The Positive Content of Atheism

by Eric Steinhart

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers recently wrote about being irked by “Dictionary Atheists”.   He doesn’t like it when people say that atheism means nothing more than denying God.  His post is long, but I just want to focus on the issue of the meaning of atheism: why complain about dictionary atheists?  After all, aren’t they obviously right?  If you learn that someone is an atheist, it would seem that all you’ve learned is that he or she doesn’t believe in God – or, more precisely, that he or she rejects theism.  It would seem that you haven’t learned anything else about that person.

There are many deep ideas that inspire or imply atheism.  But the converse doesn’t hold: atheism doesn’t imply those ideas.  Much entails atheism; atheism entails little.  There are many different species of atheism.  And, apart from their rejection of theism, it’s hard to see what they have in common.   Here are a few examples:

You might be an atheist because you’re a materialist; but the converse doesn’t hold.  Atheism doesn’t entail materialism.  You can be an atheist and affirm that there are many things that aren’t material – like space-time points and numbers.  You might be like the 20th century American philosopher David Lewis and affirm the existence of endlessly many other possible universes.  You can be a Platonist who affirms the reality of an abstract world of non-physical entities.  Or you could be an idealist who affirms a world of spirits but no God (like the early 20th century British philosopher, John McTaggart).

You might be an atheist because you’re a naturalist; but atheism doesn’t entail naturalism.  You can believe in all manner of non-natural or super-natural entities without believing in God or in any gods. You might be a Neoplatonist, like Plotinus, who says that the One is the ground of being.  The One transcends all that exists – it super-exists.  It’s supernatural.  But it isn’t God in any sense.  This is close to Tillich’s position that God is the ground of being, except that for Tillich, the ground of being is personal.  Still, genuinely atheistic Neoplatonism is a kind of atheism that might be deeply religious.

You might be an atheist because you’re opposed to religion; but in fact many forms of religion are entirely compatible with atheism.  Eastern religions like Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism certainly aren’t theistic in any Western sense.  And among the Western traditions, Neoplatonism isn’t theistic in any Abrahamic sense.  Some Unitarians are religious atheists.  Religious naturalists (like Donald Crosby or Jerome Stone) say that there are aspects of nature that deserve to be called divine or holy, yet they generally reject God. And certain philosophically defensible forms of pantheism are atheistic.  (It’s silly to say that the universe is God or that everything is identical with God; but there are more serious forms of pantheism.)  So atheism doesn’t entail anti-religion.

You might be an atheist because you’re a humanist.  However, the converse does not hold: atheism does not imply humanism.  Some atheists reject humanism because they don’t think that humanity is that than which no greater is possible.  They think that humanity can and should be surpassed.   These atheists are transhumanists.  Transhumanists like Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil, and perhaps Frank Tipler, have constructed elaborate systems of thought that look very religious.  But they aren’t humanists.

You might be an atheist because you’re anti-Christian.  But there’s a good case to be made that Christianity should oppose theism – and indeed there are and have been Christian atheists.  Perhaps Quakers are Christian atheists.  Writers like Thomas Altizer, Don Cuppitt and John Shelby Spong come to mind.  Christian atheism is a system of moral and epistemic imperatives derived from a reading of the New Testament.   Christian atheists generally regard God as an idol and therefore oppose theism.  Christian atheists oppose coercive power in favor of the concept of power as service.  On this point, Gregory Boyd’s Myth of A Christian Nation is required reading.  And since Christ is the Logos, the Christian atheist says that the world is rationally ordered.  So Christian atheists oppose all forms of irrationality, superstition, and magical thinking.  Much more could (and should) be said here.  But the main point is that there are ways to be Christian while denying the existence of God.

You might be an atheist because you’re a rationalist.  But you don’t have to be a rationalist to be an atheist.  If you’re into mystical theology, you might say that the divine is utterly beyond reason.  And you might therefore declare that theism is harmful idolatry.  God is merely the projection of humanity onto a divine background that must remain utterly blank.  Here you’ll have lots of Medieval Christian mystics and philosophers on your side.  Of course, mysticism like this is a very minority position.  But the point remains: being an atheist doesn’t require you to be a rationalist.

Atheism as such has almost no content – it’s a big tent with many different communities, almost all of which are small and weak in comparison with the dominant majority.   And this might provide a clue to the essence of atheism: perhaps atheism is essentially a protest against domination.  Atheism is what you get when you push protestantism to its limit.  More abstractly, atheism is a kind of complaint against the concentration of power.

But what is the content of the complaint?  It may be that all the atheistic communities are engaged in a shared protest against corruption.  Power, when concentrated in a single god, in a single religion, in a single ideology, in a single political party, becomes corrupt.  It distorts and perverts both justice and truth.  Naturalists complain that theists are epistemically corrupt (in their perversions of science, e.g. intelligent design).  Christian atheists complain that theists are morally, politically, and theologically corrupt.  And the other atheists protest against similar forms of corruption.  The protest against corruption is based on an insistence for purity in thinking and acting.  The paradoxical conclusion is that atheism is the logical consequence of puritanical protestantism.

So perhaps the positive content of atheism is just this: atheism is a relentless insistence on purity in thought and action.   It’s a secular puritanism.  John Haught, in his recent book on the new atheists, condemns the new atheists for being puritans, for seeking cognitive and ethical purity.  He uses the term as an insult.   But perhaps the various atheist communities could agree that puritanism is exactly what they all have in common.  If the new atheists are looking for a term that expresses the positivity of atheism in a clear way, then “puritanism” might be a pretty good term.  Puritans against corruption.

Guest Contributor Eric Steinhart is an associate professor of philosophy at William Paterson University and the author ofMore Precisely: The Math You Need To Do Philosophy, On Nietzsche (Wadsworth Philosophers Series), and The Logic of Metaphor – Analogous Parts of Possible Worlds (Synthese Library, Volume 299). Professor Steinhart has explained many of his views on metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and Richard Dawkins in an audio interview with The Pale Blue Dot. Abstracts to his papers on the philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, the metaphysics of persons, Nietzsche, and analogy and metaphor can all be found here (in some cases with links to the papers themselves).

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