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.
” that atheists mainly define themselves in terms of what they are not.”
I define myself in terms of what I am. I just define my atheism in terms of what I don’t believe. But I am more than just an atheist.
“Would atheists rule out such a being?”
It’s not about ruling things out. It’s about looking at the evidence.
All those gods you mention are certainly possible. But so is an invisible, reality-creating dragon god. They’re all possible. But possible doesn’t mean probably, or likely, or true.
And it certainly doesn’t mean the evidence supports it.
If you use the term ‘god’ to mean any kind of supernatural being, then I don’t believe it exists.
If you use the term ‘god’ to mean anything I already believe exists, then I’d probably say you were using the term in a less-than-useful and possibly misleading way.
Mark Silversides said:
There seems to be a disconnect between what you are and what you believe. This first is in terms of what you are, the second in terms of what you don’t believe. Fo rme, what you believe is an integral part of what you are.
In what way does the evidence not support the existence of a divine being?
I can’t think of any who wouldn’t, but how do you make the leap from a naturalistic structure arising from the way a few particles and forces interact, to the second part of the sentence?:
That’s the leap of logic/faith that I reject as an atheist. I see no evidence of the (godly) intelligence in question, and therefore no reason to even attempt to build a bridge from “structure” to “intelligence,” in the sense of creator-beings or such, unless we first see evidence of the existence of those beings. But even if I were interested in such a bridge, I see no way to insert a credible “therefore” into the middle of your sentence. The second clause simply doesn’t follow from the first—we certainly “might” call it an impersonal intelligence, but why “would” we?
The fact that intelligence has arisen from the structure is self-evident, but no matter how powerful or advanced, such intelligent beings can’t be considered gods by any usual definition (godlike, in the same sense that advanced technology = magic, yes, but not gods), and they cannot be the god(s) described by the Abrahamic religions, or any others which claim that their god(s) created the structure, not the other way around.
Although the “bearded old man in the sky” is something of a caricature, most believers do certainly believe in a god who is to some degree interventionist, and who is interested in both their own (and usually everyone else’s) personal behaviour and morals. No matter how non-literally they may interpret holy scripture, they’re still left with a god who issues edicts (even if only as mild as ‘love thy neighbour’) and is, presumably, interested in having those edicts adhered to. As a counterpoint, why would anyone bother praying to gods who they believed weren’t listening, or interested?
Mark Silversides said:
Thanks for your extensive comment. What you are pointing out, I think, is the complexity of religious belief. (Maybe all belief for that matter!). I suspect people believe in God initially for many different reasons. However, having made that step it is much more coherent to regard God as part of the answer to other questions as well.
The interventionist point is very important I think, maybe suitable for another post, following up stuff I put in my book.
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Hey great post Mark, really enjoyed it. You definitely pose a couple of tough questions.
As an atheist my most immediate response is, “I don’t believe in the Christian god”. Seeing as I didn’t believe any other types of god existed while I was a Christian, I don’t see any new reason to change my position on that now that I’m not. It seems natural to fall back on to my default position.
I don’t think of myself as an atheist, I think of myself as ‘not a theist’. I know that’s the exact same thing but I think it helps clarify the point that atheism is not an identity in and of itself. It’d be like a smoker saying, can you clarify what it is to be a non-smoker?
There’s more to it than that, and I’ll happily expand if you want, I just don’t want to make other commenters scroll through huge slabs of text unneccessarily.
Sorry, I meant “As an ex-Christian” at the start of the second paragraph..
Mark Silversides said:
Thanks. I came from a narrow sort of background which I gave up, but didn’t feel I had to throw the whole lot in. A key thing for me was getting to understand more (I think!) about the problem of suffering. Much discussion on all sides about this is not brilliant!
This is an interesting question, I can only speak for myself, but when I say I am an atheist, I am basically saying that I don’t believe any God’s exist. This includes the Christian God of course, but it also includes pretty much any other God I’ve ever heard of.
I also have some pretty serious issues with the church, but as you said, so do many religious people. My issues with the church are a large part of the reason I am motivated to speak out, and it did play a role of my leaving the faith in the first place. But it’s not the reason I am an atheist today. When it really comes down to it, I just see no good reason to believe God is real.
Mark Silversides said:
Thanks for your comment – at least some clarity! I wonder though whether you might be guilty of moving from the particular to the general. I can understand the idea of not believing in any of the Gods you’ve heard of. But what about the ones you haven’t heard of? After all, there could in principle be a God that doesn’t correspond all that closely to any of the ideas found in religions. (Which is quite a widely held view among many ‘believers’ – we only ever have a partial idea of what God is like, e.g. by analogy.)
That’s interesting to bring up God’s I haven’t heard of, of course I don’t believe in them. I’m not exactly sure how one would believe in something they know nothing about. That being said, it is possible that at some point in the future I will learn about a new God and believe in it, but wouldn’t that future me refer to the current me as a non-believer?
I also wouldn’t argue that all gods are impossible, or that I know for certain that no gods exist, but I definitely don’t believe any gods exist.
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Somewhat delayed reply but a couple of days ago I expanded a bit on my own blog about what I mean when I personally say ‘I am an atheist’.
If you’re still interested and would like to check it out, I’d be interested to see your take on it. It can be read here (http://wp.me/p2R9q4-3R) All the best.
Mark Silversides said:
Liked your post, great analogy with the smoker / non-smoker! Perhaps the nub of the matter is that some(not all) atheists define themselves to a great extent by their atheism, and some religious people (not all) define themselves to a great extent by their religion. The question then would be how we integrate our belief / unbelief with everything else in our lives.
Yeah very true. The question is ‘where do we go from here?’
Mark Silversides said:
Not sure! For me personally it’s a matter of committed belief that does affect the whole of life but is not pharisaical i.e.over-judging everyone else. I’ll let you know if I have any inspiration!