On Atheism.
kitten   January 27, 2002

Editor's note: This was written on quite an antiquated word processor which does not features such tools as a spellchecker. If you notice any glaring spelling errors, deal with them and move along - I'll get around to fixing them eventually.

On Atheism
Andy Zebrowitz 01.27.02

Recently I purchased a book entitled Atheism: A Reader - a collection of essays by thinkers, philosophers, theologions, and others, with experiences and modes ranging from Lucretius to Carl Sagan.

The purchase of such a tome is by no means out of the ordinary for me. Having accumulated quite a number of books on the subject of theological studies, I have noticed a peculiar behavior among that of the people around me, upon their discovery of the title of the given book: When I am engaged in reading a book that espouses the theist view (specifically, a Christian view) such as C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, no one so much as blinks. However, should the book happen to be Nietzsche's The Antichrist, or perhaps something even more obvious such as Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God, I am greeted with bizarre expressions that bely some mixture of puzzlement or contempt.

Obviously our society breeds some sort of animosity towards atheists, but curiously, it has become more and more apparent to me in my discussions with people - both laypersons and those schooled in theology alike - that very few have a proper understanding of atheism and what it means to be atheist. The most ignorant among them is under the impression that atheists are some sort of Pagans, or devil worshippers, but most are of the opinion that atheism is a religion that asserts that God does not exist.

I would like the opportunity to share with the reader some of my thoughts on the topic. I am by no means a formally educated theologion, but given my own experience and studies of theology, perhaps my opinions are not so ignorant as to be utterly without merit. This informal essay is not meant to be an all-encompassing and definitive work on the topic; rather, it is a brief examination of some of the problems associated with the theistic view and therefore, a support of atheism.

Consider the word "theism", which is defined as "a belief in a god or gods". The prefix "a-" means "without", as in "ammoral" (without morals), "assymmetry" (without symmetry), "asexual" (without sexual characteristics), and so on. Therefore, the proper meaning of the word "atheism" should be understood to mean "without a belief in a god or gods". In it's most basic form, atheism is not a belief - it is the absence of a belief.

It is important to fully comprehend what this means. Atheism, in and of itself, does not make any assertions; it merely does not accept an assertion (namely, that a diety exists). Anybody who, for whatever reason, does not subscribe to a positive theistic belief, may be called an atheist.

(By "positive" I refer not to ethics or morality, but the type of knowledge being alluded to. A positive statement reveals what something is: for example, "The vase is blue" is a positive claim. A negative statement describes what something is not: "The vase is not red" would be an example of via negativa, attempting to define a thing by detailing what it is not.)

The distinction is an important one in understanding the burden of proof when it comes to theological discussions. Because the atheist is making no claims or assertions, he is not obligated to defend himself. Rather, it is the claimant - in this case, the theist - who is obliged to produce arguments and evidence supporting his claim. If he is unable to do so, reason sides solely with the atheist, who need not argue his own side, but only point out that the theist has failed to support his claim.

Many people - in fact, almost all theists - object to this, of course. When pressed, the theist will almost inevitably state that although he cannot prove the existence of his deity, the atheist cannot disprove it. While this may be correct (perhaps not), the theist is wrong for assuming that the existence of God is therefore an open question. The onus of proof is entirely on the theist to prove the existance of God; if arguments and evidence is not forthcoming, there is no reason to consider his claim to have any more merit than that of a man who claims the existance of unicorns or magic elves.

The first and most important issue, it seems to me, is to have an understanding of what is meant by the word "god". Without this basic knowledge, no information of any kind can be exchanged, and the theist's claim is meaningless. Consider this dialogue:

A: I believe in God.
B: What is "God"?
A: I don't know.
B: Then what are you saying you believe in? How does this belief differ from no belief at all?

It is apparent, therefore, that we must apply some definition to the word "god" if the theist's arguments are to be intelligble; without a definition, we may as well quibble whether or not "zooks" exist while simultaneously stipulating that we have no idea what a "zook" is or what it does, or anything about it. Without some information regarding the nature of the entity being discussed, the word "god" becomes a meaningless utterance.

Unfortunately for the theist, this is not as simple a task as it seems. Many predications have been applied to the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God, but none so far as I can tell move us one step closer to understanding what is meant by the word "god".

Let us select a few of the most common attributes assigned to God. He is often said to be wise, loving, eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, invisible, infinite, incomprehensible, ineffable, and so on.

