Meaning of Atheism

George Smith's book Atheism Case Against GodGeorge H. Smith defines the word “atheism” in the classical way as “absence of theistic belief.” (7) Unfortunately, this is hardly adequate.

1. The cup of coffee I am now drinking lacks any beliefs in gods. Is it by that fact atheistic?

2. Ok, maybe only humans can be theists or atheists. But what about a newborn baby? It seems grotesque to call him an atheist, even an “implicit” one.

3. A person who is asleep has no theistic beliefs. Does everyone become an atheist upon dozing off?

4. Jones claims to believe in God but is a miserable sinner. By his deeds he demonstrates to whom it may concern that he does not heed things of God in his personal life. What is more important for the determination of Jones’ attitude: his words or his actions?

Conversely, Jones says, “I don’t think God exists, but just in case he does, I’ll try to be a ‘good person.'” What is he?

5. How will our author classify a person who is in the process of compiling and carefully evaluating the evidence for god’s existence? At the moment he is indeed lacking a belief in god, but to call him an atheist would surely be a stretch.

6. Is a person who is betting on god in a Pascal’s wager theist or atheist?

7. Regarding Jones who “may have never encountered the concept of god before,” (8) the term “god” has no meaning for him: When he hears “god,” he might as well be hearing (A) “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Now it is inane to talk about belief in (A), since (A) is meaningless; but it is equally silly to talk about absence of belief in (A), since there is nothing to be absent in the first place. We must conclude that Jones who cannot tell god from a hole in the ground cannot reasonably be called atheist.

The next examples will specify attitudes held by Jones. Smith is invited to label Jones as theist or atheist.

“My opinion is that god exists, but I may very well be mistaken”; or “I tentatively accept the hypothesis of god’s existence pending future philosophical developments”; or “I’m going to assume that god exists for the sake of argument.”

Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to create him.”

Bakunin: “If God did exist, it would be necessary to destroy him.”

“Gods exist, but right now they are doing battle with the giants, and I expect them soon to kill each other.”

“I believe there is an old man with a white beard living on a cloud in the sky who watches over us.”

“I don’t know about God the Father, but the Earth Mother smiles upon us.”

“There is something beyond, the numinous, of that I’m sure, but I won’t profess anything more definite than that.”

Jones is a woman who says, “I worship my boyfriend’s cock.”

Statolatry: “There is no God but the state, and the President is its prophet.”

Self-deification: “I am the only person in the world who qualifies to be the global socialist dictator. My central plan is correct; everyone else’s plans are vicious and counterfeit. I am a god; all shall bow to me and obey me unconditionally.”

“Each human being is a god.”

“Poseidon definitely exists, but Hermes does not.”

“I worship the machine. Glory to the holy motherboard!”

“And this became a snare for the world, that people enslaved to either grief or tyranny conferred the incommunicable Name on stones and wood.” (Wis 14:21)

“My God is my stomach” (Phil 3:1); or “This dish I’m eating is divine.”

“I believe in god, but I know I do only because it’s an evolutionary heritage. So, I can’t help believing in god, but I am fully aware that god is a delusion foisted upon me by my genes.”

“I’m a gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not”; or “I’m an apatheist, i.e., as though autistic toward god.”

“I do not believe in God, but I believe in the devil.”

Deism: “God exists, but he does not care or even know about human affairs at all, so for all practical purposes, both belief and disbelief in this god are equally inconsequential. Nothing whatever turns on whether god exists.”

“Gods are petty, quarrelsome, fickle, and dangerous beings. They exist, but I despise the lot of them and wish they’d all up and disappear.”

“God exists, but he is my bitch and does what I tell him”; or “God exists, but I can defy him with impunity, because I’m more powerful than he.”

“There is a god, but I’m so terrified of him that I prefer not to think about him at all and pretend that he does not exist.”

“The probability of god’s existence is 67.4%.”

“God is beyond being; so to say that he exists is to do him an injustice.”

“I’m a South Pacific cargo cultist.”

“There is a god, but he is not my god, and I do not worship him.”

