Rejecting the God and gods of religion is sufficient to make you an atheist. But that is not enough. You can be an atheist and still cling to supernatural beliefs.
It happens too often.
Let’s explore a few examples.
- the atheist who believes in reincarnation or some other form of afterlife
- the atheist who worships “Reason” as if it was something existing outside us
- the atheist who sees intelligence in the universe, or believes the universe operates by inherent & fundamental scientific laws.
- the atheist who believes in the principle of sufficient reason
Such beliefs make atheism inconsistent, if not incoherent, because to be sustainable atheism requires a natural worldview and all of the above incorporate some form of supernaturalism. A natural worldview is fairly easy to define: it means a worldview which takes physical existence as a starting point and maintains that everything else—everything involving subjectivity, sensation, consciousness, experience, emotion, thought, intelligence, reason and so on—had to come into existence afterward by process of evolution. Naturalism requires this biological hypothesis for the origin of mind and all its accoutrements, otherwise it fails to stand in opposition to supernaturalism.
I said that atheism requires a natural worldview in order to be consistent, and the reason is simple. If we fail to derive the existence of consciousness, intelligence, reason, sensation and related phenomena from physical existence, then we have no choice but incorporate them into our starting conditions concurrent with (if not prior to) physical existence. Since only agents can have intelligence or consciousness, the unavoidable result is that agency is granted to the universe long before the evolution of actual biological organisms can begin. If this doesn’t throw God into the beginning of things, it at least throws godliness there, and it therefore ought to be anathema to atheism. To allow this would not even be atheism light, but atheism lightheaded.
Returning to my list of beliefs inconsistent with atheism, I think its easy to see why the first two should be rejected by atheists. Reincarnation and afterlife can’t be explained in a physical universe without adding something non-physical to the picture and making it trump physical and biological reality. Likewise, worshiping reason as if were something outside us raises the question of its ante-biological origin, a question that can only be answered supernaturally.
But what about the atheist who sees intelligence in the universe, or believes the universe operates according inherent & fundamental scientific laws? But here too I hope the issue is already plain enough that what holds in the case of postulating ante-biological reason holds for ante-biological intelligence just as surely.
But what about the second clause: shouldn’t atheists embrace the existence of “inherent & fundamental scientific laws”?
The problem here is mostly one of terminology. In the sciences today the empirical nature of scientific laws is readily conceded. They are descriptions subject to falsification and tests of usefulness, not laws laid down as if by some pre-ordained authority. They are not part of a blueprint of existence but (like all other scientific knowledge) useful descriptions of the world. Unfortunately this is widely misunderstood, in large part because the term “scientific law” dates to a period when all scientists were theists and the existence of a God who gave form to the physical world was a given. That bias no longer holds in the sciences, but terms engendered by it continue to confound the public at large.
But what scientific laws (thus clarified) cannot be is “inherent and fundamental” to the universe, for to assert this is to make the same mistake I outlined above with Reason and intelligence. It is to adopt the supernatural premise that rather than being biological products of evolution, mathematical forms and other elements of intelligence are concurrent with the universe. This is not consistent with the atheist project of rejecting supernaturalism.
We come finally to the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). I will be brief and perhaps overly dogmatic. If we assume naturalism and evolution are true, then it is almost certain that reason is imperfectly matched to the physical world. Whatever reasoning faculties humans and other animals possess have certainly evolved for usability and usefulness—not as a system for unlocking the nature of the world, but as a pragmatic method of modeling the world so we can manipulate it to our benefit.
Since the knowledge systems which did evolve in our species are simulacra, it must be extremely unlikely if not impossible for knowledge so acquired to be “true” in anything beyond a pragmatic sense. If we carefully follow scientific methods, our acquired knowledge can be become quite dependable; but that is the most that can be expected of a faculty which evolved by natural selection. Knowledge did not evolve to reveal the nature of things. It evolved to be useful and reliable, and that is all.
My argument here in a sense is a modification (if not reversal) of Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism. If you analyze his argument carefully, you discover that Plantinga assumes the Principal of Sufficient Reason (PSR) as a necessary given, and he then combines it with evolution in order to falsify naturalism (or at least render naturalism extremely unlikely or inscrutable). But the PSR is a relic of theism. No advocate of naturalism and evolution should ever accept it.
Any biological account of the processes by which the sense organs and brain generate simulacra of the surrounding world should be sufficient to impeach the notion of a principle of sufficient reason. When we consider that such processes gradually evolved over vast stretches of time, I would say that no other conclusion is possible unless one postulates a pre-existing intelligence directing the path of evolution. And that of course is anathema to atheism and naturalism.
Evolution (E) + Naturalism (N) + PSR form an inconsistent trinity. If like Plantinga we insist on combining PSR with E, then we must reject naturalism. E + PSR + S (Supernaturalism) is how I would represent Plantinga’s theistic posture. (For my part, I maintain that PSR is not sustainable in light of modern neuroscience, and that supernaturalism brings well-known problems, but otherwise Plantinga’s worldview is at least coherent.)
Atheists have to take a different tact. We have to embrace E + N + PIR (Principle of Insufficient Reason) if we want a coherent position. PSR won’t do.
The day when atheists could reject God, and simply stop at that, is long gone. If atheists are to root out supernaturalism from their thinking, they will need to embrace not just evolution but naturalism. They must learn to think in terms of a natural worldview, and they will need to reassess intelligence, reason, and knowledge in that context.