The Scope of Atheism
by George H. Smith
from his book Atheism: The Case Against God
I. The Myths of Atheism
The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good. (Psalms 14.1)
This frequently quoted passage captures the essence of how the average religious person views atheism. Atheism is probably the least popular -- and least understood -- philosophical position in America today. It is often approached with fear and mistrust, as if one were about to investigate a doctrine that advocates a wide assortment of evils -- from immorality, pessimism and communism to outright nihilism.
Atheism is commonly considered to be a threat to the individual and society. It is "science divorced from wisdom and the fear of God," writes one philosopher, "which the world has directly to thank for the worst evils of 'modern war'...." In a recent critique of atheism, Vincent P. Miceli claims that "every form of atheism, even the initially well intentioned, constricts, shrinks, enslaves the individual atheist within and against himself and, eventually, as atheism reaches plague proportions among men, goes on to enslave and murder society."
Through similar representations of atheism as an evil, destructive force, religionists throughout history have prescribed various forms of punishment for atheists. Plato, in his construction of the ideal state, made "impiety" a crime punishable by five years imprisonment for the first offense and death upon a second conviction. Jesus, who is offered as the paradigm of love and compassion, threatened that nonbelievers will be thrown "into the furnace of fire" where "men will weep and gnash their teeth," just as "the weeds are gathered and burned with fire...." (Matthew 13.40-42). Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, taught that "the sin of unbelief is greater than any sin that occurs in the perversion of morals," and he recommended that the heretic "be exterminated from the world by death" after the third offense.
Although the atheist now enjoys a comparative amount of freedom in the United States, the struggle for the legal rights of the atheist has been a difficult, continuous battle. For example, until the early part of this century, many states would not permit an atheist to testify in court, which meant that an atheist could not effectively file civil and criminal charges. The reasoning behind this prohibition was that, since the atheist does not believe in rewards and punishments after death, he will not fed morally obligated to tell the truth in a court of law. In 1871, the Supreme Court of Tennessee published this remarkable statement:
The man who has the hardihood to avow that he does not believe in a God, shows a recklessness of moral character and utter want of moral responsibility, such as very little entitles him to be heard or believed in a court of justice in a country designated as Christian.
Here we have the stereotype of the atheist as an insensitive, amoral cynic -- a portrayal that remains widespread in our own time. Atheism, it is charged, is nothing but pure negativism: it destroys but does not rebuild. The atheist is pitted against morality itself, and the struggle between belief in a god and godlessness is viewed as a struggle between good and evil. If true, atheism is claimed to have ominous implications on a cosmic scale. A. E. Taylor expresses the fear of many theists when he writes:
... even in our hours of most complete and serenest intellectual detachment we cannot escape facing the question whether God can be eliminated from either the natural or the moral world without converting both into an incoherent nightmare.
This image of a godless world is only one among many. Atheism has become so enshrouded with myths and misconceptions that many supposed critiques of atheism are notable for their complete irrelevancy. Some religious critics prefer to attack the unpopular ideas associated with atheism rather than face the challenge of atheism directly. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find entire books with the expressed intent of demolishing atheism, but which fail to discuss such basic issues as why one should believe in a god at all. These books are content to identify atheism with specific personalities (such as Nietzsche, Marx, Camus and Sartre) and, by criticizing the views of these individuals, the religionist author fancies himself to have destroyed atheism. In most cases, however, the critic has not even discussed atheism.
Presenting the atheistic point of view is a difficult, frustrating endeavor. The atheist must penetrate the barrier of fear and suspicion that confronts him, and he must convince the listener that atheism represents, not a degeneration, but a step forward. This often requires the atheist to take a defensive position to explain why atheism does not lead to disastrous consequences. The atheist is expected to answer a barrage of questions, of which the following are typical.
Without god, what is left of morality? Without god, what purpose is there in man's life? If we do not believe in god, how can we be certain of anything? If god does not exist, whom can we turn to in a time of crisis? If there is no afterlife, who will reward virtue and punish injustice? Without god, how can we resist the onslaught of atheistic communism? If god does not exist, what becomes of the worth and dignity of each person? Without god, how can man achieve happiness?
These and similar questions reflect an intimate connection between religion and values in the minds of many people. As a result, the question of god's existence becomes more than a simple philosophical problem -- and atheism, since it is interpreted as an attack on these values, assumes a significance far beyond its actual meaning. Defenses of religion are frequently saturated with emotional outbursts, and the atheist finds himself morally condemned, diagnosed as a confused, unhappy man, and threatened with a variety of future punishments. Meanwhile, the atheist's frustration increases as he discovers that his arguments for atheism are futile, that the average believer -- who was persuaded to believe for emotional, not intellectual, reasons -- is impervious to arguments against the existence of a supernatural being, regardless of how meticulous and carefully reasoned these arguments may be. There is too much at stake: if the choice must be made between the comfort of religion and the truth of atheism, many people will sacrifice the latter without hesitation. From their perspective, there is much more to the issue of god's existence than whether he exists or not.
