Atheism and God

excerpted from the book


The Case Against God

by George H. Smith

Prometheus Books, 1989, paper

... the average believer-who was persuaded to believe for emotional, not intellectual, reasons-is impervious to arguments against the existence of a supernatural being, regardless of how meticulous and carefully reasoned these arguments may be. There is too much at stake: if the choice must be made between the comfort of religion and the truth of atheism, many people will sacrifice the latter without hesitation.

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 is sometimes defined as "the belief that there is no God of any kind," or the claim that a god cannot exit. While these are categories of atheism, they do not exhaust the meaning of atheism-and they are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism. Atheism, in its basic,' form, is not a belief. it is the absence of belief. An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist; rather, he does not believe in the existence of a god.

An agnostic is a person who believes that something is inherently unknowable by the human mind. When applied to the sphere of theistic belief, an agnostic is one who maintains that some aspect of the supernatural is forever closed to human knowledge.

... Theism and atheism refer to the presence or absence of belief in a god; agnosticism refers to the impossibility of knowledge with regard to a god or supernatural being.

the Catholic Encyclopedia

An agnostic is not an atheist. An atheist denies the existence of God; an agnostic professes ignorance about His existence. For the latter, God may exist, but reason can neither prove nor disprove it.

Religion has had the disastrous effect of placing vitally important concepts, such as morality, happiness and love, in a supernatural realm inaccessible to man's mind and knowledge. Morality and religion have become so intertwined that many people cannot conceive of ethics divorced from god, even in principle-which leads to the assumption that the atheist is out to destroy values.

Atheism, however, is not the destruction of morality; it is the destruction of supernatural morality. Likewise, atheism is not the destruction of happiness and love; it is the destruction of the idea that happiness and love can be achieved only in another world. Atheism brings these ideas down to earth, within the reach of man's mind. What he does with them after this point is a matter of choice. If he discards them in favor of pessimism and nihilism, the responsibility lies with him, not with atheism.

By severing any possible appeal to the supernatural-which, in terms of human knowledge, means the unknowable-atheism demands that issues be dealt with through reason and human understanding; they cannot be sloughed-off onto a mysterious god.

If atheism is correct, man is alone. There is no god to think for him, to watch out for him, to guarantee his happiness. These are the sole responsibility of man. If man wants knowledge, he must think for himself. If man wants success, he must work. If man wants happiness, he must strive to achieve it. Some men consider a godless world to be a terrifying prospect; others experience it as a refreshing, exhilarating challenge. How a person will react to atheism depends only on himself-and the extent to which he is willing to assume responsibility for his own choices and actions.

... it seems that every self-proclaimed theist regardless of his particular use of the term "god"-agrees that a god is mysterious, unfathomable or in some way beyond man's comprehension. The idea of the "unknowable" is the universal element linking together the various concepts of god, which suggests that this is the most critical aspect of theistic belief. The belief in an unknowable being is the central tenet of theism, and it constitutes the major point of controversy between theism and critical atheism.


A god is a supernatural being-which implies, metaphysically, that a god is not subject to the natural laws of the universe; and, epistemologically, that a god transcends human understanding. These are the basic beliefs of theism: the belief in the supernatural and the belief in the inherently unknowable. The metaphysical and epistemological aspects of the concept

Leslie D. Weatherhead expresses a central tenet of theism when he writes:

How can man, an insect on a wayside planet, which is itself of no size or importance, amid a million galaxies that baffle the imagination, put the tiny tape of words around the doings of this august and unimaginable Being who created all that is in the heavens and the heaven of heavens?

If we wish to discover the nature of the Christian God, the National Catholic Almanac offers us a generous assortment of attributes from which to choose. According to this source, God is "almighty, eternal, holy, immortal, immense, immutable, incomprehensible, ineffable, infinite, invisible, just, loving, merciful, most high, most wise, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, patient, perfect, provident, supreme, true."

Many Christians wish to avoid agnosticism by assigning characteristics to their deity, but these Christians find themselves confronted with a serious dilemma. On the one hand, they favor the notion of a supernatural being, a being without restrictions, a being with an infinite nature. On the other hand, they want a god with characteristics, a god that can be identified. Therefore, they must conceive of a way to give their god a nature while avoiding the consequence of limitations.

The solution of this difficulty has been the introduction of "unlimited attributes"-characteristics of God that do not limit his nature. Hence, we have the traits of omnipotence, omniscience, and other limitless qualities whose function is to give substance to the concept of God without restricting the nature of God. In this way, the Christian hopes to keep his supernatural being without collapsing into the contradiction of agnosticism.

