Saturday, January 2, 2016

Deconstructing Atheism

Though probably too much has been written on atheism and its various strains, I will nevertheless contribute to the fray, as a result of some recent concerns and insights I have had on the topic. Though I have long been a committed atheist, I have never been completely satisfied with the standard depictions of what that means. I am also concerned not to overreach in my own beliefs, as I described in detail in Doxastic Promiscuity Considered Harmful.

In the following I make numerous claims about rationality and what qualifies as rational. Arguing those claims is well outside the scope of this article, but in any case I do not think any of the claims is outrageous, even if debatable.

The usual organization of atheism divides the field with two oppositions: implicit vs. explicit, and weak vs. strong. An implicit atheist merely has not thought, or thought much, about the subject, while an explicit atheist has made a conscious decision. A weak atheist does not hold a belief in a deity, whereas a strong atheist denies the existence of deities. This results in three actual categories (implicit weak, explicit weak, explicit strong) since it makes no sense to hold strong atheism implicitly. Somewhere in all this are agnostics, which I will not address here because agnosticism is really about knowledge claims rather than belief.

These descriptions of atheism have numerous difficulties on their face, and consequently it is common for theists to debate the logical consistency of these positions using this casual presentation as a straw man. So, let us attempt to improve on it. Here is an informal statement of the two forms of explicit atheism:

Weak: I do not believe that God exists.
Strong: I deny that God exists; or, I believe that God does not exist.
In the event you are unclear on the distinction here, the weak atheist has some set of beliefs, but the belief in God is not among them. He is mostly epistemically passive with respect to the beliefs of others. The strong atheist, in contrast says that a belief in God is incorrect, and not only does he not include it among his beliefs, but would also say that you are wrong if you do so.

There are three obvious difficulties here:

  • What do we mean by “exists”?
  • As to the Strong claim, is a statement of non-existence logically coherent?
  • What do we mean by “God”?
As to what we mean by existence, we need to assume agreement on some sort of ontic postulate, i.e., that there is a world of real things that exists independently of our consciousness and of which our own existence is a part. The primary alternative to this is radical phenomenology, a vaguely Berkelian universe of phenomena presented by God, roughly akin to The Matrix but without even the bodies. It can be argued that an ontic postulate is a metaphysical article of faith, but since virtually all theists and atheists alike accept some version of this, we will proceed in that context. With an ontic postulate, the notion of existence is largely our common sense view of it - something that is part of that external world.

Even with this clarification, the logical coherence of existential statements about particulars is suspect. We do not need to get involved in that debate, as these statements are straightforward to repair using the notion of reference. Reference just means that there is an actual thing in the world to which a concept or name refers beyond its representation in someone’s mind. Not surprisingly there is also debate about reference of proper names, but here we can rely on the weakest form of reference, that there is something in the world that at least epistemically justifies the use of the term. Using the language of reference, we can restate the two explicit forms of atheism as follows:

Weak: I do not believe that “God” refers.
Strong: I deny that “God” refers; or I believe that “God” does not refer.
As to what we mean by “God,” we can agree with theists that a variety of concepts of God or gods are held or have been described by different believers now and through history. Further, these concepts often contain certain attributes that are shared among many or most of these concepts (e.g., immortality). Capitalized it is a proper name, implying monotheism, but it is nevertheless defined by a set of conceptual attributes, some of which a believer may claim to have experienced but others not. We could also consider a broader class of concepts that have never yet been expressed but that are somehow of a kind. We will need to look at all this more closely.

We now introduce further terminology, a distinction between de dicto and de re statements. Suppose we take the statement:

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
This can be interpreted in two different ways. It might mean that one believes there is a particular, known thing in Denmark that is rotten (de re); or it might mean that one believes that there is some unidentified but apparently rotten thing in Denmark (de dicto).

Using this distinction, we can further adjust our statements to clarify which meaning we intend:

Weak de re: I do not believe that that particular concept of God refers.
Weak de dicto: I do not believe that any concept of God refers.
Strong de re: I deny that that particular concept of God refers.
Strong de dicto: I deny that any concept of God refers.
Note that nearly everyone is at least a weak de re atheist about some concepts of God; for example, a Christian does not (usually) believe that Zeus exists. And weak de re atheism is clearly within the bounds of rationality, as we can simply claim that we do not find convincing the level of evidence in favor of a particular concept of God. But what about strong de re atheism?

Demonstrating that a concept or name does not refer is of a different order than demonstrating that it does. In the latter case, we simply show that the various attributes match actual evidence. This sort of demonstration is subject to all sorts of justificatory disputes, but at least we are dealing with substance. In the former case, it seems as though we must claim that there cannot be a thing to which it refers, or that we have looked everywhere. Nevertheless, rationality cannot require that our standard of belief is apodeictic knowledge - otherwise we can only believe logic, and perhaps not even that.

Further, we generally consider it within the bounds of rationality to deny the reference of fictional characters. Thus we can say that neither unicorns (which are a good example, because they present no logical difficulties) nor Mickey Mouse refer (except to those fictional characters in stories and screen), because we know (at some level) the provenance of their authorship.

