Four Varieties of Atheism

FOUR VARIETIES OF ATHEISM

“The god-less thinking which must abandon the god of philosophy, god as causa sui, is thus perhaps closer to the divine God. Here this means only: god-less thinking is more open to Him than onto-theo-logic would like to admit.” – Martin Heidegger

MODERN ATHEISM

In the first place, and probably most common to mainstream Western culture, atheism can result from the standpoint of an apparent “negligible yield of evidence”[i] for God (already here we have already assumed a certain kind of God, and this issue will be taken up below). That is, one decides the classical and/or contemporary arguments for God’s existence to be less than convincing.  For now, it might be fitting to term this particular brand of atheism as “narrow,” but not “narrow” in a derogatory sense – quite the opposite, in fact, atheists would say.  Rather, it implies the disbelief in a specific variety of theism (the Christian, omniscient, omnipotent sort). Examples of classical theistic arguments include the ontological (of which there are many versions, but the most famous is likely that of St. Anselm), cosmological (specifically championed by Thomas Aquinas or in the form of the Kalam argument of the medieval Islamic philosophers embraced recently by the evangelical Christian William Lane Craig), teological (maintains the substantiation for intelligent design or agency behind the universe), and the mystical experience arguments.  Though he interacts with and claims to refute each argument in fair detail, it is sufficient for our purposes to summarize that Richard M. Gale is one atheist who contests these classical theories by amply underscoring a number of their weaknesses, gaps, and even potentially fundamental shortcomings.

Modern atheists are often reacting to theistic philosophers like Richard Swinburne for example who argues from an evidential position for the existence of God, and this typically entails accepting that the burden of proof be placed on the one who would argue for belief in God rather than the reverse.  A counterexample, however, from the theistic perspective, would be someone like Alvin Plantiga who rejects the epistemology of classical foundationalism and contends instead that faith in God need not be bolstered by arguments or empirical verification in order to be deemed reasonable.  In response to the postulations of the above-mentioned theologians, atheist Keith Parsons carefully examines and refutes in defensible fashion the case made by both thinkers.  Giving full credit to their brilliant minds, Parson nonetheless is respectfully “forced to conclude”[ii] that the best support theistic belief has found is unwarranted.  It is as if Parson echoes a complaint made by Richard Dawkins about the Christian theologian Alister McGrath: All theists seem to furnish is “the undeniable but ignominiously weak point that you cannot disprove the existence of God.”[iii] Even if this argument is granted (which for Dawkins it hardly is), it falls well short of inducing faith.

There are of course other legitimate grounds for atheism besides from the foundation of supposedly failed, classical theistic theories.  Some are satisfied with disbelief immediately following the theodicy problem set out by Epicurus.  Additional alternatives might involve atheism deduced from conclusions in the natural sciences (evolution, anthropology) leading to worldviews like physicalism/materialism or naturalism.  Interestingly enough though, some forms of naturalism can remain open to new information that would at least hypothetically permit a kind of gradually acquired supernaturalism; but such rare situations would tend to eventually be conformed to or incorporated into a quasi-enlarged natural landscape.  So while something like a mystical experience might provide prima facia grounds for belief, it would not be rational grounds.[iv] Sociologically speaking, Emil Durkheim typifies well what could be called one expression of naturalism.  Hence, Evan Fales cites Durkheim so as to reason that the “supernatural” can be super insofar as it is a product of “human artifice, not nature.”[v]

Challenging the view that morality requires a religious foundation, David Brink successfully (I think) shows that “voluntarism is subjectivism at the highest level,”[vi] and thus undermines the autonomy of ethics (ironically, Kierkegaard’s comprehension of faith in Christianity might concede to this).[vii] Brink then presents a list of natural, secular, or commonsense morality models like utilitarianism, the aggregate conception of impartiality, and reciprocity or the mutual advantage theory.

The chief shortcoming in my view with any theistic argument tends to be not so much in the method or starting point, however copious the presumptions therein might be, but rather in what tends to be asserted as conceivably attainable by the arguments themselves.  In other words, more headway might be made if less audacious projects were undertaken in what one sets out to prove or demonstrate.  The plausibility of assigning omniscience and omni-benevolence to the Christian God, for instance, is highly disputed even from within the faith tradition itself.