When God's attributes are pushed to the limits of absurdity, the Christian invariably falls back on man's inability to comprehend God. If the atheist complains that omnipotence is impossible, or that a benevolent God cannot be reconciled with the existence of evil in the universe, the Christian retreats into the unknowable god of agnosticism. Man, we are told, cannot understand the ways of God.

If the Christian wishes to use positive characteristics for God while retaining their meaning, he must reduce his God to a manlike or anthropomorphic level. On the other hand, if these predicates do not mean the same when applied to God as they do when applied to natural entities, then they assume some unknown, mysterious meaning and are virtually emptied of their significance.

To accept the idea of an omnipotent God, one must believe that it is in some way "possible" for an entity to act in contradiction to its nature. In a universe containing an omnipotent being, any action would be open to any entity at any time upon the bidding of God. Causality would be a sham, and rational explanation would crumble.

The Christian God is commonly said to be omniscient; he knows everything-past, present and future. Here again we are facing a hybrid characteristic, one that is partially positive and partially negative. Omniscience entails knowledge without limits.

The first problem with omniscience is that it cannot be reconciled with any theory of free will in man. If one believes in an omniscient being, one cannot consistently hold that man has volitional control over his actions. If God knows the future with infallible certainty, the future is predetermined, and man is impotent to change it.

Some theologians (such as Calvin) have enthusiastically embraced predestination, but most theologians, sensing the enormous problems entailed by this doctrine, have attempted to defend some theory of volition. Without volition, morality becomes meaningless: we cannot blame or praise a man for an action over which he has no control. Without volition, the Christian scheme of salvation is a farce; men are predestined for either heaven or hell, and they have no voice in the matter. Why does God create men only to save some arbitrarily, and damn others? Why does the Christian bother to proselytize, since men cannot help what they believe anyway? The problems that arise for theology if it affirms predestination are unsolvable, but they necessarily ensue when omniscience is attributed to God.

Christian theologians have grappled with this problem for centuries. It is even discussed in the Bible by Paul, who writes of those who are "predestined to be conformed to the image of his [God's] Son..." (Romans 8.29). According to Paul, God "has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills" (Romans 9.18). But this raises obvious difficulties.

You will say to me then, 'Why does he still find fault?
For who can resist his will?' (Romans 9.19)

These are important questions, but Paul quickly brushes them aside with characteristic indignation.

But, who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me thus?' Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use? (Romans 9. 20-21)

Significantly, Paul makes no attempt to defend God from the charge of unfairness; rather, he cites God's absolute authority over man and asserts, in effect, that what God decides to do with man is none of man's business.

When the theologian posits the omniscience of God, he wishes to convey the idea of nonacquired and nonverified knowledge, knowledge that is immediate and infallible, knowledge inherent in God's nature. But if this is the case, God's knowledge cannot be in conceptual form, which is to say that God's "knowledge" is totally different from man's knowledge. We are once again dealing with a difference in kind rather than degree. The "knowledge" of God is unintelligible and unknowable. To say that God is omniscient is to distort the concept of knowledge beyond recognition. It simply adds another unknowable attribute to an unknowable being.

The ... characteristic of God ... omnibenevolence - the quality of being all-good. While God is said to be the epitome of moral perfection, this attribute has been notoriously difficult for Christians to defend, and it functions as a constant thorn in the side of Christian theology.

The first problem with omnibenevolence is reconciling it with the biblical portrayal of God who, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, is "a being of terrific character-cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust." The Old Testament in particular makes little attempt to absolve God from the responsibility for evil. "Does evil befall a city," asks the prophet Amos, "unless the Lord has done it" (3.6)? The prophet Jeremiah agrees: "Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil come" (Lamentations 3.38)? And in the book of Isaiah, the biblical Jehovah reports, "I am the Lord, and there is no other .... I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord, who do all these things" (45. 6-7).

The Old Testament God garnered an impressive list of atrocities. He demanded and sanctioned human sacrifices (Leviticus 27. 28-29; Judges 11. 29-40; 2 Samuel 21. 1-9). He killed the first-born of every Egyptian family (Exodus 12. 29). He sanctioned slavery (Exodus 21. 2-6; Leviticus 25. 44-46) and the selling of one's daughter (Exodus 21.7). He commanded the killing of witches (Exodus 22.18), death for heresy (Exodus 22.20), death for violating the sabbath (Exodus 31. 14-15), death for cursing one's parents (Leviticus 20.9), death for adultery (Leviticus 20.10), death for blasphemy (Leviticus 24.16), and death by stoning for unchastity at the time of marriage-a penalty imposed only upon women (Deuteronomy 22.20-21).

