Monday 25 June 2012

Why I am an atheist

                                                 Don't believe in any of these...

I waste far too much time engaging in futile internet tit for tat exchanges (Catholic Herald comboxes being particularly the target just now of the 'right thinking people' as they kindly share their wit and wisdom with us benighted paedo-priest-worshipping-know-nothings).

One of the arguments that comes up again and again and again is that belief in the Catholic God is arbitrary: that even if I have reason to believe in him, I have no more reason to believe in him than in Thor or Zeus or Richard Dawkins or whatever deity you might want to mention. Colin McGinn puts the argument thus:

For every theist is also an atheist. That is, every believer in one god is a disbeliever in another. Believers in the Christian God disbelieve in the vengeful, jealous and capricious God of the Old Testament, as well as in the Hindu gods or the Greek gods or the nature gods of "primitive" tribes or any number of other "false gods." People believe in the reality of their own God, but they are not similarly credulous when it comes to other people's gods; here their disbelief is patent and powerful. They do not preach agnosticism about those other gods; they reject them outright. I am with them on this point, but I extend it to their God too. My point is that they are as "dogmatic" as I am in their atheism; we are just atheists about different gods. I am an atheist about all gods; typical theists are atheists about the majority of gods believed in over the centuries by human beings of one tribe or another. I find their disbelief thoroughly sensible; I would merely urge them to push it one stage further. I favor total atheism; they favor selective atheism, none of that pusillanimous agnosticism for either of us (Why I am an atheist. pp8-7).

As Ed Feser replies:

It rests on a basic mistake, the assumption that since the God of classical theism along with Zeus, Thor, ghosts, werewolves, Santa Claus are all said to have unusual powers (with some of them even referred to as “gods”) they must all be instances of the same kind. That is like saying that since individual good things and the Form of the Good are all called “good,” they must be just different particular instances of the same kind; or that since the triangles one sees on chalkboards and in books and Euclidean triangularity as such are all triangular, they must just be different particular instances of the same kind (Why McGinn is a pre-theist, p14).

To put this more simply, when I disbelieve in gods such as Thor, Zeus and Richard Dawkins, I am disbelieving in one kind of entity. When I believe in the God of Catholicism, I believe in another kind of entity. My disbelief in gods has no more implications for my belief in God, than my disbelief in all sorts of other things (unicorns, the Easter bunny, the Loch Ness monster). Just as it would be absurd to argue that, just because I disbelieved in unicorns, I shouldn't believe in the existence of triangles, so it is absurd to argue that, just because I don't believe in Thor, I shouldn't believe in God: God is a different kind of thing from gods.

Now the atheist at this point will no doubt start suggesting that there is a rather closer analogy between the God of Catholicism and Thor than there is between a triangle and a unicorn. The charge would no doubt go something like this:

Whatever process got you to believe in 'God' is analogous to the process of belief that gets others to believe in Thor. Anything you say that disproves the reliability of the Thor belief process also disproves the reliability of the God belief process. So you are left with a dilemma: either you deny the reliability of the Thor belief process -and are thus committed to denying the reliability of the God belief process (and thus you should be an atheist). Or you are committed to believing in both Thor and God (and Vishnu and Baal and Richard Dawkins) which is clearly absurd. (And thus you should be an atheist.)

It's here that proofs in Natural theology play an absolutely key role: whether or not they prove the existence of God, they define the existence of God. Thus, from Aquinas's Five Ways, I learn that God is a necessary being, an absolutely good being and an intelligent being. (And so on.) So if Thor is not perfectly good, not capable of always doing what he wants etc, then he is not God but something else. Metaphorically, God is a triangle, Thor is a unicorn: what is relevant to disproving Thor is not relevant to disproving God.

At this point, many atheists will say something like this:

Look, we know that Catholicism is based on the Bible. In the Old Testament, Jehovah is pretty much the same sort of angry sky god that Thor is. So really, putting aside all this convenient theological twaddle, Catholics are just basing their beliefs on the same sort of stuff the Vikings did. You might dress it up in philosophy, but really it's just storybook sky god stuff all over again.

Well, no. It really can't be said too many times: Catholics do not base on their understanding of God and religion just on the Bible. The First Vatican Council decrees:

In the first place, as against Agnosticism and Traditionalism, the council teaches (cap. ii, De revelat.)
that God, the first cause (principium) and last end of all things, can, from created things, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (
Denz., 1785-old no. 1634)
and in the corresponding canon (can. i, De revelat.) it anathematizes anyone who would say
that the one true God our Creator and Lord, cannot, through the things that are made, beknown with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1806-old no. 1653).

