ATHEISM and its ERRORS

We commit intellectual blunders because it suits our interests to do so, or
because our blunders are of such a nature that we get pleasure or excitement
from committing them.
—Aldous Huxley (Aldous Huxley, “Words and Their Meanings,” in Max Black, Editor, The Importance of Language (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 11.)


Most every person has at least at one time or another pondered the question of the existence of God. Religious people claim that God exists, while atheists deny such a claim, and agnostics remain cautiously skeptical, and each for a variety of reasons. But in order for the question of God’s existence to be answered responsibly and to prevent conceptual confusion, we must have in mind a proper understanding of what, should God exist, God is and what God is not, as well as precisely what is being claimed by each possible position concerning the existence of God. In fact, the question of God’s existence cannot be adequately answered apart from answering the question of who or what God is. If God exists, who (or what) is She (or it)? What properties or qualities does God possess should God exist? Methodological Considerations


If Thomas Aquinas and some other medieval Scholastics are correct, sometimes God is best understood in negative terms, or via negativa. By definition, then, God is neither evil, nor unjust, nor a holder or promoter of falsehoods, nor an adulterer, nor petty, nor unconcerned with human and nonhuman life, etc. And of course there are well-known positive attributes of God, at least, according to orthodox Christian theism: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, eternality, perfection, and so on. However, one must be careful to not think that God can be defi ned into existence, as Immanuel Kant accused proponents of the ontological argument of doing. (Immanuel Kant, Religion and Rational Theology, Allen Wood (ed. and trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason and Other Writings, Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni (eds. and trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)). That, of course, is simply one of the criticisms of the ontological argument. Others argue that one or more of the properties traditionally ascribed to God by orthodox and neo-orthodox Christian theologies are problematic. (Charles J. Klein, “On the Necessary Existence of an Object with Creative Power,” Faith and Philosophy, 17 (2000), pp. 369–370.)

I concur with atheists that many Christian theists are incorrect that God, should She exist, is exactly who or what they claim She is. But it hardly follows from this that atheists are correct in inferring, as they typically do and must in order to rightly qualify as atheists, that it is not the case that God exists. Indeed, it will not even do to argue, as selfdescribed atheist and popular evolutionist Richard Dawkins does, that “there almost certainly is no God.”(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Miffl in Company, 2006), Chapter 4). For as I argued in Chapter 1, the defeat of the traditional Christian notion of the nature of God does not imply the nonexistence of God in categorical or highly probabilistic terms. Nor does it show that any more plausibly construed God is less likely to exist than for God to exist. In other words, the defeat of traditional Christian theism fails to show the unreasonableness of theism itself, which is requisite for the plausibility of any credible notion of atheism. More exactly, the defeat of orthodox Christian theism’s notion of God does not even entail the refutation of nontraditional Christian theism. For it is not enough to justify any position that its denial is not able to be grounded in reason. This is true because it might be the case that the suffi cient reasons that would ground that denial might exist but remain undiscovered. And this applies to both theism and atheism alike. God could be something different such that objections to the existence of what God was thought to be by traditional Christian theism miss the mark insofar as they are meant to establish the truth of atheism, legitimately construed. I believe that this is what has taken place in the ongoing debates between theists in the Christian tradition, on the one hand, and atheists, on the other, at least in the analytical philosophical tradition. It is the failure of atheists to adequately ground their belief that it is not the case that God exists, or that the existence
of God is not very likely, that leads me, in Chapter 4, to state and defend the New Agnosticism.

In the meantime, it is important to come to terms with how the discussion
about the possible existence of God ought to proceed. Orthodox Christian theists, at least of the conservative variety, (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1939), pp. 41f. Also see footnotes 21–22 of the Introduction.) blatantly engage in question-begging in their appeals to the authority of revelation in order to resolve the question of God’s existence. And it is fallacious to characterize atheism in uncharitable terms, as most conservative Christian orthodox thinkers tend to do.

