Atheism as the Defense of Naturalism

In general, types of atheism match types of gods. For example we often hear about “weak” versus “strong” atheism. While the strong atheist asserts that there is no God, the weak atheist claims only that there is insufficient evidence to support belief in God. Without adequate evidence, one should simply withhold belief; that is, the presumption of atheism, rather than an unwarranted presumption of theism, should be the default.

Put another way, weak atheism (which I have elsewhere dubbed “general atheism”) relies on the application of methodological naturalism, following the scientific method. But why should a theist, who after all adheres to a supernatural worldview, accept the validity of methodological naturalism for questions pertaining to the supernatural? On its surface that is a reasonable question, and not one weak atheism can effectively address.

To be sure, most theists wholeheartedly accept the weak atheist approach in respect to each of the ghosts, demons, and deities whose existence they also reject. But for absolute God, they consider methodological naturalism inadequate. God, in their mind, is a special case.

It is here that strong atheism enters the game.

Strong atheism (which elsewhere I have dubbed “specific atheism”) strikes directly at the nature of God, and purports to prove that God (when defined as a perfect, non-physical being) could not have created the world we find around us. Admittedly, the arguments of strong atheism do not apply to devils and demons and imperfect deities, but rather only to the perfect creator worshipped by most modern monotheists. But that is ok. Taken together, strong and weak atheism provide a one-two punch against all supernatural beings.

In 2001, Quentin Smith proposed an additional role for atheism in an article called The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism published in Philo (vol 4, no 2). Atheism, according to Smith, should be conceived as the defense of naturalism. I only discovered his remarkable essay last month, so I come rather belatedly to the matter. But I find Smith’s argument convincing enough that I have reconfigured the tag line for this website (which is meant as a brief definition of “atheology”) to include Smith’s phrase “the defense of naturalism”.

Smith begins by observing that theism has made something of a comeback in academic philosophical circles since the 1960s. This is due primarily to the influence of Alvin Plantinga, whose works have made theism appear academically respectable again. Smith further observes that most academics who adhere to a naturalistic worldview have failed to pay much attention to this “desecularization” within academia, and if they found themselves in a debate against theist philosophers they would be (as of 2001 when Smith wrote) unprepared to adequately defend their naturalistic worldview.

Of course naturalists working in the area of philosophy of religion, who Smith refers to as “informed naturalists” would have no problem in such a debate, but what he finds regrettable is that most advocates of naturalism are unaware of the arguments which justify their worldview.

The naturalist situation, as viewed by an informed naturalist, is more deserving of sadness than of blame. If naturalism is the true world-view, and a “Dark Age” means an age when the vast majority of philosophers (and scientists) do not know the true world-view, then we have to admit that we are living in a Dark Age. Since we ought to be knowledgeable rather than ignorant, and since we can be more knowledgeable, it follows that we ought to attempt to end the present Dark Age. But exactly what ought we do to “become more knowledgeable in the relevant respects”?*

Smith then goes on to observe that naturalism was the working worldview of the pre-Socratic philosophers, and that “Greco-Roman naturalism lasted as a vital field from approximately 600 b.c.e. to approximately 300 C.E.”* But by then neoPlatonism had become dominant and naturalism found itself reduced to little more than a philosophical footnote. Therefore, per Smith,

The first task that the informed naturalist would place on the contemporary naturalist agenda is to retrieve naturalism from its de facto reclassification by the medieval philosophers and, second, reverse this “reclassification move.” Naturalism originally began with the pre-Socratics, most clearly with Leucippus and Democritus, but also with Anaximander, Aneximenedes, Heraclitus, Protagoras, Empedocles, Theodorus, Diagorous, Critias and others. . . . The first task is based on the fact that naturalism began as a distinct, holistic world-view, was in effect subsumed as a skeptical subfield of natural theology by the medievals (for example, in some cases it might appear in the “objections section” under the heading “arguments for God’s existence based on natural reason”), and today is “torn in half” into two domains of thought. One of these two domains is “atheism,” which is a negative philosophy, “God does not exist,” that is attributed to the small number of naturalists who have a specialization in the philosophy of religion. The second domain, different than “atheism,” is a positive philosophy which, mainly, but not exclusively, involves using “non-reductive physicalism” as the topic or presupposition of most naturalists who work in the areas of philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc. and who (for the most part) are uninformed about the philosophy of religion. The naturalist goal is to terminate the isolation of these two domains of thought from each other and to reinterpret them. Atheism should be considered as a defense of naturalism against skeptical attacks, and thereby to play a foundational role in justifying the presuppositions of positive naturalist philosophy.*/p>

Smith’s second goal goes much further:

The aim is that theism be justifiably reclassified as a subfield of naturalism, namely, as a skepticism about the basic principles of naturalism whose refutation serves to stimulate and further develop the naturalist program. “Philosophy of religion” disappears, to be replaced by a new subfield of naturalism, namely, “skepticism about naturalism,” with skeptical arguments being put forth and argued against, with the aim in mind of further developing the argumentative foundations of the naturalist world-view.

Such a step is what would naturally follow if a “presumption of naturalism” were the working method of academia, as in fact it has been for more than a century now. As unwelcome as such a reclassification might be to theists, it makes complete sense in light of the preeminent position of modern science both inside and outside the academic world.

But whether or not Smith’s proposed reclassification of theism is accepted, the reclassification of atheism is required. For too long we have acquiesced in allowing atheism to be reduced to

. . . a body of counter-arguments against the cosmological, teleological and ontological arguments, and counter-arguments against the arguments from religious experience and (alleged) miracles. The first task is in part to remove atheism from its placement as a subfield of the philosophy of religion, where it is merely an extrinsically important theory that is parasitic on the intrinsically important theory, theism. This theistic classification of atheism implied that atheism is important merely as a skeptical attack on theism that serves the theistic purpose of stimulating further development of the argumentative defense of theism. But, according to the informed naturalist, atheism should now to be integrated with the specialized naturalist research programs (philosophy of mind, epistemology, etc.), as a defense of their naturalist assumptions against skeptical attacks, so that the result of the integration is a single, holistic world-view.*

At this point we might ask exactly what it means for atheists to defend naturalism. Specifically, what must atheists do differently in order to defend a worldview, and what kinds of arguments might be involved? Remembering that Smith see theism’s role as that of presenting objections to the naturalistic worldview, it follows that one thing atheists must do is engage those objections head on and defuse them.

What form do theistic objections to naturalism take? In general they assert, in one manner or another, that the naturalistic worldview can’t explain certain aspects of existence (therefore there must be a supernatural explanation). For example, theistic arguments based on “intelligent design”, “irreducible complexity”, the “principle of sufficient reason”, “moral ought”, “free will”, “after-death experiences”, you name it, always begin by claiming something can’t be explained naturalistically. Such arguments attempt to create room for God by finding fault with naturalism; as such they endeavor to refute the modern scientific naturalistic worldview.

It is not enough to retort that theists haven’t proved that God exists, as if that ended the matter. The job of the atheist naturalist, under Smith’s reclassification, is to actively defend the naturalistic worldview by poking holes in theistic claims or else demonstrating that naturalism can indeed account for the evidence in question.

Traditionally, such activities are the provenance of strong atheism. Whereas weak atheism consists of arguments which rely on the presumption of naturalism; strong atheism, under Smith’s reclassification, consists of those arguments which serve to actively defend naturalism and, as a consequence, justify the naturalist presumption.


* All quotes from Quentin Smith, The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism, published in Philo: A Journal of Philosophy, vol 4 no 2 (2001)

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