Atheism in the Service of Theology

I find atheism quite fascinating. It’s not an outlook I’ve ever been able to stick with seriously for various reasons but I like to follow the conversations to see what’s being discussed. It’s theologically interesting to consider what it might mean for atheism to be true, what implications would follow. Such speculations can show in relief the nature of the deity they deny, something of central theological interest. As with religion it’s important to consider that atheism is not one thing but that there are rather many forms of atheism, a variety that makes its study all the more theologically fruitful.

I think I had an unarticulated sense before that there were many forms of atheism but I was pleased to see this idea fleshed out in detail in John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, published in 2018. Gray is an atheist but rather sectarian, having strong preferences for only a few select forms of atheism over several forms that he finds untenable. I divide up the possible types of atheism into different categories than the ones Gray uses but I nevertheless appreciate his general approach of making these distinctions. I like to organize forms of atheism and theism into complementary pairs, each sharing a similar conception of God that they either deny or affirm.

One form of atheism I find denies a conception of God as master craftsman, what Plato called a demiurge. This is a kind of scientific atheism that sees God as an explanatory hypothesis in competition with modern science, modern science understood here popularly as a kind of canonical set of laws and theories, as opposed to the technical meaning of a general method of empirical enquiry. To prefer the “God hypothesis”, as Victor Stenger called it, is to reject competing scientific hypotheses that have been confirmed by mass experimental evidence. I actually find the claims of this type of atheism rather modest. The world does not look much different today whether this craftsman God exists or not. It just has different origins. There’s no difference in observed reality, just different hypotheses for the origin and cause of its various features. The corresponding theism, belief in God as master craftsman, may be part of many people’s religion. Creationism and intelligent design see God as master craftsman. But most people’s religion is also much more than this and may not even include it or give it much attention. Allegorical interpretations of religious stories have been common for centuries among religious adherents. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden isn’t necessarily a competing hypothesis about human origins. Consistent with the indistinguishable universe that follows from either atheism or theism of this sort, religious believers with alternative or expanded forms of theism may completely accept many or all of the scientific explanations of observable reality without compromising anything. That’s another reason why this type of atheism seems to me quite modest.

Other forms of atheism are kinds of morally-focused atheisms and I see these taking two forms. In one form God is a superfluous law-giver, superfluous because we can derive moral law without God. Moral law and moral progress are real in this view but transcend God and even contradict what God is believed to have decreed. This makes it possible to condemn atrocities committed in the service of religion throughout history. This atheism would take the side of the Euthyphro Dilemma, proposed by Plato, that the gods love what is good because it is good independent of them and not that the gods make things good simply by saying so. There is something transcendent beyond God that grounds morality. This form of atheism makes space for something that would seem supernatural, though naturalized by other names. I still find this form of moral atheism quit modest because the moral world looks very similar to the moral world of theism, though with differences in the specific moral laws.

A more significant form of moral atheism is one that dispenses with moral law altogether, an amoral atheism. Here the moral worlds of atheism and theism look very different. Atheists accepting this form of amoral atheism may still behave in ways that would be considered moral. But there would be no moral fact of the matter, no real right or wrong. There might still be a sense of right and wrong as social convention but it would be of a different ontological category. I don’t find this form of atheism discussed as much though people might take it for granted and acknowledge it when pressed. Richard Rorty is one thinker who has explored this outlook quite thoroughly. Rorty defends liberalism and human rights but without recourse to any ultimate grounds of justification. Promulgating such Western values is a benign form of chauvinism, something other parties in the modern clash of cultures, such as China and Middle Eastern states, would agree with but view less favorably as unwelcome Western imperialism. I find the Rortian outlook quite fascinating and even attractive, especially in some climates of absolutist hyper-moralism that start to get exhausting. But it’s worth stressing some of the jarring implications of this. In an amoral world slavery and mass murder are not morally wrong from any absolute perspective. We can deplore them, declare them immoral in our own adopted morals, and make laws against them. But there’s no fact of the matter beyond that.

The complementary form of theism that amoral atheism denies grounds morality in God. This could be as a matter of divine fiat, as proposed by William of Ockham and divine command theory, or as something essential to God’s nature: God is good, as a fundamental axiom. Theists can appeal to the natural sense people have that there really are things that just are right and wrong to make the case that this moral reality has a transcendent origin. If the view that mass murder is no more immoral from an absolute perspective than selfless love seems implausible it undermines the plausibility of amoral atheism. Non-theists may object that a person doesn’t have to believe in God to be moral but that isn’t quite the same issue. It’s not a matter of whether belief in God leads to moral or immoral actions but whether God’s existence is necessary to make anything moral or immoral in fact, regardless of people’s beliefs. Again, the difference between atheism and theism here, what the world is actually like, seems significant.

One form of theism that, to its credit, would seem to have no possible complementary atheism is God as being itself, or Being with a capital B. This is the God of classical theism, sometimes called the God of the philosophers. David Bentley Hart gives an excellent overview of this classical theism in The Experience of God in which he sets out “simply to offer a definition of the word ‘God’”. One way I like to wrap my head around this ontological conception of God is to imagine, or try to imagine, what it would mean for this God not to exist. This is a God whose nonexistence would entail the nonexistence of everything else. If this God does not exist, nothing exists. And it’s important to be clear what this means. It’s not entirely clear, to me at least, what else about the nature of God follows from this, or if it overlaps with anything that religions have traditionally said about God. I think it does but it’s not obvious. The only thing immediately apparent here is that there is something underlying all of this, all reality. That could simply be the brute fact of the universe itself, basically pantheism, or something more than that, which I find more plausible. But if this is the most basic definition of God the difference between theists and atheists may amount to a preference of language, theists preferring traditionally and historically loaded terms like God, Brahman, and Dao, and atheists preferring more secular language like Immanuel Kant’s noumena, or just shelving the matter as something indulgently metaphysical and unscientific. For my part I accept the classical understanding of God, with a lot of contingent, scriptural features added on. That the personal God with whom I have an intimate relationship of love and trust is identical to the ground of all being is something that fills me with awe and reverence. I think awe and wonder in the face of the ultimate mystery behind all things is something available to anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. But combining that with the intimacy and love fitting a personal God comes after the fact of accepting a particular religious narrative and doesn’t seem to be derivable or provable from metaphysical reflection alone.

The last complementary set I consider may be one of convergence in mysticism, where atheistic and theistic complements do not differ all that substantially, particularly in their practice if not in belief. I wouldn’t have considered this convergence until I read Gray’s book but I find it quite interesting. He proposes that “some of the most radical forms of atheism may in the end be not so different from some mystical varieties of religion”. This may be one of those cases where opposite directions on a curved linear spectrum wrap around and meet again. Mysticism isn’t a form of religious practice I adopt yet myself but it feels like something I might save for retirement when I’ve retreated to a tranquil villa somewhere. Mysticism has competing definitions but I think of it as direct, relational encounter. In religious mysticism this is direct and immediate communion with God at a personal level. A relationship with any person who is not me holds unbridgeable mystery but to recognize this and to see another person as another person with their own consciousness and perspective is to see them more profoundly than in any other way. The mystery and the intimate knowledge coexist and reinforce each other. There’s a kind of factual unknowing in this new way of relational knowing that coincides, if not with atheism then with an agnosticism that’s open to the ultimate mystery of reality. That’s one reason it seems particularly fitting for old age, after I’ve have figured out how much I don’t know.

 

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