Where does this leave the atheist? Must he offer atheism as an alternative way of life to religion, complete with its own set of values? Is atheism a substitute for religion? Can atheism fulfill the moral and emotional needs of man? Must the atheist defend himself against every accusation of immorality and pessimism? Does atheism offer any positive values? These questions are not as complex as they may appear. Atheism is a straightforward, easily definable position, and it is a simple task to outline what atheism can and cannot accomplish. In order to understand the scope of atheism, however, we must remove the wall of myths surrounding it -- with the hope that the fears and prejudices against atheism will collapse as well. To accomplish this goal, we must determine what atheism is and what atheism is not.
II. The Meaning of Atheism
"Theism" is defined as the "belief in a god or gods." The term "theism" is sometimes used to designate the belief in a particular kind of god -- the personal god of monotheism -- but as used throughout this book, "theism" signifies the belief in any god or number of gods. The prefix "a" means "without," so the term "a-theism" literally means "without theism," or without belief in a god or gods. Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic belief. One who does not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist.
Atheism is sometimes defined as "the belief that there is no God of any kind," or the claim that a god cannot exist. While these are categories of atheism, they do not exhaust the meaning of atheism -- and they are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism. Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief it is the absence of belief. An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist; rather, he does not believe in the existence of a god.
As here defined, the term "atheism" has a wider scope than the meanings usually attached to it. The two most common usages are described by Paul Edwards as follows:
First, there is the familiar sense in which a person is an atheist. If he maintains that there is no God, where this is taken to mean that "God exists" expresses a false proposition. Secondly, there is also a broader sense in which a person is an atheist if he rejects belief in God, regardless of whether his rejection is based on the view that belief in God is false.
Both of these meanings are important kinds of atheism, but neither does justice to atheism in its widest sense. "Atheism" is a privative term, a term of negation, indicating the opposite of theism. If we use the phrase "belief-in-god" as a substitute for theism, we see that its negation is "no-belief-in-god" -- or, in other words, "a-theism." This is simply another way of stating "without theism" or the absence of belief in god.
"Theism" and "atheism" are descriptive terms: they specify the presence or absence of a belief in god. If a person is designated as a theist, this tells us that he believes in a god, not why he believes. If a person is designated as an atheist, this tells us that he does not believe in a god, not why he does not believe.
There are many reasons why one may not believe in the existence of a god one may have never encountered the concept of god before, or one may consider the idea of a supernatural being to be absurd, or one may think that there is no evidence to support the belief in a god. But regardless of the reason, if one does not believe in the existence of a god, one is an atheist; i.e., one is without theistic belief.
In this context, theism and atheism exhaust all possible alternatives with regard to the belief in a god: one is either a theist or an atheist; there is no other choice. One either accepts the proposition "god exists" as true, or one does not. One either believes in a supernatural being, or one does not. There is no third option or middle ground. This immediately raises the question of agnosticism, which has traditionally been offered as a third alternative to theism and atheism.
The term "agnostic" was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869. "When I reached intellectual maturity," reports Huxley, "and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist ... I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer." According to Huxley, exponents of these doctrines, despite their obvious differences, share a common assumption, an assumption with which he disagrees:
They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis," -- had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.
When Huxley joined the Metaphysical Society, he found that the various beliefs represented there had names: "most of my colleagues were-ists of one sort or another." Huxley, lacking a name for his uncertainty, was "without a rag of a label to cover himself with." He was a fox without a tail -- so he gave himself a tail by assigning the term "agnostic" to himself. It seems that Huxley originally meant this term as somewhat of a joke. He selected the early religious sect known as "Gnostics" as a prime example of men who claim knowledge of the supernatural without justification; and he distinguished himself as an "a-gnostic" by stipulating that the supernatural, even if it exists, lies beyond the scope of human knowledge. We cannot say if it does or does not exist, so we must suspend judgment.
Since Huxley's time, "agnosticism" has acquired a number of different applications based on its etymological derivation from the negative "a" and the Greek root gnosis ("to know"). Agnosticism, as a general term, now signifies the impossibility of knowledge in a given area. An agnostic is a person who believes that something is inherently unknowable by the human mind. When applied to the sphere of theistic belief, an agnostic is one who maintains that some aspect of the supernatural is forever closed to human knowledge.
Properly considered, agnosticism is not a third alternative to theism and atheism because it is concerned with a different aspect of religious belief. Theism and atheism refer to the presence or absence of belief in a god; agnosticism refers to the impossibility of knowledge with regard to a god or supernatural being.
The term "agnostic" does not, in itself, indicate whether or not one believes in a god. Agnosticism can be either theistic or atheistic.