The first task is to eliminate the negative attributes. One cannot reasonably define anything entirely on what it is not, for a being composed entirely of negative attributes is indistinguishable from nonexistance. Invisible (not visible), infinite (without limit), ineffable (cannot be described - but wait!).. these words can all be applied to nonexistance as well. God is incomprehensible, so is nonexistance. God is invisible, so is nonexistance. God is eternal (not subject to the passage of time), so is nonexistance. And so on down the list of negatives.

We see then that the via negativa methodology will not suffice here; moreso when we consider that in order to have knowledge of what a thing is not, we must know something about what it is.

And just what do we know about what God is? Loving, wise, and so on through the list of positive attributes - these may be good attributes to possess, but exactly what is the nature of the being possessing them? I know what it means to say a man is wise. Is the wisdom of God the same sort of conceptual, knowledge-based wisdom that we are familiar with? If so, then God had to acquire his knowledge from somewhere, and verify it. If not, then we cannot understand what it means to say God is "wise".

The same sort of problem arises with any other positive attribute used to describe God. These words have meaning when applied to finite beings, but wrenched from this context and applied to a supernatural, infinite entity, they become meaningless. The predication takes on a mysterious, unknown meaning - to say that God is this, or God is that, is to say nothing more than that some unknown being possesses an unknown characteristic in an unknown way.

The theist is faced with a very serious problem: He wishes to have a God that he can discuss intelligbly, but if he wishes to apply predicates to God, he must either reduce God to a manlike and finite level, or else admit that these characteristics are incomprehensible when applied to God, and therefore cannot move us one bit closer to understanding what is being referred to by the word "god".

The concepts of omnipotence and omniscience may not be subject to this conundrum, but they too force a problem on the theist. I must argue that these two attributes are mutually exclusive and totally incompatible with each other. If God is capable of knowing the future with absolute certainty, then he is powerless to change it. (The Christian God in particular is apparently often surprised by events, or unaware of them until they occur. The cold and impersonal god of Deism may be exempt from this criticism, but has problems all its own.)

God is often used as an explantory concept for three major questions which have no doubt plagued mankind since he was first able to think. These questions may be enumerated thus:

1. Where did we come from?
2. Why are we here?
3. What happens to us when we die?

These questions may be natural to the inquisitive human mind, and more often than not, people take it for granted that the underlying reason behind it all is a mysterious force, which we call God.

Let us examine the first question, upon which all the others depend. Is "god" truly a coherent method of explaining where we came from? (By "we", I mean "all this"; "the univserse".)

It seems to me that saying "God did it" presents us with manifold problems:

1. First and most seriously: by definition, "supernatural" is somehow above or beyond the natural, knowable univserse, and beyond our ability to understand (not by limits on what is presently known, but because such knowledge about supernatural entities is unknowable). By postulating a supernatural being as the cause of everything, the theist is unwittingly admitting that no explanation is possible.
2. Even if we are to accept "god" as the primary cause of everything, the question remains as unanswered as before: How did this god create existance from nonexistance? "Somehow" is not an explanation. "Through incomprehensible means" is not an explanation.
3. This argument cannot establish the present existance of a god.
4. Nor can it establish a specific religion: This argument could be applied equally well to monotheisism as polytheism.
5. Stating that the cause of everything was a force called "god" does not automatically imply that the cause was in any way concious or animate, nor does it necessarily imply that the events caused were deliberate.
6. Finally, it begs the question, "Then what caused God?" and moves us not one step closer to understanding.

Perhaps it is time to examine the issue of whether or not the question needs to be asked at all. Rather than accepting the concept of a God that "just is", why should we not be content with a universe that "just is", a universe that requires no causal explanation (as if the concept of "cause and effect" is even intelligble outside the framework of the universe)?

The atheist therefore accepts the universe itself as the metaphysical primary upon which all discourse depends. It is the theist who asks "What caused the universe?", demands an explanation, and then, by using a supernatural force as an 'answer', utterly fails to provide that explanation. Consider the "explanation" offered by the theist: A mysterious, unknown entity 'caused' the universe to snap into existance, magically, inexplicably, for unknown reasons, using unknowable means. Does this provide us with any real information regarding the concept being discussed? No, it does not. Does it provide us with a causal explanation in any meaningful sense? No, it does not.

God as an explanatory concept is useless, and so once again, the theist has failed to support his claim.

Another common use of the concept of God is to explain the universe's apparent design; if there is a design, argues the theist, there must be a designer.

It is certainly true that design requires a designer, but first, one must establish that the object in question does indeed exhibit design. Only after the existance of design has been confirmed may a designer be inferred.