ATHEISTIC RELIGION

An important question to consider with regard to atheism and world religions is whether or not atheism is necessarily an antireligious position.  Michael Martin investigates the matter in an illuminating way.  In order to begin talking about this subject, one must first roughly define the concept of religion.  Whereas traditionally in the West is has been assumed that religion presupposes supernatural beings, a moral code, and distinction between the sacred and the profane, Martin is quick to point out that already this point of view, in this case espoused by William Alston, presumes too much.[viii] Indeed, such parameters as those laid out by Alston do typically constitute the nature of religions like Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism or Islam, but there are a number of exceptions to this paradigm, especially in the East.

In his very helpful little book on Buddhism, Damien Keown seems to agree with Martin and insists in a similar manor on the notion that “the categories of ‘theistic’ and ‘atheistic’ are not really appropriate here.”[ix] Keown continues by asking if it could be that “the idea of a creator-God, while a central feature of one religion – or family of religions – is not the defining characteristic of all religions.”[x] So with Buddhism then, while differing from say Christianity in part because it denies the existence of a supreme, transcendent being, some Buddhists do believe in spirits or gods, which would distinguish Buddhism significantly from an other kinds of atheistic or non-theistic worldviews like Marxism.

Thus, it becomes essential to redefine what characterizes religion altogether.  Relying on the work of Monroe and Elizabeth Beardsley, Martin suggests, in place of the old framework put forth above, that religions in general seek to answer one of five major questions in life: (1) What are human being and the “chief problems they face,” (2) “What are the characteristics of non-human reality that are of greatest significance for human life,” (3) Given these things, how should human live, (4) “Given the answers to the first three questions, what practices will best develop and sustain in humanity an understanding” of these things, and (5) “what method should be used” in seeking answers to all of these questions?[xi] Ninian Smart has argued for something similar in his book The World’s Religions, only he describes seven different dimensions of religion, but the outcome corresponds closely with what is outlined by Martin.[xii]

Martin explains how this new structure expands the horizon of religion to include a much wider range of religious traditions comprised of Eastern faiths like Jainism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, but it would also contain Taoism, Shintoism and various Hindu traditions that are not explicitly discussed in his article.  Therefore, some of these religions referred to above are indeed atheistic in the “narrow” sense, but this does not make them utterly atheistic.  It follows then that atheism, while probably renouncing most theological content within the various world religions, does not require the refusal of certain moral or aesthetic qualities and components within these great traditions.  In sum, what Martin means to illustrate is that “atheism and religion do not necessarily stand in [total] opposition to one another.”[xiii]

“CHRISTIAN” ATHEISM

Thomas Altizer, in perhaps the most original form ever constructed from without of the Christian tradition, authors and calls for an atheism that is genuinely unlike any other. Drawing heavily upon Paul, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, and Barth, all of whom are shockingly and paradoxically allied with Altizer somehow, it is finally Nietzsche, Blake and Hegel who open the way for Altizer’s imaginative and inimitable scheme.

In Altizer’s consideration, God became a universal Godhead by the sacrifice that made God human and absolutely emptied.[xiv] Indeed, this was God’s self-annihilation and death invoking the age of the immanence of the absolute Spirit in history (Hegel).  And yet, Christianity nonetheless was born and lived on for centuries proclaiming that which for Nietzsche is the real nihilism[xv] – the founding of a religion based on the absolutely eternal, static, and changeless, heavenly realm, and such an affirmation of the endless “robbed life of its fragile, fleeting beauty.”[xvi] For Altizer, Nietzsche is also the most profound thinker of the weight of the forgiveness of sin because he purely explores our deepest darkness.[xvii] Therefore, Altizer’s Jesus is experienced in eternal recurrence, continually enacting a total forgiveness.

