First Principles of Atheism
Posted by Jerry on June 30, 2006
D. Eastbrook offered me a link to Anton Thorn’s site on Atheism. I haven’t had the time to peruse Anton’s site entirely, but based on what I have read so far, I believe Anton’s case for atheism is based on a weak definition of the concept “atheism”.
In his Atheological Credo, Anton defines his atheism as “absence of god-belief.” His essay is pretty much his answer to the question, “Why I have no god-belief.”
I believe this definition is weak and could possibly reveal holes in the arguments that he bases on that definition.
Atheism, as I define it, is not merely an absence of god-belief, but an assertive credo stating that there is no god to believe in! In other words, atheism belongs to the genus of ideology, the subset of metaphysics, and its differentia is the answer in the negative. Therefore, atheism is a resounding “No!” to the metaphysical question “Does god exist?”
Thus, if someone posed the question to me, “Why do I have no god-belief,” my response would be simply to say that I have no such belief because there is no such entity to have a belief in.
Atheism is the recognition that there is/are no god(s). It is not merely a belief that there is no god, but a recognition of that fact, and therefore, a metaphysical truth. A belief could be mistaken, or proven wrong at some future point. A recognition of fact is a recognition of reality as is. One can choose to not believe in something, i.e., have an absence of belief in something arising out of ignorance or error in thought; that however, does not necessitate the absence of the entity or experience that you reject belief in.
Further, note that most of Anton’s arguments in support of his “absence of god-belief” appeal to principles of logic, reason, rationality, axioms of reality, and other Objectivist principles. While he is right in doing so, and his arguments are valid and even impressive, they have little potency or relevance in the face of religionists who fundamentally accept faith over reason, contradictory premises, illogical arguments, and irrational beliefs.
It is futile to engage in logical persuasion with such people because they will simply say: okay, yes. All that makes human sense. All that is logical. But everything does not have to be logical. God is above and beyond our logic and worldly principles. God cannot be bound by principles of logic. Faith is illogical. Your arguments are good, but simply human arguments. Your absence of belief is actually agnosticism, not atheism, because given your statement that you do not believe in a god, you do not therefore claim that a God in fact does not exist.
It is my view that the starting first premise for an atheist to successfully engage a religious believer into considering arguments for atheism is by drawing strict boundaries of discussion. Force the discussion to be situated on rational and logical grounds because nothing is outside the province of reason–not even God:
1) State that whatever concept one has of God, that concept most likely includes their contention that this God is a supremely intelligent Being; They will concede this “intelligent” premise because they would not want to admit that they may be worshipping a stupid, ignorant, dumb, or unintelligent god. Nor would they want to concede that this Universe is not intelligently designed. So, assume God is a supremely intelligent Being.
2) If God is supremely intelligent, then God knows that a circle with 4 corners cannot be drawn. It is impossible for such a figure to be drawn, and God is well aware of that because He is intelligent. This means, God must certainly know (like we humans do) that there are basic logical principles that cannot be violated, in this case, it is the logical principle of identity. Similarly, other logical principles that are derived from identity and non-contradiction are also (and must be) applicable to God.
3) Given that we now accept that God also subscribes to some basic principles of logic — like A is A (a circle is a circle and cannot be a square with 4 corners at the same time), we can introduce further arguments that are strictly rational. For example, we can argue that since God is also immortal and eternal, God can never kill himself or cause himself to cease to exist; God cannot do that because he cannot violate the law of identity, i.e. A is A. It’s His nature to be immortal.
4) Thus, we slowly begin introducing further logical arguments once we have firmly laid the foundation that a supremely intelligent God must also concede to basic principles of logic. Once that has been settled, one can begin, as Anton does, shooting all the logical, philosophical ammunition you have. [See my posts in "Atheism"]
Note that my method requires the we set clear boundaries of discussion with religionists to accept the validity of logic as the most basic premise in analyzing God-concepts. Thus, in a way, I am introducing to them the fact that all beliefs are subject to logical and rational scrutiny–even beliefs accepted on faith. By dragging them into the field of logic and reason, and away from the murky, nebulous territory of faith, I get them to see the veracity and validity of my arguments. If beyond that, they still disagree, one must simply ignore them, because a mind not open to rational persuasion is not a mind worth engaging with: such a person may be evading reason, is fearful of the consequences of being persuaded, or may simply be intellectually inequipped to handle the complexity of rational thought.