The Old Testament credits the Israelites, acting under the auspices of Jehovah, with massacring an incredible number of men, women and children through conquest. Time and again we read accounts where they "utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword" (Joshua 6.21). There were exceptions, however. In Chapter 31 of Numbers, we read that Moses, angry with the officers of his army because they had taken captives from a conquered people instead of killing everyone, issued the following orders: "Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves" (Numbers 31. 17-18).

Jehovah himself was fond of directly exterminating large numbers of people, usually through pestilence or famine, and often for rather unusual offenses. In one instance, he is reported to have killed 70,000 men because David took a census of Israel (2 Samuel 24). In another strange case, he sent two bears to rip apart forty-two children for mocking the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2. 23-24).

Passages such as the above abound in the Old Testament, and they led Thomas Paine to declare:

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.

Many theologians are reluctant to identify the Old Testament Jehovah with the New Testament God of Christianity. The Christian God, they assure us, is a being of mercy and love. But this assertion is difficult to defend. While the old god was cruel, he at least restricted his infliction of misery to this life. The Christian God, however, reportedly extends this misery to eternity. According to the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly threatened disbelievers with eternal torment, and we must wonder how the doctrine of hell can be reconciled with the notion of an all-merciful God.

In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas offers this explanation:

punishment is meted according to the dignity of the person sinned against, so that a person who strikes one in authority receives a greater punishment than one who strikes anyone else. Now whoever sins mortally sins against God .... But God's majesty is infinite. Therefore whoever sins mortally deserves infinite punishment; and consequently it seems just that for a mortal sin a man should be punished forever.

To my knowledge, no one has ever been accused of striking God, so the explanation must be that God, using some peculiar standard of "justice," damns men to endless agony as punishment for insulting his infinite nature. Furthermore, God has complete foreknowledge of each man's fate, so many men are born for no purpose other than to suffer in hell. And why would God create a place of torment in the first place, unless he derived some kind of pleasure or satisfaction from witnessing pain? Whether the Christian deity of fire and brimstone projects love or neurotic sadism on a cosmic scale, will be left to the conscience of the reader to decide.

Many theologians recognize the futility of attempting to reconcile eternal torment with benevolence, so they simply ignore the doctrine of hell or deny it outright. The liberal theologian Leslie D. Weatherhead defends this approach as follows:

when Jesus is reported as consigning to everlasting torture those who displease him or do not "believe" what he says, I know in my heart that there is something wrong somewhere. Either he is misreported or misunderstood .... So I put this alleged saying in my mental drawer awaiting further light, or else I reject it out of hand. By the judgment of a court within my own breast. -. I reject such sayings.

Put simply, the New Testament does not say what Weatherhead feels that it should say, so he prefers to ignore the unpleasant (and numerous) New Testament references to hell through the unique epistemological process of "knowing" in one's heart. Or, put even more simply, this theologian will believe what he feels like, contrary evidence notwithstanding.

Even if we bypass the problem of reconciling omnibenevolence with the Bible, the Christian still confronts serious philosophic problems. We shall assume that by omnibenevolence, the Christian means that God never does any evil, that all of his actions are good. Remember that "goodness," in this context, must refer to a standard other than the will of God. Something cannot be defined as good simply because God is responsible for it. If we define the good as anything that God wills, it is ridiculous to talk about the moral worth of God. Morality applies only when there is choice. To say that God has no choice but to be good completely destroys the concept of morality when it is applied to God. If God is incapable of evil, he is neither moral nor immoral; he is simply amoral.

To be omnibenevolent, God must be capable of evil but always choose the good. If God deliberately chooses evil, he is immoral. The question now arises: Why is there evil in the creation of an omnibenevolent deity? Why, in a world for which God is ultimately responsible, are there natural disasters that kill millions? Why are there diseases that cause suffering and cripple innocent men, women and children? Indeed, why is there evil and suffering of any kind? Must not God bear responsibility for these things, and do they not demonstrate that God cannot be all-good? This dilemma, known as the "problem of evil," has led some Christians to deny the unlimited power of God and to declare belief in a deity with limited capacities who was unable to create a world without pain and evil. It has led other Christians to write lengthy books on theodicy, which purport to reconcile God's goodness with his other characteristics and the existence of evil.

The problem of evil is frequently considered to be the major objection to the Christian concept of God, and there has been more discussion of omnibenevolence than any other characteristic. But the relative importance attached to this problem is exaggerated. While this is a serious difficulty and one which Christians have failed to solve, it is by no means the most important or basic objection to Christian theism. When considered within the context of other difficulties surrounding the concept of God, this one is minor by comparison. For this reason, we shall not discuss it in as much detail as is customary in a book of this kind.

