Arguing for Atheism: Preface / Introduction
LePoidevin (Robin)
Source: LePoidevin - Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 1996
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Preface (Full Text)

  1. I have tried to write a book suitable for use as a text in second- or third-year undergraduate philosophy of religion and metaphysics courses. I have also tried, while aiming at a degree of argumentative depth, to make it accessible to those with no previous acquaintance with philosophy, by defining important terms and theories, both in the text and in a glossary at the end. Much of the same ground is covered as would be covered by a conventional introduction to the philosophy of religion, such as the classic arguments for the existence of God, the problem of evil, and the relationship between morality and religion. However, the introduction offered here is unconventional in a number of respects. Whereas most introductions to a subject tend to remain neutral, to display positions and arguments rather than to defend or attack them, this book builds a case for atheism, understood as the rejection of the independent existence of a personal creator of the universe. And, whereas the chapters of introductions are usually almost entirely autonomous, the chapters of this book lead from one to another. I have nevertheless tried to give the chapters a degree of autonomy, so that it is possible to select some but not others for teaching purposes.
  2. Needless to say, the case for atheism presented here is very incomplete. Theism has many resources at its disposal, as I hope to make clear. My aim has been to provide a starting-point for discussion, to provoke debate rather than to silence opposition.
  3. As well as a particular direction, the book also has a distinctive emphasis: on metaphysical issues in religion. For reasons that I articulate in the Introduction, I believe that there is a very close connection between religion, especially theistic religion, and metaphysics. So the issues discussed here are presented as metaphysical issues, concerning causation1, time, necessity, ontology, and so on. What I hope is one of the novel aspects of the book is that disputes that arise in other areas are brought to hear on religious issues. For example, in Chapter 2 I introduce different conceptions of modality and draw out the consequences they have for the ontological argument and the notion of a necessary God. Chapter 4 discusses two theories of probability, and shows how these create difficulties for the probabilistic version of the teleological argument. The nature of time is the subject of the final chapter, in which I discuss the relationship between our views on time and our attitudes towards death. Each chapter, in fact, introduces metaphysical issues, and these are listed below.
    • Chapter 1: Causation2 and time
    • Chapter 2: Possibility and necessity
    • Chapter 3: Causal explanation
    • Chapter 4: Probability
    • Chapter 5: Teleology
    • Chapter 6: Moral realism
    • Chapter 7: Determinism
    • Chapter 8: Fictional objects
    • Chapter 9: Ontology
    • Chapter 10: Time and the self
  4. Finally, philosophy of religion courses and texts tend to be dominated by a realist conception of theistic discourse as positing the existence of a transcendent deity, and so as evaluable as true or false. But since a number of 'radical' theologians have rejected this conception, and urged instead what might be described as an instrumentalist view of talk about God, there is an urgent need for philosophical discussion of what I believe to be one of the key religious issues of our times. In Part III I offer a contribution to that debate. I have been sympathetic to the programme of radical theology ever since I had the good fortune, while a research student in Cambridge, to hear at first hand the ideas of Don Cupitt. He has been very influential in my thinking about the philosophy of religion, despite the fact that our philosophical approaches are quite different. Although what is offered here is in the end an atheistic picture, then, it is not an anti-religious one.
    … Leeds, November 1995
Introduction (Full Text)
  1. Atheism, as presented in this book, is a definite doctrine, and defending it requires one to engage with religious ideas. An atheist is one who denies the existence of a personal, transcendent creator of the universe, rather than one who simply lives life without reference to such a being. A theist is one who asserts the existence of such a creator. Any discussion of atheism, then, is necessarily a discussion of theism.
  2. I am concerned in this book, not just with religion, but with the philosophy of religion, and the argument for atheism presented here is a philosophical argument. Now this may provoke some scepticism. What, it may be asked, has philosophy as an academic discipline to do with the rejection or acceptance of religious belief? They seem poles apart, with belief on the one hand promising to transform our lives through a revelation of our purpose and destiny, and philosophy on the other concerned with abstruse arguments, an activity only for specialists who are wont to mumble to each other in some esoteric language while in pursuit of the incommunicable.
  3. To articulate it in a less polemical way, the objection is that philosophical arguments are beside the point, for, whereas philosophy is concerned with rational justification, religion is a matter not of justification but of faith. There are philosophical arguments for the existence of God, but even the proponents of these arguments, such as Anselm and Descartes, did not necessarily hold that belief should be based on them. Both Anselm and Descartes thought that religious truths were directly revealed by God. The purpose of argument was, therefore, to reinforce, rather than to establish, faith. As such, argument was supplementary rather than essential. More recently, writers have come to see the traditional proofs as invalid, or as making controversial assumptions, and thus as unconvincing. Faith, however, can remain unshaken by this. Philosophical argument is simply de trop.
  4. In reply to this objection, I make the following points:
    • Even if no-one, as a matter of fact, has ever based their faith on rational justification, it still remains an interesting question whether such justification could be given.
    • Even if the traditional arguments fail, in the sense that they do not provide conclusive reasons for belief, they highlight some of the perplexities which make religion, and theism in particular, so attractive. For example, it is natural to wonder whether the order in the world bears testimony to the existence of a designer. Theism at least gives the appearance of providing an explanation for such things as the existence of the universe, the emergence of life, and our moral consciousness. So we need to ask, does theism provide explanations for these things? This is a philosophical question.
    • Even if it is a mistake to see theism, or some other form of religion, as if it were providing an explanation of anything, still it needs to be shown that this is a mistake. One way of doing this would be to show that theism fails as any kind of explanation.
    • Even if justification is irrelevant, we may still wish to know what precisely theism commits us to, what consequences it has. One philosophical argument against theism is that it commits us to unacceptable (including morally unacceptable) beliefs.
    • If religion is immune from philosophical attack, if the question of rational justification simply does not arise in this context, then it is natural to ask whether religious discourse is fact-stating in the way that everyday discourse is. For example, if I say, ‘There are no trains running between Settle and Carlisle today', I would normally be taken to be stating a fact, and be expected to be able to justify my remark (or at least to recognise that such a remark could be justified or shown to be mistaken). If I say, ‘There is a God', and refuse either to justify my remark or to regard any attempted criticism of it as relevant, then it is a possibility that I am not intending to state a fact about the world at all. At least, there is an issue here, and it is a philosophical one.
  5. I want to argue, then, that philosophy, and in particular that branch of philosophy called ‘metaphysics', has an important role to play in the debate about religious belief. But what is metaphysics? Very broadly, metaphysics is concerned with the nature of reality. So, too, of course, is science. But science and metaphysics differ, both in the specificity of the questions they ask and in the methods they use to answer them. Consider the questions which form the chapter titles of this book: Must the universe have a cause? Could the universe have an explanation? Are we the outcome of chance or design? These are very general questions, requiring us to examine the concepts they employ: cause, explanation, chance. What do these words mean? In what sort of cases are they applicable? Are there good arguments to the effect that everything must have a cause, or an explanation? Does it make sense to talk of the universe as a whole being the outcome of chance? This is the stuff of metaphysical enquiry. ‘Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.' F.H. Bradley's satirical comment is not, I hope, entirely accurate. The metaphysician tries, at least, to look for good reasons rather than bad, and the conclusions of metaphysical arguments are more often surprising than instinctive.
  6. The questions that are addressed in the following pages are both metaphysical questions and religious ones. Consider one of the deepest problems in philosophy: why is there something rather than nothing? We, living things, the planet we inhabit, the entire cosmos — all these might not have existed. There might have been absolutely nothing at all. As it is sometimes put, all existence is contingent. For some, this is an appalling thought, as the idea that existence is in some sense a random occurrence, and not a necessary one, seems to rob it of meaning. Reflections of this sort are the life-blood of religion, because religion offers to bring us back from the abyss. No, it tells us, your life is not a purely random event, it has a meaning, a purpose. To religion we may turn to find answers to deep metaphysical questions.
  7. But should we turn to religion for such answers? There are two quite different conceptions of religion, one that I shall call ‘metaphysical', and the other ‘non-metaphysical'. Let us begin with the question, what is religion? Or, since there are a number of quite distinct religions, perhaps our question should be: what is it that religions have in common? Not, certainly, the idea that there is a transcendent being who created and ordered the universe and to whom we are ultimately answerable. This is, it is true, the central theme of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Such religions are ‘theistic' — ‘theism', as we said above, being simply the doctrine, denied by atheism, that God exists. Some religions, however, are non-theistic. Buddhism, for example, does not teach the existence of a deity. So it is important to bear in mind that theism is simply one form of religion.
  8. I suggest that a religion, whether theistic or not, consists of two components. The first is a practical component, which is a way of life, including not only ritualistic behaviour specific to the religion in question, but also a view about what it is best for one to do, and how to achieve self-fulfilment. This practical component is based on a second component, which is a picture of the world. Now, on the metaphysical conception of religion, this picture is a metaphysical outlook, a certain theory about reality which is not directly revealed by ordinary, everyday experience. This outlook might contain the idea of a creator, or it might be a view about what happens to us after death. It cannot be refuted by appeal to what appears to be the case, because it is a theory about what underlies those appearances. A religion, then, on this account, is a way of life based on a metaphysical conception of the world. Religious doctrine contains, therefore, what are essentially explanatory hypotheses.
  9. As I have presented it, this is at best rather a sketchy account, and it does not exclude beliefs which we would hesitate to describe as religious. Consider fatalism, the view that, since everything is determined, we have no genuine choices, and that there is therefore no point in trying to affect the outcome of things. Is this a religious outlook or not? Perhaps we should include, in our characterisation of religion, the condition that a religious outlook is essentially positive, in that it emphasises our worth as agents. But was Calvinism positive in this respect? I do not wish to get involved in such arguments here, but only to emphasise that, on one view, religion is, in part, metaphysics.
  10. In contrast to this view is the non-metaphysical conception of religion. Over the last few decades, a number of leading figures in the Anglican Church have argued for a shift in the way we think of talk ‘about' God. We should, they contend, give up a literal picture of God as a being like us, only infinitely greater, and think instead of religious language as symbolic, figurative, metaphorical. Not surprisingly, those who have argued in this way, such as Bishop John Robinson in the 1960s and, more recently, Don Cupitt, have been branded ‘atheist priests'. In a sense, the label is not entirely inappropriate, for they are denying (and, in Cupitt's case, in the most explicit terms) a God who exists entirely independently of our thoughts about him. But, and here the distinction between religion and theism is crucial, these ‘radical theologians' are not, by virtue of such a denial, irreligious. They are not rejecting Christianity as a set of practices, images and ideals. On the contrary, they see it as continuing to have a fundamental role in our spiritual lives. What Cupitt and others have urged is that Christianity should abandon its traditional metaphysical basis, and reject the notion of a ‘metaphysical God', i.e. a creator who exists independently of us. On this view, religious statements are not explanatory hypotheses about such things as why the world exists. They serve, rather, to provide a fictional picture which guides us in our moral lives.
  11. Now, whether we adopt the metaphysical or the non-metaphysical stance, philosophical argument is relevant, for, if religious statements are intended as true descriptions of the world, we need to ask whether they truly explain anything, and what their implications are. And if they are not intended as true descriptions, we need to ask how they can have spiritual and moral significance.
  12. I now turn to the structure and argument of this book. Running throughout is one central concern: can atheism be rationally justified? We cannot provide a full assessment of atheism, however, without engaging with arguments in favour of theism. Here are some of the most important of those arguments:
    • (a) The universe cannot have come into existence from nothing: it must have had an ultimate cause, namely God.
    • (b) The existence of God explains what would otherwise be entirely mysterious, namely, why the laws of nature are such as to have permitted the emergence of intelligent life.
    • (c) Only by supposing that there is a God can we make sense of the idea that there are objective moral values, that there is a difference between what is right and what is wrong quite independent of any social convention.
    • (d) Unless there is a God who offers the chance of eternal life, death is the end of everything for us, all things are merely transient, and the inexorable passage of time makes every project we undertake ultimately futile.
