Atheism and the nature of existence

One result of my recent reading of St Thomas Aquinas has been changing my perspective on the atheism vs theism debate.

This debate is usually expressed, by those on both sides, as a debate as to whether God exists. So to move (as I have done in my life) from believing in God to being an atheist to believing in God again is to start by thinking that some entity called “God” exists, then to think that no such entity exists, and then to go back to thinking that an entity called “God” does exist.

However, Thomas argues that we cannot talk about God “existing” in the same way that created things exist. God is existence. Similarly, God is goodness (not just “good”), and he is love, and so on.

In other words, the debate between atheism and theism is not a debate about whether God exists – a debate that can, and does, swirl around fruitlessly for as long as the participants can summon up the will. Rather, it is a debate about the nature of existence.

As the Canadian philosopher George Grant put it:

What is given us in the word ‘God’ is that goodness and purpose are the source and completion of all that is.

In other words, faith in God, as Christians understand him, is a claim that existence is fundamentally personal; that goodness (a word which here encompasses truth, beauty, love and all the rest) and purpose are hardwired into reality at its most fundamental level, in the sense of being both its “source” and “completion”.

Atheism, by contrast, is a claim that, at root, existence is fundamentally impersonal. It’s not that atheists deny the reality of “goodness and purpose” (though some do), but to be an atheist is to deny that goodness and purpose “are the source and completion of all that is”. Rather, they are something that we as human beings create for ourselves, a shaking of the fist at a cold and indifferent universe – an image not without its attractions, but a very different conception of reality from the one that “is given us in the word ‘God’.”

This also suggests that the difference between atheism and belief in God is ultimately a matter of competing aesthetics rather than logic.

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20 thoughts on “Atheism and the nature of existence”

  1. The way I see this is that if a person believes in God and takes this approach, seeing God in the universe and therefore believing it to be good and just, they are Christian.

    If a person believes the universe is good and just at its core, then see god in it, that is much more likely to lead to spirituality or paganism. Or my own particular brand of wishy-washy agnosticism. 😉

    It’s all very interesting.

    1. Thanks – yes, I hadn’t really been thinking of the pagan/pantheist option when writing this. I think the distinction between theism and pantheism lies in saying that God, while the personal source and goal of the universe, must still be distinct from it, because of the existence within the universe of things that are not good and not just.

  2. “Atheism, by contrast, is a claim that, at root, existence is fundamentally impersonal.”

    Atheism isn’t a claim. It’s a response to a claim.

    Atheists, as people, can make claims about the universe, and that’s what you seem to be addressing. But I just want to be clear.

    “This also suggests that the difference between atheism and belief in God is ultimately a matter of competing aesthetics rather than logic.”

    Not really. At least not from the atheist side. (Or this one, as I can only speak for myself.) I follow the evidence. Whether or not the truth is aesthetically pleasing doesn’t matter to me.

    1. The evidence for there not being a god being…?

      Atheism isn’t a claim. It’s a response to a claim.

      Oh, please. Can we stop playing this game? The “we’re not claiming anything, we’re just saying we don’t accept the claims of others” game? That’s like me forming an “anti-Tory club” and then saying “Oh, I’m completely apolitical, make no political claims at all. I just reject the Tories.”

      Just because the name “a-theism” is a negation doesn’t mean that atheism as a system, or atheists as individuals, don’t make philosophical claims about the nature of reality. To say “reality is fundamentally impersonal” or “goodness is the act and creation of humans” is to make as positive a claim about reality as to say “reality is fundamentally personal” or “goodness has an existence that is prior to and separate from humans”.

      1. “The evidence for there not being a god being…?”

        The lack of evidence for there being a god.

        “Oh, please. Can we stop playing this game?”

        It’s not a game. I understand you don’t like having the burden of proof, but you have it.

        Your position is that a god of some kind exists. I don’t believe you. “I don’t believe you” is not a claim. It’s the rejection of a claim.

        “Just because the name “a-theism” is a negation doesn’t mean that atheism as a system, or atheists as individuals, don’t make philosophical claims about the nature of reality.”

        First of all, atheism isn’t a system.

        However, you’re right, atheists as individuals do, on occasion, make claims about the nature of reality. Those claims are not ‘atheism’.

        That being said, I view philosophy as mostly useless, so I strive not to make any philosophical claims at all.

        If I make a claim, it’s because it’s backed up by empirical evidence.

        “is to make as positive a claim about reality”

        Yes it is.

        But to call that claim ‘atheism’ is to seriously misunderstand the use and definitions of words.

      2. “The evidence for there not being a god being…?”

        The lack of evidence for there being a god.

        This must be that “logic” of which you speak.