The importance of Natural Theology -the proof of the existence of God by the 'natural light of human reason'- is thus enshrined within the religion. So we believe in a God who possesses the qualities suggested in arguments such as Aquinas's, not in a god who carries a hammer and smites ice giants.

But, says the atheist, how then do you move from the God of reason to the God (or perhaps we might even say 'god') of the Bible, in particular, that of the Old Testament? (After all, you do believe they are one and the same, don't you, and he does look like the sort of chap who would smite ice giants given half the chance.)

Well, again, another thing that needs to be said again and again is that the Catholic Church does not think the Bible is self interpreting: it needs to be interpreted by the authority of the Church. And the authority of the Church is that the God of natural theology who is all good and all powerful and all seeing etc is indeed the Jehovah of the Old Testament. So one principle of interpretation is that the Bible has to be read with that in mind. Secondly, the Old Testament has to be read in the light of the New Testament: Jesus has unique insight into the nature of God (since he is God) and therefore the Old Testament has to be read through his eyes.

And then you get into all the old issues about why did God do this particular action in the Old Testament, or get someone to do that etc etc etc... But the general answer to all of this is that God is all good and all powerful and all seeing, so interpreting what you read as if it's telling you that he's a grumpy old Jewish Thor shows you've gone wrong somewhere. 

Now I know that, at this point, atheists tend to hoot with laughter and say something like: 'Well, that just shows you can read anything into the Bible.' No. It shows that 1) the Bible cannot be read without interpretation; and 2) that key elements in that interpretation are our knowledge that God is good and (from Christ) that he is caring as a father cares. And those aren't post hoc justifications to enable us to wriggle out of inconvenient truths, but are key elements of Catholicism hammered out (eg) in the disputes with Marcion about the relationship between the God of the New Testament and the Jehovah of the Old (2nd century AD) and (eg) in the disputes with Luther about the place of scripture in the Church (16th century). 

In summary:

1) Disbelieving in a god like Thor and disbelieving in God are not the same sort of activity: you need different arguments for each activity. (And Catholics will disbelieve in Thor and believe in God, just as atheists will disbelieve in the existence of God but believe in the existence of horses.)

2) The (apparently) Thor like god of the Old Testament has to be read in our knowledge of God gained through reason and Christ. The Bible for Catholics really really really isn't either the sole basis for our beliefs nor is it self-interpreting.


  1. I loved this post so much. You say it so much better than I have been able to manage on my blog. Great blog - love your style and erudition.

  2. Hi Jessica. That's very kind! I've benefited a great deal from other Catholics and Christians on the web so am really just trying to put something back. I've always enjoyed your posts and I'm rather chuffed to find you here!!

  3. 1)"Catholics will disbelieve in Thor and believe in God, just as atheists will disbelieve in the existence of God but believe in the existence of horses" - every sane person believes in horses.

    The elephant in the room here seems to be 'magic'. As we know, in the whole history of humankind, in a world of billions of people, NOTHING has ever been shown to be caused by magic.
    How did Jesus walk on water? Magic! How did he feed 5000, turn water into wine and ascend into heaven? Magic!
    Science continues to show us more and more of how the Earth and the universe have formed, what things are formed of, how life evolved. Science has yet to answer some very big questions, but to say that God did it all by magic is no answer at all - as what formed God? How does his magic work? etc, etc.

    2)Who wrote the ten commandments? Why did Jesus bother with the Old Testament when it is such a poor representation of the character of God?


    1. Karl, you can't conduct a constructive intellectual exploration of an issue by throwing out lots of different questions in one go, none of which is a direct response to the issue actually under discussion! It's this sort of ecstatic witnessing which gives New Atheism a bad name: it's very hard to take seriously a movement which proclaims the importance of reason yet, in its practice, undermines the key elements of rationality. (Focus on the issue, structure, the provision of reasons, awareness of existing academic argument etc.)

      My original thought was simply to make a rather tart response. But to show willing, I'll pick up one of your questions: your charge of magic. It's an odd charge to make: no Catholic would ever ascribe either creation or a miracle to magic. I guess there are two ways of thinking about magic: either as a craft/technique by which mind can manipulate the world according to one's will; or as a denial of explanation -'There's no reason for it: it's just magic'. I assume it's the latter you're thinking of here.

      You seem to be assuming that theism and scientific exploration of (say) creation are in competition. Again, this is a misunderstanding: I'm delighted to have physicists working away on the exploration of how the universe was created. You want that. I want that. No magic so far.

