Do All Atheists Deny the Same God?
Recently here (December, 2015) I have discussed the controversial question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God and the not-so-controversial question (that perhaps should be controversial) whether all Christians worship the same God. Now I’ll turn to a question I’ve never heard asked but interests me and I think should interest all thinking people. Do all atheists deny the same God?
First of all, let’s carefully examine the concept of “atheism.” The literal meaning is “without belief in God.” However, over time, at least in the West (Europe and North America), it has come to refer to denial of the existence of God. That is to distinguish it from “agnosticism” which is denial of knowledge of God. Atheism, as popularly understood anyway, affirms that God does not exist; atheists claim to know that or at last strongly believe that. Agnosticism, as popularly understood anyway, affirms that either 1) the agnostic does not know whether God exists (soft agnosticism), or 2) knowledge that God exists is impossible (hard agnosticism). The difference between atheism and agnosticism, at least among philosophers and religion scholars, lies in what is being denied. I could go on parsing the differences, but that should suffice for now.
Second, let’s carefully examine what atheists do believe in. All atheists I know (have read, have talked to) believe in nature, the cosmos ruled by natural laws in principle discoverable and understood by science. The “in principle” is important; many atheists would not claim that science has understood or ever will completely understand the cosmos exhaustively. The point is that it is in principle understandable by observation by anyone with the right tools and a working set of senses and mental activity. In other words, there is no “secret,” nothing ultimately mysterious, esoteric or ineffable that requires special revelation to be known or understood.
Many atheists, however, especially those who ascribe to secular humanism, argue that there is one exception to this epistemological rule (within which is a metaphysical view of reality). That is the human person. Somehow, in a way we do not yet fully understand and may never fully understand, freedom for self-transcendence has arisen within the cosmos. Humans are, like everything else in reality, products of nature, but they represent a “leap,” as it were, upward and forward into self-consciousness, ability to reason, and freedom to discover and create. All that means they are also responsible in a way non-human animals (to say nothing of minerals and plants) are not.
The question whether all atheists deny the same God is rarely asked. In fact, I’ve never heard it asked! That’s probably because people, atheists and theists alike, assume that atheists deny any and every God. However, whenever I have read atheists’ books and essays or engaged with atheists in conversation about God I have found uniformly the God they deny has a certain nature and character. Always, in my experience, the God they deny is something like the God of traditional Western philosophical-theological theism: the transcendent, even supernatural, all-determining Supreme Being of the “Abrahamic traditions” as defined or described by their traditional orthodoxies.
The problem is, of course, that is only one concept of God (and there is variety of interpretation about it even among orthodox Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is!). All one has to do to know there are radically different concepts of God from that one (in all its forms) is to peruse books like Philosophers Speak of God by Charles Hartshorne and William L. Reese (University of Chicago Press, 1953, 1976)—a classic study of radically different ideas of God. Chapter III “Classical Theism” describes “God as Eternal Consciousness, Knowing [but Not Including] the World.” IN that chapter Hartshorne and Reese, two very well-known philosophers of religion, discuss Philo, Augustine, Anselm, Al-Ghazzali, Maimonides, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Channing and von Hügel. However, that is only one chapter in a book of 535 double columned pages! Other chapters various forms of pantheism (e.g., Spinoza), extreme temporalistic theism (Wieman), emanationism (Plotinus). In other words, for religion scholars, including many philosophers of religion, including many non-Christians, “God” is not a simple idea. Over the centuries even of Western culture many philosophers, including the “God-drunk” Jewish philosopher Spinoza, confessed belief in a God nothing like the God of Western classical theism as expounded by the orthodox theologians of the Abrahamic faiths.
So, when an atheists tells me he (or she) believes no God (or gods) exists I have to ask “Which God or gods are you denying?” The usual answer is, of course, “Any and all.” Okay, but I still have to ask “Have you considered all concepts of God so that you know you are really denying ‘any and all’?” At this point it’s important to remember that an atheist is not merely an agnostic. An agnostic would simply say “Well, I don’t think it’s possible for humans to know….” An atheist is dogmatically asserting that nothing worthy of the label “God” exists. So an informed atheist, one, for example who has read a book like Philosophers Speak of God, might say “Whatever someone calls ‘God’ does not exist.” But what if someone, like Spinoza, calls nature itself “God” but, unlike the atheist, simply believes nature has a spiritual depth dimension to it that reason itself can discover? Has the atheist considered that possibility? Or what about Alfred North Whitehead’s or Charles Hartshorne’s non-theistic or neo-theistic concept of God that requires no special revelation to know and understand and does not in any way conflict with modern science? Many, perhaps most, followers of process thought call it a “naturalistic theism.”
In my opinion, which I cannot prove, most if not all atheists in Europe and America are reacting to a certain idea of God which they have come to associate with all ideas of God even though, insofar as they are educated, they should know that is not the only idea of God. I find this especially the case among the so-called “New Atheists” whose books are so highly touted in recent decades. When I read them I can easily detect they are reacting against an idea of God as the transcendent, supernatural, personal, all-determining reality who exercises omnicausality. Even many devout Christians do not believe in such a God.
Also, many, perhaps most contemporary Western atheists believe in a mysterious reality called “free will” and they mean it in the libertarian sense of “power of contrary choice.” They realize that it is necessary for self-transcendence and responsibility. And yet, there is something supernatural about every act of libertarian free will. By definition it cannot be simply the product of chemical interactions in the brain. If it were that or anything like that, of course, humans would not be special—“above” animals (unless there were a God to say so). Could scientific observation and examination alone ever exhaustively explain why all people do what they do without appealing to something beyond science’s own ken? I don’t think so.
My point is, of course, that belief in libertarian free will, power of contrary choice, and especially in self-transcendence, implies something supernatural—whether someone is willing to call it that or not.
Then, of course, there is the point made by Martin Luther and repeated (in his own way) by Paul Tillich—that everyone has a god insofar as he or she has something that concerns him or her ultimately. And everyone does have an ultimate concern in or about something. In this way of looking at things, a naturalist, someone who believes nature is all there is, invests in nature (or in himself or herself) ultimate concern and therefore god-status. More likely, however, in the case of the sensitive, caring, thinking self-proclaimed atheist, humanity is endowed with god-like status in the sense of the well-being of humanity becomes his or her ultimate concern. The question then, of course, becomes “Why?” Why not live for self-interest alone if there is nothing eternal, transcendent, above and beyond nature who cares and to whom you are accountable? The only answer an atheist can give is “Because your well-being is ultimately tied to the well-being of humanity.” But suppose the hedonist, locked into radical eudemonism, simply says “I don’t believe that?” Very many people in this world seem to live quite happy and seemingly fulfilled lives on the basis of individual hedonism. (Just watch some of the programs on, for example, HGTV where wealthy people from the U.S., Canada or Europe spend millions of dollars buying “vacation homes” on beaches in Central American countries where thousands of children are hungry and homeless.) The true hedonist’s god is his or her own fulfillment—however that may be defined. And that’s difficult to refute—as ethically wrong–if nature is truly all there is.