The agnostic theist believes in the existence of god, but maintains that the nature of god is unknowable. The medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, is an example of this position. He believed in god, but refused to ascribe positive attributes to this god on the basis that these attributes would introduce plurality into the divine nature -- a procedure that would, Maimonides believed, lead to polytheism. According to the religious agnostic, we can state that god is, but -- due to the unknowable nature of the supernatural -- we cannot state what god is.
Like his theistic cousin, the agnostic atheist maintains that any supernatural realm is inherently unknowable by the human mind, but this agnostic suspends his judgment one step further back. For the agnostic atheist, not only is the nature of any supernatural being unknowable, but the existence of any supernatural being is unknowable as well. We cannot have knowledge of the unknowable; therefore, concludes this agnostic, we cannot have knowledge of god's existence. Because this variety of agnostic does not subscribe to theistic belief, he qualifies as a kind of atheist.
Various defenses have been offered for this position, but it usually stems from a strict empiricism, i.e., the doctrine that man must gain all of his knowledge entirely through sense experience. Since a supernatural being falls beyond the scope of sensory evidence, we can neither assert nor deny the existence of a god; to do either, according to the agnostic atheist, is to transgress the boundaries of human understanding. While this agnostic affirms the theoretical possibility of supernatural existence, he believes that the issue must ultimately remain undecided and uncertain. Thus, for the agnostic atheist, the proper answer to the question, "Does a god exist?" is "I don't know" -- or, more specifically -- "I cannot know."
Whether this account represents the exact position of Thomas Huxley is not entirely clear. At times, as we have seen, he seems to indicate that the existence of the supernatural, while possible, is unknowable. Elsewhere, however, he writes that "I do not very much care to speak of anything as 'unknowable.'" And in summarizing the fundamentals of agnosticism, Huxley does not refer to anything as unknowable or "insoluble."
... it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what Agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism.... the application of the principle results in the denial of, or the suspension of judgment concerning, a number of propositions respecting which our contemporary ecclesiastical "gnostics" profess entire certainty.
This passage suggests that, in Huxley's opinion, there is not sufficient evidence to justify the belief in a god, so one should suspend judgment on this matter. In discussing whether the existence of a god is unknowable in principle or simply unknown at the present time, he writes:
What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by anyone else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case.
Huxley is reluctant to uphold the absolute unknowability of the supernatural, and he wishes to maintain instead that, as far as he knows, knowledge of the supernatural lies beyond the power of man's faculties. It would not be stretching the point to say that, in Huxley's view, the knowability of the supernatural is itself an issue which is unknowable.
Because of the ambiguity in the traditional agnostic position, the term "agnostic" has been employed in a variety of ways. It is commonly used to designate one who refuses either to affirm or deny the existence of a god, and because atheism is frequently associated with the outright denial of theism, agnosticism is offered as a third alternative. Here is a typical explanation found in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
An agnostic is not an atheist. An atheist denies the existence of God; an agnostic professes ignorance about His existence. For the latter, God may exist, but reason can neither prove nor disprove it.
Notice that agnosticism emerges as a third alternative only if atheism is narrowly defined as the denial of theism. We have seen, however, that atheism, in its widest sense, refers basically to the absence of a belief in god and need not entail the denial of god. Any person who does not believe in god, for whatever reason, is without theistic belief and therefore qualifies as an atheist.
While the agnostic of the Huxley variety may refuse to state whether theism is true or false -- thus "suspending" his judgment -- he does not believe in the existence of a god. (If he did believe, he would be a theist.) Since this agnostic does not accept the existence of a god as true, he is without theistic belief; he is atheistic -- and Huxley's agnosticism emerges as a form of atheism.
Thus, as previously indicated, agnosticism is not an independent position or a middle way between theism and atheism, because it classifies according to different criteria. Theism and atheism separate those who believe in a god from those who do not. Agnosticism separates those who believe that reason cannot penetrate the supernatural realm from those who defend the capability of reason to affirm or deny the truth of theistic belief.
The agnostic theist encounters opposition, not just from atheists, but also from other theists who believe that god's nature can be known (at least to some extent) by the human mind. Likewise, the agnostic atheist encounters opposition from other atheists who refuse to acknowledge the theoretical possibility of supernatural existence, or who argue that reason can effectively show theism to be false or nonsensical.
The agnostic positions have been harshly criticized by believers and nonbelievers, and we shall examine the objections to agnosticism at a later time. Our purpose here is to clarify agnosticism's relation to theism and atheism so that future misunderstandings may be avoided. Agnosticism is commonly used as a refuge for those who wish to escape the stigma of atheism, and its vagueness has earned it the status of an intellectually respectable form of dissent from religion. In many cases, however, the term "agnostic" is misapplied.