“God existed but no longer does: he created the world and then died.”

“Humanity will become divine in the distant future through technology.”

These can probably be multiplied indefinitely. It seems that theism and atheism resist simple definitions.

Meaning of Atheism: Conclusion

It follows from the previous post that atheism cannot be a simple lack of belief in a god, because the term “god” can mean (and historically has meant) a large variety of things.

Nor can an atheist propose a blanket statement like “Nothing whatsoever is a god,” because I may define “god” as “emperor of Japan,” in which case god would surely exist.

Therefore, an atheistic proposition must always be a denial of a specific and robust concept or idea of god put forth by his opponent. An atheist cannot say, “God does not exist,” without specifying the meaning of the term “god”; but he can proclaim, “The Christian God does not exist,” or “The God of the philosophers does not exist.”

The atheist would then acknowledge that the term “god” has a meaning (or two or three) but deny that it has a reference. A good place to start might be an idea of god that somehow sharply differentiates god from creatures.

In addition, when rejecting a given theistic statement, an atheist must specify the reasons for doing so, such as:

– this idea of God is self-contradictory;
– God, if He existed, would have to be judged evil; but most religions claim that God is good; hence God does not exist;
– everything in the world can be explained without reference to God; hence God is superfluous to life; and so on.

Finally, when faced with a specific argument that claims to uncover an attribute of God, such as simplicity or infinity, an atheist must show precisely how the argument fails.

(It further follows that Smith’s “implicit” atheists like our newborn baby are irrelevant for our purposes, since they don’t advance the discussion.)

In short, Smith’s definition of “atheism” is unhelpful.

Whether God Is Unknowable Negatively?

Smith maintains that theologizing about God is futile, because God must remain completely unknowable.

He correctly distinguishes between negative and positive theology or a theory of what God is not and a theory of what God is.

His first point is that God described solely in terms of negations would be indistinguishable from nothingness: “God is not matter; neither is non-existence. God does not have limitations; neither does non-existence. God is not visible; neither is non-existence. God does not change; neither does non-existence.” (52)

What is he talking about? Man has 2 levels to him: body and spirit; God has 3: matter, spirit, and goodness; so God certainly has a material aspect to Him; it’s just that His matter is simple, unlike the complex matter of created things.

It is not true that nothingness has no limitations; on the contrary, nothingness is 100% limited. It is limited to such an extent that it does not exist. Its actuality is so constrained that not even bare existence can be attributed to it. (I suspect that Smith imagines nothingness as a kind of infinite black Newtonian empty space.)

God is not visible to the physical eye, but He is seen by the mind’s eye.

Non-existence can surely change, by having existence created where there was none before. God, on the other hand, cannot disappear into non-being.

A much better comparison is that in negative theology, God is likened not to non-existence but to prime matter, i.e., pure potentiality. Neither are like anything created. For example, both God and a particle of prime matter are materially simple. The difference between them is established by positive theology, such as by arguing that God can make anything, while prime matter can be made into anything.

Regarding divine simplicity, there are a number of aspects to it in addition to the “1st-level” material simplicity.

Smith’s second point is that “without some positive idea of his nature, it is impossible to determine which characteristics cannot belong to God. If God’s nature is a complete blank to man, the Christian cannot list qualities that are supposedly incompatible with that nature.” (52) He is right here, but the only attribute of God we need to get us started on the road to describing Him is pure actuality understood negatively as absence of potency for change. The entirety of negative theology can be spun off of that.

Smith is also correct in pointing out that negative theology amounts to saying that God is unlike everything we find in the created universe. To Smith this is perverse, as it represents “the negation, the exact reversal, of how man perceives reality.” (53, emphasis removed) But the value of negative theology, on the contrary, is not slight. By it we are prevented from worshiping idols, stars, demons, Greek gods, and suchlike.

Let’s use the word invented by Smith: “unie.” When Smith asks me what an unie is, I say, “Well, we’ll get to that later; for now at least grasp that an unie is not a carrot.” I think that alone is a valuable piece of information. So is the knowledge that God is like nothing created.

Smith then lists a few specific queries:

How does the Christian know that limits are incompatible with God’s nature?

Why is it not possible for God to be a material, visible organism?

On what basis is it claimed that God cannot be a finite creature?

Why does change conflict with the nature of God? (52-3)

Well, if we define God as a TV set, say, then limits are indeed very compatible with this God’s nature, as are materiality, visibility, etc. The theistic procedure rather is first to prove that there must exist a certain something without limits, and then call this object, “God.”

Which Is to Be Master?

Smith objects to the freedom I claim for myself in defining words:

If one declared a belief in god, while stipulating that the term ‘god’ was used as a synonym for the continent of North America, one’s assertion would understandably be ignored or rejected as irrational. (32)

This is unfair for two reasons.

In Through the Looking Glass, there is the following conversation:

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Generally then, I can define my words however I please. Who, after all, is to be master: me or the words?

More specifically, the concept of God is precisely at issue. What “deserves” to be called God, and why can’t it indeed be the continent of North America?” This is a non-trivial question, and it is abusive to dismiss the person who asks it as “irrational.”

Whether God Is Unknowable Positively?

Smith considers divine attributes like knowledge, life, will, love, justice and mercy, power, and so on. He locates an asymmetry here: some of these “refer to God’s personality rather than his metaphysical nature as an existing being. To say that God is loving or merciful is not equivalent to claiming that he is infinite or ineffable…” (55)

The “imbalance” disappears once we make the distinction between ad intra “ontological” attributes of God as He is in Himself and ad extra “relational” attributes that describe how God relates to His creatures. For example, God would possess self-knowledge even without creation, but to say that God is merciful presupposes humans who sin and are forgiven by God. A caveat is that God’s nature itself (especially the Son’s) changed with creation.

Smith asks strangely, “Wisdom, love, knowledge, power — these may be fine qualities, but just what are they qualities of? What is the nature of the being possessing them?” (55) Say what? Obviously, this nature is wise, loving, knowing, and powerful. He goes on:

“When the Christian says that God is alive, does he mean that God is alive in the same sense as natural organisms? If so, God must be a material entity who will eventually die.”

Reply: Life entails teleology or seeking ends and enjoying having attained them, such as happiness and whatever conduces to it. God’s pleasure consists in His act of self-understanding; thus, He “pursues” happiness in a kind of eternal act of self-actualization and, having grasped Himself, rests thereupon, perfectly content and fulfilled. As a result, life as self-motion toward “future expected utility” should be attributed to God.

But it is life perfected and transcended, as compared with human lives.

“When God is said to be wise or to possess knowledge, is this the conceptual knowledge with which man is familiar?”

Reply: wisdom can be defined as knowledge of good and evil, or, alternatively, as vision of how all things in a given area of study fit together. It belongs to a wise man to “arrange and judge.” Therefore, God’s wisdom regards the entire universe which God created and over which He exercises providence. In addition, God knows things that are not but could be as possible worlds, and His wisdom extends towards those, too, to infinity.

God’s knowledge is intuitive and “through Himself” as the exemplar of all that has been created.

“When God is said to have a certain power or capacity, is this power similar to the concept as we understand it?” (55)

Reply: In a manner of speaking, yes. God’s ad intra “internal” power is to “achieve” and forever maintain perfect happiness.

As Mises points out, “Omnipotence would mean the power to achieve everything and to enjoy full satisfaction without being restrained by any limitations.” (HA, 69)

His ad extra “external” power, through which His 3rd-level goodness is manifested, is to create the world ex nihilo, to sanctify it, and to redeem the human race. And so on.

Smith objects to analogical predication of creaturely terms to God:

… we can have no idea of what it means to ascribe a positive quality to his nature — analogically or otherwise — because we have no knowledge of that nature.

To say that an “unie” possesses wisdom in proportion to its nature — while stipulating that such wisdom is different in kind from man’s wisdom and that the nature of an “unie” is unknowable — contributes nothing to our understanding of “unie” or to the meaning of attributes when applied to an “unie.” (59-60)

Has our author already forgotten the distinction between negative and positive theology? God possesses wisdom positively in proportion to His nature understood negatively as unlimited.

Smith is correct that God is superintelligible, as in perfectly comprehensible by an appropriate intellect (since He is pure act, and there is no potentiality in Him that can be, though is not yet, this or that). The only such intellect, however, is the divine mind itself. Smith is dissatisfied with this fact: “to say that God is ‘infinitely knowable’ is to say that he is ‘knowable’ in some unknowable fashion — which is to acknowledge that he is incomprehensible, period.” (69) Well, we know the following proposition: “God knows everything; moreover, the ‘everything’ put together is God Himself.” But we do not know everything that God knows. So, we do know a little bit about God but not so much what God is.

Objections to Omnipotence

Smith’s ruminations on God’s power and knowledge on pp. 69-76 are so irritatingly crude that there isn’t much to work with here.

But Ok. God indeed cannot make square circles, cause an acorn to grow into a theologian, or turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt.

What God can do is create nature itself which would then work according to the laws imparted into it. God could have supplied us with theologians by having them naturally grow from acorns; but He did not do so. Having created acorns that grow into oak trees instead, God must now heed the nature He Himself created and let acorns develop normally.

Again, it’s impossible to “turn” a woman into a pillar of salt; God can only miraculously destroy the woman and create a pillar of salt with no continuity between the two.

Smith argues that “every indication of design in the cosmos is so much evidence against the omnipotence of the designer.” (71) The reason is that an omnipotent God would not need to adapt means to ends, for such an adaptation is “a limitation of power”; every end would be instantly satisfiable, and every means would serve every end.

The answer to that of course is that God created laws of nature and the means-ends nexuses for our sake. We need these things. God does not. Moreover, while we need natural laws for our happiness, God does not need the universe as a whole for His own, because God is already perfectly happy. God did not create the world to satisfy any unfulfilled desire; rather, the world was the product of the self-diffusion of the divine goodness — a unique mode of causation, neither physical nor teleological, that belongs only to God.

Whether Faith Is Irrational?

Smith puts forward an astonishing statement:

Explicit atheism is the consequence of a commitment to rationality — the conviction that man’s mind is fully competent to know the facts of reality, and that no aspect of the universe is closed to rational scrutiny.

Atheism is merely a corollary, a specific application, of one’s commitment to reason. (98)

If reason is declared fully capable of understanding all facts, if no aspect of existence is decreed “off-limits” to man’s mind, the need for faith is eliminated. (107)

I see. It looks like there is a God after all, and it is Smith!

How Smith justifies his “conviction” that “man’s” (i.e., his own) mind is all-powerful is unclear. It seems more like an article of faith, and a crazy one, too.

Even if “man” were omniscient, “explicit atheism” would still not follow. Perhaps such a mighty reason as Smith’s could with great ease unequivocally prove the existence of God.

Smith never condescends to define the term “faith” for us. It is clear that he doesn’t know what he is even talking about: “How do we distinguish an article of faith from a whim or a coin flip?” he asks. (122) Let me fill the gap. Let X tell p to Y. If as a result Y believes p, and p is true, then Y knows p by faith on the strength of X’s authority. St. Thomas defends the rationality or what Smith calls “epistemological credentials” of faith:

  1. Because our intelligence is imperfect.

    If we were able by ourselves to know perfectly all things, visible and invisible, it would be foolish for us to believe what we do not see. But our knowledge is so imperfect that no philosopher has ever been able to discover perfectly the nature of a single fly.

  2. Because our knowledge is limited.

    Another reason why faith is not foolish concerns expertise. If an expert were to make a statement in his own particular branch of knowledge, an uneducated person would be a fool if he contradicted the expert for no other reason than that he could not understand what the expert had said.

    Now, without a doubt, the intelligence of an angel surpasses that of the greatest philosopher far more than the intelligence of the philosopher surpasses that of an ignoramus.

    Therefore, a philosopher is a fool to disbelieve what an angel says, and a much greater fool if he disbelieves what God says.

