Wednesday, 8 June 2011


Ernest Nagel's "A Defense of Atheism" (in Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap, eds., A Modern Introduction to Philosophy (New York: The Free Press, 1965), 461-3) argues that 'in the first place, atheism is not necessarily an irreligious concept for theism is just one among many views concerning the nature and origin of the world. The denial of theism is logically compatible with a religious outlook upon life, and is, in fact, characteristic of some of the great historical religions.' He goes on, by way of definition, to say that 'atheism is not to be identified with sheer unbelief, or with disbelief in some particular creed of a religious group,' adding that 'atheism as a philosophical position is directed against any form of theism, and has its origin and basis in a logical analysis of the theistic position and in a comprehensive account of the world believed to be wholly intelligible without the adoption of a theistic position.' The fable is that Peter denied God three times but eventually came round to accepting him. A deeper possibility, I suppose, is that this acceptance could only happen as a consequence of the earlier denial, not in the tick-tock sense that denial leads to its opposite, but in the fuller sense that denial of God is the actuality of accepting God.

There's a related sense in which Dawkins’ much-maligned God Delusion touches on this question: one of Dawkins' strongest arguments, it seems to me, is that disbelief in gods is the great point of human commonality. That I am, personally, an atheist certainly does not disqualify me from talking about religion. Without exception, every intelligent Christian and Muslim I have ever met has been emphatically atheist with respect to almost all the forty-thousand gods humanity has worshipped at one time or another. Atheism – a refusal to be credulous, a proper intellectual scepticism and dialectical open-mindedness – seems to me the default position of the healthy, sapient psyche. My intelligent Christian friend and I concur in our atheism concerning animistic tree-spirits, the river Scamandar, the divine Emperor Augustus, Wotan, Quezocoatl, Cthulu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Of course, we disagree on one specific example: the Christian trinity, which my friend believes divine and which I do not. But to worship the Christian trinity and not to worship the divine Emperor Augustus is, in part, to predicate one's faith on selective atheism.

Or to put it another way. Leafing through old copies of Journal of Theological Studies, as I like to do, I came upon this quotation from David Pailin, (April 1997):
Examination of the content and status of claims about the reality of God has led some theologians to conclude, to the surprise (and annoyance) of many believers, that religion will only have a healthy future if it abandons such claims. For them, as Alasdair MacIntyre once put it, ‘understanding Christianity is incompatible with believing in it’ because its ‘form of belief … has lost the social context which once made it comprehensible.’
Because the crowd I hang out with includes a lot of university people, many religiously observant ones included, I’d say the religious people I know would tend, in my experience, to endorse this statement. Certainly, they find Dawkins’s attack on religion to be irrelevant to, or crudely misrepresentative of, their own praxis and beliefs. But I find it hard to believe that most of the world’s 4 billion religious humans (not just the fundamentalists, neither) would find such a claim acceptable. For them the reality of God is surely a simple truth. It’s the difference, there, between the “…has led some theologians to conclude…” and the “… to the surprise (and annoyance) of many believers”.

No comments: