Monday, October 28, 2013

Tossing Out Just One More God: Atheism, Theism, and Negative Doctrines

A recent and rather lively exchange on my Facebook page reminded me of the following quip from Richard Dawkins:

“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” (from The God Delusion)

It's an interesting quip. On the surface it stakes out common ground between theists and atheists: "Hey, we're not that different after all. I toss out all the gods that you reject--the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Hindu pantheons and the like. I just throw out your god, too."

Of course, contemporary theists likely won't find their hearts warmed by Dawkins' surface appeal to common ground. After all, what Dawkins really means to do is gesture to theistic hypocrisy. His not-so-veiled message is this: Theists ought to know that they have no good reason to believe in God, because their reasons for rejecting Zeus and Odin work equally well as reasons for tossing out Yahweh or any other supernatural character.

Since I've had plenty to say about this underlying message before, I don't want to focus on it in this post. But the Facebook exchange I mentioned above did more than just recall Dawkins' quip. It suggested a different way of thinking about it.

Here's the context: The other day I mentioned on Facebook a delightful conversation I'd had with the New Covenant Group, a group that among other things seeks to foster productive religious-nonreligious dialogue. (The exchange was videotaped; I'll announce of this blog when and where it can be viewed). An atheist friend (whom we'll call M) expressed some concern about one of the topics I'd provocatively referenced in my post: Dawkins' prospects for salvation. (Hint: being a universalist, I think those prospects are pretty good).

Among other things, M was concerned about the loaded nature of the question. Aren't we assuming the theistic perspective when we explore a question like this? And isn't doing that an exercise in the kind of privilege that religious people enjoy in our society? In an exchange meant to foster productive dialogue between the religious and the nonreligious, were the assumptions of those on the religious side framing the questions in a way that alienated the nonreligious in advance?

My sense is that, since I was a featured guest on the segment, my views were on the table for that reason as opposed to being because of any religious privilege at work. But another friend, A, chimed in with a third explanation: What happened in the NCG interview wasn't an exercise in religious privilege. It was just the fact that, in a dialogue of this sort, the participants "would need something to discuss, and since atheism is largely a negative doctrine, it would naturally be a religious concept that would be discussed, such as salvation."

M shot back with the following: "As for atheism being a negative doctrine, it only disbelieves in one extra god than the Abrahamic religions, which disbelieve in hundreds. They must be largely negative too."

Taken as an attempt to argue that Abrahamic religions are largely negative (which is not actually what I think M intended), this adaptation of Dawkins' quip doesn't strike me as having much force. To say my eyes are blue amounts to saying they aren't brown, green, black, red, purple, fuchsia, magenta, or puce. Any positive assertion excludes every assertion incompatible with it. This is as true for monotheistic religions as it is for anything else.

But traditional monotheisms are defined by what they affirm, not what, by implication, they negate. The Abrahamic religions are good at affirming stuff--some might argue too good at affirming stuff (or too quick to affirm with confidence). And the more specific and detailed the affirmation, the more that is rendered incompatible with it. The more one affirms, in terms of precision and detail, the more one by implication negates. If one says the earth has a three-dimensional shape, one has affirmed less--and hence negated less--than would be the case were one to say that the earth is a sphere.

We can think about this in terms of the logic of conjunction. I'm thinking about a dog. Is it yours? Probably not, but bear with me. The dog in question is brown. Some of you--but not all--might now be in a position to say, "Well, that's not my dog." But I'm not done. In addition to being brown, the dog is also female. And 15 years old. And largely blind in both eyes.

As we say more about the dog--as we affirm more and more propositions about the dog--there are fewer and fewer dogs in the world to whom the description applies. Cumulative affirmations leads to cumulative exclusions, until every dog but one is ruled out.

A true agnostic affirms nothing about the ultimate nature of the universe--and, for that very reason, negates nothing. A vague monotheist affirms enough to exclude atheism and polytheism and maybe pantheism, but by virtue of affirming less than, say, a conservative Muslim does, ends up affirming something that is consistent with a diversity of monotheistic faiths. By affirming less, one negates less.

But here is the question: Is it possible to negate a claim about how things are without, by implication, moving us closer to a more precise affirmative picture of how things are?

M's modified quip can be--and perhaps should be--understood as a challenge to the idea that atheism lacks any affirmative content. It is true that atheists (at least insofar as they are atheists) approach their worldview via negation. But just as saying my eyes are blue excludes their being brown or green or puce, saying that they are neither brown nor green nor puce narrows the field of possibilities, moving us in the direction of a precise picture (even if it hasn't yet taken us there). It takes longer to get to the affirmative proposition when you get there by negation--but when you negate enough, you might just get there in the end. And Dawkins claims to negate even more than the monotheists!

