The Atheist named Richard Swinburne

I was reading the Martyrdom of Polycarp recently, which is “the oldest written account of a Christian martyrdom outside the New Testament.” (The Apostolic Fathers, updated edition, edited and revised by Michael Holmes, p.222; hereafter: TAF). Polycarp was killed between 155 and 160 C.E:

The Martyrdom of Polycarp sets out quite clearly both the issue at stake–Lord Christ versus Lord Caesar—and the state’s (as well as the general population’s) view of Christians as disloyal atheists who threatened the well-being of the empire. (TAF, p.222)

Long ago, long before Joseph McCarthy became a senator, long before the John Birch society existed, long before the Boy Scouts were formed, long before the words “one nation under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance, Christians were looked upon as ‘disloyal atheists’.

Polycarp was an elderly bishop of the church of Smyrna, a major seaport in the Roman province of Asia (located on the west coast of Turkey).  He went into hiding, was hunted down, arrested, tried, and was then executed.  His confrontation with the Roman authorities makes reference to the idea that Christians were considered to be atheists:

But as Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.”  An no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice.  And then, as he was brought forward, there was a great tumult when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp.  And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, “Have respect for your age,” and other such things as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the Genius of Caesar; repent; say, ‘Away with the atheists!’”   So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!”

(TAF, p.233 & 235)

Ever since Polycarp, Christians have been trying to throw the word ‘atheist’ at us “lawless heathen” as an insult, deflecting the application of the word away from themselves.

Now, of course Christians do believe in a god, specifically, they believe in ‘God’, the God of western theism.  The philosopher Richard Swinburne is a Christian, and a fairly traditional one at that, so he too believes in God.  Nevertheless, Christians are atheists, in that they deny the existence of many gods.  Swinburne not only denies the existence of Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Ares, etc., but he also denies the existence of God as conceived of by Thomas Aquinas and other great Christian philosophers.

In The Coherence of Theism, Swinburne attempts to show that the sentence “God exists” makes a logically coherent statement.  In his effort to do this, he sets aside various beliefs about God, and conceptions of God, that he quite rightly rejects as being logically incoherent.

For example, Swinburne rejects that idea of a God who is omnipotent in the sense that ‘God can do anything’.  God cannot make a married bachelor nor can God make a four-sided triangle, according to Swinburne.  So, belief in an ‘omnipotent’ God, where the believer understands this to mean that God can literally do anything, is an incoherent belief which ought to be rejected in Swinburne’s view.  Thus, Swinburne is an atheist, in that he rejects the existence of God, conceived of in terms of that very strong sense of ‘omnipotence’.

Swinburne also rejects the existence of God, where God is conceived of as being omnipotent in the sense that ‘God can do anything that it is logically possible for a person to do’.  It is logically possible for me to divorce my wife, but it is NOT logically possible for God to divorce my wife, at least not until AFTER he marries her (and it is also not clear that that would be possible).  So, no such God exists, according to Swinburne, for the idea of such a being is logically incoherent.  There are things that it is logically possible for some persons to do, that it is not logically possible for God to do (COT, p.154).

More importantly, Swinburne rejects the existence of God, where God is conceived of as being omniscient in the sense that ‘God knows everything that has ever happened and that ever will happen’.  Many people, including many Christian believers, believe in such a God.  But Swinburne asserts that these many devout Christian believers are mistaken, and that there is no such being.

God is a perfectly free person, according to Swinburne, and a perfectly free person cannot know with certainty what actions he/she will choose to do in the future (COT, p. 177).   Perfect knowledge of the future is logically incompatible with perfect freedom; therefore, it is logically impossible for God to both be perfectly free and for God to also have perfect knowledge of the future.

God must either be perfectly free and have imperfect knowledge of the future, or else God has perfect knowledge of the future and does NOT have perfect freedom.  Thus, Christians who believe in a God who is both perfectly free and who has perfect knowledge of the future believe in a God who not only does not exist, but they believe in a God who cannot possibly exist, because they believe in the existence of a being with attributes that are logically contradictory.