Agnosticism is a legitimate philosophical position (although, in my opinion, it is mistaken), but it is not a third alternative or a halfway house between theism and atheism. Instead, it is a variation of either theism or atheism. The self-proclaimed agnostic must still designate whether he does or does not believe in a god -- and, in so doing, he commits himself to theism or he commits himself to atheism. But he does commit himself. Agnosticism is not the escape clause that it is commonly thought to be.
IV. The Varieties of Atheism
The term "atheism" has been used thus far to cover every case of nonbelief in a god or gods. We shall now briefly analyze atheism's various manifestations.
Atheism may be divided into two broad categories: implicit and explicit. (a) Implicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it. (b) Explicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it.
(a) An implicit atheist is a person who does not believe in a god, but who has not explicitly rejected or denied the truth of theism. Implicit atheism does not require familiarity with the idea of a god.
For example, a person who has no knowledge of theistic belief does not believe in a god, nor does he deny the existence of such a being. Denial presupposes something to deny, and one cannot deny the truth of theism without first knowing what theism is. Man is not born with innate knowledge of the supernatural; until he is introduced to this idea or thinks of it himself, he is unable to affirm or deny its truth -- or even to "suspend" his judgment.
This person poses a problem for the traditional classifications. He does not believe in a god, so he is not a theist. He does not reject the existence of a god, so, according to this meaning which is commonly attached to atheism, he is not an atheist. Nor does this person state that the existence of a supernatural being is unknown or unknowable, so he is not an agnostic. The failure of the traditional labels to include this possibility indicates their lack of comprehensiveness.
As defined in this chapter, the man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist. Since these instances of nonbelief are not the result of conscious rejection, they are best designated as implicit atheism.
At this point, objections may be raised in protest against using the word "atheism" so that it includes uninformed children. Some religionists will undoubtedly charge that this is a cheap victory for atheism accomplished by means of an arbitrary definition. In response to this, we must note that the definition of atheism as the absence of belief in a god or gods is not arbitrary. Although this is a broader meaning than is usually accepted, it has a justification in the meaning of "theism" and the prefix "a." Also, as previously argued, this definition of atheism has the virtue of representing the antithesis of theism, so that "theism" and "atheism" describe all possibilities of belief and nonbelief.
Upon close examination, it is likely that the objections to calling the uninformed child an atheist will stem from the assumption that atheism entails some degree of moral degeneracy. How dare I call innocent children atheists! Surely it is unfair to degrade them in this manner.
If the religionist is bothered by the moral implications of calling the uninformed child an atheist, the fault lies with these moral implications, not with the definition of atheism. Recognizing this child as an atheist is a major step in removing the moral stigma attached to atheism, because it forces the theist to either abandon his stereotypes of atheism or to extend them where they are patently absurd. If he refuses to discard his favorite myths, if he continues to condemn nonbelievers per se as immoral, consistency demands that he condemn the innocent child as well. And, unless this theist happens to be an ardent follower of Calvin, he will recognize his sweeping moral disapproval of atheism for what it is: nonsense.
The category of implicit atheism also applies to the person who is familiar with theistic beliefs and does not assent to them, but who has not explicitly rejected belief in a god. By refusing to commit himself, this person may be undecided or indifferent, but the fact remains that he does not believe in a god. Therefore, he is also an implicit atheist.
Implicit atheism is conveniently ignored by those theists who represent atheism as a positive belief rather than the absence of belief. While this may appear to be a subtle distinction, it has important consequences.
If one presents a positive belief (i.e., an assertion which one claims to be true), one has the obligation to present evidence in its favor. The burden of proof lies with the person who asserts the truth of a proposition. If the evidence is not forthcoming, if there are not sufficient grounds for accepting the proposition, it should not be believed. The theist who asserts the existence of a god assumes the responsibility of demonstrating the truth of this assertion; if he fails in this task, theism should not be accepted as true.
Some believers attempt to escape the responsibility of providing evidence by shifting this responsibility onto atheism. Atheism, which is represented as a rival belief to theism, allegedly cannot demonstrate the nonexistence of a god, so it is claimed that the atheist is no better off than the theist. This is also the favorite argument of the agnostic, who claims to reject theism and atheism on the basis that neither position can provide demonstration.
When atheism is recognized as the absence of theism, the preceding maneuver falls to the ground. Proof is applicable only in the case of a positive belief. To demand proof of the atheist, the religionist must represent atheism as a positive belief requiring substantiation. When the atheist is seen as a person who lacks belief in a god, it becomes clear that he is not obligated to "prove" anything. The atheist qua atheist does not believe anything requiring demonstration; the designation of "atheist" tells us, not what he believes to be true, but what he does not believe to be true. If others wish for him to accept the existence of a god, it is their responsibility to argue for the truth of theism -- but the atheist is not similarly required to argue for the truth of atheism.