  3. Because life in this world would be altogether impossible if one were only to believe what one sees.

    How can one live without believing others? How is a man to believe that so-and-so is his father? Man has to believe others in matters that he cannot know perfectly by himself.

  4. Because God’s miracles prove the truth of the things which faith teaches.

    Thus if a king sends a letter to which he has attached his seal, no one will dare say this letter was not written by the king’s orders. Now, it is plain that whatever the saints have believed and handed down to us concerning the Christian Faith is confirmed by God’s seal, which is to be seen in those works which no mere creature is able to do, namely, the miracles by which Christ confirmed the doctrine of the Apostles and of other saints. (Aquinas Catechism, 1.I.A.5)

If faith is useful to Jones in things he, Jones, cannot or would not personally investigate, then how much more to man as such in things that are intrinsically beyond his ken!

The reply to the obvious follow-up question, “By what means is an article of faith to be believed with certainty?” is this: the Holy Spirit testifies inwardly by bestowing grace as a witness to the veracity of God in revealing any given p.

The most Smith gives us is the silly “Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason.” (98) Now suppose it has been demonstrated by reason that God exists. Then faith is essentially trust in the truthfulness of God’s, whose nature and existence we have established, revelation and, concomitantly, trust in the process of transmission of this revelation through the generations. So, faith is an argument from authority, which is the weakest kind of argument, but when the authority is God’s, it becomes the strongest argument. Similarly with the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope who, Catholics believe, is infallible on matters of faith and morals due to a special grace of God.

Smith is quite conscious of this take on faith. In fact, he presents a cogent articulation of it, remarkably managing to miss its significance:

Catholic theologians are well aware [that faith presupposes natural knowledge], and they generally maintain that the existence of God must be demonstrated through reason before their notion of faith becomes applicable.

These “proofs” from natural theology… are the “preambles of faith” or the “motives of credibility.”

Furthermore, once the existence of God has been established, it is necessary that a given proposition can be shown to be an actual revelation from God. “To assent to a truth on faith,” writes one Catholic, “one must be certain that God has revealed this truth.”

This requires a “rule of faith,” a means to distinguish genuine revelation, and this is the function of the Catholic Church: “… the Church determines and defines what is contained in the deposit of faith and in tradition.” (172)

Smith is not interested in this theory, because, according to it, faith sits atop reason and therefore cannot “prove theism.” (172) What, I’d like to ask him, is it better to fight straw men?

Further, our author argues, if revelation has come from God, then it must be true. What place, then, is there for faith? Who wouldn’t believe something that God tells him? Therefore, revelation enters the domain of reason rather then faith, and faith is made superfluous. But that’s a confusion. Such a faith would be rational (and hence not “without, or in spite of, reason”), but still retain its essence as faith which is belief in a (divine) revelation of something that unaided reason cannot on its own discover.

Whether Faith Entails Skepticism?

Undiscriminating a priori skepticism is hopeless and fruitless, because if there are limits to human knowledge, then they can only be found in the process of attempting to overcome them. The success of modern science, both empirical like physics and axiomatic-deductive like economics, has shown that our collective intelligence is vast.

For example, Wikipedia mentions: “Although many initially believed it was impossible that computers themselves could actually be a scientific field of study, in the late fifties it gradually became accepted among the greater academic population.”

It is different for God. For example, Smith notes that St. Thomas argued that “to know the self-subsistent being… is beyond the natural power of any created intellect.” (65) Smith objects that a necessary being is an unintelligible concept of God. But supposing for the sake of argument that that’s exactly what God is, St. Thomas’ argument seems reasonable. If God not only exists necessarily (understood as all three of imperishability, simplicity and identity of essence and existence, and logical necessity), but is also lovable essentially (as goodness), then I see no way for us in this life to know the essence of God.

If further, God is infinite, then again, Smith quotes Aquinas: “it is impossible for any created intellect to know God in an infinite degree. Hence it is impossible that it should comprehend God” (68) not only here but even in the state of glory while beholding God face to face.

