Beyond Atheism

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.

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6 Responses to Beyond Atheism

  1. This is way late, but I don’t think all atheists are necessarily completely naturalistic, many sects of Buddhism, are basically atheistic but they go on about re-incarnation and such. Also I would expect there are some atheists that believe in silly psuedo-science like ESP or whatever.

  2. Rastaban says:

    There may be exceptions, but in general modern atheism is the rejection of all supernaturalism whatever the form. If you reject supernaturalism, naturalism is what remains.

  3. Craig says:

    “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”?”

    I agree that atheism must reject theism, by defintion, although not neccessarily supernaturalism. The question is is if the atheist makes the more substantive move to methological naturalism can they justfy their own positon let alone validy rule out incorporeal entities.

    More specifically, is the primary epistemology of methodological naturalism empiricism? If so, what of the well known Kantian critiques of such – that time, space, causality and self appear to be of a non-empirical nature.

    Further, does the nature of inductive logic prevent the methodological naturalist making the bolder metaphysical claim that all phenomena is of a non-supernatural nature. If so, is such an example of the fallacy of composition? If my memory serves me correctly, the latter resembles Humes’ critique of his own naturalist position.

    So, perhaps the deeper question is, to what degree can an empiricist assert naturalism?

    Finally, the NOMA argument could be used to explain why theists refuse to allow their propositons to be falsified in the face of an overwhelming number of defeaters. The naturalist critiques theism as a factual statement. The theist, it could be argued, holds the god, soul, afterlife, freewill concepts, in the first instance, as value-ethical statements (albeit attributing factualness to them dogmatically…). See the Dawkins-McGrath debate on the Dawkins website as a classic example of a dialogue between two people speaking different languages.

  4. Mark says:

    Talk about coming late to the party…

    This really spoke to me and I can’t agree more with your central message – that we need to stand for something.

    I’d like to take it even further and see atheists talk more about other aspects of their world view. I say this because I don’t think naturalism is any atheists entire world view.

    In addition to being a naturalist, I’d say I’m also a strong humanist – a world view that I believe incorporates naturalism.

    If we’re to bring people to atheism, we have to provide an alternative to theist world views. Without the alternative, people just see empty disbelief.

    Thanks for this.

  5. graham says:

    Secular Himanists (atheists) are guilty of throwing many bombs, yet have their own moral code- and are quite satisfied with only having one life to live. This is possibly the ‘step back’ you are prescribing, or at least it must seem so to them. Still, this is but a glimpse of what atheism might aspire to. I believe that while a magical explanation for an ‘afterlife’ is indefensible, the greater and naturalistic premise for eternal life and purpose is possible within reason.

  6. (( Feel free to correct my spelling…I’m visually impaired … and elderly))
    Is a ‘negative’ position limited to a No God position? How about a , ” well not ‘that’ kind of god! position.”
    Can Negative refer to ‘absence’ ( as in operant conditioning?, or electronics?) or ‘opposite’ ( as in cartesian coordinates)? Actually I’m not compelled ( exception here) to explain or defend my evolving position on my relation to the multiverse.
    Negative behavior, I hear, is not synonymous with only the Bad or Destructive or Inconvenient or Fussy; it can also refer to Apathy, Catatonia,Empty, Patience, Passivity e.g. stating only one’s name, rank and serial number ( which they told me was a Good thing).
    Western language often limits many discussions to polarities, to Either /Or propositions, to Cause/Effect ( Boom) a First or Essential Cause ( FYI: More and more disputed))…and has a heavy reliance on Nouns, the usefulness of which is fading as quantum mechanics becomes better understood….some cultures other than mine, refer to Function, to Change but have no conception of discrete ‘things’… physics seems to support that world view….Maybe God is a fluid….

    The species is very young. We don’t even know how to raise children or deal with sexuality. Maybe we necessarily have an immature viewpoint. For my part, it’s difficult to rely on a rationality which proves its usefulness through such adventure as politics, genocide, soccer riots and name calling, often in the name of G O D, or worse Common Sense.
    See you on the other side!!

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