      But perhaps the key difference between us is that, at some point, you expect to have to say: this is just what there is -there is no explanation for it. In effect, at that point, you will be saying (in your terms): 'It's magic.' On the other hand, as a theist, I will at that point to a different type of explanation: 'Very well, science has explained everything about the mechanism it can, but rather than ascribing that mechanism to magic -the denial of any explanation- I ascribe it to the purposive action of a good God.'

      At that level, you seem to be embracing the idea of magic, not the theist. Neither the atheist nor the theist will discourage science from pushing its explanations as far as it can. Neither the atheist nor the theist will (in the situation where (ex hypothesi) that explanation has come to a halt)be able to provide any further scientific answer. But the theist will be able to provide a rational explanation of a different sort, whilst the atheist will simply have to ascribe it to magic. (Or at least a brute, inexplicable fact.)

      Here's one reason why the theistic explanation is better than the atheistic denial of explanation: the theist believes that the universe, as formed by a creative intelligence analogous to human agency is, in principle at least, comprehensible. The atheist, however, has no such belief and, at any time, has to be prepared to abandon reason in favour of the denial of the possibility of explanation: after all, it's inevitable that buffer of 'magic' is going to be hit one day on an atheistic picture of the world.

      So which worldview is more likely to support rational exploration: that which has no reason to believe that the world is comprehensible by human beings and that, at any stage, the path of rational explanation may hit the buffer of magic (atheism); or that which believes the world is essentially comprehensible (theism)?

      As an historical fact, it was Christianity which provided the worldview from which science became possible:

      Now I don't expect you to accept this holus bolus -and nor should you: complex issues of this nature are not resolvable in a combox debate. But there ought to be enough there to make you realize that simply vomiting up a few ill considered objections to theism really isn't an adequate way of tackling deep, intellectual issues: you need to think through your objections more carefully, structure the conclusions more rationally, and for goodness sake get rid of the conceit that you already know the answers. You clearly don't.

    2. You really are so funny Lazarus! I ask you a few questions about your beliefs, which you answer with such pompous, blustering waffle, about things you pretend to know, and you call me conceited! I have never implied that I know the answers, but am just questioning your claims of knowledge.
      But how exactly were my questions irrelevant to a blog about believing in gods using supernatural powers, and Jesus’ position on the Old Testament?? – quite straightforward questions, which you avoided answering.

      “So which worldview is more likely to support rational exploration” err? The rational one? I really don’t see how your assumptions about a God, the supernatural, and the human ability to comprehend the universe, to be the deep, intellectual, academic thinking that you consider it to be.

    3. Karl, when you talk about Jesus or the prophets in the Old Testament using magic, you are thinking of a being of the same kind as you (and in way the same kind as the water on which he walked, etc) somehow controlling other things of a similar kind. Classical theism doesn't make this claim at all. Classical theism says that God's relationship to everything else that exists is of an entirely different order than the relationship of any non-God-being to any other such being or all such beings. It's not about powers, it's about the nature of God: what it is to be God, and what it is to be anything else.

      Some people get this right away, most people have to spend some time (I mean weeks/months/years) to understand this position, depending on their intellectual history. Sorry I can't think offhand of anything to suggest as possibly useful reading matter.

    4. @ Karl

      On my comedic value - I thank you!

      It's incredibly difficult dealing in a combox with a heap of questions which don't bear a direct relation to the original post which centred on a single quite narrow issue: the conceptual distinction between God and a god. Certainly, I don't pretend I've got all the answers and certainly the Church is well aware of the limits of human reason. But your original comment is a bit like someone walking into CERN and asking, 'What's it all about then, chief?'

      On the comment, I tried to answer your point 1 and certainly Berenike has. I don't see much in the way of argument in return: simply an assertion that a physicalist strategy of explanation (which inevitably ends up as no explanation) is more rational than a theistic one. Perhaps it is, but I'd be interested to know what are your reasons for thinking so.

      On point 2, well, this really is a huge one and I'd thought you might forgive me for not trying to answer everything! But let's try. Who wrote the Ten Commandments? Well, I'm not sure what the physical, historical details of writing them were (eg how literally I'm supposed to take the account in Exodus) but they are, as part of the Bible, under the authorship of God:

      "the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.(1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted." Dei Verbum (11)

      In terms of how they are to be interpreted, the basic idea is that revelation on morality is a way of making the natural law (ie what is good and bad for human nature) clear to human minds distorted by original sin. Full commentary either from Aquinas: or the Catechism:

      Finally, why do you think the OT is such a poor representation of God? Let's assume that there is a need for an incarnation: which period or civilization (untouched by Christianity) had a better idea of God? (Judaism quite apart from anything else displays a strong sense of a) monotheism (and hence the rationality of the world); and b) morality in religion (hence no religious duties that are at odds with goodness, beauty and truth)).

