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.


The People Inside the Balloon

Story by Todd Decker and his daughter
Illustrated by Todd’s daughter


Anna went to a restaurant with her Mommy. They had chicken sandwiches and milkshakes. And best of all, she got a big, red, shiny balloon in the shape of a heart. She was so excited to get a balloon. They were her favorite. She loved the way they floated and bounced around. But there was something really special about this balloon. There were two little people floating inside it. The people at the restaurant told her about the little people but she thought that they were joking. That would be so silly. How could there be people inside a balloon?

They walked outside the restaurant and to the car. Anna held on really tight to the balloon. She didn’t want it to float away.

When they got home she ran inside pulling her balloon by its string. The balloon floated up to the ceiling. But she wanted to pop it. So she pulled it back down by the string. Then she got a tooth pick from the kitchen. It was one of the toothpicks that Mommy and Daddy used to check the bread when they were cooking to make sure it was done. But today it was going to be used to pop a balloon.

Anna pulled the balloon down toward her. And nervously she brought the toothpick toward it. Then she counted. One. Two. THREE! And she poked the balloon with the the toothpick and it made a big POP! Then two little people popped out.

Anna couldn’t believe her eyes. There really were two little people inside this balloon. The little people were frightened and they started to run away. But Anna chased them and picked them quickly. And then she carried them over to her box and threw them inside. Anna was just a little girl and she was still a little rough with animals and toys. So she was a little rough with little people too. But she did make a window on the side of the box so the little people could see outside. But she covered the window with glass panes so that they couldn’t get out even though they could see through them.

Anna’s mommy saw her over by the box and asked, “What do you have there Anna?” “Oh, nothing,” said Anna. But Mommy came over to see anyway. And she peaked through the window and saw the two little people. “Oh my goodness!” said Mommy. “Where did those two little people come from?” Then she remembered what they had said at the restaurant about the balloon. “Oh, there really were two little people in that balloon. Anna, did you pop it?”

Anna just shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. But Mommy looked around the room and saw little pieces of balloon. She picked them up and put them back together and saw that it was the balloon from the restaurant. She also saw her toothpick from the kitchen. “Ah, you did pop the balloon, Silly.” Anna was embarrassed but Mommy told her, “It’s OK, you didn’t know that there were people in there. But let’s see if we can make them more comfortable.”

Mommy went over to the box and propped up the cardboard top into a triangle to make a roof. Then she cut out some more pieces to make a door and more windows. Then she said, “It’s OK, little people. You can come out and in whenever you want. This is you’re home now.” The little people said nothing. They were still very shy. But they were happy to be in this home inside a bigger home with people who seemed pretty nice. Even if the little girl was a little rough.


The Sneaky Piano

The family piano had an strange habit of sneaking around the house when no one was watching. It couldn’t just sit still the way a proper piano should. Not that it was a bad piano. It was upright and usually stayed in tune. Most guests found its music pleasant. By all the usual pianistic standards no one would have any complaints. But you wouldn’t usually think to ask whether a piano remained stationary.

The girls were the first to notice. Daddy asked, “Who put your shoes in the middle of the floor? That’s not where they go.” “I don’t know. Maybe it was the piano.” Kids have a way of figuring these things out that grownups tend to miss.

They noticed other oddities. Things in the house that would “wander”. Toys thrown into the middle of the floor. Socks and dresses pulled from their drawers and dressers. It was quite a mess. They didn’t wander by themselves of course. That would be ridiculous. It was the piano that moved them. And it seemed to follow the girls around the most.

Being a piano, it was musical in its mischief. For stealthy accompaniment it might play Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther”. Or Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot lunaire”, plunked out in slow staccato. It would pause or trill on long fermatas as it peaked around the corner to make sure no one was there. And as soon as anyone returned it slunk right back to its spot.

Mom and Dad found it kind of irritating that the piano left its messes for everyone else to pick up. But also mildly entertaining that it was the piano that had done it. It was unique at least. No one else had a moving piano. They tried to get the girls to do most of the clean up, since it was their stuff that was thrown around. But mom and dad helped out a little. After all, the kids weren’t the ones who’d made the messes. It was the piano.