It is crucial to distinguish between atheism as such and the many beliefs which an atheist may hold. All atheists do adopt some positive beliefs, but the concept of atheism does not encompass these beliefs. Atheism refers only to the element of nonbelief in a god, and since there is no content here, no positive beliefs, the demand for proof cannot apply.
Atheism is not necessarily the end product of a chain of reasoning. The term "atheist" tells us that one does not believe in a god, but it does not specify why. Regardless of the cause of one's nonbelief, if one does not believe in a god, one is atheistic.
Theism must be learned and accepted. If it is never learned, it cannot be accepted -- and man will remain implicitly atheistic. If theism is learned but rejected anyway, man will be explicitly atheistic -- which brings us to the second kind of atheism.
(b) An explicit atheist is one who rejects belief in a god. This deliberate rejection of theism presupposes familiarity with theistic beliefs and is sometimes characterized as anti-theism.
There are many motivations for explicit atheism, some rational and some not. Explicit atheism may be motivated by psychological factors. A man may disbelieve in god because he hates his religious parents, or because his wife deserted him for the neighborhood minister. Or, on a more sophisticated level, one may feel that life is futile and helpless, and that there is no emotional room for god in a tragic universe. Motivations such as these may be of psychological interest, but they are philosophically irrelevant. They are not rational grounds for atheism, and we shall not consider them here.
The most significant variety of atheism is explicit atheism of a philosophical nature. This atheism contends that the belief in god is irrational and should therefore be rejected. Since this version of explicit atheism rests on a criticism of theistic beliefs, it is best described as critical atheism.
Critical atheism presents itself in various forms. It is often expressed by the statement, "I do not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being." This profession of nonbelief often derives from the failure of theism to provide sufficient evidence in its favor. Faced with a lack of evidence, this explicit atheist sees no reason whatsoever for believing in a supernatural being.
Critical atheism also assumes stronger forms, such as, "God does not exist" or, "The existence of a god is impossible." These assertions are usually made after a particular concept of god, such as the God of Christianity, is judged to be absurd or contradictory. Just as we are entitled to say that a "square-circle" does not and cannot possibly exist, so we are entitled to say that the concept of god, if it entails a contradiction, does not and cannot possibly exist.
Finally, there is the critical atheist who refuses to discuss the existence or nonexistence of a god because he believes that the concept of "god" is unintelligible. We cannot, for example, reasonably discuss the existence of an "unie" until we know what an "unie" is. If no intelligible description is forthcoming, the conversation must stop. Likewise, if no intelligible description of "god" is forthcoming, the conversation must stop. This critical atheist thus says, "The word 'god' makes no sense to me, so I have no idea what it means to state that 'god' does or does not exist."
These varieties of critical atheism are identical in one important respect: they are essentially negative in character. The atheist qua atheist, whether implicit or explicit, does not assert the existence of anything; he makes no positive statement. If the absence of belief is the result of unfamiliarity, this nonbelief is implicit. If the absence of belief is the result of critical deliberation, this nonbelief is explicit. In either case, the lack of theistic belief is the core of atheism. The various atheistic positions differ only with respect to their different causes of nonbelief.
This book is written from the perspective of critical atheism. Its basic thesis is that the belief in god is entirely unsupported -- and, further, that there are many reasons for not believing in a god. If theism is destroyed intellectually, the grounds for believing in a god collapse, and one is rationally obliged not to believe in a god -- or, in other words, one is obliged to be atheistic.
This book is not a critique of theism plus a defense of atheism: the critique of theism is the defense of atheism. Atheism is not the absence of belief in god plus certain positive beliefs: atheism is the absence of belief in god. If we can show theism to be unsupported, false or nonsensical, then we have simultaneously established the validity of atheism. This is why the case for atheism is The Case Against God.
V. Jacques Maritain and the Slander of Atheism
The preceding divisions of atheism are simple and impartial. They do not prejudice the case for or against atheism by suggesting moral implications. Similarly, we may also list the varieties of theism, such as monotheism and polytheism, without suggesting any moral overtones. Unfortunately, though, when discussing a position of which one radically disapproves, the spirit of objectivity is sometimes sacrificed for prejudice and emotionalism. This is nowhere more evident than in the writing of Jacques Maritain, a prominent Catholic philosopher.
In The Range of Reason, Maritain devotes more than one dozen pages to the varieties of atheism, and since his classifications are widely used by other Christian sources (such as the Catholic Encyclopedia), it is instructive to examine his approach. Maritain typifies the unfair treatment that atheism has received at the hands of theologians and religious philosophers. Although Maritain presumably intends his classifications to be fair and impartial, they wreak of his personal dislike for atheism. Under the guise of categorizing, Maritain stacks the cards against atheism by assigning to it an inferior moral and psychological status.
Consider the case of what Maritain calls "practical atheism." Practical atheists "believe that they believe in God (and ... perhaps believe in Him in their brains) but ... in reality deny His existence by each one of their deeds."
