Atheism is not enough

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.

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10 Responses to Atheism is not enough

  1. A Whore in the Temple of Reason says:

    Can you provide an example of an atheist who “worships” reason? Reason is a tool, like science. It may be the best tool we have but it’s hardly something outside ourselves and I can’t imagine anyone thinking it was.

  2. Dwight says:

    No atheist would admit that they “worship” reason—I was being heavy-handed. My criticism is of rationalist atheists who (in contrast to empiricist atheists) believe the universe is inherently rational in its nature. A rationalist atheist might argue, for example, that logic and mathematics are universal (i.e. indigenous to physical reality) and not something that has a biological source.

    The thrust of this piece was to begin to make the case against rationalist atheism and in favor of empiricist atheism.

  3. Lord Griggs says:

    Lamberth’s inherency argument is that not only are order,chaos,regularity and the descriptions-laws- of Nature inherent to the Cosmos, God would be dependent on them that He’d be a secondary cause.This is biological . Natural causes and explanations are themselves the sufficient reason.
    Aquinas’ superfluity argument argues that one should not add God to any explanation as that adds nothing; thus, with his silly five failed ways Aquinas’ argument boomerangs on him!
    Please, revise my argument so as to be consistent.

  4. Nat says:

    “…atheism requires a natural worldview in order to be consistent, and the reason is simple.”

    That’s how I see it, and fail to understand how it could Not be viewed completely naturalistic. And that is the reason I don’t believe in this worldview at all; intelligence, reason, knowledge, (some things you mentioned), and to mention a few more, love, (which depends on) freewill/choice, meaning. It’s hard (to say the least) to live without these. It’s all ‘immaterial’ I think, pointing to more than a evolutionary/naturalistic universe.

  5. Shakil says:

    Brilliant set of articles. Mind = blown

    I really learned a lot of philosophical concept from your articles. Kudos for your efforts.

    Wished I found your site 10 years back when I was a stupid young Muslim

  6. Dwight says:

    Shakil, I’m delighted that you liked what I wrote. And I appreciate your taking the time to say so. Thank y0u!

    Nat, I would argue that knowledge, love, and meaning are all complex experiences which are in turn composed of sensations. I would argue that the scientific evidence shows that sensations are created by neurons in the brain. For that reason I think of sensations as physical, in the sense that they are products of our bodies and require embodiment to exist. And they feel physical to me. Fortunately for us we are bodies, and our bodies provide us with these wonderful sensations which make living valuable.

    Lord Griggs, I’m not sure I follow your point when you write, “Natural causes and explanations are themselves the sufficient reason.” Are you embracing the principle of sufficient reason? Please explain.

  7. Whenever I’ve written about atheism much of the response (as with the writings of popular atheists like Dawkins, Harris and the like) can be characterized (as David B Hart aptly noted) by “historical illiteracy, theatrical indignation, and subfusc moralizing.”

    I really must agree with Hart that, “The entire tribe of the new atheists is a disappointment. A reflective and brilliant atheist is a man much to be admired, if he truly demonstrated an understanding of what it is he is rejecting; and an atheist genuinely willing to accept the full implications of his convictions (Nietzche being a nonpareil example) should not be reviled for those convictions. But it seems obvious that among the innumerable evidences of late modern culture’s lack of spiritual depths one must include its manifest impotence to produce profound atheists. Instead the best it seems we can hope for today are dreary purveyors of historical illiteracy, theatrical indignation, subfusc moralizing, and the sort of illogical confusions that Richard Dawkins has brought to a level of almost transcendent perfection” (xii, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments, David Bentley Hart).

    Atheism seems like a kind of mental exercise in wish-fulfillment? Atheists would like us to believe that there is simply too much evidence against God. But with little thoughtful debate, they just mock God with silly comparisons to Santa Clause and Easter Bunnies. Lacking an ability to offer substantive responses, they so often resort to demeaning labels and name calling (just read Dawkins). Or, by engaging in a philosophical abuse of evolutionary science, they postulate things they could only know by faith.

    Frankly, we need more honest atheists like Thomas Nagel who confessed that he hoped there is no God (see:

  8. Steve, thanks for introducing me to the term “subfusc,” though I doubt I will use it much in conversation.
    Atheism as wish fulfillment? It seems to me that theists wish that were true of atheists, it would fit their preconceptions better. It is true that I am happy there is no god, at least as conceived of by most Christians.
    I could be described as a “hard” atheist, as I think the biblical presentation of God is internally inconsistent. That god cannot exist. I am a natural humanist, but I am open to new evidence. I don’t believe in anything supernatural because I haven’t encountered any evidence to support that.
    There are indeed atheists who accept some kind of supernatural processes. I think they just haven’t thought it all through yet.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure if I’m following. Are you really saying that the law of non-contradiction would not be true if humans did not exist? What about the laws of quantum mechanics? Are you an anti-realist/social constructivist with regards to scientific laws and theories?

  10. Dwight says:

    Anonymous, I embrace realism. I am not a “social constructivist with regards to scientific laws and theories” – rather I am arguing on the basis of neurological constructivism, which is something quite different.

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