Imagination and Reality in Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”

You are enrolled in a class with the highest of stakes. The payoff for success is your existence. Or so it seems. This is a classroom conjured up, along with you and all its other pupils, in the imagination of the man in the circular ruins. Like many of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories, “The Circular Ruins” explores the boundary between imagination and reality. How much of what we perceive as reality is the product of imagination? And what kind of reality do the objects of our imagination have? What is the nature of the boundary between imagination and reality?

The man in the circular ruins is preoccupied with one great task: “He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.” What an audacious task! There would seem to be an immense ontological gulf between these two categories. Reality is the realm where things exist independent of our imagination. Objects in the real world actually have mass and extension in space. The tree falls in the forest whether anyone is there to hear it or not. But imagination is a realm fully dependent on the mind. Our dreams don’t actually exist. How can these dreams possibly pass from the imagination into reality?

But maybe the divide isn’t as sharp as it seems. The tree falling in the forest is the classic, overused and parodied example of the dependence of certain phenomena on a perceiving subject. Does it make a sound without anyone there to hear it? There are vibrations in the surrounding air but these noumena would not become the phenomena of sound to any person because sound is an experience, a quale of a conscious subject. What we perceive as the real world is composed of such qualia and that’s our only way of perceiving it. In other words we only experience reality through our imagination.

From the other side, artifacts like tools, art, music, and literature begin as dreams in the imagination. Through a creative process we give these objects physical form in the real world. A sculpture takes form in stone, a musical composition takes form in thermal energy, a painting takes form in the arrangement of pigments on a canvas. Even then these physical objects require the imagination of the perceiving subject to be understood as more than just objects occupying space, to be perceived as art and artifacts. The dreams of imagination and objects of the physical world overlap.

An eccentric but intriguing idea thrown around among the cognoscenti these days is the possibility that our universe is actually a simulation created by intelligent life in some “higher” universe. What would that make us? Does that mean we don’t live in the “real” world? Borges explores a similar concern in “The Circular Ruins” but in a less technological guise. His version of a simulation is the dream. If you are a subject in someone else’s dream what kind of existence do you really have? One way to collapse the problem is to say that to be the kind of being who can even ask such a question, to be anxious about the nature of your own existence, is to exist in the most significant sense already. Once you are a self-aware entity who can worry about your own existence you simply do exist, in the most meaningful sense. What more could be added to that to make your existence real?

This Borgesian idealism is explored in many of his other works, most explicitly in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, in which Borges refers to the idealist thought of George Berkeley. A classic problem of modern philosophy is what could be called either the hard problem of consciousness or the hard problem of matter, depending on how you approach it. How does our seemingly non-physical consciousness interact with the physical world? The more popular route is to reduce or eliminate consciousness to the material so that there is no more troublesome dualism. The seemingly non-physical aspects of consciousness are illusory, epiphenomena, useful fictions, etc. Another route, taken up be Berkeley is to dispense with the notion of matter instead, to see mind as primary and view matter as the useful fiction. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” Borges imagines a world in which people take Berkeley’s idea seriously, in a kind of reductio ad absurdum, to the point that they speak in a language lacking nouns.

Among the entities in the dreams of the man in the circular ruins there seems to be a spectrum of autonomy. Some of his dreamed up entities do no more than parrot his instruction while others challenge him and demonstrate capacity for independent thought. He sees this as a key criterion for assessing their worthiness to be instantiated in reality. “He could expect nothing from those pupils who accepted his doctrine passively, but that he could expect something from those who occasionally dared to oppose him.” Borges makes the intriguing statement that the more autonomous of his dreamed entities “preexistían“; they “pre-existed to a slightly greater degree”. In other words the self-aware ideas in this idealism have some kind of independent existence that the man in the circular ruins apprehends in his imagination. The more autonomous of his dreams are not fully his own creation but existed in some ideal form prior to his dreaming of them.

