Monday, January 3, 2011

The atheism of theism?

Chastek at Just Thomism posted the following:

The following argument is popular:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” ...

The argument is a sophistry one could use to prove anything. A parallel example is the quickest proof:

Flag waving American: God bless the USA! The greatest government on Earth!

Anarchist: Actually, you and I are both anarchists.

FWA: No, I love government. I’m nothing like you at all!

Anarchist: That’s not true. You’re an anarchist about Communism, Socialism, Monarchy, Oligarchy, and every other government that has ever existed. I just take things one step further.

This led to an unusually long thread of comments, mostly driven by the irenic exchanges of an atheist and various apparently mostly theist commentors.

I came into the thread the when it was mostly over but I wanted to add the following:

I wonder how the solipsism vs. realism debate would figure into this.

“I contend that we are both solipsists. I just believe in one fewer ‘world’ than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible worlds, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

There’s no way to get ‘behind’ thoroughgoing solipsism. You either embrace it or reject it. Likewise, I think there is no getting ‘behind’ the kind of logic at work in the opening atheist argument of this post. There seems to be a quantum shift from the positivist evidentialism on which the opening atheist argument here rests to even a chastened evidentialism. Non-atheists mutually debate the coherence and plausibility of their various worldviews but they all agree on at least a rejection of materialism and the viability of metaphysics.

The atheist in the thread replied on various points, to which I replied:

The point I want to make is that the reason Christians reject other gods is not because they deny there is any evidence for “that kind of being”, but rather that the evidence in each specific rival case doesn’t match up with the evidence for the Christian worldview. The opening atheist argument, by contrast, implies there is a categorical lack of evidence for the very kind of being proposed by theists and polytheists. In this sense, it might be more correct to say the atheist is a kind of theist (not the least for etymological reasons), since the atheist, presumably, rejects each and every specific case for a specific god. If he were to assume from the outset that it’s not even coherent to speak of evidence for “a god,” he would be begging the question with old-school positivism, and, more to the point, differing from the theist’s rejection of specific non-theist deities. The upshot is that, at the end of his analysis, the atheist claims there really is no evidence for any such kind of being (deity), and therefore resigns himself to a retroactive positivism: all previously claims about gods which he thought were worth examining turn out, in the light of his atheism, to have been meaningless––categorically vacuous––from the get-go. And it is this positivism––whether antecedent or retroactive–– which distinguishes the atheist from the theist. The former says no being matches up to a certain ontological category, while the latter says only one does.

The categorical atheist is, thus, much like a solipsist, since a solipsist cannot believe in something called “a world”––the category of “everything else outside his own experience” is categorically vacuous. His metaphysical position prevents him even fomr assessing evidence against it, since there can’t be evidence for what is categorically meaningless. (As an aside, it is not obvious that theists would deny the reality of different religions’ gods, only that theists deny those “powers” or “beings” deserve the name “God”. Many Christians grant the existence of non-Christian gods, but see them as demons.)

To this I would like to add another reason it’s more correct to reverse the opening argument (i.e. atheists are kinds of theists) is this: naturalists say that all the things theists have been trying to articulate with talk of gods/God actually resolves into confused, pre-scientific claims about the universe. In other words, the “gospel” of naturalism is that everything theists wanted God to be with respect to the universe, is actually true of the universe with respect to humans. The universe is a) eternal, b) necessary, c) absolute, d) immutable, e) beautiful (in a transcendent way), f) known apophatically (i.e. by the progressive but never-ending “march of science”), and g) ordered to its own ends, ends which order all other things. I suppose other attirbutes could be added, even something about the moral superority of the universe, in so far as its absolute “thereness” just is what grounds “good” and “evil”. The upshot is that naturalists have taken up the mantle of theism by giving an absolute explanation of the source of all and thus situaing human existence in a larger narrative. The opening argument claims the opposite and is false (for confusing the orders of intent and for the logical confusion Mr Chastek pointed out to begin with).

There the thread rests at present.

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