Process Atheism

by Eric Steinhart

A process atheist is someone who agrees that every question that used to be answered by appealing to God can be better answered by appealing to some form of evolution. Dan Fincke gets credit for coining the phrase “process atheism”. Process atheism is one type of atheism among many.

Process atheism is a positive and optimistic philosophy. One of the main points of process atheism is that many people would stop being theists if they could believe that atheism had something positive to offer. To many people, atheism just seems nasty and negative. But a process atheism sees value and meaning in evolution. Every type of evolution is an optimization algorithm of some type – it is an algorithm for hill-climbing in some landscape of possibilities.

There are many different types and levels of evolution. And there are all sorts of ways that evolution does a better job of answering questions once answered by God. Here are some informal presentations of a few types of evolution:

1. Biological Evolution – Theists say that God designed life on earth. Process atheists say, instead, that some sort of entirely Godless evolution by natural selection generated all life on earth. Of course, reality is much bigger and deeper than the biology of earth; and evolution by natural selection is not the only type of evolution. There are other types. And it’s worth noting that evolution by natural selection is far from simply being blind and purposeless. It’s climbing all sorts of ladders of value. It’s progressive in many different ways. It has produced all sorts of beautiful structures and systems. People who call themselves religious naturalists say they find deep emotional and aesthetic satisfaction in the evolution of life on earth. They regard it as a religiously meaningful process. And many of them are non-theists. Process atheists can agree with non-theistic religious naturalists.

2. Moral Evolution – Theists often say that morality depends on God. Or at least the objectivity of morality depends on God. Process atheists counter that evolution can explain not just the natural history of morality (e.g. through the evolution of altruism), but also the objectivity of morality. Writers like Cambpell, Collier & Stingl, and Harms have done interesting work on how evolution can make ethics objective.

3. Physical Evolution – Theists often point to God as the source of all the order and complexity within the universe. But process atheists disagree. Older writers like Herbert Spencer in the 19th century already argued that evolution (though not by natural selection) is the source of all order in the universe. More recent writers like Chaisson argue that evolution in a general sense is the source of all order and complexity in the universe. Biological evolution is just one type of this more general evolution. Here on earth, biological evolution is the result of the principles of self-organization in an open system far from thermal equilibrium. For Chaisson, very deep physical features of our universe entail that complexity tends to increase everywhere at all levels, at least for a very long time.

4. Cosmological Evolution – Theists often say that God is needed to explain the deep physical features of our universe. This is the theistic conclusion of the fine-tuning version of the design argument. And even if everything in our universe is evolving, theists say that it evolves because God designed it that way. But process atheists say that the deep features of our universe are themselves the products of evolution. Cosmologists like Smolin have developed various theories of cosmological evolution. Those theories do not involve natural selection. Process atheists can use those theories. And process atheists can find meaning and value in cosmological evolution. Cosmological evolution is sublime, awe-inspiring, and its mathematical depths are formally beautiful. It is progressive in many ways and climbs many ladders of value and significance.

5. Metaphysical Evolution – Theists often say that God is the ultimate explanation for everything. Even if evolution generates all the concrete contingent things, God answers all the ultimate questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Theists say the answer is found in God. Process atheists reply that evolution provides better answers to ultimate questions. Although Leibniz was (or at least appeared to be) a theist, he sometimes gives surprisingly atheistic answers to ultimate questions. His theory of the striving possibles can be interpreted as an atheistic and purely evolutionary explanation for why there are any concrete contingent things rather than none, and for why the system of concrete universes is the way it is. These ideas are sometimes taken up in the work of axiarchists like John Leslie and Nicholas Rescher. Process atheists can work out evolutionary metaphysics similar to these Leibnizian or axiarchic theories.

At the deepest level, a process atheist might say that the totality of concrete contingent things is generated by evolution by rational selection. Purely logical principles like the principle of sufficient reason and the principle of plenitude drive evolution by rational selection. Process atheists can find the deepest meanings and values in metaphysical evolution. It is ultimate, necessary, eternal, and infinite. It is the ground of all concreteness. It is rational and mathematically beautiful. It may even be possible to use evolution by rational selection to derive a soteriology – even a theory of life after death. If so, then evolution can serve as a better foundation for hope than theism. It can be more emotionally satisfying.

Obviously, I’ve only provided a very superficial outline of process atheism here. Every point I’ve made can be rigorously developed and defended (with as much academic precision as you want). My main point is that process atheism is a positive and optimistic atheistic philosophy.

Campbell, R. (1996) Can biology make ethics objective? Biology and Philosophy 11, 21-31.

Chaisson, E. (2001) Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Collier, J. & Stingl, M. (1993) Evolutionary naturalism and the objectivity of morality. Biology and Philosophy 8, 43-50.

Harms, W. (2000) Adaptation and moral realism. Biology and Philosophy 15, 699-712.

Leibniz, G. W. (1697/1988) On the ultimate origination of the universe. In P. Schrecker & A. Schrecker (1988) Leibniz: Monadology and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 84-94.

Leslie, J. (1970) The theory that the world exists because it should. American Philosophical Quarterly 7 (4), 286-298.

Leslie, J. (1989) Universes. New York: Routledge.

Leslie, J. (2001) Infinite Minds: A Philosophical Cosmology. New York: Oxford.

Leslie, J. (2007) Immortality Defended. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Rescher, N. (1984) The Riddle of Existence: An Essay in Idealistic Metaphysics. New York: University Press of America.

Rescher, N. (2000) Optimalism and axiological metaphysics. The Review of Metaphysics 53 (4), 807-835.

Smolin, L. (1992) Did the universe evolve? Classical and Quantum Gravity 9, 173-191.

Smolin, L. (1997) The Life of the Cosmos. New York: Oxford University Press.

Spencer, H. (1862) First Principles. London: Williams & Norgate.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • John M.

    I’m not sure one would call the following “process atheists,” but rather “transcendental humanists,” Daniel how about including some some thoughts about the current French atheists like Luc Ferry, Marcel Gauchet, and Jean-Luc Nancy?

    • Daniel Fincke

      I do not follow contemporary French thought. I have not typically benefited much from it.

  • John M.

    Thanks for your honesty, Daniel.


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