If, as Dawkins claims to do, you deny "God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented," aren't you thereby drawing a boundary around what you take to be real, a boundary that so clearly and completely excludes the presence of anything on the far side of the boundary that you have, in effect, posited an affirmative shape to the real? One commonly dubbed "metaphysical naturalism"?

In short, sometimes we assert an affirmative doctrine and, by implication, negate everything that conflicts with it. And sometimes we stumble into an affirmative doctrine through a series of negations. Just because a doctrine negates a lot, it doesn't follow that it is mostly negative. In fact, the most affirmative doctrines are those that negate the most. And it may well be that in denying "God, all gods, etc.," Dawkins has taken his professed atheism into just such an affirmative realm.

If so, it means that Dawkins and others like him can't say "I'm just denying things and don't have a metaphysical position to defend" as a way to shift all the critical attention onto theistic metaphysics. But it also means that in efforts to pursue meaningful dialogue, one can't just assume that only the theist has an affirmative view worth considering. Productive dialogue between the religious and the nonreligious means giving substantial space for all parties to share what they think, to discover common ground, and to confront the critical perspective of those who disagree.


  1. "Is it possible to negate a claim about how things are without, by implication, moving us closer to a more precise affirmative picture of how things are?"

    Obviously not, as per your dog example above. But critically, in the dog example, you were not trying to say that your dog is the one, true dog, so it logical implications were not negative at all. Or saying that your dog extends salvation to all, which is a true belief, thus all those who believe in other dogs that do not extend universal savation have the wrong idea.

    I am not sure where the common ground exists here, actually. You believe, for reasons that are so personal, inexpressible, and idiosyncratic that it is literally impossible to discuss in a rational manner. And others don't believe, for the lack of explicit, logical reasons per above. What is one to do, other than reclassify this debate from philosophy to psychology?

    1. Burk: On numerous occasions you express the view that what I do isn't philosophy or shouldn't qualify as philosophy--apparently because my basis for believing in God isn't an irresistible philosophical argument whose conclusion is that God exists.

      This seems to miss the point. One of the most important questions in the philosophy of religion--and one of the more persistent philosophical questions wrestled with on this blog--is the question of when it is acceptable to adopt an affirmative attitude towards a proposition in the absence of compelling argument and evidence for the truth of that proposition. Can one be free of epistemic fault in choosing to trust an experience in cases where one has no way to rule out the hypothesis that the experience is delusional? If so, under what conditions? Can you be free of epistemic fault when there are multiple interpretations of the same experience and you adopt the one that *seems* right to you? Is this always free of epistemic fault, sometimes, or never? If sometimes, under what conditions, and why? In this blog, THESE are the philosophical questions that have tended to prevail. Put another way, the question of if and when it is epistemically legitimate to believe based on "personal, inexpressible, and idiosyncratic" reasons IS a philosophical question, one that it IS possible to discuss in a rational manner.

  2. Hi Eric,

    "And sometimes we stumble into an affirmative doctrine through a series of negations. Just because a doctrine negates a lot, it doesn't follow that it is mostly negative. In fact, the most affirmative doctrines are those that negate the most."

    I agree. It could be that doubt and skepticism are just the other side of the coin of faith and belief. I can only doubt this one "thing" because I believe this other "thing" whatever that "thing" may be. A negation exists because of some affirmation somewhere else, even if it is only a subjective trusting of one's experience or because of some self imposed boundary or restriction, i.e., "I restrict my beliefs to those assertions that can be proved empirically." Even though couched as a negation, it is simply an affirmation of philosophical naturalism.

    So the idea that the atheist or agnostic is neutral or without affirmative assertions is, I think, not really possible--or at least I can't see how it would be possible.

  3. As an atheist myself, I reject your statement "It is true that atheists (at least insofar as they are atheists) approach their worldview via negation."

    I don't sit home at night and think about being an atheist, except on occasions like this where a theist friend sent me a link to your blog.

    I'm only an atheist when some theist is getting in my face. They routinely do that, you know -- like how all our politicians end every speech with "May God bless The United States of America", or the guy who defeated an opponent in an election by making the main argument "the other guy is an atheist".

    Some theists even want to use the power of the government to impose their theistic beliefs on me. See "gay marriage", "abortion", and "teaching evolution" for some prominent examples.

    But when there is no threat from theists, it doesn't matter that I am an atheist.

    Atheism only has a name because people are running around make claims on behalf of some guy named "God", "G-d", "Allah", "Vishu", etc. It is only religious believers who make atheism possible.

    There is no name for people who say the world is approximately spherical and orbits the sun. That's me, when I meet a flat-earther. But there would be a name for it if the world were dominated by flat-earthers.