Swinburne also denies the existence of God conceived of as a person who exists outside of time, contrary to the view of many Christian theologians:

Most of the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas taught that God is timeless. (The Coherence of Theism, revised edition, p.223)

Not only is this conception of God impossible to reconcile with the common Christian belief that God interacts with human beings, responding to prayers and requests for forgiveness, but the idea of a person who exists outside of time is logically incoherent (COT, p.228-229).  This idea requires that God observe my actions today simultaneously with observing my actions tomorrow, but that means that today is simultaneous with tomorrow, which is incoherent (COT, p.228). There can be no such being.  Yet many Christians, including many great Christian philosophers and theologians have believed in such a God.

Swinburne believes that God is a source of moral obligations for human beings, but he denies that morality is in general grounded in the commands or will of God (COT, p.210, see also p.203-207).  Yet, many Christian believe that God is the ultimate ground and basis for morality.  Swinburne believes that basic moral principles are necessary truths, truths that would hold whether or not God existed.  Basic moral principles are like basic truths of logic and mathematics.  Such necessary truths exist and are true independently of the existence of God.

Thus, the idea of a God who is the ground of morality is logically incoherent in Swinburne’s view.  Many Christian believers hold the belief that such a deity exists, and Swinburne strongly disagrees.  Not only are these many Christians mistaken in believing that such a God exists, but the God they believe in cannot possibly exist, because the very concept of this God is logically incoherent.

Swinburne rejects the belief that God is immutable, in the strong sense that God never changes in any way.  According to Swinburne “Being perfectly free is incompatible with being immutable in the strong sense.” (COT, p.222).  But Aquinas and other Christian thinkers believe in a God who is, by definition, immutable in this strong sense.  Thus Swinburne rejects belief in the existence of God as conceived of by Thomas Aquinas.  Such a being does not exist, and cannot possibly exist, because the concept of an absolutely unchanging person who is perfectly free contains a logical contradiction.

Finally, although Swinburne believes that there is a sense in which God may be considered to be a ‘necessary being’, he rejects the belief that God is a logically necessary being.  In other words, he rejects the view of some Christian thinkers that the existence of God is a necessary truth. Swinburne argues that God’s existence is a logically contingent fact, not a necessary truth.The idea of a God who has logically necessary existence is incoherent.  The existence of such a God is impossible, logically impossible, according to Swinburne.

So, the next time a Christian tries to throw the word ‘atheist’ at you or other “lawless heathen”, as a term of insult, please remind him or her that one of the leading Christian philosophers of our time is also an ‘atheist’ in that he has strongly rejected belief in God, at least in God as conceived of by many Christian believers.

I agree with Richard Swinburne’s atheism.  I agree with him that many Christians believe in the existence of a god who not only does not exist but who cannot possibly exist, because they believe in a God who has logically contradictory attributes.  There is, however,  at least one point on which I part company with Mr. Swinburne.  I believe that his God, the God that he believes in, does not exist, and I believe that his God is also logically incoherent, that his concept of God contains logical contradictions and thus cannot possibly exist.

  • MNb

    Alas for Swinburne his concept of god is also unreasonable. Herman Philipse has shown why in his recent “God in the Age of Science”.
    The concept of god is meaningless;
    if the concept of god has any meaning it doesn’t have any predictive power;
    if the concept of god has any meaning and has any predictive power theism has more predictive power.

  • busterggi

    Do I understand this correctly – Swinburne rejects all the qualities and characteristics that define god as a god rather than just a powerful mortal yet somehow he worships his god anyway?

    That makes as much sense as a school kid worshipping a bully who steals his lunch money.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Swinburne accepts most of the traditional divine attributes. However, he clarifies and qualifies many of them (omniscience, omnipotence, immutability, creator, and necessary being) in order to avoid logical contradictions, either internal to the attribute or between two or more of the attributes.

      God is ‘omnipotent’ but in a manner that allows for some constraints on what God can do. God cannot do evil actions, because he is perfectly free and thus perfectly good. God’s other attributes can constrain his power, because otherwise there could be contradictions between omnipotence and other divine attributes. God cannot get divorced, unless he first gets married. So, God’s past actions constrain his current possibilities. And since God has no body, God cannot brush his teeth, because he has no teeth to brush. The attribute of being a ‘spirit’ (a bodiless person) creates constraints on what God can and cannot do.

