By Juan Bernal
An acquaintance, call him Bradley, argued along these lines:
I have found that many atheists today subscribe to a new definition of atheism and have rejected the historical and classical definition. This newer definition goes something like this,
“Atheism simply means that a person lacks a belief in any god.”
This new definition actually weakens the atheist’s position, making it virtually impossible for the atheist to engage in any philosophical discussion regarding reality from his atheistic position.
Bradley then stated that according to the new definition of atheism, “atheism” simply means that a person lacks a belief in gods; atheism has no theory of reality. Then he stated that given this new definition, the “atheist” is making no statements about reality, but a statement about his subjective beliefs; it is a statement about his present psychological make-up. This is a passive statement. The person holding to the new definition of atheism is not discussing the nature of reality, but merely sharing his subjective thoughts, his lack of a belief in any god.
. . . .
He summarizes this case concerning the new definition of atheism:
- It does not negate the primary claim of theism concerning reality.
- It does not make any claims about reality.
- It does share with us part of the person’s psychological make-up and that is all.
The new definition of atheism has taken a once robust opponent of theism and drained it of its vigor. It has ripped it from the arena of ideas and placed firmly on the psychologists couch.
The core of Bradley’s critique of atheism (a version of ‘atheism’) is contained in the following:
“Atheism simply means that a person lacks a belief in gods; atheism has no theory of reality.”
.. This is because, given this new definition, the “atheist” is making no statements about reality, but a statement about his subjective beliefs; it is a statement about his present psychological make-up. This is a passive statement. The person holding to the new definition of atheism is not discussing the nature of reality, but merely sharing his subjective thoughts, his lack of a belief in any god
If we agree that the proposition that ‘atheism has no theory of reality’ follows from the stated definition that ‘atheism simply means that one lacks belief in God,’ then we must accept Bradley’s characterization of the definition as restricting itself to a statement of the psychological state of the atheist, and nothing else.
I contend that the statement of one’s lack of belief in a God (a supernatural being) does not have to be understood as merely stating what one’s psychological state is, although it may do that in addition to doing more.
I don’t see why we should deny that one way of stating my view of reality is merely to say “I lack belief in God or any god.” I’m not just telling you what my psychological state is or giving you my preference in psychological states. I am telling you that, insofar as I have a theory of reality, my idea of reality omits all putative supernatural beings. As far as I can tell there are no such beings found in the world that I occupy (nor do I find any viable grounds for claiming some kind of supernatural or transcendent contact with that world).
There is no convincing reason for asserting (as Bradley does) that the statement “my view of things omits belief in God” does not imply a basic view of reality. The statement is a qualified statement of what the person takes as reality, without his making the full-blown metaphysical declaration that the non-existence of God can be proven. Both the theistic declaration and the qualified a-theistic statement are statements about reality; one is simply more modest than the other. The statements that God exists and the contrary one that God does not exist (strong a-theism) are less modest. But we surely do not have to understand my statement of omission as one that merely describes a subjective psychological state, as if I were merely telling you that I feel an itch in my middle, upper back.
Suppose we’re discussing rumors of teenage predators roaming our neighborhood at night and I tell you that I don’t believe there are any such intruders at all, that it is just a rumor made up by nervous people. I have said that my thinking omits such a belief. But here I have surely told you what my view (‘theory’) of the night time, neighborhood situation is: there aren’t any such predators. I have not simply described my subjective state of mind to you.
Now suppose that, in reference to the same rumor, I said that I was not at all worried about that possibility (that teenage predators are out there at night). Here we could say that what I have done is merely describe my subjective state to you, namely, that I don’t experience any worry about such things. My tranquil state of mind (no worries at all) is consistent both with the actual presence of the predators or their absence. In other words, my tranquil state of mind (and my report of that state of mind) does not affirm anything about the actual situation that exists in our neighborhood at night. We could say, my lack of worry does not affirm any ‘theory’ of the neighborhood situation at night.
The contrast between these two situations (I “don’t know X” and I “don’t worry about X”) illustrates the confusionn behind Bradley’s thesis with respect to his version of the new definition of “atheism.” The statement that I don’t believe in God (or that such belief is omitted from my view of things) surely affirms a ”theory’ of reality, one that does not include a deity. However, Bradley has confused “I don”t know X” with “I don’t worry about X.” Had I said that I don’t worry about a putative God, I would just describe my mental state, and such mental state is consistent both with the existence and the non-existence of a deity. The ‘don’t worry’ statement can be understood as not affirming a ‘metaphysics’; but the “don’t believe” statement does. It seems that these kinds of contrasting statements have been overlooked by Bradley in his argument concerning the “new atheism.”
Suppose that I admit, as many non-believers do, that I cannot be completely certain that God does not exist because I cannot prove that God’s existence is logically impossible. It surely does not follow that I admit that God’s existence is probable (has a reasonably high probability). In other words, we can consistently admit that we cannot logically disprove God’s existence while arguing on the basis of evidence available that mostly likely there is no God. The logical possibility of God is consistent with a metaphysics or view of reality which omits God or any deity. As far as I can determine, this is the view of many so-called “new atheists” (such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Daniel Dennett and others).
Contrary to what Bradley argues, the new atheists and those who subscribe to a philosophy of naturalism do not define atheism so that God is a real possibility, even highly probable. Such non-theists, which include many humanists, hold that the God of Christian theism and theology is highly improbable. Even saying this much allows that the concept is a coherent, clear concept as applied to a putative real being who has some interaction with human history and human society. Some non-believers, such as myself, will even argue contra that premise; but that is a subject for another discussion.
Presently, I will just emphasize that Bradley’s tactic (in line with Medieval theology) of defining God as either a necessary being or an impossible being (after ruling out the alternative of contingency); and then inferring that, in as much as the atheist does not rule out the possibility of God, he must admit to the necessity of God — simply will not work. It does not show any real implications of the new atheists’ position; it merely shows what follows logically from the adoption of a specific concept of deity, one that rules out contingency and any arguments contra God’s existence based on our contingent human conditons. This is a mere game-playing with logic, artificial definitions and concepts, a tactic best left in the Middle Ages.
Re. Bradley’s “new” definition of atheism: It is strange to hold that a person who considers himself an atheist would assert an ‘atheism’ that turns out to be only a report of his subjective, mental state and that he would admit that an existent deity is a real possibility. Besides being a rather bizarre view of atheism, one is left really puzzled as to which atheists take such a view. Richard Dawkins certainly does not. After all, Dawkins takes the view that God is a delusion.
Generally, statement of belief makes reference to the object of belief, which is not a mere psychological state. Although belief often involves some state of mind, the object of most of our beliefs is something other than our psychological state of mind. For example, when I tell you that I don’t believe that our water will last another hour, I may say something about my state of mind (worry); but I surely say something about an objective state of affairs; namely, our water supply is low and will not last another hour.