    I have many affirmative statements about the universe. General Relativity and Quantum Electrodynamics work. Doppler shift affects radio signals. Human and non-human animals make tools and use symbolic communication. This kind of stuff doesn't typically come up when you're discussing the god hypothesis, unless you are talking to a hard-core biblical literalist.

    My atheism is merely a description of my failure to adhere to your mistaken beliefs. That is why the discussion is always centered on what theists believe. You guys are not out there arguing that GPS doesn't work; General Relativity, QED, and Doppler shift go uncontested.

    Dawkins is both right and wrong in saying he does not have a position to defend. In my view his (any my) position is physics, not meta-physics.

    1. First, let me say that the parenthetical in the quote you reject should probably have been taken out of parentheses--because the parentheses give the impression that falls within them is non-essential to understanding what I intend. Originally, the sentence you quote read, "It is true that atheists qua atheists approach their worldview via negation"--which I changed because "qua" is a technical terms with which some readers may not be familiar. In other words, people who happen to be atheists also happen to be other things--and the other things that they are typically involve affirmations that contribute to their worldview. It is insofar as they are atheists that they approach their worldview through negation. Insofar as they are other things, they likely approach it through affirmation.

      Second, I want to comment on your final remark, that "Dawkins is both right and wrong in saying he does not have a position to defend. In my view his (and my) position is physics, not meta-physics."

      This won't quite do. A colleague of mine in the physics department goes to my church. As a physicist, he defends physics. His position on matters of physics is probably largely the same as, say, Victor Stenger's (although I could be wrong about that).

      But on the question of whether the world studied by the physical sciences exhausts the boundaries of what is real--in other words, on the question of whether there is more to reality than the empirical world that the physical sciences are attempting to characterize as completely as possible--they clearly have a different view.

      My friend would say that there is more, and he has hopes about what that something more is like--and to some extent his life choices are shaped by those hopes. Stenger denies that there is more. On the matter about which they disagree, Stenger's view is arrived at through negation--and he won't make any headway in defending it by spending time defending the positive positions in physics with which my friend (who disagrees with Stenger about METAPHYSICS) is likely to wholeheartedly agree.

      Finally, with respect to the following: "My atheism is merely a description of my failure to adhere to your mistaken beliefs." Take out the "mistaken" from that sentence, and what you have is consistent with agnosticism. But consider the following assertion, which I believe: "There is an order of reality that lies outside the boundaries of the empirical universe studied by the physical sciences, a reality with which I can come into contact and establish a kind of relationship, and which--when I do--deeply enriches my life." It is one thing to simply fail to adhere to this belief, something else to view it as mistaken. When you view it as mistaken, you are adopting a belief. You believe that there is no such order of reality, or that it is not possible to establish any sort of relationship with it if there is, or that even if it were, the relationship would not as such add anything to one's life. This is an actual belief that you have, albeit a negative one. But whether negative or not, it is a position on a matter, one I might well ask you to defend (or, barring that, explain why it is okay to believe it on insufficient evidence).

    2. (a reply in three parts, for clarity)

      That was a good call on not using "qua". :)

      When you say "It is insofar as they are atheists that they approach their worldview through negation", it sounds like you have a circular definition on your hands. If you discard anything other than the single negative statement in the definition of "atheist", then of course atheist is exactly what you defined it to be.

      But "atheist" is not a worldview. It is a *secondary* *aspect* of a worldview. I tried to write a brief summary of my world view to show the derivation of my atheism:

      There is a real world. I exist in this world. There is a certain physics of how this world functions, and that physics is stable over time periods that seem quite long to a human.

      You can use your observations to make an approximate model of the real world. Any thing or phenomenon can be subjected to study and experiment. We have studied many phenomena and understand quite well how they work. And we continue to refine our understandings.

      Humans began with little knowledge of the world. Over time, we have made corrections to our understanding by carefully observing reality, keeping parts of the model what work, and discarding parts of the model that do not. We no longer think the sun moves around the earth, even though that was the best understanding available 5000 years ago. Newton wrote down his understanding of the three laws of motion, but in less than 250 years, Einstein gave us a better model.

      In all that, the only negation you see is that we discard ideas that do not hold up under scrutiny.

      It is this world view that causes me to be an atheist.

      The derivation is:

      Throughout history, people have believed in various gods. Even today people believe in different gods. Let us approximate my observations with this statement: Each believer tells me their story and says "I am right and the others are wrong". (An oversimplification, but good enough for this discussion.)

      But the one thing I never see is any evidence that shows *me* that the supposed god exists. They point at old books, but why should I believe your old book instead of his old book? They point at emotional experiences, but why should I think that your experience is more valid than his? Or more valid than mine? et cetera.

