Atheism on Trial

by Stephen Anderson

There was a time – some years ago – when to profess disbelief in a Supreme Being could be hazardous to one’s health. You could get hacked to pieces with a scimitar or boiled in oil. Neither the public nor the authorities had much tolerance.

Atheists today never tire of reminding us of that, as if the follies of distant ancestors should make us blush. But though in times past publishing one’s skeptical doubts could be daring, it is so no longer. Yesterday’s radical position is today’s orthodoxy. Today, atheism has taken its comfortable seat by the fire and has its feet up. It has de facto control of education, the universities, and the academic press. It is the go-to position of our media and the controlling assumption of political discourse. Popular atheist authors have no trouble churning out bestsellers and culling invitations to speak. Atheism has never been so respectable.

That is why perhaps we now ought to pause and ask if it has actually earned the easy place it enjoys. For modern philosophy is, among other things, an iconoclastic activity. It’s about examining life, about challenging common assumptions, and about pulling apart the edifices of thought, replacing unexamined ideas with sound thinking and good reasons. That goes for today’s comfortable orthodoxies, no less than for those of the past.

Maybe the really daring thing today is not being an atheist, but challenging atheism. It can certainly be risky, and can provoke a whole lot of knee-jerk animus, even if one supplies good arguments to back one’s case. Iconoclasts are rarely celebrated in their own day. But in philosophy, no one gets a ‘free ride’ – every worldview, whether popular or marginal, can be brought before the tribunal of reason to present its credentials. And the dominant ones ought to be brought there first. It’s atheism’s turn.

What Is Atheism?

Before we begin the trial, perhaps we ought to clarify the case. What is ‘atheism’?

In answering, let us observe the principle of charity. This means we ought to address an opposing view in its strongest and most representative form, rather than in any of its weaker or less representative forms. In charity, then, we must ask ourselves, ‘What is the strongest form of atheism?’

To begin with, we could consider a basic definition. ‘Atheism’ is clearly ‘a-’ plus ‘theism’. Theism is from the Greek for God (or gods), of course; and the ‘a-’ prefix is the Greek negation of whatever it’s prefixing. Thus atheism means simply ‘no God’. It claims there exists no kind of god.

That’s basic. But we might ask, ‘Is it really necessary to understand atheism as so categorical? Can’t we make room for softer versions of skepticism, so as to be more inclusive?’

That does indeed sound charitable. But I’m going to suggest a couple of reasons why I think atheists will surely want to reject that. Firstly, they are bound to realize that there is a perfectly good name for anyone who wants to opt for a less-than-firm stand on the question of the existence of a Supreme Being: they’re called ‘agnostics’. That camp is divided between ‘hard agnostics’, who want to lean hard in the direction of denying the existence of God while leaving the door open a crack, and ‘soft agnostics’, who perhaps would like to believe that some sort of Divine Being exists, but who find the evidence still unpersuasive. But secondly, and more importantly, including agnostics in their position is going to give away the game at the start, as any thinking atheist will quickly realize…

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