To state that men believe "in their brains" is a confusing way to acknowledge that they do, in fact, accept the existence of a supernatural being. By any rational conception of theism, such persons are theists, pure and simple. They may be hypocritical theists, they may profess to be Christians while ignoring Christian morality -- but if these men actually believe in god "in their brains" (meaning: as an intellectual issue), then they are theists, regardless of their conduct or moral beliefs.
But the idea of a hypocritical Christian offends Maritain's sensibilities. The belief in god is morally good, and the theist who does not measure up to certain moral standards then somehow does not really believe in god. As to how one can become an atheist through one's actions, Maritain provides a simple answer if one is sufficiently immoral or hypocritical, one deserves to be called an atheist. Under the cloak of classifying, Maritain purifies theism by pushing its undesirables into the atheistic camp, where he has no difficulty accepting their deviant behavior. After all, what more can one expect from a godless man?
By reason of immorality, hypocrisy and possibly other repugnant traits, Maritain brands the condemned as an atheist -- a "practical atheist," but an atheist nonetheless. Practical atheism, as defined by Maritain, is a conceptual garbage dump for theistic rejects; in actuality, it is a personal whim elevated to the status of a philosophical category. If deviousness is also incompatible with theism, then Maritain himself qualifies as a "practical atheist."
The other major form of atheism, according to Maritain, is "absolute atheism." Absolute atheists "actually deny the existence of the very God in Whom the believers believe and ... are bound to change entirely their own scale of values and to destroy in themselves everything that connotes His name."
We already have a hint that absolute atheism, like practical atheism, will involve moral distinctions. The absolute atheist changes his own values and sets out to destroy everything that reminds him of god. And what reminds us of god? If we take Maritain's word, god is associated with everything good and decent -- which, unsurprisingly, leads to the conclusion that the absolute atheist is waging a war against goodness. Maritain thus concludes that "absolute atheism is in no way a mere absence of belief in God. It is rather a refusal of God, a fight against God, a challenge to God. And when it achieves victory it changes man in his own inner behavior, it gives man a kind of stolid solidity, as if the spirit of man had been stuffed with dead substance, and his organic tissues turned into stone."
"Practical" and "absolute" atheism are considered by Maritain to be comprehensive categories (a third -- "pseudo-atheism" -- is dismissed as unimportant), so the prospective atheist has the choice of classifying himself as a hypocrite or as one constancy engaged in the destruction of values, thereby stuffing oneself with "dead substance." This is hardly an attractive alternative, nor an accurate one, but it does provide Maritain with a vehicle for destroying atheism without worrying about such mundane affairs as fairness, accuracy, intellectual respect and rational arguments.
Maritain misrepresents the atheistic position with remarkable ease and audacity and, in doing so, perpetuates many of the nonsensical myths about atheism. To those who believe that only the uneducated and uninformed slander atheism, J. Maritain and his followers provide instructive evidence to the contrary.
VI. What Atheism Is Not
Many of the myths of atheism, such as those put forth by Maritain, depend on assigning characteristics to atheism that do not belong to it. Because of this, it is essential to identify what atheism is not.
(a) It is commonly believed that atheism "involves what is called a world outlook, a total view of life." One religionist tells us that atheism "cannot be content with being the simple negation of religious dogmas; it must elaborate its own conception of human life and become a positive reality."
When atheism is represented by theists as a way of life, it is invariably portrayed as evil or undesirable. Conversely, when it is represented by atheists as a way of life, it is portrayed as beneficial rather than harmful. Joseph Lewis, a prominent atheist in the American free-thought tradition, writes that atheism "equips us to face life, with its multitude of trials and tribulations, better than any other code of living that I have yet been able to find." In the opinion of Lewis, "Atheism is a vigorous and courageous philosophy."
To view atheism as a way of life, whether beneficial or harmful, is false and misleading. Just as the failure to believe in magic elves does not entail a code of living or a set of principles, so the failure to believe in a god does not imply any specific philosophical system. From the mere fact that a person is an atheist, one cannot infer that this person subscribes to any particular positive beliefs. One's positive convictions are quite distinct from the subject of atheism. While one may begin with a basic philosophical position and infer atheism as a consequence of it, this process cannot be reversed. One cannot move from atheism to a basic philosophical belief, because atheism can be (and has been) incorporated within many different and incompatible philosophical systems.
(b) The label "atheist" announces one's disagreement with theism. It does not announce one's agreement with, or approval of, other atheists.
The practice of linking atheism with a set of beliefs, especially moral and political beliefs, allows the theist to lump atheists together under a common banner, with the implication that one atheist agrees with the beliefs of another atheist. And here we have the ever-popular "guilt by association." Since communists are notoriously atheistic, argue some theists, there must be some connection between atheism and communism. The implication here is that communism is somehow a logical outgrowth of atheism, so the atheist is left to defend himself against the charge of latent communism.