      Having examined the evidence and found it lacking, I conclude that there are no gods of any kind.

      Now here is the key point: I have found no credible (believable) evidence that any of the proposed gods is real, but I *will* believe if I find the evidence.

      (b.t.w. My theology student friend once mistook that statement for "I would go to church if ...". I said evidence would make me believe in a god, not necessarily play his game.)

    3. Your physicist friend obviously has a different view of physics than I do. I say to him: If God is a real entity in the universe, then use your science to discover what you can about him. Here are a couple of suggestions for areas of research:

      - Find out if souls exist. How do souls control the behaviour of bodies? How do bodies control the behaviour of souls? Hint: current knowledge suggests that if a soul exists, the interaction happens in the brain.

      - Find a way to experimentally detect God's interactions with the world. Maybe you can gather sufficient evidence that he does not interact with the world; in that case, investigate other methods that can prove his existence.

      To you, I say: If you come into contact with this "order of reality" then it is *not* outside the boundaries of the empirical universe. You are in contact with it, so it is there. You can study it. You can perform experiments on it. And you can tell me how to reproduce those experiments.

    4. Yes, because of the total lack of evidence that I described above, I have adopted a belief that is much stronger than agnosticism. I decided that I have no business believing implausible stories without evidence. I have decided that the overwhelming evidence is that people make up stories about gods, other people believe them, and therefore we have many religions in the world.

      Surely you are aware of Russel's Teapot, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the Invisible Pink Unicorn? Are you agnostic about the existence of any of these entities? If so, why would you suspect they could be real (a necessary condition of agnosticism)? If not, why are you not open to the possibility?

      I think my refusal to believe in your God is the same as your refusal to believe that the world was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster after he had drunk too heavily from the Beer Volcano. The story is just too implausible and there is no evidence.

      It is clear that there is something in human nature that makes us pre-disposed to believe these stories. I do not know how this predisposition works. There is some promising research in this area. I don't have any citations handy, but I occasionally see credible publications that suggest certain parts of the brain are involved in religious experience. Presumably it either gave some evolutionary advantage or it was somehow coupled to some other trait that gave an evolutionary advantage.

      I find it a fascinating question. It is just one of may things I wish I could live long enough to see answers discovered.

    5. I devote much of Chapter 4 of IS GOD A DELUSION? to addressing why I take the Russell's Teapot belief to be different in kind form belief in a transcendent cause of the empirical universe. I'd be curious what you think of the arguments there. See also footnote 2 of Chapter 4 for a discussion of Camp Quest's invisible unicorn exercise.

  4. Eric-

    Wow- a secret order of reality that is accessible by you, but not accessible by scientists (i.e. by rigorous methods). Are you prescribed drugs for this condition? Then you have the gall to put the onus for proving the non-existence of this realm on the atheist. And theists call atheists arrogant.

    It is impossible to take this seriously in any philosophical sense (let alone in other senses like the political, for instance). I have been mulling over your prior reply, can't raise much sympathy for it. Why single out religion for this super-special pass to affirmatively believe things without evidence? Is it morality that provides a justification? But isn't it clear that morality is orthogonal to religion, and that it is the social bonding and buy-in of religion that makes people like yourself think themselves more moral than others? Is it that it makes you feel good? But there is hardly a need to drag in philosophical rationalizations for that purpose.

    Your plea to recognize "multiple epistemic interpretations" reeks of "teaching the controversy" as a way to keep invalid philosophy on the shelf, far past its expiration date. Indeed, it functions as a plea for superstition. William James recognized that the mystical experience is compelling for one person.. the experiencer, and that due to its mechanics of over-motivation, not due to some super-logical exercise or super-perception. It has zero warrant for others, and indeed less than zero, once we fully grasp its psychological nature, which we learn about increasingly as time goes on. Philosophy needs a clear head.

  5. Hi Eric,

    Concerning this: [...] atheists [...] approach their worldview via negation.

    It may be true that many atheists come to their views by rejecting their former religious beliefs and, to this extent, there is a negation involved. But this is somewhat assuming theism to be, if not a default position, something like a social norm. The word itself originated in Greece as a pejorative them used to denigrate those who rejected the gods worshipped by the larger society (the norm).

    A child raised outside of any religion, in a largely secular society, would become a de facto atheist, without having to deny anything (a common occurrence where I live). If asked about God, she would simply reply: "Oh, I don't believe in that", just like she could say she doesn't believe in astrology. In such an environment, theism would be seen as just one more system requiring additional beliefs (above those ordinarily held) and not as the norm against which world-views must be judged.