Monday, October 17, 2016

Toward A Strong Atheism

For modern atheists in America, most take "atheism" to mean simply lack of belief in gods. This may be distinguished as "weak" atheism here, with the "strong" atheism being belief that no gods exist. However, in philosophy, atheism is defined solely as the "strong" variety. "Weak" atheism would be classed as a type of skepticism. Regardless, in this post I will refer to the view as strong atheism so it can be distinguished from the more common view of American atheists.

The reason for atheism to be defined as lack of belief in gods, and not belief gods do not exist, is said to be either (from atheists) because disbelief is the default position, or null hypothesis or (by theists) to escape any burden of proof. No matter who is right (and both can be correct in different cases) it seems to me a "strong" atheism is viable. Many philosophers have of course defended this since, as I said, atheism is defined that way in philosophy. More specifically, the belief God (as defined by classical theism-a being that is all powerful, all good, all wise and so on) does not exist.

It may surprise many atheists that there are many arguments against the existence of God. They are generally only familiar with arguments for God's existence. Yet while the strategy of only making counterarguments and thus declaring the case for God unproven can suffice, sound arguments that show God does not exist have an even stronger effect. For if the attributes given to God are more than just unproven, but also logically incompatible, then God cannot exist.

I do not think that atheists (for whatever reason) should shy away from holding the position that not only is God not proven, but he does not exist. The philosophical case for this can be and has been made. Philosophical or "strong" atheism is a better position to take, given its firmer and more solid approach. There is no need to settle for God simply being unproven. 


  1. Hello mcc1789,

    Responding to your comment on my blog--
    You wrote: "people do have a general idea about this when they speak either for or against it: a being that is all good, all powerful, all wise, etc. I'd venture to say what most theists mean by the term also isn't "ultimate reality". For me, I'm not even sure what this means."

    I think the first general definition of "God," given by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: "1 capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality:"
    is far more common than you think. But then maybe you were referring only to the public in general?

    For your definition--"a being that is all good, all powerful, all wise, etc." is very popular with conservative Christians and conservative Muslims.

    But many Christian theologians, a number of philosophers, etc. wouldn't define the term, God, in that way.

    For instance, my own upbringing emphasized that God essentially and primarily love, only secondarily powerful. But most Calvinist leaders hold to Divine Command Theory--that God only loves a limited number, and that whatever God says/orders is what is true.

    Thus, they will state (as they have personally to me over the last 55 years) that God's goodness is different from our definition of "good." And they will emphasize--as one leader did to me when I was 17--that whatever God calls us to do is "good" even if it isn't good to us humans.

    At the time the Calvinist leader directly told me that God is calling me to do what is immoral, what is not good from a human standpoint. Then he quoted from the Old Testment.
    I was so utterly shocked!

    Definitely not my own definition of "God" by any stretch of the imagination.

    And then I went off to university and studied philosophy, comparative literature, and anthropology. There I discovered that the word "God" has many, many different meanings to various religions and various philosophers.

    So, basically, I quit believing God means "a being that is all good..."
    and came to the view of the definition of the Merriam-Webster. I did continue believing that God is "all wise," etc., but I became convinced that God isn't a "being."

    Also, if one looks at Hindu philosophy and religion, one will quickly there are all sorts of gods, some very definitely not "all good."

    And that in philosophical Hinduism, the ultimate God, Brahman is actually the cause of both good and evil!Brahman is the "creative principle which lies realized in the whole world," "the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena."

    Then there is the view of God as defined by Spinoza, etc.

    As defined by the Christian theologian Paul Tillich...

    As defined by Christians and some Muslims as "limited"...

    And the view of process philosophy (such as Alfred Lord Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, etc.).

    At this point in my life, I don't think "God" is like the common conservative Christian/Muslim definition.

    In fact, I am a hard atheist toward the God as defined by Augustinians, Calvinists, Muslims.

    The view I got from various philosophers and thinkers I've studied is this:

    God is the reality beyond/within matter and energy, from which/by which humans (and any other alien species) get life, are conscious, capable of reasoning and doing mathematics, and having a sense of ethical "ought, and from which come human rights, etc.

    Sorry that this is a longer comment than usual, but "God" is such a difficult term to discuss quickly.

    1. Perhaps it is more common, though from both philosophers and laypeople mainly I've seen the classical theist definition. I admit though I'm not that familiar with theologians. So far I've only read that Paul Tillich defended a definition resembling this, God as the "ground of all being". To me however I'm not sure if that's even necessarily theistic. Again though, I don't know much about it yet.