Briefly, the problem of evil is this: If God does not know there is evil, he is not omniscient. If God knows there is evil but ( cannot prevent it, he is not omnipotent. If God knows there is 7 evil and can prevent it but desires not to, he is not omnibenevolent. If, as the Christian claims, God is all-knowing and all- ( powerful, we must conclude that God is not all-good. The J existence of evil in the universe excludes this possibility. j

... a common effort to reconcile God and evil is to argue that evil is the consequence of man's freely chosen actions. God, through his gift of free will, gave man the ability to distinguish and choose between good and evil, right and wrong. As a free agent, man has the potential to reach a higher degree of perfection and goodness than if he were a mere robot programmed to behave in a given manner. Thus it is good that man has free will. But this entails the opportunity for man to select evil instead of good, which has been the case in the instances of torture, murder, and cruelty which some men inflict upon others. The responsibility for these actions, however, rests with man, not with God. Therefore, concludes the Christian, evil does not conflict with the infinite goodness of God.

While this approach has some initial plausibility, it falls far short of solving the problem of evil. We are asked to believe that God created man with the power of choice in the hope that man would voluntarily pursue the good, but that man thwarts this desire of God through sin and thus brings evil upon himself. But, to begin with, to speak of frustrating or acting contrary to the wishes of an omnipotent being makes no sense whatsoever. There can be no barriers to divine omnipotence, no obstacles to thwart his desires, so we must assume that the present state of the world is precisely as God desires it to be. If God wished things to be other than they are, nothing could possibly prevent them from being other than they are, man's free will notwithstanding. In addition, we have seen that free will is incompatible with the foreknowledge possessed by an omniscient being, so the appeal to free will fails in this respect as well. In any case, God created man with full knowledge of the widespread suffering that would ensue, and, given his ability to prevent this situation, we must presume that God desired and willed these immoral atrocities to occur.

How ... are we to evaluate a God who permits widespread instances of injustice when it is easily within his power to prevent them? The Christian believes in a God who displays little, if any, interest in the protection of the innocent, and we must wonder how such a being can be called "good."

The standard reply to this objection is that God rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked in an afterlife, so there is an overall balance of justice. An extreme variation of this tactic was reported in The New York Times of September 11, 1950. Referring to the Korean War, this article states: "Sorrowing parents whose sons have been drafted or recalled for combat duty were told yesterday in St. Patrick's Cathedral [by Monsignor William T. Greenel that death in battle was part of God's plan for populating 'the kingdom of heaven.'"

This approach is so obviously an exercise in theological rationalization that it deserves little comment. If every instance of evil is to be rectified by an appeal to an afterlife, the claim that God is all-good has no relevance whatsoever to our present life. Virtually any immoral action, no matter how hideous or atrocious, can be explained away in this fashion-which severs any attempt to discuss the alleged goodness of a creator from reference to empirical evidence. More importantly, no appeal to an afterlife can actually eradicate the problem of evil. An injustice always remains an injustice, regardless of any subsequent efforts to comfort the victim. If a father, after beating his child unmercifully, later gives him a lollipop as compensation, this does not erase the original act or its evil nature. Nor would we praise the father as just and loving. The same applies to God, but even more so. The Christian may believe that God will punish the perpetrators of evil and compensate the victims of injustice, but this does not explain why a supposedly benevolent and omnipotent being created a world with evildoers and innocent victims in the first place. Again, we must assume that there are innocent victims because God desires innocent victims; from the standpoint of Christian theism, there is simply no other explanation. If an omnipotent God did not want innocent victims, they could not exist-and, by human standards, the Christian God appears an immoral fiend of cosmic dimensions.

Even if we overlook the preceding difficulties, the appeal to free will is still unsuccessful, because it encompasses only so-called moral evils (i.e., the actions of men). There remains the considerable problem of physical evils, such as natural disasters, over which man has no control. Why are there floods, earthquakes and diseases that kill and maim millions of persons? The responsibility for these occurrences obviously cannot be placed on the shoulders of man. From an atheistic standpoint, such phenomena are inimical to man's life and may be termed evil, but since they are the result of inanimate, natural forces and do not involve conscious intent, they do not fall within the province of moral judgment. But from a Christian perspective, God-the omnipotent creator of the natural universe-must bear ultimate responsibility for these occurrences, and God's deliberate choice of these evil phenomena qualifies him as immoral.

Unlike the philosopher, the theologian adopts a position, a dogma, and then commits himself to a defense of that position come what may. While he may display a willingness to defend this dogma, closer examination reveals this to be a farce. His defense consists of distorting and rationalizing all contrary evidence to meet his desired specifications. In the case of divine benevolence, the theologian will grasp onto any explanation, no matter how implausible, before he will abandon his dogma. And when finally pushed into a corner, he will argue that man cannot understand the true meaning of this dogma.

Atheism - The Case Against God

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