There may be additional rational bases on which to deny reference, but I am not aware of them.

Given the ethereal nature of most concepts of God, there is probably not a rational notion of having looked everywhere pertinent in an attempt to find something to which the concept refers. Therefore the strong de re atheist must rely on one or both of the following claims in order to conform to some standard of rationality:

  1. The applicable concept of God cannot refer, most likely because it contains an inherent contradiction. Recalling that our standard of belief is less than apodeictic knowledge, along with accepting an ontic postulate, it is rational to insist that a proposed entity not imply a contradiction.
  2. The applicable concept of God is fictional, i.e., it was authored by individuals who either fabricated the concept in its entirety (e.g., the “flying spaghetti monster”) or who one believes grossly misinterpreted the evidence available to them.
A special case applies when the attributes of a particular concept of God is entirely metaphysical, i.e., it has no nexus with the known world, and nothing at all about it is verifiable or refers in any way to any known element of reality. In this case, one might be able to make a fiction argument, but the impossibility of referral is not available because the concept does not make reference to anything that could be contradicted.

Having examined de re atheism in both strong and weak forms, we can proceed to de dicto. We see immediately that the nature of this question depends on the set of concepts of God over which the claim would apply, what we might call the range. In the easiest case, the range is merely a finite, defined collection of de re claims (e.g., “I do not believe that any of the concepts of God with which I am familiar refers.”) For this narrow range, weak de dicto atheism seems safely rational, since we are in essence listing a set of potential beliefs that we do not hold. Strong de dicto atheism is more challenging, for we need to have some level of justification for either (1) or (2) in each case, but there is no fundamental impediment to such justification. Such a range, whether it is circumscribed by familiarity or by historical access, represents a simple aggregate of claims which can in the worst case be addressed individually.

We might also consider a broader, non-finite range based on attributes. For example, suppose that we include in the range any concept of God that ascribes omnipotence. We would then say:

Weak: I do not believe that any concept of God that ascribes omnipotence refers.
Strong: I deny that any concept of God that ascribes omnipotence refers.
The weak de dicto atheist here simply does not believe in omnipotence. The strong de dicto atheist must make the claim that omnipotence itself is self-contradictory. When our range is based on attributes and therefore includes not-yet-created notions of God, we cannot claim that all those notions are specifically fictional; and to claim that they are necessarily fictional is to assume the self-contradiction. Consequently argument (2) is not available.

Caution is advisable if the attribute is entirely metaphysical. Above we noted that argument (1) is not available to us in these cases de re, but argument (2) is not available in ranges of concepts described by an attribute. Consequently, while weak atheism remains safely rational, a claim of strong de dicto atheism on a range based on a metaphysical attribute risks making unjustifiable assertions.

The range can be expanded further to include disjunctions and conjunctions of attributes, with the weak de dicto atheist not believing in entities with those combinations of attributes, and the strong de dicto atheist believing that those combinations of attributes are contradictory. We could perform a union of this range with all known historical concepts of God to establish a comprehensive notion of what we mean by God, with both weak and strong versions as potentially rational.

There may be other ways to expand the range. The broadest range at first seems to be all possible concepts of God. But without any attributes, this is not a meaningful notion, and God could be anything. What if by “God” one means “cats”? We would not want to claim that “cats” does not refer. Neither weak nor strong atheism will do here: there is no rational claim of this sort to make. As the foregoing discussion has illustrated, when taking an atheist position we must circumscribe the range, and if we are to take a strong de dicto position, we must make a set of arguments applicable to either attributes or particular concepts.

I’m sure the reader is wondering where the author comes out on all this. In general I hold weak atheism with respect to any of the concepts of God with which I am familiar, or that have the typical “omni-” attributes. In particular cases of note, I am willing to step up to a position of strong de re atheism. For example, I would deny that the various Christian concepts of God refer, based on both fiction and contradiction arguments. However, I am not willing to put forth the effort to pursue strong atheism against a broader range. Actively denying the reference of a concept assumes an argument with someone who holds or might hold it; belief in God is invariably based on faith, thus such a person’s beliefs will be impervious to my rational claims. I see it then as a waste of time, and rationality requires that we ration our time.


  1. The idea that the word god does not refer to a thing seems sound. I suspect that most atheists could agree with that. God would also seem to fall into that category of fiction. Most religions have 'holy scripts' written by or on behalf of their god. It seems acceptable to call the notions of god put about today as fictional, so god is in one sense a fictional character, created by those who wrote the texts. For some reason, people are not ashamed to lie to propagate what they see as the truth. We have a choice of what lies behind the scripts, self-delusion or self-serving lies. A third possibility is that the writers were recording the words of people they trusted, and so thought they were recording true events.

  2. Issues of testimony are a solid tack in questioning the provenance of various god-stories. If the range of gods is narrowed to existing religions, it is a much easier problem: we know some of the history and have plenty of concrete contradictions on which we can base judgment.


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