Where did these ideas come from before he imagined them? One answer available in Borges’s universe is that they existed in “The Library of Babel”, another of Borges’s short stories and probably his most famous. One way to think of the Library of Babel is as a reified, physical instantiation of platonic forms as texts in a library. The library is filled with books of every possible combination of characters. In Borges’s library the books are limited to a certain set and number of characters. But it’s possible to throw out that constraint and imagine a library of infinite possibility where every possible combination of characters is produced in some book somewhere in the library. This would mean that anything you could possibly dream would simply be a reflection of some book somewhere in the Library of Babel. Everything pre-exists there. But crucially, most of the books are absolute nonsense. Hidden among the nonsense there are books with intelligible, meaningful text. But the share of meaningful text in the Library of Babel is infinitesimal.

The autonomous entities dreamed up by the man in the circular ruins, who are able to oppose him, would seem to have a special kind of character that enables them to act independently. They are among the infinite number though infinitesimal portion of books in the Library of Babel with sufficient complexity and coherent structure to endow them with consciousness and self-awareness. What then does it take to impose these entities onto reality? If they pre-existed and already have some kind of independent capacity for thought and anxiety over their own existence what more could be added to make them real? What is it that breathes fire into them to make them living souls?

Steven Hawking asked a similar question of the mathematical structure of the universe. “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a Universe for them to describe?” Max Tegmark posits something analogous to the Library of Babel in abstract space, an infinite library of “mathematical structures” of every possible form, one of which is our own universe. What breathes fire into a mathematical structure and endows it with physical existence are “self-aware substructures” inside the mathematical structure that perceive elements of the structure as physical reality. In other words, the presence of self-aware entities creates what they perceive as physical reality. Nothing more is required than this condition of self-awareness.

The man in the circular ruins labors countless hours to dream a man in the most minute detail. To endow this man with physical existence he must make special supplication to the deities of the ruins. But what is it that the deities can do to make the man more real than he already is? There seems to be one crucial step. Before supplicating the deities “He dreamed an entire man – a young man, but who did not sit up or talk, who was unable to open his eyes. Night after night, the man dreamt him asleep.” After he makes his request to the deities “In the dream of the man that dreamed, the dreamed one awoke.” This awakening is the crucial step. There’s no clothing in earth or matter. It’s simply the awakening of self-awareness. At that point the dreamed one is imposed on reality.

The deities eventually require that the dreamed one be sent off to another temple to repeat the same task as the man in the circular ruins, to create a man of his own. But the man worries that the dreamed one will discover that he is a dream. To all other men the dreamed one appears as a man like any other. Only fire knows his true nature and only fire can reveal it: fire will not consume him. The story concludes when fires approach the circular ruins and the man, having completed his life’s work, submits himself to the flames but then discovers that they do not consume him and that he is himself someone else’s dream. What does this mean for his existence? Is he any less real because someone else is dreaming him? What if the one who is dreaming him is also someone else’s dream and so on, as Borges implies?

What seems crucial in this story is that the capacity for imagination is its own reality. To be the kind of thing that can imagine and be self-aware is already to exist and nothing more is required to breathe life into it. Speculations about our universe as a simulation include the idea that we are several layers below “base reality”. That our simulators are part of a simulation whose simulators are also part of a simulation and so on up to base reality. But what would distinguish this base reality from any other simulated reality? In what sense would entities in that base reality exist that we do not? What is it that makes their physical reality more real than ours? Certainly there would be a difference of some kind but it wouldn’t seem to be a difference in the nature of our self-awareness. That would seem to be the same in all levels of reality.

It may just be that we are the dreamers, dreaming ourselves into existence. If the idea of the conscious self is a useful fiction it is certainly quite useful indeed. Perceptions are undoubtedly occurring and it’s much easier for these perceptions to have some single, stable reference point to give them continuous and coherent structure.

The problem of course is that this is viciously circular. How can an entity dream itself into existence as unified prior to its unification? Some form of pre-existence seems to be necessary, on some kind of stable substrate from the outside. If the universe is a simulation the information content of our self-aware substructures subsists in this simulation. In traditional Christianity, supplemented by Neoplatonic thought, we subsist as ideas in the mind of God. And in Borges’s universe these same ideas subsist as books on the shelves of the Library of Babel. In the end the differences between these metaphors are perhaps less significant than their similarities. Among the books stacked in the shelves of the Library of Babel some infinitesimal but infinite number will have the complexity and coherence to dream and dream of themselves as living souls.