Atheism is only the glitter on the surface of the sea of naturalism. Has the time come for atheists to dive below the surface and explore the depths?
Let’s face it, denying God’s existence draws the attention — negatively, of course — of those who are believers. Theists see atheists — with justification — as people who tear down the beliefs of others but don’t construct anything positive of their own. And most atheists agree that atheism is strictly a negative position.
As atheists, we see our job as throwing bombs at religion and God. “Think there’s a God, huh? Then what about this — ” and we toss the problem of evil at them. [Boom!] “Oh, you think the Bible is God’s word? Eat this –” [Blam!] It’s fun, and there are certainly plently of bombs to throw. More than that, we know we’re right and we’ve got a point – in fact lots of points — that religious people really ought to pay attention to.
Is Atheism Enough?
Taken literally, atheism really is just a negative position: no God, no gods. Atheism throws bombs at the supernatural worldview of theism, without committing the atheist to any alternative worldview that must be defended. The atheist plays offense but doesn’t have to play defense. Sort of asymmetrical cultural warfare, you see.
But is it really the case that the godless don’t have a worldview to defend? In actual practice, I say it’s not true. The reality is that those of us online who are atheists spend a good deal of time defending evolution, science, the scientific method, etc; so much so that you might almost think that science is the atheist worldview.
But science is a method, not a worldview. Scientific method is often referred to as methodological naturalism — to distinguish it from the philosophical position of naturalism, usually called metaphysical naturalism. (Which brings up the question: Does methodological naturalism presuppose metaphysical naturalism? Perhaps an even more pertinent: Does the success of methodological naturalism demonstrate the truth of metaphysical naturalism?)
Today I want to focus on another question: Is the atheist committed to metaphysical naturalism? That is to say, does the atheist have a worldview to defend after all?
If atheists reject supernaturalism — as I think all atheists do and probably must — then it would seem to follow that as atheists we are committed to a naturalistic worldview of some sort or another. Does “naturalistic worldview” = “metaphysical naturalism”? The answer, I suppose, depends on how broadly you define the tent of metaphysical naturalism.
I define it pretty broadly myself. I see the philosophy of naturalism as a tarp which covers any endeavour to explain our existence (and the existence everything else, of course) without resorting to anything supernatural. And I would suggest that atheists are necessarily committed to this naturalistic enterprise. In that sense we do have a worldview to defend — and therefore something positive to say about the nature of the world.
Broadening the Debate
If our debates about God’s existence are really only subsets of a larger debate between naturalistic and supernaturalistic worldviews, then it follows that atheists need to step back and broaden the debate.
Stepping back, in fact, is essential if one want’s to understand the disconnects that usually occur when theists and atheists argue. It’s not uncommon for each side to be convinced that they’ve won a particular debate. Even more curious is the feeling found on both sides that the opposition isn’t listening or isn’t getting it. These are classic signs that we have two different worldviews clashing against each other.
The only way to make progress is to step back, take in both worldviews at once, and try to figure out which one best fits existence. There is a particular bonus in this for the atheist.
For the most part, we all know the supernatural worldview pretty well. We know its rationale and its arguments, we understand its appeal. Not surprising, since we have grown up in a supernatural-embracing society. Whether it’s angels or ghosts, whether it’s prophecy or clairvoyance, whether it’s God or The Force, our culture breathes it in and out. Supernaturalism is a comfortable part of our books, movies, magazines and daily discourse.
Naturalism — outside of academia — is not.
By bringing naturalism into our discussions with theists we can begin to change that. We can present them with an underlying rationale for atheism that heretofore has been missing.
The Missing Rationale
If you examine the typical arguments atheists make you discover that no underlying rationale for atheism is ever presented. For example, the problem of evil focuses on a flaw in God’s definition (if God is not defined as good or all-powerful or all-knowing, the problem goes away), and tells us nothing about an atheist alternative. The presumption of atheism argument merely attempts to shifts the burden of proof to the theist. The “lack of evidence for God” argument, for its part, makes an assumption of methodological naturalism but presents no case to support naturalism itself.
Atheists often feel frustrated because no matter how many problems and inconsistencies they expose in the theist worldview, theists continue to stick with their supernaturalism. But why is this surprising? A scientific theory isn’t brought down simply because it has problems and inconsistencies (although it may be recognized as in crisis). What is required to bring down a scientific theory is a compelling alternative theory. If atheists won’t bother to present a compelling alternative to supernaturalism, we should not be surprised when theists are unmoved.
Of course, God is only an hypothesis, not the equivalent of a full-blown scientific theory. But that misses the point: the supernatural worldview is indeed functionally the equivalent of a scientific theory. It’s been the dominant “theory” in the human mind for most if not all human history. Outside academia it’s still the dominant worldview, and unless we champion naturalism as a compelling alternative that will not change.
I began by saying that atheism was only the glitter on the sea of naturalism, and I asked whether it was time for atheists to dive below and explore the depths.
I hope I’ve made a convincing case that it is.