Altizer blames Constantine for introducing the hypostatic union into the Church at the Nicene Council and thereby empowering a hierarchical and imperial institution.[xviii] This Christianity does not speak to the modern world, and all otherworldly, Platonic notions of religion must be rejected.  Altizer’s gospel is an apocalyptic, dialectical theology of how in the present age we might live toward a totally new humanity without praising the ascended or kingly Jesus.  Affirming the enthroned Christ is in fact what causes Jesus to be most deeply forgotten.[xix] In place of the unprecedented turn to the past that exemplifies today’s fundamentalist theology, Altizer solicits an absolute future that is the reversal of all things past – a “negation of the negation,” like the prophetic period of Israel after the Babylonian destruction of Judah.[xx]

ATHEISM, A/THEOLOGY AND THE POSTMODERN CONDITION

Not to his discredit, Bonhoeffer incorrectly predicted that the “world come of age” had no apparent need for God, which led to his account of “Religionless Christianity.”[xxi] Many others later extended this forecast with him.  Mark C. Taylor on the other hand exclaims boldly that, “you cannot understand the world today if you do not understand religion.”[xxii] He thereafter goes on to declare that religion and secularity are not enemies and alternatively proposes that secularity itself is a religious phenomenon.  Consequently, the two are always misinterpreting one another.  Furthermore, Taylor makes the controversial statement that the modern, supposedly secular world can locate its origin in Protestantism, or more particularly, in Luther – a Luther who gave birth to privatization, deregulation, decentering, and the reign of the human subject.

Just as atheists before him have expanded, or even blurred the boundary lines that encompass or divide theism and atheism, the key to Taylor’s analysis is a drastic augmentation of what delimits religion on the whole.  In this regard he follows Paul Tillich’s definition of faith or religion to some degree, as merely that which is the focus of our “ultimate concern.”[xxiii] This permits him to proclaim for instance that the counterculture of the sixties was a very religious movement and that so-called secularism is rooted in the same kind of dogma, resulting from the constant oscillation or “altaration” between structure and emergence, order and ambiguity, and location and dislocation.[xxiv]

Taylor is not alone in taking this course.  In his book On Religion, John Caputo does not “confine religion to something confessional or sectarian, like being a Muslim or a Hindu, a Catholic or Protestant.”[xxv] Going even further, for Taylor this means that religion in all its common appearances as an “emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals” not only serves to add meaning and significance to life, but it also functions to destabilize and disturb structures.[xxvi] Correspondingly, Taylor collapses the sacred into the secular and visa versa, and he endeavors to do this descriptively rather than prescriptively.  Whether or not he succeeds is maybe debatable.  To make the claim though, he needs only to draw attention to history, especially that of politics, culture, and religion in the United States for the last two centuries wherein the vacillation between immanence and transcendence has perpetuated (e.g., the liberal theology after Ritschl and Schleiermacher or the American religious right).

Taylor notices how people increasingly gravitate toward firm foundations promising security and certainty in a world gone mad.  From his perspective, however, uncertainty and instability foster the territory from which creative emergence can arise “at the edge of chaos in a surprising moment of creative disruption that can be endlessly productive.”[xxvii] Thus Taylor advocates risking a faith that embraces the unknown by re-appropriating (and yet moving beyond) the absolutely paradoxical faith of Luther, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and finally Barth before him – though each in their own unique and restructured way.  He departs from Altizer’s last modern grasp for a structure of pure immanence, as it too, not unlike Barth’s absolute transcendence, remains totalized and therefore excessively stable, however radical.  Taylor accuses Altizer of serving up yet another “metaphysics of presence.”[xxviii]

Taylor subverts the oppositional logic of religiosity, which is differentiated from religion, such that neither the either/or dualism of neo-orthodoxy in Barth nor the both/and immanent monism of Altizer (Nietzsche and a version of Hegel) are sufficient to comprehend the complexities of emerging network culture.  Any faith as absolute or foundational is unsuitable, and only a new, ever-unfinished, creative “schemata” will do.  In short, modern atheists don’t go far enough.  Belief is not managed but adapted.  Better, it is adaptive, and in this manor discovers mystery but never possesses it.  One must come to “the end of the end to be ‘right,’” to be certain she holds the whole truth.[xxix] That’s why Caputo can decree the age of “incredulity toward grand narratives” (Lyotard) to be “not a particularly friendly environment” for any metaphysical, fixed, or decisive affirmations or rejections of God.[xxx] Such a worldview allows someone like Derrida to state that he can’t ever really know if he’s an atheist or not.[xxxi] But something about Taylor’s a/theology is nevertheless incongruent with deconstruction.  He recognizes well the common criticism of deconstruction as a framework that tends to paralyze us in the face of the world’s problems.  So in its place, rather than the undeconstructable ideal of justice, Taylor posits a cooperative, vitalizing environmental ethic for a tenuous, volatile world.[xxxii]

