Strong Atheism: The Case for Evacuating the Middle Ground
In the world of philosophy, those who make the active claim that God does not exist are often viewed as extremists. Taking a positive stand about the nonexistence of God is considered akin to claiming that all forms of matter, energy and consciousness have already been discovered, and that there is nothing new to be learned from the universe. The simple fact that scientific truths are constantly being overturned is considered reasonable justification for a form of scientific agnosticism, which is generally expanded to include the vague possibility of the existence of a supernatural being such as gods. Since we do not know everything about the universe, agnostics claim, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that gods might exist. Thus “strong atheism” – the positive declaration of the nonexistence of gods – is generally viewed as an irrational position, ironically on par with the theist’s assertion that gods do exist.
Thus, like most positions in the post-Hegelian world, the truth is considered to lie somewhere in the midpoint between two extremes. Wildly asserting that gods exists is as irrational as blindly asserting that they do not. The most sensible position is to withhold judgment.
Those with any decent knowledge of philosophy know that the burden of proof lies squarely on the shoulders of those who assert that gods exist, and that no action is required from atheists to disprove the existence of gods. However, the inevitable failures of all attempts to prove the existence of gods never seems to move the theist position into the “not true” category – merely into the “not proven but possible” category. In this essay, I will endeavor to give it just a little push over the line.
Like most problems in philosophy, the conflict stems from imprecisions in definition. “God” is a notoriously fluid concept, able to slosh fashionably into almost any mental container. God can be defined as a “higher power,” or “love,” or “energy,” or “nature,” or “an old man on a cloud,” or “the energy that binds the universe together” or “the first cause” or “hope” etc. etc. etc. Naturally, no philosophical discussions can retain any coherence in the face of such wildly amorphous – and often contradictory – definitions.
Similarly, the definition of “existence” is often confused. Does “existence” mean “any form of matter, energy or consciousness that could conceivably exist in this or any other universe,” or does it mean “a Christian deity whose son came back from the dead”? Does it mean “that which is composed of matter or energy,” or “that which I believe with all my heart to exist”?
Of course, if “gods” and “existence” is defined in a tautological manner, no advance in knowledge is achieved. If “gods” are defined as spiritual beings discoverable through faith, and “existence” is defined to include that which is discoverable through faith, nothing is gained. “Existence” must be an objective state, and “knowledge” must be an objective methodology.
Now, for science, “existence” is a relatively simple concept – it is defined as that which consists of either matter or energy. This is quite different from “accuracy,” which is the correlation between concepts and the behavior of matter and energy in the real world. A concept has accuracy – or validity – if it precisely predicts or describes the behavior of matter and energy in the real world. This, of course, is the basis of the scientific method, which is that all human concepts must bow to the empiricism of physical evidence. Or, to put it another way, in any conflict between consciousness and matter, consciousness must give way, since consciousness can contain errors, but matter cannot.
With this (admittedly brief) introduction in place, we are a good deal closer to understanding the conflict between strong and weak atheists. The central question about the existence of gods – no matter how defined – is this: are gods subject to physical laws?
If gods are subject to physical laws, then the first law that gods are subject to is this: since existence is defined as that which is composed of either matter or energy, if gods exist, they must be composed of either matter or energy.
The opposite corollary must also be true. If gods are not composed of matter or energy, then gods by definition do not exist. Since “existence” is defined as that which is composed of matter or energy, “non-existence” must be that which possesses neither matter nor energy. Thus to argue that gods exist despite a total absence of matter or energy is to argue that existence equals non-existence, which is a complete contradiction. If I define an “orange” as a round citrus fruit that is orange in color, I cannot include in that definition an invisible orange that is the opposite of round, the opposite of citrus, the opposite of fruit, and the opposite of orange. (I mean, I suppose could, but who would believe that I was serious – or even sane?)
If gods are subject to physical laws, then physical evidence is really the only methodology by which we can ascertain that gods exist. Of course, this does not require direct physical evidence – we cannot perceive black holes directly, but we know that they exist due to the effects of their gravity wells on surrounding matter, as well as the flashes of energy that are released as captured matter crosses the event horizon. But since “existence” is defined as that which is composed of matter or energy, the scientific proof of existence must be some evidence of that matter or energy. “Evidence” is basically defined as that which impacts our physical senses in some manner – either directly, or through some translating device such as a spectrograph or an oscilloscope. Since our physical senses are organs designed to transmit the effects of matter and energy, it is essentially through the evidence of the senses that we can determine the existence or nonexistence of things. If I argue that something exists, but that there is no way to detect it, my argument contradicts itself. Let’s say I tell a deaf man that I hear a deep loud sound coming from a speaker. If he lays his hand on it and feels no vibrations, he has every right to be skeptical. If I say that this loud sound does not have vibrations, he may then pull out his trusty microphone or other sound wave detector. If this instrument detects no sound in the vicinity, can I still tell him that this loud sound is occurring? At some point, if my definition of “loud sound” basically boils down to “that which is the opposite of any evidence that a loud sound is occurring” then clearly my approach to truth needs a little work!
This approach helps clarify the truth-value of the proposition that gods do not exist. If gods are subject to physical laws, then sensual evidence of some sort is required to determine the existence of gods. If gods are not subject to physical laws, then gods do not exist by definition, since that which is not subject to physical laws – i.e. is not composed of matter or energy – does not exist.
If gods are subject to physical laws, important ramifications follow. Since gods must be bound by physical laws, miracles are impossible, since miracles are by definition violations of physical laws. Similarly, gods cannot be omniscient and all-powerful, since both attributes would violate the basic tenets of physical laws. Omniscience would require instantaneous knowledge of all matter, past, present and future, which is clearly impossible, while omnipotence would require the ability to break the bounds of physical laws, which brings us back to the realm of nonexistence.
If gods are subject to physical laws, then religion makes no sense whatsoever, and praying to gods makes about as much sense as worshiping a black hole, begging the Sun to grant you favors, or circumcising your son to appease the speed of light. If gods are not subject to physical laws, then the concept of “gods” is synonymous with the concept of non-existence, which makes religion even more deranged. Then, rather than praying to the moon, you would be in fact praying to the empty space between the Earth and the moon.
Why is there such opposition to the proposition that gods do not exist? Many people I have talked to with regards to strong atheism feel extremely uncomfortable asserting that gods do not exist. Or, to be more precise, they feel extremely uncomfortable telling Christians, say, that the Christian god does not exist. Rather than confront faithful believers with the hollow falsehood of their imaginary worship, they redefine “God” within their own minds as “a potential form of matter or energy that has not been discovered yet,” or “that which could exist in an alternate universe,” or something to that effect. This allows them to continue breaking bread – or least avoiding open conflict – with those addicted to superstitious nonsense. However, it could be argued that this is a fairly cowardly position. Either a criterion for determining truth exists, or it does not. If such a criterion exists, then it must be objective, and based on the evidence of the senses and reason, which precludes the existence of any form of religious deities. If no such criterion exists, then both everything and nothing is true, and agnosticism, atheism, superstition, religion and the steadfast belief that shoes can fly and sing songs are all equally valid.
If an objective criterion for truth exists, then it cannot logically be applied according to whim, the expediency of the moment, or only in situations that feel emotionally comfortable. If you wish to take a stand for rationality and truth, then I for one completely applaud you – and sympathize with the attendant social difficulties that often result. If, however, you take a stand for rationality and truth, but then sit back down whenever anybody gets upset, there’s very little point getting up to begin with.
Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a “Top 10” Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.