If there were a prize for gobbledegook it might be difficult to sort out the winner between government regulations, particle physics and certain TV adverts that I shall not specify for fear of litigation. Yes, I’m in training to become an old fogey. I want to know what things mean.
I would particularly like atheists to explain what they mean by their assertion that ‘there is no God’. That might seem a stupid request, but my contention is this: that atheists mainly define themselves in terms of what they are not.
Where is the evidence for my theory? Well, a good place to start would be the various atheist web sites and writings. A large proportion of their material is taken up with the failures of ‘organised religion’. The statement that ‘there is no God’ seems to mean that ‘there is no God such as that proclaimed by the awful religious bodies that I have experienced.’ The problem with this approach is that there are many ‘believers’- probably a majority – who also criticise religious institutions.
Often bundled with the anti-institutional stance is the assumption that religious bodies are what they are because of their belief in an infallible divine revelation. The implication is that we are all fundamentalists, but the fact is that we are not. For atheists in this camp the assertion ‘there is no God’ appears to mean ‘there is no divine being who word for word dictates infallible writings’. Interestingly, atheists are not averse to quoting the ideas of certain Greek philosophers with great approval, as if they had divine authority; and when all else fails there’s always David Hume, who surely ought to be awarded the secular equivalent of sainthood. At any rate, like the issue of organised religion, this is a much easier forum of debate than the question of whether or not there is a God.
So far in my discussion atheists have not successfully differentiated themselves from many ‘believers.’ To be fair, though, there are many atheists who deplore the mud-slinging, perhaps recognising that we all live in glass houses. They prefer to discuss the essence of the matter – so we should now turn to that.
If I say ‘there is no God’ then surely all I am saying is that I do not believe that such a being exists. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. You may believe that there is no such being of unlimited power, but what if there is a being whose power is simply greater than any other? This being might be (for example) powerful enough to create a universe, but not powerful enough to create more than one. Would such a being be ruled out by the atheist mantra?
Judging by atheists I have known, such a being would indeed be ruled out – so let’s take divinity down a further notch. Suppose there were a being who could not make a universe but is able to exercise a huge influence on the way it has unfolded. To use a musical analogy, this would not be a Beethoven, maybe, but a pretty good conductor. Would atheists rule out such a being?
Although there might be some fraying at the edges, I suspect that most atheists would deny the possible existence of this kind of God, so let’s try one more time. Suppose that such a being – the conductor sort – exists, but is not really personal. The picture here is almost at the level of a super-computer, a kind of ‘metasystem’ that keeps all other systems running according to the rules.
It would be at this point, I suspect, that atheist divisions might appear, for the following reason. Almost all atheists claim to be such because, in their view, there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God. There is, however, scientific evidence that the laws of nature are consistent – they may be more subtle than we thought before the days of quantum mechanics, but they are laws nevertheless. This deeply held conviction lies behind the quest for a grand theory of everything.
I can think of atheists who would admit to the existence of this unifying structure, which we might call perhaps an impersonal intelligence. Their reason for not using the name ‘God’ to denote this intelligence is because of the connotations of the word. The fact that most ‘believers’ do not believe in a bearded old man in the sky is of no consequence – any idea of the personal is abhorrent.
There are, however, many who classify themselves as ‘believers’ and refer to God as a person, but whose concept of God is really quite close to that of an impersonal intelligence. We could call such people ‘ultra-deists’. In terms of belief it would be hard to get the proverbial cigarette paper between them and those atheists who are open to the ‘impersonal intelligence’ concept. Indeed, some atheists (including Richard Dawkins no less) admit that Deism is at least a position to be respected, even though they would not agree with it. Yet again, though, we have the phenomenon of atheists defining themselves by what they are not.
I think, however, that we are close to a solution, and the key to that solution is the concept of the personal. It seems arguable to me that what atheists mean by the statement ‘there is no God’ is that personhood is purely a human phenomenon, certainly not to be found beyond the universe. When push comes to shove, the ultra-deists will probably still regard God as personal, whereas even sympathetic atheists will not.
My theory explains why atheists appear so fascinated by the neurosciences. There seems to be a great desire to explain away the whole concept of the person (or consciousness if you like) by reducing it to merely a shorthand description of complex neuronal activity. This is generally put in popular form in terms of denying the existence of some kind of ethereal soul or “ghost in the machine”. Yet again, though, such an idea is not found in the thought world of many ‘believers’. It is not found in mine, even though I believe in the reality of spiritual life and life beyond the universe as we know it.
This may not appear to be a solution, because there is still no clear blue water between atheist belief and that of many religious believers. However, if atheists began to say ‘there is no such thing as the person’ then it would not only be clear what they meant, it would focus on an issue quite capable of exploration, and on which science still has much to say.
It would open up more useful discussion than we often have at present, and it would help us to understand what kind of God atheists do not believe in.