Atheism and Humble Claims to Knowledge

by Steven Dunn

Over recent months I have become more and more interested in literature regarding the justifications for atheism. Though I have been buying books of these sort for some time (the first book I ever bought was Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion‘ when I was 16), I’m interested to see how a particular philosopher will begin before he sets up his arguments against theism. As of recently I have seen a strange trend among unbelievers regarding the definition of atheism and what it means to “deny” the existence of God. Let’s look at a few examples.

Ernest Nagel was the university emeritus professor of philosophy at Columbia University and served as editor for numerous journals such as the Journal of Philosophy (1938-56), the Journal of Symbolic Logic (1940-46), and the Philosophy of Science (1956-59). One work in particular that I’m interested in examining is his paper entitled ‘Philosophical Concepts of Atheism‘ (1959) in which he understood atheism as the following:

I shall understand by “atheism” a critique and a denial of the major claims of all varieties of theism… not to be identified with sheer unbelief, or with disbelief in some particular creed of a religious group. Thus, a child who has received no religious instruction and has never heard about God, is not an atheist – for he is not denying any theistic claims (E. Nagel, ‘Philosophical Concepts of Atheism‘; from P. Angeles ‘Critiques of God‘; cp. 1997, Promotheus Books, p. 4).

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However, in direct contrast, atheist George Smith in his book ‘Atheism: The Case Against God‘ (1979) offers a completely different perspective on the meaning of atheism:

Atheism… is the absence of theistic belief. One who does not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist… Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief (G. Smith, ‘Atheism: The Case Against God’; Promotheus Books, cp. 1979, p. 7).

However, Smith goes on later to state that “it is the atheist who demands proof from the theist, not vice-versa” (Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 27). His reasoning for this is because the burden of proof ‘‘falls on the person who affirms the truth of a proposition, such as ‘God exists.’ If the theist claims to know that God exists, then we have the cognitive right – indeed, the responsibility – to ask this person how he acquired this knowledge and why we should take him seriously.” (Why Atheism?; cp. 2000, p. 31). Therefore, we can avoid the dilemma that I wish to explore…

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