      God is ‘omniscient’ but the meaning of this is qualified so that God’s knowledge of the future is constrained by his perfect freedom. Since God is aware of every event that has occured in the past, and has control over every event in the present, it seems to me that God’s perfect freedom makes it pretty much impossible for God to know the future. What happens in the future depends entirely upon God’s choices right now, and those choices are perfectly free, constrained only by rationality, or what God has good reason to do or make or allow.

      God’s being creator of the universe no longer means that God MADE the universe; it only means that God (at least) allowed the universe to come into existence and to continue to exist until now. But that interpretation of ‘creator of the universe’ leaves open the possiblity that Satan created the universe, and that God simply allowed Satan to do so.

      God’s being ‘a source of moral obligations’ does not mean that God is the foundation of morality; it just means that God has the authority (under the basic principles of morality that exist independently of God) to levy some additional rules and requirements (within reason) upon human beings, and that given the already existing principles of morality, humans have a moral obligation to follow those rules and requirements, just like children ‘ought’ to obey the rules and requirements of their parents (within reason).

      God is ‘immutable’ but only in the weak sense that God’s moral character is fixed. God, as a perfectly free person, makes choices based only on reason, based only on considerations concerning whether an action is good or evil, and better or worse than some other possible action. According to Swinburne that means that God must always act in accordance with morality, doing the morally best action (when there is one) and never doing actions that are morally wrong. So long as God is perfectly free and omniscient, God must also be perfectly good. (But what if he ceases to be perfectly free? or ceases to be omniscient? God’s moral character can be permanently fixed only if his perfect freedom and omniscience are permanently fixed.)

      But God does change in other ways, according to Swinburne. God reacts to prayers and requests for forgiveness. God responds to the choices and actions of people, and God does so as another person who experiences the passage of time, just like us.

      • busterggi

        Yes, I know. I read the blog. My question stands – why worship a faulty, limited, fallible creature and call it god?

        • Bradley Bowen

          The short answer is: because the concept of a perfect, unlimited, and infallible creature is difficult, perhaps impossible, to conceive of apart from various logical contradictions.

          Swinburne tries to modify and limit the concept of God just enough to avoid the logical contradictions he rightly points to in the unqualified and unlimited conception of God that was put forward by Anselm, Aquinas, and other great Christian philosophers.

          I think his approach is reasonable, and that he has done an admirable job of trying to salvage the concept of God. I just don’t think he was as successful as he thinks he was.

  • orangevendor

    Philosopher sometimes think that God acts like a computer, he doesn’t. Also sometimes they forget that God is pure love, goodness. The term “perfectly free” is very often miss represented. Which is more important? to be perfectly free (to do anything) or to be perfectly free to love? that is the difference. Like here on earth we think we are free and if we had unlimited power we could do anything, but is not after we fall in love with somebody a spouse or a just born child, we realize that freedom means NOTHING if it’s not used for love. It is way more important to be free to love, than to be perfectly free(meaningless freedom), because without love the freedom means nothing.

    Richard maybe forgets that perfectly free means perfectly in love, it does not mean perfectly to do anything(some sort of maximal autonomy), then that freedom is pointless, it means God is not love and has invented love for some reason and then love at some point is no longer needed because at some point it would have to serve it’s meaning and it would mean love is no greater making property. So it would be sometimes better not to love, but this is a total contradiction, because good, better always means love. Love and freedom cannot exist without each other.

    I think God does know everything. God knows all the possible outcomes of all the possible events. I see it like that and his love(his freedom) can make changes and he makes them so without compromising his perfectness(love and freedom) and the freedom of human beings.

    Richard doesn’t understand maybe Aquinas’ beatific vision. That when one sees God all your freedom is fully concentrated in loving him, and here is the point, You will not want to love anything else, that is where we find the meaning for freedom, is to be in love forever, because eternal freedom without love is called hell.