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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Sunday, October 24, 2004

the new atheism

No God at All: Western Humanism and the New Atheism
It is commonly assumed that atheism is the belief that there is no God, and that an atheist is someone who believes there is no God. Most atheists, however, reject these definitions. They point out that the term atheism derives from the Greek a (not, without) and theos (God, god), and conclude that atheism is simply the lack or absence of belief in a God or gods. That is, an atheist does not necessarily deny the existence of a God, but simply has no belief in the existence of a God. George Smith, for example, asserts that in this sense both the man who has never heard of the concept of God, and the child who is too young to grasp the concept, are atheists. This claim is an old one: the eighteenth-century atheist Baron D’Holbach wrote, All children are atheists, they have no idea of God.

Atheists wish to secure two benefits from this redefinition of the term atheism. First, by defining it as the lack of a belief, rather than a belief itself, they wish to render atheism impervious to criticism. One cannot criticize a non-position! On this basis atheists frequently dismiss out of hand all claims that atheism is a dangerous or corrupt philosophy, since it is not a philosophy at all, but merely the lack of a particular philosophical concept. Second, atheists commonly argue that since they lack a belief while theists are adhering to and promoting their belief, the burden of proof rests fully on the theist to make a case for belief in God. That is, the atheist has nothing to justify, no belief to defend or substantiate; the burden of providing justification or evidence rests solely on the theist. An atheist is in the same position as someone who lacks belief in elves — they have nothing to prove and no need to defend their belief, while the person who does believe in elves is obliged, if he wants anyone else to take his belief seriously, to provide some rational justification for that belief. This is what Antony Flew, one of the leading atheist philosophers of the twentieth century, called the presumption of atheism.

The claim that atheism is not a position that needs to be defended is rather odd, and strangely contradicted by atheists themselves. Take, for example, B. C. Johnson, who repeats the standard claim that because atheists merely have a lack of belief in God, they are not offering any explanation of things which needs to be justified. Yet this claim comes on the heels of the following statement about the purpose of his book: For some time now atheists have been in need of firm grounds upon which to base their position. George Smith actually entitles his book Atheism: The Case Against God, which obviously implies that atheism is a position that rejects belief in God.

The attempt to defend their unusual definition of atheism by etymology misunderstands how the word was formed. Traditionally the term has been construed as athe-ism, that is, the belief (-ism) that there is no God (athe-), rather than as a-theism, the mere absence or lack of belief in God. It is silly to define atheism in such a way that not only babies (as is commonly claimed), but also animals and even inanimate objects, would qualify as atheists — since all of these lack belief in God! When atheists are not worrying about the definition, they commonly speak of themselves as atheists with the clear understanding that the term refers to people who have rejected the concept of God.

Of course, most atheists do not claim to know with certainty that there is no God. Flew, for instance, is eager to say that atheists are not "bigoted dogmatists" who are closed to the idea of God. Such dogmatic atheism would leave itself wide open to the objection that one would have to be omniscient to know that there was no God — so that in effect one would have to be God to know there was no God!

Although atheists often deny espousing such a dogmatic atheism, they frequently do end up asserting in quite dogmatic terms that God does not or even cannot exist. George Smith, for example, writes, It is logically impossible for god — a concept replete with absurdities and contradictions — to have a referent in reality, just as it is logically impossible for a square circle to exist. Given the attempts to define god, we may now state — with certainty — that god does not exist. This is actually a fairly common sentiment in the atheist literature. The nineteenth-century atheist Annie Besant, for example, admitted that to say "There is no God" would be irrational because it would be asserting "a universal negative" which would require "perfect knowledge" to justify. But it turns out that Besant allowed for the possibility of a God unknown to her only if it is a finite entity in some unknown place (say, "on the far side of Sirius"). If that God is said to be an infinite being, she argued that such a God cannot exist because the assertion of an infinite God is a "universal affirmative" that is contradicted by the existence of anything (such as oneself) that is not God.

Besant’s argument, of course, misunderstands what theists mean by describing God as "infinite." They mean, not that God is everything (which would be pantheism, not theism), but that he is unbounded by finite limitations of matter, energy, space, or time. In other words, God is incorporeal, omnipotent, omnipresent, and eternal. These characteristics imply that God is not part of the universe and therefore is a concrete being distinct from everything else. Thus Besant’s denial of an infinite God really is a universal negative after all.

Atheism, then, is a position which is often presented in a remarkably double-minded way. Atheists claim not to have any belief about God, but then vigorously deny that God could exist. Atheists deny that atheism is a position that can or needs to be defended, but then offer arguments in defense of atheism. Again, George Smith illustrates this philosophical schizophrenia in unmistakable fashion. After arguing that atheism is not a position or belief but a mere lack of belief in a god, he changes gears in order to explain why atheism is significant: If atheism is correct, man is alone. There is no god to think for him, to watch out for him, to guarantee his happiness. These are the sole responsibility of man. It is clear here that atheism is a philosophy, or at least a basic worldview, after all. It is not merely a lack of belief in certain postulated entities (like elves) but a view of the world as self-existent and self-explanatory and of human life as self-determining. Atheism is the belief that man is alone, that is, that the living beings in this universe must fend for themselves because there is no transcendent Creator or other supernatural beings to help them or to hold them accountable for how they live.

Atheism therefore entails naturalism, the belief — as Carl Sagan famously put it, The COSMOS is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be. For most atheists, atheism also entails secular humanism, the belief that human beings must determine their own purpose for life and must solve their own problems. For an atheist, the only alternative to some such humanism is nihilism, the belief that life has no purpose or meaning. While nihilism is a reasonable inference from atheism, most atheists resist nihilism and argue for what Antony Flew calls Atheistic Humanism: a positive philosophy of life that embraces life as meaningful despite the lack of any divinely created purpose for the human race. This is the philosophy of the Humanist Manifesto I (1933), the Humanist Manifesto II (1973), and the Secular Humanist Declaration (1980).

Given this basic worldview in which the natural cosmos is all that exists and yet human life is held to be meaningful and purposeful, atheists cannot legitimately place the burden of proof exclusively on the theist. The modern atheist espouses a worldview in conscious opposition to the theistic worldview that has dominated Western civilization for about 1600 years, and they therefore bear some burden of proof to show that there is no transcendent God responsible for the existence and nature of the world and for the existence and meaning of human life.

Kenneth Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

10:34:00 pm