Consider William Paley's now-famous Watchmaker analogy, in which a man walking through the woods comes across a watch upon the ground.

Briefly: Paley argues that because the watch displays intricate inner workings that, if altered would result in the watch not functioning, and concludes that the man can therefore deduce that the watch was designed, for a specific end. He goes on to extend this analogy the the universe as a whole, pointing out that the universe displays intricacies that cannot be the result of random occurances, but are the result of directed orders from a master designer, whom we term "God".

The first objection that springs to mind is that the man has a context to compare his watch to: nature. It is obvious that the watch displays characteristics not found in nature, and therefore must be the work of artificial (manmade) design. We are, of course, not so privileged when it comes to the universe as a whole: We have no universes that we know to be "undesigned" to compare this allegedly "designed" one to, nothing to compare our universe's characteristics to and reach the conclusion that ours is the result of design.

It is obvious what Paley means when he says the watch was designed for a specific end, but what about the universe? If by "end" he means "purpose", then he is lost in a maze of circular logic, for it is a purpose to nature that he is attempting to demonstrate.

If, however, he is noting that the universe displays order, he is confusing order with design. It is a mistake to confuse the two. Consider the law of identity, "a = a", or "a thing is what it is", and the law of causality, "a thing will behave according to what it is". All objects, whether manmade or natural, are subject to these axioms, but this does not mean that order implies design. Is Paley suggesting that without God, things would cease to be what they are? That things would not act according to what they are? As George Smith puts it:

"Exactly what does the theist imagine the universe would be like if it was not guided by a master planner? What would a 'disordered' universe be like? What would an acorn do? - grow into a stone, perhaps, and then a theologion? If an acorn did grow into a stone, it would have to possess qualities radically different from what we now designate by the term 'acorn', in which case it would cease to be an 'acorn' in any meaningful sense."
Order is not synonymous with design. Order is a necessary product of existance: Once we accept that a thing exists, we must accept that it exists as something, and has definitive characteristics that necessarily limit it's possible sphere of actions. "A thing is what it is and will behave thus."

My most serious objection to Paley's argument is that evidence of manmade design is only possible within the context of nature itself, as noted before: We can infer design by those characteristics which are not found in nature. The theist must first demonstrate the existance of a supernatural being before he can propose that this being designed nature. It is therefore impossible, even in principle, to use the design argument to establish a designer without first establishing the designer independently.

Another major role that God seems to play in people's lives is that of a moral guiding light; an ethical teacher, the standards set forth by this entity are the absolutes by which we should govern our behavior and code of ethics.

The idea here is apparently that people are incapable of distinguishing good from evil, and so the theist introduces us to God, who will tell us the difference.

There are numerous objections to this concept, but I shall take the lion's approach and attack the jugular directly. If people cannot tell good from evil, then we have no way of knowing if God is good, or the ethical standards he sets forth are good. For all we know, this god may be a demon.

The only way out of this, it seems to me, is to state that people can tell good from evil, in which case we do not require a god to tell us. Postulating an entity to explain to us that which we are capable of deducing on our own is not only adding an extra dimension of difficulty to the issue, but is, to put it bluntly, absurd.

Furthermore, the existance of even one morally upright atheist would disprove the notion that God is required to instill a "proper" code of ethics.

God as an ethics teacher is a useless concept.

The refutions of common theist arguments expressed here cover but a fraction of the issue at hand, but it was not my purpose to provide a comprehensive study of theology. Rather, I merely wished to expound upon a few basic concepts, share a viewpoint that most people have never considered, and clear up the misunderstandings about what atheism is.
Atheism does not necessarily deny the existance of god, but merely lacks belief in god. There are those atheists who go a step further and declare that since the concept of "god" is unintelligible, internally inconsistant, or logically impossible, that such a being cannot exist, and therefore deny the existance of God outright - but this declaration is not part and parcel of atheism per se.

The label "atheist" announces one thing and one thing only: The disagreement, or rejection of, theism. Any other doctrines or belief systems to which the atheist may subscribe are entirely independant of his theological views. An atheist may be a Communist or a capitalist, a conservative or liberal, a producer or a destroyer. He may be an honest man or a liar, a patriot or a criminal, or anything in between. The only thing atheists necessarily share in common is their disagreement with theism.

Atheism is not an evil force, nor is it destructive in nature - and as I hope I have shown here, there are many logical reasons for adopting the atheist view.

I hope, therefore, that the next time I am reading a book that may run contrary to popular theistic views, that I am not looked down upon. I am an atheist, but I am a normal person - minus the mysticism.