      All-loving seems to be a common characteristic given of God as well yes. I should have included it.

      I agree, that definition of God is bizarre, and does not seem to be one most non-Calvinists hold to (thank goodness).

      Of course once you get into other religious beliefs, the gods are often very different. I should be more specific and say here I'm addressing the common Christian conceptions of God here that I've seen, though as you say others exist too.

      I feel like your perspective is one that I'd accept, because for me if a god is neither mind nor being, it makes no sense to call it a deity of any kind. For me it seems like a god must be at least an entity. Atheists could say that the ground of all being is nature, and perhaps more specifically natural forces, matter or whatever else in their view. Or perhaps (as is quite possible) I just don't know enough at this point to understand this perspective. Maybe this is why Tillich apparently thought God, thus defined, is already something everyone believes in. That is probably true, but I don't agree with calling this God.

      Sorry about the deletion-I misspelled something. Grammar nazi :)

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  3. But it would seem God is "mind" of some sort--otherwise, it is difficult to see how reason, mathematics, etc. exist. They appear to be inherent in reality.

    For instance, scientists were able to mathematically calculate how to send a rocket into space to travel for 10 years! and hit Pluto on the nose so to speak. And such complex mathematical accomplishments have happened many times.

    This does seem to show that math is inherent in reality, otherwise, humans, a conscious species wouldn't be able to use their brains to accomplish tasks which align with matter and energy.

    As for the difficult issue of "being," and whether or not God, (in the M-W dictionary sense, "ultimate reality") is a being or is beyond being or is Being, or something entirely different, who knows?

    Also, God may be Process like Alfred Lord Whitehead and other philosophers think--ie. God is primarily becoming, not being.

    I don't know, nor do the philosophers and theologians who write about this.

    It's all educated speculation. Most people haven't even achieved the skill of doing calculus including me. How in the cosmos do we think that we can know about before the Big Bang, or what the final answers are?

    It's great to hypothesize, but unwise to state one knows.

    Some brilliant mathematicians are theists, some are atheists.

    After reading a number of books by Paul Tillich and other liberal theologians, for years I tended to refer to God as the "Ground of All Being,"
    but now in my elder years I'm less inclined to think that the phrase really explains anything. After all it is a metaphor. And metaphors, while wonderful, can mislead.

    The theist and skeptic Martin Gardener, one of the founders of the modern skeptic movement wrote in his powerful book, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, that Tillich was really an atheist who used religious language. But another well-known Christian theologian, Roger Olson disagrees, says that Tillich was a theist.

    Then you wrote, "Atheists could say that the ground of all being is nature..."

    ? But then they wouldn't be atheists would they? For that appears to have been what Spinoza meant, and he was a pantheist. Recently, I completed reading two biographies on Einstein for our thinkers' book club here. Einstein, also, appears to have been some sort of pantheist, at least he wrote that he believed in Spinoza's God, and emphasized that he wasn't an atheist.

  4. Yes, a mind beyond or emanating in reality seems to be the sina qua non of theism, whatever the details.

    If the "ground of all being" is thus defined as requiring a mind, then yes I don't think atheism is consistent with that. However it wasn't clear to me that this was the case.

    I haven't heard Harris say "I" is an illusion. However, he also seems to be into Eastern thought somewhat. Buddhism also says this. I've only yet read a couple of his books (The Moral Landscape and Free Will) and some articles. Those books seemed more compelling then than now, after I learned more about these issues.

    As for determinism, it doesn't seem inconsistent, for if it's true they can't help but act that way. I'm not saying it's right, mind you. As one joke put it "We must believe in free will-we have no choice." Even those who don't have no choice but to act like this.

    How it affects ethics is another matter. Harris says this can be reconciled. I won't defend it though. Nowadays I'm more a compatibilist, and looking into libertarianism as well. They may hold more water than I've previously thought.

    I don't think determinism requires existence to be an illusion, only that free choice is an illusion. Claiming existence is an illusion seems like a self-contradiction. Who is saying it if existence doesn't exist?

  5. Blogger Daniel Wilcox said...
    Starting at the end and working backwards--
    Some forms of Hinduism and modern New Age thought emphasize that existence is an illusion, that existence is a dream of forgetfulness by Brahman. We are all actually God but dreaming this existence.

    I discovered this when in the late 60's. When disillusioned with Christianity, I went on an extensive in depth search of other worldviews including Hinduism. Also, I admired Gandhi for his nonviolence.

    But the idea that I was actually the God of all of existence really struck me as ludicrous. Plus, a Hindu priest told me I ought to go and kill Vietnamese because insects are killed all the time! Whew. One of the major leaders of the current New Age movement thinks God planned 9/11. Obviously, if everything is God, then who else? Plus the thinker--who in other ways had some intriguing ideas--was strongly for Bush's invasion/first strike Iraq War.

    Yes, determinism is an endless loop. After many years of trying to fend off Calvinists and Atheist determinists, I finally, started pointing out that it must be determined that I not think determinism is true;-).

    I suppose the endless looping of determinism is one reason why Nietzsche came to the idea of the eternal return--the idea that all of time/space will keep repeating over and over endlessly.

    It does sound like Sam Harris' claim that everything and everyone is so determined that even every minor finger movement would happen again a "trillion times" (his words) if the world/space came again and again. From "Tumors All the Way Down" or his interview with the hard determinist Jerry Coyne.

    The statement that "I" am an illusion comes from one of those two pod-casts. I forget which.

    His version of Buddhism is very different from the Buddhism I admire. Like Christianity or atheism, Buddhism comes in all sorts of various contradictory versions.

    And, yes, it is possible, but not a view of reality that I plan to choose.

    1. Yes, that idea has always struck me as ludicrous as well. I've never been able to understand how they think that makes sense. Even some atheist idealists/New Agers have this, again with no understandable explanation (at least to me). Many now attempt to justify this with quantum physics, though according to physicists they are talking nonsense.

      I was under the impression Hindus thought killing is wrong (insects included) but then again they've had plenty of wars too. Perhaps that was Jains or Buddhists. Perhaps this Hindu in particular liked Bush because they had a common enemy in Muslims.

      Indeed, as the joke says, the belief in free will would itself be determined. In particular, determinists claiming we can no longer justify punishing people seem to forget themselves. Ambrose Bierce wrote this poem about it:

      There's no free will, says the philosopher
      To hang is most unjust
      There's no free will, assents the officer
      We hang because we must

      I had not heard of whether Nietzche also was a determinist. About that eternal return, it was stated to be simply a thought experiment in what I read.

      I've heard Harris say, that. Actually its' sort of the opposite from what Steve Gould once said about evolution, that you could go back and alter things so that would play out in a different way. However this was probably just a thought experiment too.

      I've heard that, yes. As I learn more, the very romanticized Buddhist idea people have in the West has slowly faded away.

      Ah, but if determinism is true you cannot choose that :) Yet in any case, I've come to doubt that it's true.

  6. Yes, I thought that Gandhi got his nonviolence from Hinduism, but it appears that it came to him via Jainism (according to one scholar I've read), the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus, and elsewhere.

    Some Hindus seem open to nonviolence, but the Bhagavad Gita actually has the God Krishna ordering Arjuna to kill his relatives in war:-( The Mahabharata is full of war. I've read a little of it. Depressing, like other religions.

    Ambrose Bierce! Great writer. I used to teach several of his short stories to students and selections from his Dictionary, but I haven't seen this poem before. Thanks.

    I'm not an authority on Nietzsche, but only referring back to when I studied him in the past. According to a couple of philosophy sites I checked, Nietzsche was contradictory, depending on which writings of his you check.

    Yeah, I've read a bunch of Gould. It wasn't a thought experiment for Gould.
    Gould was strongly opposed to hard determinism.

    He wrote a whole book against determinism. And here's a couple of quotes from an interview with Gould:
    "We wouldn't be here if the impact of a large extraterrestrial body hadn't removed the dinosaurs. That wasn't adaption or natural selection. That was just a bad break.
    Mammals happened to survive because they were tiny little creatures that could hide. And so its lucky
    that we're still around...
    History is quirky, full of random events...We're a little twig on the bush. If replanted from a seed, that twig would almost certainly not grow in the same way again."
    Literary Cavalcade Interview

    A little semantic humor:
    In my life time, thousands of determinists have been determined to make me change my mind about determinism for 55 years. But I am more determined to not be determined.;-)

  7. That makes sense. I heard he was influenced by Thoreau's Civil Disobedience as well.

    I remember reading that, it was pretty eye-opening.

    I greatly enjoyed The Devil's Dictionary.

    I don't know much about Nietzsche besides him often getting held up as the "honest" atheist or things like that. From what I've gleaned, I'm not fond of him.

    I didn't realize that about Gould, very interesting.

    That's the trick with determinism, isn't it? I had recognized its circular nature pretty quickly. Some still seem not to though.