  13. These arguments have a very powerful intuitive appeal, and the atheist will need to address them. Accordingly, in Chapter 1, I begin with a more refined version of argument (a), namely the cosmological argument. Two versions of this are explored. The first argues that the universe must have had a cause, because it had a beginning, and nothing can come into existence without a cause. The second argues that the universe must have a cause, or at least an explanation of its existence, because it might not have existed. This suggests that something whose existence is necessary — i.e. it is impossible for it not to exist — would not need an explanation for, or a cause of, its existence. That God necessarily exists is the conclusion of another famous proof of theism, the ontological argument. This is discussed in Chapter 2. Both the cosmological and ontological arguments fail, I argue. But we are still left with the feeling that the absence of a causal explanation for the universe is unsatisfactory. That feeling is misplaced, however, as I argue in Chapter 3. Nothing could count as a causal explanation of the existence of the universe. This nevertheless leaves the door open for some alternative explanation, one in terms of purpose. This is the theme of Chapter 4, which engages with argument (b) above. Again, a more precise statement of this can be found in a third traditional proof of God's existence, the teleological argument. Most time is spent on a relatively modern version of this argument, which turns on the idea that, unless there were a God who intended that there should be life, the probability of the laws of nature being compatible with life (at least, as we know it) would have been very small. I argue that this involves a misuse of the notion of probability, just as the cosmological argument involves a misuse of the concept of causation3.
  14. In Part I of the book, then, the case for atheism consists largely of a critique of some traditional arguments for God. One idea explored in these chapters is that, even if the traditional arguments fail, the theist can still urge that theism provides an explanation when atheism does not. Each of the arguments for God can be presented as an attempt to demonstrate that theism provides important explanations of certain things. The case against them is that such ‘theistic explanation' is very limited. But even a limited explanation, it might be said, is better than no explanation at all. Argument (b) remains a mystery for the atheist. Or does it? Can the atheist explain why the laws of nature were such as to permit life? This is addressed in Chapter 5, which concludes Part I. The moral explanation of the laws of nature is introduced: the laws of nature were such as to permit the emergence of life in order to allow the evolution of moral agents. The moral explanation runs into difficulties, however, once we realise the dependence of purposive explanation on underlying causal relations. Given this, we cannot make sense of moral explanation outside theism. This particular atheist strategy, then, fails.
  15. In Part II, the atheist goes on the offensive, and puts forward two moral arguments against the existence of God. The first of these turns argument (c) on its head, and faces the theist with the following dilemma, presented in Chapter 6: either moral values are quite independent of God, or the assertion that God is good and wills us to do what is good is virtually meaningless. I consider ways in which the theist can avoid this dilemma. In Chapter 7, the most famous argument for atheism, the problem of evil, is introduced. How can the existence of a loving and all-powerful God be reconciled with the atrocious suffering of many of his creatures? An attractive solution to the problem is that suffering is the inevitable outcome of God's gift to human beings of genuine freedom of will. This solution is criticised in some detail.
  16. If we are convinced by the arguments against theism, we are faced with a choice between two kinds of atheism. The first rejects all talk of God. The second takes a more liberal stance, and makes room for a reinterpretation of talk about God as not being descriptive.
  17. Part III begins with the issue of whether traditionally theist religions can survive rejection of the literal truth of theism. The difficulty is to explain how talk about God, when reinterpreted as non-fact-stating, can continue to have an emotional effect on us. I set out this ‘non-realist' approach to theistic religion in Chapter 8, drawing on the debate between realists and non-realists in the philosophy of science. In order to explain how religious language and practice can exert an emotional effect, even when not taken to be literally true, I explore an analogy with our emotional engagement with fiction. In Chapter 9, an intriguing argument of Rudolf Carnap's is discussed, to the effect that questions about what exists in reality are somehow improper, and should be abandoned. Finally, in Chapter 10, we turn to the issue of death. To echo point (d) above, if we reject, not only theism, but any religious outlook in which there is the possibility of life after death4, does the transience of existence not rob it of real value? I suggest in this last chapter that our dismay at the thought of death is closely bound up with a particular metaphysical view of time, in particular of time's passage. A different conception of time is put forward which, it is suggested, makes death a less awful prospect.
  18. Metaphysics is not a collection of esoteric aphorisms far removed from human affairs. It concerns fundamental questions about the world and our place in it, as I hope the following pages will show.

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