Now, I can forsee that someone might interject my argument by saying, what if one holds a Spinozist conception of God, i.e. pantheistic, identical with nature? Or what if one concedes that this “super power, higher Being” does not have to be Intelligent? If such argument is put forth, then its not too difficult to point out the uselessness of even introducing such a concept of God that is not already taken care of by our current understanding of the Nature, evolution, existence, and its processes. A “god” identical with “nature” is nature itself–why bother introducing such a bromide as “God?”–and based on what premise, reason, or belief? If it is merely an assertion of faith, then anything goes. I can assert that Superman exists, and construct an entire religious paradigm around Him as deity.
The more I read Anton’s site on atheism, the more I believe that his arguments are weak in some fundamental ways. First, for example, take his argument that the claim “God exists” is a contradiction and thererefore, is self-refuting. His argument basically takes us on a tour of the Objectivist axiom of existence (and its corollary, consciousness) in order to reach his conclusion. He says:
To claim that god exists, you must both assume the truth of the primacy of existence and deny it at the same time.
What he means is that, to make the claim that “God exists” and that existence exists because of God created it, is to arrive at a contradiction. Objectivism states that consciousness is only meaningful if something exists in the first place (primacy of existence). In other words, consciousness cannot exist without something independently existing also. Consciousness is awareness; and if there isn’t anything to be aware of, then one cannot be “aware.” So, how does this apply to God? Anton claims that stating that God exists is making a claim for the primacy of existence (i.e., existence exists), but making the claim that God brought “existence into existence” makes a claim to the primacy of consciousness.
In other words, Anton claims that by proposing God’s existence, the theist is claiming that God is essentially conscious (i.e., aware) without needing anything existing to be conscious of! This, according to Anton, brings us to a contradiction, and therefore the claim that God exists is self-refuting. [For a different approach to arriving at this contradiction, see "We Exist. Therefore, God does not."]
I find his argument to be logically sound, but fundamentally weak in its ability to persuade a theist to accept it. Why? Because, Anton’s argument of contradiction necessarily depends upon separating existence and consciousness as two distinct premises (or the only two exhaustive metaphysical primacies); and that is a centuries-old debated premise.
In fact, Hegelian Absolutism and Spinozistic Pantheism fundamentally rests on the view that existence and consciousness are not distinct and opposing primacies, but actually one and the same–each implying the other. Further, some Idealistic Rationalists also claim that the Absolute Consciousness contains within itself the awareness of itself and of “existence.” In other words, existence (like us, animals, rocks, buildings, etc.) are nothing more that the imaginations or thoughts of an Absolute Consciousness (whether it’s an entity or some kind of “collective consciousness” is debated among themselves) that thinks existence into existence!
Moreover, the premise that consciousness cannot precede existence has also been challenged by many theistic and atheistic philosophies. Existentialism (of both the secular and the religious kind) asserts the primacy of the consciousness. God, as understood by some theists, is an integrated, infinite entity that is essentially and fundamentally existent and aware of its existence at the same time. Contradictions, according to these theists and others, do not always lead to invalidation but possibly to a synthesis of opposites, or a transcendence of apparent opposites (Hegelian dialecticism).
Now, why do I state these as objections to Anton’s arguments even when I know that they are absurd? Because, those are the kinds of arguments a theist could legitimately pose as a challenge to his argument and feel vindicated.
In fact, even in Objectivism, one must be careful in explicating the axioms. Rand said that the axiom of existence “implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives, and that one exists possessing consciousness” (Atlas Shrugged). In other words, Rand does not state that existence and consciousness are opposites and that one must choose one over the other, but that each implies the other. That if there is consciousness, there necessarily must be existence. Or, to state it in another way, when I make the claim that Existence exists, I am at the same time also making the claim that I possess consciousness.
Thus, a theist could in typical Hegelian fashion claim that God is the metaphyical primary that entails the primacies of existence and consciousness in Himself: He is infinitely existent and is omnisciently conscious of existence.
The question Anton should be asking himself is this: why should a religionist accept Objectivist axioms in this discussion on the existence of God? Because Objectivism is the true and rational philosophy? Yes. But as Anton readily admits, theists are fundamentally irrational! Their whole belief system is based on faith, which is whim! So, why would one hold the hopes that the rational axioms of Objectivism will have any ability in convincing these fundamentally irrational believers?
I myself discovered atheism before I discovered Objectivism and its rational principles. I still hold that my approach of “seducing” the irrationals into the territory of rational, logical sense by using their own concept of God as a “supremely Intelligent Being,” and then proceeding to analyze what “intelligent” i.e. logical and rational would mean when applied to God, is the most potent way of persuading and convincing them of the truth of atheism.