    5. On the general issue of the intelligibility of the world and its problems for atheism see Ed Feser:

      "If one wants to maintain a defensible atheist position, then [...o]ne has to claim with a straight face that the world is intelligible down to the level of the fundamental laws, but beyond that point suddenly “stops making sense” (as Talking Heads might put it). For one has to say, not that the world has some ultimate explanation that is non-theistic, but rather that it has no ultimate explanation at all. And in that case one can hardly claim to have provided a more “rational” account of the world than theism does. To paraphrase what Copleston said to Russell, if you refuse to play the explanatory game, then naturally you cannot lose it. But by the same token, it is ludicrous to claim that you’ve won it."

    6. OK, I do see what you mean; If such a God were to exist, he could operate outside of the natural laws of the observable universe to control and manipulate physical matter, although the only evidence for this are Biblical accounts of Jesus using what we know as ‘magic’. Fair enough. But all your ‘knowledge’ of God – his likes and dislikes, what he meant to say and what he didn’t, what he authored and what he didn’t – is not knowledge at all. What single thing in the Bible could not have been written without the help of a god?

    7. ""If one wants to maintain a defensible atheist position, then [...o]ne has to claim with a straight face that the world is intelligible down to the level of the fundamental laws, but beyond that point suddenly “stops making sense”"

      Oh the folly of self importance that is the human ego! Why does there have to be a purpose to our lives? Why do we expect to be special? Why should we be able to understand everything?
      God is not an explanation of the origins of the universe, as what created God? How does he exist? Don't be scared to admit that you might be wrong.

    8. Hi Karl

      No problem in admitting I might be wrong! (I've had to do that already in my life when I shifted from atheism.) I hope that you also aren't investing so much in your own views that you couldn't change your mind.

      I'll take your two points together. On the question of evidence for God as an explanatory principle, this is more about arguments within natural theology (ie reasoning about God) than the Bible: roughly, once the existence of God and his nature is established by reason, revelation (in the Bible and Church Tradition) fills out that picture. And again, roughly, the point is that, in the absence of a being which is necessary etc, you have given up on explanation: not any particular explanation, but the process of rational explanation itself.

      David Hume's ( a good example of what happens if you do this. Not only does he abandon natural theology -the proof of the existence of God by reason- but he abandons belief in the rationality of causation and induction as well. That's quite consistent: it is of course always possible to give up on reason at any stage and to refuse to offer explanations. (That's what I meant earlier by the commitment to 'magic' by atheism.) But what it's not possible to do (if the metaphysical arguments of natural theology are correct) is to have your cake and eat it: to proclaim the power of reason in areas within science such as causation and induction, but then to deny the existence of God.

      So in the end, this boils down to which is the most rational metaphysical picture of the world: one which rests on the existence of a necessary etc being or one which rests on (an unknown number) of brute facts about the world. There's no short cut to answering that question: it's down to the hard slog of going through the metaphysical arguments: you certainly can't assume that physicalist assumptions are more rational than theistic ones. That would have to be shown.

      That said, I think there is a sort of short cut! Holding which view is more supportive of the present activity of reasoning and rational investigation? (In other words, until you've sorted out the arguments, which is the better view to put your hopes on?) As I've already said, it seems pretty clear to me that theism in its Catholic form is much more supportive of reason than a physicalism which is, essentially, committed to the certainty that human reasoning has to come to an arbitrary stop.

      And all this is quite apart from philosophical issues in morality and aesthetics which become more comprehensible on theistic assumptions. The issue of morality is a major reason why the atheist blogger Leah Libresco is converting to Catholicism

      And again all this philosophy is quite apart from the sort of reasons that attract many into the Church: a spiritual and devotional richness that is (arguably) more psychologically satisfying than any non-theistic alternative.

    9. Hi Lazarus
      Is there really any substance in this rambling? Real substance? I’m sure some people use such waffle to convince themselves that the most ludicrous fallacy is the truth. In my own experience I’ve found that it much easier to convince oneself to believe in what we desire to be true, than it is to convince others.
      On the topic of the Ten Commandments I found this video very entertaining, although I’d probably agree with you in that Richard Dawkins’ apparent smugness does grate a little:

    10. Yes, I'm pretty sure there is substance there! You've very clearly got yourself in a 'closed belief trap': you believe that you can disregard any challenge to your views because you know that any challenge to your belief is ludicrous; and you know that any challenge is ludicrous because you can disregard any challenge to your belief. The Dawkins' video is embarrassing: the replacement of thought by stand up comedy.

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