        Sorry to be snarky, but when I was an atheist I was at least aware that I was espousing a philosophy – one with a long and esteemed history. It makes me wonder if the problem I have with the “New Atheism” is that its proponents think they are merely stating truisms rather than doing philosophy.

        Incidentally, what’s your evidence to support the claim that everything we need to know about reality can be established from evidence?

  3. “This must be that “logic” of which you speak.”

    If you say so. It makes sense to me.

    What is your evidence for Bigfoot not existing? It’s the lack of evidence FOR Bigfoot existing. You can’t have evidence for something not existing. It doesn’t work that way.

    “is that its proponents think they are merely stating truisms rather than doing philosophy. ”

    I’d rather deal with facts and evidence than philosophy. Get a bunch of old men in a room talking philosophy, and they can ‘prove’ anything. Too bad none of it has to be backed up with little things like evidence.

    “Incidentally, what’s your evidence to support the claim that everything we need to know about reality can be established from evidence?”

    I don’t believe I made that claim.

    It seems, however, that everything we know with any certainty has come from looking at the evidence. If you have a better method, present it and let’s see how it does when matched up with reality.

    1. NAS, the point is that you espouse a negative belief, for which you have no absolute proof either. The mid-way, what used to be called agnosticism, till your side messed up the defintions, would be the logical option you would actually wish to defend, if you really thought about it. John is absolutely right – you are doing philosophy, but in refusing to admit/see it, you come of rather badly.

  4. Hello.

    I’m an atheist (although one that is quite happy to debate what a God would be like, were a God to exist, rather than merely reject the whole concept out of hand), & it has recently occurred to me that part of the ‘problem’ in communication between theists/atheists is that the latter see faith as a higher order of opinion: ‘I think God exists, because of a, b & c’ whereas for theists it isn’t an opinion it’s something else entirely-the phrase ‘a revealed truth’ springs to mind.

    This, sadly, leads to the claim/counter-claim problem as exemplified above. To acknowledge a category difference seems a far more fruitful approach to me. Atheism may not be a ‘system’ as such, but then, neither is religion: It is still perfectly possible (I’d imagine) to discover & develop a relationship with God, just as science has uncovered truths about the world.

    As for the point about the evidence for there being no God/ lack of evidence that God exists issue, may I refer you ‘The Black Swan’ by Nicholas Nassem Taleb: Black Swans were empirically incapable of existence until they were discovered. Just because we (atheists) have no evidence that God exists now, does not mean such evidence will not present itself tomorrow. I think it’s only reasonable to concede this point.

    In addition to which, I don’t know any theist who would say their faith was the sole prism through which they view the world, although it may well be the most significant, nor would I say my atheism performs that function for me; class, politics, etc all inform my worldview.

    1. Hi Anna, thanks for this.

      I think you are right that the main problem in the theist vs atheist conversation is that the two sides are often participating in different conversations. And I also agree that part of this is that many atheists regard “I believe that God exists” as essentially the same sort of statement as “I believe that elephants exist”. Whereas I’d say it’s more akin (though far from identical) to a statement like “I believe that this sunset is beautiful” or “I believe that sharing things with those in need is good”. To demand evidence in support of those statements is to miss the point of them, but equally so is to dismiss them as nothing more than subjective opinions. They are ways of looking at the world, rather than something we deduce from evidence.

      Which is what I was trying to get at in my post. The usual tendency is for Christians (and other theists) to say “there is such an entity as God, and that entity is good, loving, truthful, just and so on”. Atheists then turn round and say “Where’s your evidence?”, or point to supposed logical flaws of the “if he’s good, he’s not God, and vice versa” variety.

      Whereas the approach which Thomas points us towards is to say: well, we all agree that goodness, love, truth, justice and so on exist. The question is what we can say about them: are they ultimately just something that human beings have developed for some evolutionary advantage, or are human goodness, love, truth and justice derived from something more fundamental to reality – something that preceded the arrival of humans on the scene, and will still have meaning and existence after we’ve wiped ourselves out? And if they are derived from a deeper reality, does it make sense to talk about that deeper reality in “personal” or “impersonal” terms? And so on. In that sense, I’d almost rather have that conversation without using the word “God” at all – as it tends to shortcircuit the discussion on both sides and throw us back on the “what’s the evidence for saying that elephants exist?” conversation…

  5. @NotAScientist – The question of Bigfoot’s existence is of little or no consequence to the observer and has absolutely no bearing on whether ultimate reality is personal or impersonal. Equating God’s existence with the existence of some trivial item within the created order makes me wonder if you understand the theist/atheist debate at all.

    John helpfully frames the discussion as the choice between an ultimate reality that is personal and an ultimate reality that is impersonal.

