Wednesday, November 10, 2010

But Is It Atheism?

I just read another one of John C. Wright's stories about his atheism days. Splendid reading as ever, and I find a tremendous amount to agree with. Except for the core of his story.

I have trouble accepting that John was an atheist.

Now, I don't mean that John was actually Catholic and never realized it. Nor do I think he secretly believed in God-as-commonly-presented. But the atheism of John C. Wright was an atheism that denied materialism, believed in objective (and seemingly platonic) moral values, duties, formal and final causes, and so on. He was - and I think even he must realize this - miles apart from what is, especially in the past 10-20 years, typically meant by atheism. Maybe he was a pagan of sorts. A pantheist or a panentheist.

But atheist? It just doesn't seem right.

I now and then run into this problem, and here's one way to express it. The thomists argue that God is simple. No ontological parts to speak of. God does not have goodness, God IS goodness, and so on. So if someone believes in goodness* - say, the platonic form of 'The Good' - do they believe in God? It seems to me they do, as far as the Thomists say. They may be confused about some details, but so what? So are baptists, from the Thomists' viewpoint. And classical theists may have a lot of criticisms of theistic personalists, but they never mistake them for atheists. (Do they?)

As I've said before, I think the number of actual 'atheists' out there are thinner on the ground than expected. Sure, some are (or at least present themselves as) atheists in the materialist sense. In fact, I think a most promising apologetic for evangelizing the secular world would be "Why you are not an atheist" style approaches.

(*Naturally, I'm excluding 'bullshit goodness' for lack of a better term. 'Goodness' which melts into 'Stuff we do because blind meaningless evolution' and so on.)


Steve said...

Looking at those Pew surveys it seems a small minority of those who are religiously unaffiliated self-identify as atheists.

And even among those say they don't believe in God or a world spirit, 24% identify as atheists.

And finally there's the fact that those that do identify as atheists are not monolithic in their metaphysical views.

The internet can skew our sense of these things.

IlĂ­on said...

I no longer bother myself with reading Mr Wright. But, on your recommendation, I have read this essay.

This, by the bye, is the reason why Theist arguments that Atheists cannot be moral, or have no proper groundwork for a universal moral code, leave me unconvinced.

Now, of course, the argument is not that so-called atheists cannot behave morally; it is that the so-called atheist who is moral cannot rationally ground his or any other moral code. And, that Mr Wright is unconvinced by the argument is because he refuses to be convinced.

Crude said...


Another surprise I recall from that Pew Forum poll was that 21% of self-identified atheists believe in a personal God or an impersonal force, along with 55% of agnostics, 66% of secular unaffiliated, and 94% of religious unaffiliated.

That surprised me, but it shouldn't. When I used to hear about how wildly atheistic Europe is, especially places like Norway, I decided to start looking up the polling data. What you have in Europe is typically heavy belief in God or 'some kind of world spirit or life force'. Interesting atheists, those.

I agree the internet skews this. So do the self-appointed leaders of atheism, which always struck me as odd as having a leader of protestantism. And of course there's also the inevitable arguments over what counts as atheist ('Agnostics are really atheist!' and so on.), in addition to my own problems with the non-materialist 'atheists'. To say nothing of the recent anti-New Atheist backlash, with the agnostics finally say "Yeah, uh, don't count us with those guys please."

Complicated stuff.

Crude said...


Well, I agree with the whole 'rationally grounding versus acting' bit. But usually that problem is that the 'atheist' in question is (or claims to be) a thorough materialist, or thinks "evolution did it" is a grounding of objective morality rather than an elimination.

But that's where John differs. He's said flat out that while he used to be an atheist, he absolutely never was a materialist. He was some kind of platonist or dualist who believed that there really did exist moral oughts, objective beauty, etc. Is that atheism? He thinks it is, and I'm skeptical.

It's similar to the 'impersonal force as God' worry I have. I think many people, upon hearing Aquinas' or even William Lane Craig's description of God, would call that an impersonal force, at least out of confusion.