This irrational and grossly unfair practice of linking atheism with communism is losing popularity and is rarely encountered any longer except among political conservatives. But the same basic technique is sometimes used by the religious philosopher in his attempt to discredit atheism. Instead of communism, the sophisticated theologian will associate atheism with existentialism -- which projects a pessimistic view of existence -- and he will then reach the conclusion that atheism leads to a pessimistic view of the universe. It seems that the next best thing to convincing people not to be atheists is to scare them away from it.
While some atheists are communists and some are existentialists, this tells us nothing about atheism or other atheists. It is probable that the Christian, like the atheist, does not believe in the existence of magic elves -- but this does not provide a significant area of agreement between the two. And so it is with atheism.
Just as one theist may disagree with another theist on important issues, so one atheist may disagree with another atheist on important issues. An atheist may be a capitalist or a communist, an ethical objectivist or subjectivist, a producer or a parasite, an honest man or a thief, psychologically healthy or neurotic. The only thing incompatible with atheism is theism.
(c) When discussing atheism, many religionists adopt the following procedural rule: if all else fails, psychologize. If you cannot defeat the atheist in the realm of ideas, become his therapist: sympathize with him, inform him of his buried psychological problems that lead to his rejection of god. And, above all, assure him that fulfillment and happiness await him at his neighborhood church.
A philosopher speaks of "the natural desire for God," which, if not fulfilled, "leads to utter frustration." Another philosopher asserts that, if men decide not to believe in a god, "in so far as they are intelligent they are saddened by their decision," because a godless world "would be strikingly short on joy." Fulton Sheen tells us that happiness "is an ascension from what is inferior within us to what is its superior, from our egotism to our God." One theologian has gone so far as to state that the phrase "the godless man" involves a contradiction.
St. John Chrysostom was simply stating the central truth of this tradition in his famous dictum: "To be a man is to fear God".... God, who is the Author of nature, is integral to the nature of man. Therefore, the man who does not fear God somehow does not exist, and his nature is somehow not human. On the other hand, there he is. That is the problem.
To be an atheist is suddenly to be less than a human being -- to be an enigma, a walking paradox, a psychological problem. As one theist puts it, "Unbelief is an interruption in development." Mental health, asserts a psychologist, "demands good interpersonal relations with oneself, with others, and with God" -- which, observes Thomas Szasz, "neatly places all atheists in the class of the mentally sick."
These assertions deserve little comment, but it is interesting to note the appalling standard that is used in assessing the relationship between atheism and happiness. If the atheist is unhappy, this is attributed to his lack of belief. By relating happiness to an intimate connection with god, the "happy atheist" is defined out of existence.
The usual pattern for linking god and happiness is as follows: every human being naturally desires the good, the object of happiness. God is the ultimate, self-subsisting good. Therefore, every person naturally desires god as a corollary of his nature as a human being. Happiness divorced from god is a contradiction in terms
From this dubious line of thought, we have the further conclusion that the atheist is struggling with frustrating internal conflicts. He desires happiness but, by denying god, he denies himself happiness. The atheist is somehow waging a war against himself, against his own nature -- and this makes him neurotic, if not schizophrenic.
This theological psychology is Freudianism in reverse. While religionists have become annoyed with the attempts of psychologists to reduce theism to neurotic motivations, these theists do not hesitate to employ the same technique to their advantage against atheists. When the theist announces his belief in a supernatural being, he is usually taken at his word. When the atheist announces his disbelief in a god, however, he is often confronted with: "Oh, not really!" Or: "I'm sorry that you're so unhappy." Or: "I hope that your negative attitude toward life will change."
The atheist also finds his disbelief analyzed with reference to his age. If the atheist is young, his disbelief is attributed to youthful rebellion and immaturity -- a "phase" that will hopefully pass. If the atheist is middle-aged, his disbelief is traced to the frustration of daily routine, the bitterness of failure, or the alienation from oneself and one's fellow man. If the atheist is old, the explanation lies in the disillusionment, cynicism and loneliness that sometimes accompany one's later years.
Contrary to what many theists like to believe, atheism is not a form of neurotic rebellion or mental illness. The religionist cannot rid the world of atheists by committing them to an isolated asylum where they can be ignored. To label atheism as a psychological problem is a feeble, almost laughable attempt to evade the fundamental questions of truth and falsity. Is theism true? What reasons are there for believing in a god? These are the important issues, and these are the issues to which the theist must address himself if he wishes to confront the challenge of atheism.
Furthermore, there is a gross dishonesty involved in offering happiness as a motivation for believing in a god. Theists who appeal to happiness as a reward for belief display a shocking disregard for intellectuality and the pursuit of truth. Even if theism did lead to happiness (which it does not), this would not demonstrate its correctness. The psychologizing of atheism, therefore, is irrelevant to the subject of theism versus atheism. The theist who attempts to defeat atheism by subordinating truth to emotionalism accomplishes nothing, aside from revealing his contempt for man's ability to think.
