How Not to Argue for Atheism

January 20, 2011

Looking over a new book about atheism reminds me how easy it is to get atheism wrong from the start.

Kerry Walters recently published Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed , and ironically, it will leave atheists perplexed.

This book has many merits, but explaining where atheism is coming from is not one of them. Walters commits a very common error, made by both believers and nonbelievers, about where to start with atheism. The error is supposing that atheism must be more than just living without God and religion.

Lots of people live without God and religion, but what else must over a billion nonbelievers all have in common, that believers don’t? Social psychologists and cultural anthropologists can describe what all human beings share, but a book about that is not a book on atheism. Again, what do only nonbelievers all have in common? Hard to say, exactly. Hardly a promising start for any book focusing on atheism. There are innumerable reasons to say "No" to religion and innumerable ways to live without religion.

Writers on atheism dimly realize this. Still, so many intrepid authors like Walters go in search of one big idea, some huge worldview, that all atheists must have in common. And once they think that they have found it, then there's something big enough to write a book about. At this point, writers diverge. Three options lay before them, as they ponder this One Big Thing all atheists must have in common.

TYPE ONE: The One Big Thing may be the way that atheists aren't persuaded that God exists. So a book about atheism could just be a list of all the key arguments for God, and how they fail to be logical. Call this approach "atheology", in contrast to theology's attempts to prove God. My own book The God Debates falls into this category.

TYPE TWO: The One Big Thing may be the way that atheists all agree on another worldview besides religion. So a book about atheism could be an explanation of this rival worldview, and the obvious kind of worldview is that of "science" or the philosophy of "naturalism" or simply "scientific naturalism", etc. This new book by Walters falls in this category, because he says that atheism is based on naturalism.

TYPE THREE: The One Big Thing may be the way that atheists avoid the emotional, moral, and social evils that come with religion. So a book about atheism could be an exploration of how affirmative and ethical the atheist life can be. I'm enjoying Dan Barker's new book The Good Atheist , which belongs in this category.

If you are an atheist, and you feel compelled to write about atheism, by all means include discussions about failed arguments for God (Type One) and successful lives without God (Type Three). But be careful with Type Two accounts of atheism, because it is so easy to get started the wrong way with atheism.

Don't get me wrong -- atheists should prefer science's knowledge and philosophy's wisdom to religion's revelations, of course. And naturalism is the right worldview to hold rather than supernaturalism. The huge problem with starting with naturalism is that Atheism Does Not Start With Naturalism.

Nope, no Naturalism at the core of Atheism. There are three big reasons why:

First, if you select any random nonbeliever from anywhere on earth, that atheist could tell you about living without religion, but this person probably couldn't tell you what naturalism is. You would be lucky to have plucked off the earth an atheist who could accurately tell you where the solar system came from, or how life evolves.

Second, when it comes to having a good reason for not believing in God, Naturalism is not needed. Science helps, but more than just science is needed to defeat religion , and just common sense and ordinary rationality is sufficient for rejecting God-belief .

Third, once you assume that the worldview of Naturalism is the starting premise for all atheism, then the burden of proof has been shifted off of religion back onto atheism, where it doesn't belong. In a way, all atheists are simple naturalists, since they at least agree that nature exists while they are doubting God. But saying that atheism presumes the worldview of Naturalism, as Walters does, now puts atheism in a very difficult and vulnerable starting position. Atheism now has to defend its presumption of Naturalism, which means (1) taking a prejudiced (dare one say, "faithful") stand against all of religion's evidence from the start, and (2) defending science's ability to explain everything, eventually. Point (1) permits friends of religion to claim that atheism is based on a kind of faith too, and lets religion avoid having to actually prove that God exists. Point (2) permits friends of religion to cheer every scientific difficulty as a victory for God belief. Pick up any book defending God these days. You can read all about how atheists can't prove their case and how science can't explain everything -- so God is just fine, everyone!

Putting Naturalism at the starting point of atheism gets atheism wrong and obstructs any sound defense of atheism. All atheists should accept the worldview of Naturalism in the end, because rationality yields science, and science's knowledge yields Naturalism. But nothing so sophisticated as an entire scientific/philosophical worldview is needed to get atheism off to a great start. Ordinary nature and common sense comes first.

Want a simple, fool-proof way to start explaining atheism? Here is a suggestion:

1. It is common sense to accept that the natural world around us exists.

2. There is no rational justification to think that anything beyond nature exists.

Conclusion: Doubting God is the rational stance, so ignore religion and go live a naturally happy life!