Because, however, the great religions tend to name their God or gods in particular ways and trust authorized revelation in some measure thereof, it remains to be seen how one could integrate these traditions into the postmodern matrix without doing them serious harm.  I wonder uncertainly, for example, how much residue of absolutism from modernity might be sneaking in the backdoor as it were of the postmodern critique with respect to the rules governing truth claims.  It is at least safe to conclude that a thread of separation lies between hope and despair After God, solidifying Wittgenstein’s analogy that “an honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker.”[xxxiii] If what Taylor describes is really an a/theology, it must also be ir/religious, un/known, and a/theistic.  Even the God-denier cannot avoid hermeneutics concerning the God she denies.


[i] Michael Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 103.

[ii] Ibid., 117.

[iii] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 54.

[iv] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 129.

[v] Ibid., 132.

[vi] Ibid., 154.

[vii] See Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (CreateSpace, 2010).

[viii] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 13.

[ix] Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, USA, 2000).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 219.

[xii] Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[xiii] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 230.

[xiv] Thomas J. J. Altizer, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism (The Davies Group, Publishers, 2002), 51.

[xv] Ibid., 31.

[xvi] Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief (Paraclete Press (MA), 2008), 97.

[xvii] Altizer, The New Gospel of Christian Atheism, 120.

[xviii] Ibid., 80.

[xix] Ibid., 44.

[xx] Steven G. Smith, “The new gospel of Christian atheism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73, no. 3 (S  2005 2005): 892.

[xxi] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Updated. (Touchstone, 1997).

[xxii] Mark C. Taylor, After God (University of Chicago Press, 2007), xiii.

[xxiii] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, No Edition Stated. (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 63.

[xxiv] Mark C. Taylor, “Refiguring religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 1 (March 1, 2009): 110.

[xxv] John Caputo, On Religion (Routledge, 2001), 9.

[xxvi] Mark C. Taylor, After God, 1st ed. (University Of Chicago Press, 2007), 12.

[xxvii] Taylor, After God, xviii.

[xxviii] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 277.

[xxix] Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy (Baker Academic, 2008), 193.

[xxx] Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 267.

[xxxi] Ibid., 274.

[xxxii] Ibid., 376.

[xxxiii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, New edition. (University Of Chicago Press, 1984), 73.

4 thoughts on “Four Varieties of Atheism

  1. Adam

    I would disagree with your comment on Bonhoeffer: “Not to his discredit, Bonhoeffer incorrectly predicted that the “world come of age” had no apparent need for God in his account of “Religionless Christianity.””

    I think we do live in an increasingly religion-less world – a world less and less in need of God. At least in US/Europe. Yes, religion is increasing in various places around the world, but I think i is hard to show that it is not in decline in the US/Europe. Would you disagree?

    As you know, I’m a big fan of Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity.

    Have you read Zizek? I read a lot of Zizek this past summer for an independent study with Olson.

  2. billwalker Post author

    That’s a good point. A better way to say it might have been, “according to Mark Taylor, Bonhoeffer incorrectly predicted . . . ” The purpose there was not so much to make my own claims about whether or not we live in a religious or irreligious age, but rather to highlight and respond to Taylor a little bit. If you accept Taylor’s redefining of religion, then it’s pretty difficult to disagree with him. The thing is, if we redefine terms, we can say anything we want. In the way that Bonhoeffer probably understood religion, I think you are exactly right.

    We are reading Zizek’s Fragile Absolute in two weeks for Clayton’s class which I’m excited about. I’ll be sure and post something about it. My suspicion though is that I will like his politics more than his theology. Thanks for the comment!

  3. billwalker Post author

    One more thing I thought of that might interest you – it seems Mark Taylor defines religion today kind of like Barry Taylor does, which, as you say, doesn’t necessarily imply that people still want the classically theistic, omni-everything God. Mark Taylor spends two whole chapters almost though in his book “After God” on the new Religious Right, which he does consider religion, but in a very negative way, clinging to simplistic foundations for security and embodying the anthithesis of his project – his project being to promote global life and cooperative healing in a complex, adaptive world of creative emergence.

  4. Adam

    I haven’t read Taylor but i want to.

    I have mixed feelings about Zizek. If I only read The Fragile Absolute, I probably wouldn’t have liked him much at all. His writing style is bizarre.

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