(To comprehend something is to know it fully, to envelop it in thought as a whole and in every detail. If the Father is the mind of which the Holy Spirit is the ideal thought that grasps the Son as God’s real essence, then in heaven we will be thinking this divine thought in the divine language with our human minds, though without comprehending God.)

Smith asks:

What real difference is there between the skeptic who believes that man cannot know reality as it actually is, and the Christian who declares that man cannot know ultimate reality (i.e., God) as it actually is?

How does the skeptic who bemoans the impotence of reason to comprehend existence differ from the Christian who preaches the impotence of reason to comprehend the ultimate form of existence? (130)

The skeptic differs from the Christian in being wrong, where the Christian is correct.

There are arguments in favor of the natural limits of the human intellect as regards God which cannot be used to support skepticism about the created world. Hence the analogy fails.

In short, God really is unseen, and reason cannot discern those mysteries which belong to faith, such as that God is a Trinity. If Smith thinks it can, then let him enlighten us. Otherwise I do not see the point of his chapter on skepticism.

How Faith Is “Voluntarist”

St. Thomas distinguishes between “science,” “faith,” and “opinion.”

We have seen how “reason” differs from “faith”: reason is used in verifying a claim directly, while faith is in the testimony of another person.

One is not free to doubt upon seeing a rigorous scientific or logical demonstration; but one is always free to believe or disbelieve a given testimony.

Thus, the truth of the articles of Christian faith is testified to by the Holy Spirit. Since God always tells the truth, it is a virtuous act to accept that testimony, and a vicious one to reject it.

Smith is aware of this position:

Faith, according to Aquinas, “is an act of the will moved by the grace of God.” Retaining this element of voluntary consent permitted Aquinas to argue that acceptance on faith is a “meritorious act.” (181)

He is, however, dissatisfied with it, apparently because things other than love for truth are supposedly used to “bribe” the believer into accepting the faith. But, in fact, no such unbecoming shenanigans take place. What is wrong with the Holy Spirit’s internal witness, either for an individual or for the Church as a whole? Smith never tells us.

How Natural Theology Is Done

Smith attributes to the theist the position that with the help of the proofs, “while we may not know the attributes of this being (and therefore have no clear concept of it), we do know that there is some kind of supernatural being, whatever it is. And that is what is meant by the word ‘god.'” (221) Of course, this is nonsense. Proofs for the existence of God illuminate God’s attributes in mind-numbing detail (see, e.g., Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology, Vol. 2); in fact, describing God is part and parcel of proving that the being so described exists. Nor are God’s attributes so discovered “muddled and contradictory.” (222) Smith simply borrows this unjustified conclusion from the earlier parts of his book. What we mean by “God” is something very specific and peculiar, not “some kind of supernatural being.” The concept of God is fleshed out one argument after another.

This answers Smith’s first question, “What caused the universe?” Regarding the second, “How did it cause the universe?” the answer is that “whatever God wills, if that is at all possible, happens” is a law of nature, though not of the created universe’s nature but of the nature of God. This is just one way in which God differs from creatures.

According to Smith,

The universe — the totality of existence — is a metaphysical primary and, as such, cannot require an explanation. (230)

Man cannot explain the existence of nature, because any attempted explanation logically presupposes the existence of nature. (231)

“What caused the universe?” is an absurd question, because before something can act as a cause, it must first exist — i.e., it must first be part of the universe. (240)

This is bizarre. No one distinguishes between the natural and the supernatural on the basis of the existence of the thing whose ontological status is in question. The supernatural stands in relation to the natural as the uncaused to the caused, the perfect to the imperfect, the simple to the complex, the infinite to the finite, and so on. But both exist. Existence does not then constitute a difference between God and a created entity.

In other words, natural theology proves God’s existence as part of uncovering the divine attributes; and the reason why these attributes cannot be “part of the universe” is that God differs from the universe in rather amazing ways. These differences are not according to existence, since both exist, but according to essence, since God’s essence is sui generis and unlike that of any creature. Smith has declared his utter befuddlement over the meaning of the divine attributes, but that really is his own problem.