Is Atheism Rational?
In a New Yorker essay reviewing a series of recent books about atheism, Adam Gopnik muses on the fading of religious faith in American life. He says that in modern history, there have been three times when the forces of nonbelief were
in a commanding position in social life cool: in the aftermath of before the French Revolution, in the aftermath of before the Bolshevik Revolution, and today. Given what followed from the two earlier historical events, one should not find the comparison comforting or inspiring. Anyway, here is a key graf from the Gopnik essay:
And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins. We know that men were not invented but slowly evolved from smaller animals; that the earth is not the center of the universe but one among a billion planets in a distant corner; and that, in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature. We need not imagine that there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain. A God can still be made in the face of all that absence, but he will always be chairman of the board, holding an office of fine title and limited powers.
Well, hang on. Earlier in the essay, Gopnik breezily dismisses David Bentley Hart’s new book:
As the explanations get more desperately minute, the apologies get ever vaster. David Bentley Hart’s recent “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss” (Yale) doesn’t even attempt to make God the unmoved mover, the Big Banger who got the party started; instead, it roots the proof of his existence in the existence of the universe itself. Since you can explain the universe only by means of some other bit of the universe, why is there a universe (or many of them)? The answer to this unanswerable question is God. He stands outside everything, “the infinite to which nothing can add and from which nothing can subtract,” the ultimate ground of being. This notion, maximalist in conception, is minimalist in effect. Something that much bigger than Phil is so remote from Phil’s problems that he might as well not be there for Phil at all. This God is obviously not the God who makes rules about frying bacon or puts harps in the hands of angels. A God who communicates with no one and causes nothing seems a surprisingly trivial acquisition for cosmology—the dinner guest legendary for his wit who spends the meal mumbling with his mouth full.
I can only assume, in charity, that Gopnik read Hart’s book too quickly, because this is a significant distortion of the theologian’s arguments. Hart is not arguing for a specific idea of God; he is rather making a more general argument. He is attempting to establish why there is Something rather than Nothing, and to show that atheist claims are actually less reasonable than monotheistic claims. Hart returns to classical metaphysics to make his argument. In this excerpt, he says that God, in the sense he means, is in a significant sense consonant with the teachings of many religions, including classical paganism. This is a view of God in which the deity is:
… eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god [N.B., as distinct from the God — RD] is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experience with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.
Gopnik is impatient with this kind of talk. Apparently he thinks it’s so abstract it’s not worth taking seriously. It is very, very far from the case that Hart argues for “a God who communicates with no one and causes nothing,” and it is actually shocking that Gopnik alleges this. True, Hart is talking in abstractions, but these abstractions are necessary to establish the metaphysical basis for his claims. Hart is crystal clear that this god of the philosophers is not God, and points out that all religious traditions warn against assuming that God is merely a mechanical cause. This is the god of the Deists; it is not, says Hart, God.
By treating Hart’s book so glibly, Gopnik tips his hand: he has no interest in metaphysics because of his prior conviction that physics is all that matters. Hart anticipates this in his book, arguing that the prejudices of each age sets the limits for the kinds of arguments they are willing to consider. Ours is a materialistic age. Hart:
In fact, the mechanistic view of consciousness remains a philosophical and scientific premise only because it is not an established cultural bias, a story we have been telling ourselves for centuries, without any real warrant from either reason or science. The materialist metaphysics that emerged from the mechanical philosophy has endured and prevailed not because it is a necessary support of scientific research, or because the sciences somehow corroborate its tenets, but simply because it determines in advance which problems of interpretation we can all safely avoid confronting.
And naturalism’s claim that, by confining itself to purely material explanations for all things, it adheres to the only sure path of verifiable knowledge is nothing but a feat of sublimely circular thinking: physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything. There is something here of the mystical.
Return with me momentarily to Gopnik’s claim for why naturalism is so dominant: because it “has a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world,” and “what works, wins.” The unstated assumption here is that the natural world is all there is. If that is so, then science is, of course, the best method we have of discovering the truth about the natural world. In fact, Hart says that what makes science so powerful is precisely its exclusion of non-empirical forms of epistemology. Science cannot hope to tell us anything about God; if it did, it wouldn’t be science. But it is a fundamental mistake to believe that the material world is all that is, or that science can account adequately for why the material world exists at all. It may well be the case that a secular writer living in Manhattan in the 21st century has no real curiosity about metaphysics, and can point to no intuitive experience of supernature as a sign, or a message in a bottle, pointing to the possibility of there being more to reality than what we can measure, but the experience of the vast majority of humanity is not and has never been so W.E.I.R.D. Some epistemic humility would be nice.
Finally, on the NYT’s philosophy blog The Stone, Gary Gutting interviews the theologian and philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who contends that atheism is irrational. In his book, Hart says he disagrees with Plantinga’s case, though for reasons I personally find hard to understand (which is a statement about my reading comprehension, not Hart’s argument or Plantinga’s). Anyway, from Gutting’s interview:
G.G.: O.K., but in any case, isn’t the theist on thin ice in suggesting the need for God as an explanation of the universe? There’s always the possibility that we’ll find a scientific account that explains what we claimed only God could explain. After all, that’s what happened when Darwin developed his theory of evolution. In fact, isn’t a major support for atheism the very fact that we no longer need God to explain the world?
A.P.: Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact (as they say) that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena — lightning and thunder for example. We now have science.
As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame. We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy. (And even so, the justified attitude would be agnosticism with respect to the moon, not a-moonism.) The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. And even then, agnosticism would be the justified attitude, not atheism.
G.G.: So, what are the further grounds for believing in God, the reasons that make atheism unjustified?
A.P.: The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience. Many people of very many different cultures have thought themselves in experiential touch with a being worthy of worship. They believe that there is such a person, but not because of the explanatory prowess of such belief. Or maybe there is something like Calvin’ssensus divinitatis. Indeed, if theism is true, then very likely thereis something like the sensus divinitatis. So claiming that the only sensible ground for belief in God is the explanatory quality of such belief is substantially equivalent to assuming atheism.
G.G.: If, then, there isn’t evidence to support atheism, why do you think so many philosophers — presumably highly rational people — are atheists?
Some people simply don’t want there to be a God. It would pose a serious limitation for human autonomy.
AP: I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t have any special knowledge here. Still, there are some possible explanations. Thomas Nagel, a terrific philosopher and an unusually perceptive atheist, says he simply doesn’t want there to be any such person as God. And it isn’t hard to see why. For one thing, there would be what some would think was an intolerable invasion of privacy: God would know my every thought long before I thought it. For another, my actions and even my thoughts would be a constant subject of judgment and evaluation.
Basically, these come down to the serious limitation of human autonomy posed by theism. This desire for autonomy can reach very substantial proportions, as with the German philosopher Heidegger, who, according to Richard Rorty, felt guilty for living in a universe he had not himself created. Now there’s a tender conscience! But even a less monumental desire for autonomy can perhaps also motivate atheism.