VII. The Significance of Atheism
It may be objected that we have reduced atheism to a triviality. It is not a positive belief and does not offer any constructive principles, so of what value is it? If atheism may be compared to not believing in magic elves, why is it important? Why devote an entire book to a trivial subject?
Atheism is important because theism is important. The subject of god is not a remote, abstract topic with little influence in the lives of men. On the contrary, it is the core of Western religion -- specifically, the Judaeo-Christian tradition -- which includes a system of doctrines dealing with every major branch of philosophy.
If one believes, as I do, that theism is not only false, but is detrimental to man as well, then the choice between theism and atheism assumes a major importance. If considered purely as an abstract idea, theism may be dismissed without extended discussion. But when considered within its proper context -- within the framework of its historical, cultural, philosophical and psychological significance -- the question of god is among the most crucial subjects of our time.
If, thousands of years ago, a cult of elf-worshipers originated a set of doctrines, a religion, based on their belief in elves -- and if these doctrines were responsible for widespread harm -- then this book might be entitled The Case Against Elves. Historically, however, god has had more appeal than elves, so we are discussing The Case Against God instead.
Although atheism is negative in character, it need not be destructive. When used to eradicate superstition and its detrimental effects, atheism is a benevolent, constructive approach. It clears the air, as it were, leaving the door open for positive principles and philosophies based, not on the supernatural, but on man's ability to think and comprehend.
Religion has had the disastrous effect of placing vitally important concepts, such as morality, happiness and love, in a supernatural realm inaccessible to man's mind and knowledge. Morality and religion have become so intertwined that many people cannot conceive of ethics divorced from god, even in principle -- which leads to the assumption that the atheist is out to destroy values.
Atheism, however, is not the destruction of morality; it is the destruction of supernatural morality. Likewise, atheism is not the destruction of happiness and love; it is the destruction of the idea that happiness and love can be achieved only in another world. Atheism brings these ideas down to earth, within the reach of man's mind. What he does with them after this point is a matter of choice. If he discards them in favor of pessimism and nihilism, the responsibility lies with him, not with atheism.
By severing any possible appeal to the supernatural -- which, in terms of human knowledge, means the unknowable -- atheism demands that issues be dealt with through reason and human understanding; they cannot be sloughed-off onto a mysterious god.
If atheism is correct, man is alone. There is no god to think for him, to watch out for him, to guarantee his happiness. These are the sole responsibility of man. If man wants knowledge, he must think for himself. If man wants success, he must work. If man wants happiness, he must strive to achieve it. Some men consider a godless world to be a terrifying prospect; others experience it as a refreshing, exhilarating challenge. How a person will react to atheism depends only on himself -- and the extent to which he is willing to assume responsibility for his own choices and actions.
VIII. Theism on the Defense
The task of demythologizing atheism is now sufficiently complete, and the time has come to place the burden of defense where it belongs: squarely on the theist. We will no longer be concerned with rescuing atheism from the fog of misconceptions invented by religionists to obscure fundamental issues. The atheist is not obligated to answer arbitrary assertions, unproven assumptions and sloppy generalizations concerning the nature and consequences of the atheistic position. Atheism is the absence of a belief in a god, nothing more. If the theist wishes to draw monumental implications from this lack of belief, he must argue for his claims.
Without recourse to belittling atheism through mythology and slander, the theist is deprived of his major evasive tool. He is now required to face the issues, to present his beliefs intelligibly, and to argue for the truth of his beliefs. It is the atheist who demands proof from the theist, not vice-versa.
Before proceeding, it is necessary to offer some preliminary remarks concerning the nature of our inquiry. The conflict between theism and atheism centers on the existence or nonexistence of a god. This issue involves two major branches of philosophical inquiry: metaphysics and epistemology.
Metaphysics is the study of reality, of existence as such -- in contrast to specialized studies of existence, such as physics (inanimate matter) and biology (living entities). Metaphysics deals with such concepts as matter, consciousness and causality.
Epistemology is "the study or theory of the origin, nature, methods, and limits of knowledge." Epistemology deals with such concepts as truth, falsity, certainty and error.
We will often have occasion to refer to the metaphysical and epistemological implications of theistic belief, so the reader is urged to keep these categories in mind. "What exists?" is a question of metaphysics. "How does one know it?" is a question of epistemology.
Throughout most of this book, we shall be concerned with one question and one question only: Should theism be accepted as true? In the final analysis, this is the only important question. After this question is answered, we shall go on to explore the ethical and psychological implications of religious belief, but these areas are secondary to the basic issue of truth.
The theist is now on the defense; he can destroy atheism only by defending his belief in a god. If his defense fails, theism fails -- and atheism emerges as the only rational alternative.