    In the light of this:

    A) It is not at all obvious that the theist has the burden of proof in such a discussion (and I wonder how you’d try to establish that without any dreaded philosophy)

    B) “Everything we know with certainty” in the *personal* realm is not at all best attained through the scientific method. My marriage wouldn’t survive long if I relentlessly tried to falsify my wife’s hypotheses 😉

    We both live our lives as though personal reality is ultimate. Christians say that such personal reality goes “all the way down”.

  6. I think we are getting far flung from the original post, which is probably inevitable when we begin to talk about God’s existence.

    My interest is in John’s claim that his reading of Aquinas has led him to framing the debate over God’s existence as the personal/impersonal universe distinction. I would suggest that you have actually picked this up from Grant and not Aquinas. Though it is true that Aquinas famously equates God’s essence with existence (or, conversely, his existence with his essence), I’m not sure he would have difficulty in speaking about a being with the attributes that God has as existing or not existing (in fact, he spends some time in the beginning of his Summa trying to demonstrate that God does exist – he is a foundationalist after all). It’s just that if God exists, his existence is necessary – it isn’t (or couldn’t be) derived from anything else – which means that it must be of his essence to exist.

    While Grant’s distinction is interesting, I wonder if it is helpful in terms of the debate. I think the personal/impersonal distinction is true of the opposing views, but it is not the sum (or essence) of them, for you say more than just that existence is fundamentally personal when you say that God exists don’t you? And the atheist says more than just the opposite of that (and certainly more than NotAScientist would care to admit).

    1. Thanks for this. If I’ve misread Thomas, I’m happy to stand corrected. However, my point about God not being a “being”, but being itself, came not from George Grant but from at the very least a combination of reading Thomas and commentators on Thomas: in particular Timothy McDermott, Fergus Kerr, William Carroll and Ralph McInerny. The quote from Grant then provided the spark that enabled me to complete a previously orphaned draft post!

      And yes, I’d want to say more about God than just “ultimate reality is personal” – like Thomas, I take it as read that the Personality behind ultimate reality is the same as the God revealed in Jesus Christ and confessed by his church. But that’s a slightly different question.

  7. I think it’s fair to say that Thomas would describe God as being-itself or ground-of-being (to borrow Tillich’s phraseology), but not that that description somehow implies that he couldn’t fail to exist. That view has more to do with Anselm’s conception of God in his ontological argument (and more recently, Plantinga’s renewal of the argument and conception of God as maximally great being and all the modal implications that go along with that). Though Thomas was obviously aware of Anselm’s conception, he did not conceive of framing the question of God’s existence in this way – in fact, he thought the argument was a failure – which is why he is so diligent in laying the groundwork for God’s existence in the beginning of the Summa (and elsewhere). In short, he believed that God’s existence was necessary, but not that his being was. So, to say that God is being-itself is not to say that he is a necessary being (this web page may be helpful in sorting out definitions: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/god-necessary-being/#Bib).

    So when you say things like, “the debate between atheism and theism is not a debate about whether God exists – a debate that can, and does, swirl around fruitlessly for as long as the participants can summon up the will. Rather, it is a debate about the nature of existence.” Or that “faith in God, as Christians understand him, is a claim that existence is fundamentally personal.” Or that “the difference between atheism and belief in God is ultimately a matter of competing aesthetics rather than logic,” (I must admit, I find this last statement perplexing in itself unless by “logic” you mean “reasons”), I guess I’m saying that if Aquinas has influenced these thoughts, it is through a peculiar reading of Aquinas.

  8. “This also suggests that the difference between atheism and belief in God is ultimately a matter of competing aesthetics rather than logic.” From personal experience, I believe that there is a some truth to this statement.

  9. How did you come to discover GPG?! I’m from Vancouver, Canada. Just finished a PhD on George Grant and Simone Weil via Bangor University in Wales (just need to do the viva).

    Anyway, Frank Schaeffer recently said, ‘Physicists now say that energy precedes matter. We might call that energy love.’ That fits well with what you’re saying I think.

    Thanks for this excellent piece and the shout-out to Canada’s greatest thinker.

    Brad Jersak

    1. Brad: thanks for your comment! I was introduced to Grant by a Canadian friend, who laments the passing of the “Red Tory” tradition. Find him a fascinating thinker: especially for his combination of “social conservatism” with political views that are in many ways quite “socialist” or “social democratic” – his great insight being that true socialism is a conservative force, standing for families and communities against the perpetual revolution of idealistic and imperialist capitalism. The tragedy is that this understanding currently lacks any realisation in party politics, with both left and right (in the UK) united in pro-capitalist social and constitutional radicalism.

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