In view of the semen religionis implanted in every man by his creation in the
image of God, it is safe to assume that no one is born an atheist. In the last
analysis atheism results from the perverted moral state of man and from his
desire to escape from God. It is deliberately blind to and suppresses the most
fundamental instinct of man, the deepest needs of the soul, the highest aspirations of the human spirit, and the longings of a heart that gropes after some higher Being. This practical or intellectual suppression of the operation of the semen religionis often involves prolonged and painful struggles.
– L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology

It is important that this inquiry into God not employ ad hominem rhetoric
to address one of the most important questions we face. Too much depends
on our proper mode of this important inquiry to allow it to be clouded
with poor reasoning.

Nor is it appropriate for philosophical theists to invoke the authority of revelation (construed in infallibilistic, inerrant, or merely in ultimate authoritative terms) in order to address quandaries where reason itself fails
to provide suffi ciently adequate answers. It is unacceptable to state that
“The only proper way to obtain perfectly reliable knowledge of the divine
attributes is by the study of God’s self-revelation in Scripture.”9 For there
are a number of problems with this approach. First, it constitutes blatant
question-begging in favor of a revelatory-based theism when part of the
very question is whether such a divine author of the revelation exists in the
fi rst place. Second, what makes the orthodox Christian theologian think
that there are no other religious scriptures (Christian or not) worthy of due
consideration? And what if they contradict what the canonical Christian
scriptures tell us? Since there appears to be no non-question-begging way of establishing the orthodox (or even neo-orthodox) Christian appeal to the
sacred authority of revelation, it is properly considered to be overly contested
to be trusted as a reliable source of testimony regarding the question
of God’s existence. So in the search for the divine attributes, whether they
are moral or natural, absolute or relative, immanent or transitive, or communicable or incommunicable, religious revelation is not an unproblematic
method of philosophical investigation. The most to which it can speak is
how some early Christians thought about various religious matters.

Nor is Alvin Plantinga’s question-begging theologically “reformist” notion that the idea of God is “properly basic” (Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Also see Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Faith and Philosophy, 1 (1984), pp. 253–271) a philosophically unproblematic way of proceeding. The very foundationalist nature of such a view has been repudiated by numerous epistemologists throughout the years, as it suffers from a myriad of conceptual diffi culties beyond repair. A simple coherentist approach to defending theism also fails so long as the claims it makes do not match reality independent of the theistic perspective, a point that is made later on in this book.

Yet traditional Christian theists are not the only ones to employ faulty rhetoric in order to become victorious in the debate about God. One fallacious objection to orthodox Christian theism is that the evils of the church and of many Christians more generally speak against the existence of God. This point is made repeatedly by many atheists and agnostics alike. But precisely what does the fact that several millions of self-proclaimed Christians throughout the ages have not lived up to their religious faith and even committed evils say against the existence of God? One must be careful not to commit the fallacy of thinking that a person’s unjust actions repudiate the truth-value of their ideals. While Christians are commended to do good in the world, their failure to do so hardly entails or even implies the nonexistence of God for the simple reason that they are not obeying God when they do the wrong things. If God exists, She condones only that which is, for instance, just and good. Anything that is not just or good cannot be an act of obedience to God. So one must not fall prey to the temptation of thinking that simply because so many millions of those who profess to be on God’s side are failing (for whatever reasons) to do just and good things that God fails to exist. So the existence of God is not affected by the fact that most people who claim to be followers of God do not in significant ways represent God.

But just as revelation cannot serve as the ultimate source of authority in our metaphysical query, neither can science serve as the sole and final authority. For science is incapable of investigating that which is nonempirical in nature. And to foist the scientifi c method on the debate about God’s existence as its sole authority is inappropriate because it is unfair insofar as it is believed that science ought to have the fi nal word on matters—even on matters nonempirical. That too would beg at least one important question, namely, about whether or not God could exist as spirit and not as mere matter. So neither revelation nor science are the sole authorities in determining whether or not God exists, though each can and ought to play important roles regarding, for instance, what certain religions say about the matter, in the case of revelation, and the extent to which certain processes in nature are observed, in the case of science. Thus while revelation and science cannot serve as sole guides to our investigation into God, they serve as essential albeit limited sources by which we can gleam information about the possible nature and function of God. Reason must serve as our ultimate arbiter of truth here. By “reason” I mean argument and analysis in terms of the Socratic method of inquiry. (J. Angelo Corlett, Interpreting Plato’s Dialogues (Las Vegas: Parmenides, 2005), Chapter 3)



Categories: atheism, christianity, english

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