sense of the word "exist". If God does
exist in some non-material form, perhaps as a quasi-physical or spiritual
entity in the universe, what form would evidence for God's existence take?
It would have to be physical evidence of some sort. That evidence could
be objective (capable of analysis) or subjective (experienced privately
But if God exists other than or "outside" the universe, how
do we know from within the universe about that existence - apart from
evidence detectable within the universe?
** If God exists and is good, and if one recognises the existence of
evil in the universe, then one is proposing two incompatible elements.
One must therefore either get rid of evil or of God. There is no known
way of dismissing evil other than to deny its existence. If one can
validly deny the existence of evil, then it is also valid to deny the
existence of God.
** The nature of the universe is such that God is an unlikely entity.
This is because of the recently-discovered process of evolution, an essentially
"trial-and-error" or (better-termed) statistically variable process. More than that, it's a ruthless
process, wasteful of sentient self-reflective life. The real-life
process of evolution, both physical and social, contradicts the descriptive words
like "loving" and "caring" usually applied to God. In short, evolution and "God" are not
** If God exists, both theist and deist must perforce explain why God
has decided (to use anthropomorphic terms) to leave God's existence in
doubt. God must, having plainly done just that, be willing for us
to conclude that God doesn't exist. So one's position in this matter is
of little importance one way or the other.
Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut who was the first person to orbit
the earth, is supposed to have reported with some glee that he had seen no
signs of God out in space. This may seem silly to us, but it conceals an
important point. If it is impossible to use language to
describe God, or to physically prove that God exists, might it be possible to deduce
from what we know of the universe that God is somewhere "out
there" or somehow part of the universe?
Perhaps the best known instance of such an attempt is to use the
conclusions of mathematical physics. Within the last few decades new data
has been developed by mathematicians to draw far-reaching conclusions
about the nature of the universe.
One of the most startling is that
"everything that is" had a definite beginning in a so-called Big
Bang. Not only that, but the Big Bang happened in such a way that this
particular universe, and none other, could evolve - which stands to reason, because unless
it had we wouldn't be here to observe it. It seems reasonable to conclude
that God caused the Big Bang. God exists, therefore, because God's
The problem with this answer is that those who state that the Big Bang
was a cosmic accident, that it happened by chance, are on no weaker ground
than anyone else. In other words, this is merely a variation of Aquinas's
"first cause" argument and fails for the same reasons.
As far as I can tell, those who have thought through the problem of
God's existence usually arrive either at an atheist or an
agnostic position. There seems to be no way of proving that God exists - in
which case Flew's presumption of atheism stands.
There are other approaches, however. Probably the most common is that which
states that there is enough evidence from the universe (what, on a smaller scale,
we call "the world") to indicate the existence of a loving creator. That
evidence may not be conclusive but it's strongly indicative of God's
existence. If God's existence can't be rationally proved, acceptance of the
indicative as truth carries with it
such great benefits and practical confirmation in the normal course of
living that it becomes as self-evident as anyone ever needs it to be.
In other words, what's normally called "faith" is
one response which really works when it comes to the reality of an
entity called God.
This way of tackling the issue has the merit of being irrefutable. If
it's your experience, but not mine, that God exists I must acknowledge the validity of
your inner truth. Faith in this sense can "never be destroyed by
tragedy, but only tested by it", to quote Emil Fackenheim . He
goes on to say that a person "primordially open to God"
experiences "the believer's certainty of standing in relation to an
unprovable and irrefutable God." He adds, "Religious faith can
be, and is, empirically verifiable; but nothing empirical can possibly
refute it." Fideism, for that is what Fackenheim's stance is, does away with Flew's presumption of atheism.
My review of contemporary writing indicates that a variation of
Fackenheim's approach is common today, as it has been for some 60
years. It is that most notably established by Paul Tillich and widely
popularised by Bishop John Robinson of Honest to God fame. They
write of God as the "Ground and Depth of Being" who is simultaneously
"out there" as the sustaining basis of the universe, and "in
here" as a divine personal presence.
This position is, I think, merely unintelligible. There is a constant
oscillation in their writing between metaphors relating to the inner
experience of human beings ("depth of life") and God as radically
transcendent ("ground of all being"). Only the latter sense has
any real bearing on the present discussion.
A variation of fideism shows promise to those who don't like the
prospect of a Godless universe. Instead of proclaiming an invulnerable
faith, it's possible to proclaim a studied choice that God
If I choose to live as though God exists, I can [a] take
observable phenomena as indications of God's nature, but do so
[b] provisionally. This means that I am prepared to change my perception
of God's nature as my data changes, and indeed as my own perceptions
over time. This approach is open to the objections offered to fideism.
It's main merit is that it can argue openly and be open to argument because it's
"answers" are entirely provisional. That is, the position is
open to evidence which disproves God's existence as it is to the opposite.
To sum up: An a priori proof of God's existence is beyond the
limits of language. Even if the universe contains evidence that God
exists, we cannot know the difference between God-evidence and any other
evidence without criteria which, by definition, are not available. If the
criteria were available, the evidence could be sought and either found or
The 20th century saw the advent of a type of atheism which is, as far
as I know, unique in the history of mankind - the growing lack in the West
of a need, in both practical and conceptual terms, for a notion of God at
all. God's presence or absence increasingly makes little or no apparent difference
to the lives of many. Neither cosmological nor
ontological arguments appear to be of more than passing interest. This
phenomenon makes it of little relevance to argue one way or the other about
 A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, 1997
 Commentary, 1964 in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy