Atheism and Philosphy: Essay #1 on the Introduction

Here we begin with my short series of essays reflecting on the arguments proposed by Kai Nielsen in <em>Atheism and Philosophy</em>. In this opening essay, I’m going to concentrate on two statements made by Mr Nielsen and examine them.

In his introduction, Mr Nielsen develops a picture of his argument and what he might be discussing. He defines atheism as a response which varies based on what “version” of God is being addressed (from pp 58-59):

  1. If an anthropomorphic God is proposed, the atheist rejects belief in Gd because it is false or probably false that there is such a God.
  2. If a non-anthropomorphic God (i.e., the God of Luther and Calvin, Aquinas, and Maimonides), he rejects belief in God because the concept of such a God is either meaningless, unintelligible, contradictory, incomprehensible, or incoherent;
  3. the atheist rejects belief in God (here we speak of the God portrayed by some modern or contemporary theologians or philosophers) because the concept of God in question is such that is merely masks an atheistic substance …

This statement (notably #2) is somewhat similar in content to some objections to the Christian belief based on a claim that a belief in God is logically inconsistent (akin to 2+2=5). This seems to rely on a syllogism that God must be rational and logical … because the universe is rational and logical. But, is this reasonable? Quantum mechanics gives to a contradictory and very unsatisfactory view of matter. The particle/wave duality has never been resolved and indeed Bell’s theorem shows that any mechanistic attempt to bypass the representation which sets aside any direct description of matter as anything but a complex amplitude of which the norm is a probability distribution. In the philosophy of science relating derived from a quantum view of nature there is no possible description of reality instead in its place merely a description of the outcome of experiment. That is, reality is incapable of being expressed in a logically consistent fashion and instead only much weaker statements can be made. The question then is, why if nature is not seen to be understood in a logically consistent fashion … must our understanding of God be constrained differently?

Just a bit earlier, Mr Nielsen cites an line of rhetoric I’ve seen elsewhere:

… [belief in God represents ] a reality that must be transcendent to the world, the burden of proof is not on the atheist to give grounds for believing that there is no reality of that order. Rather, the burden of proof is on the believer to give us evidence for God’s existence, i.e., something to show that there is such a reality.

However, I’m unclear on the necessity of this “burden of proof” rhetoric. From the Christian perspective, “burden of proof” very much beside the point. Belief (and Faith) in God is believed only to be mediated via the workings of God Himself (specifically in the trinitarian Christian belief via the Holy Spirit). Belief is not mediated via rhetoric, discourse, or logic but by God. It might seem that it may occasionally be sparked by such … but the confrontational point of view is, I think, one that does not stem from the Christian point of view. That is, from the Christian point of view there is no “burden of proof” to be shouldered. If the atheist has rejected faith it is either by his rejection of the Spirit (Arminian) or that he has not been “elected” (Reformed). God has gifted each of us with free-will and we are each free to believe what we wish.

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  1. You admit already that you’ll believe in God regardless of whether it’s logical or if there’s any proof. Why waste your time reading the book?

  2. Mark says:

    I’m reading the book both to understand the arguments he uses and to see if, as noted earlier, if the objections to Christianity address modern theological ideas or merely attack notions of God normally taught to those adolescents (and younger). So far, I think I’m going to be at a disadvantage, in that I’ve read much Wright and a little Moltmann and he is often addressing arguments of Barth and Tillich, of whom I have read of but not read their works in particular. On the latter, it is at least clear that he isn’t addressing childish ideas of God, which is to say the least makes it … well … refreshing (and I hope you won’t take that last comment personally).

    Furthermore while I’d say “logic” is overrated, the mere fact that we can’t say anything fundamental about the matter due to the difficulty of human comprehension/language to express “what’s going on” with quantum mechanics, it is still the case that wrong things can be said about nature, likewise for theology of which this book is an example.

  3. Wow. You totally lost me in the last paragraph. How can you detect any wrong thing, in nature or theology, if a circular argument of the form “I believe in X because X said so” is allowed? By this means anyone could prove anything, and stand unrefuted. Say it ain’t so!

  4. Mark says:

    The statement of Christian theology is not that I believe in X because X said so but that we only come to believe in God because of God’s work within us drawing us to Him. On the other hand, what I’m trying to get at in the last paragraph is puzzlement on our goals which give rise to “burden of proof” and so on. Christian (and if you will Atheist) apologetics are, I think, less than an attempt to convert via rhetoric and reason than an attempt to understand your own beliefs more clearly by trying to explain them to others and by exercising/stretching yourself to understand how others see things.

    Although your statement, I believe in X because X said so, which if taken literally would cause the collapse of atheism. That is, if X says surely then X’s existence is a given. For how can something which doesn’t exist “say”. 😉

  5. Something which doesn’t exist can “say” something if I am deluded as to what is said or what is saying it.

    As for burden of proof, it seems to me that any such discussion has to start from some point of mutual agreement, and that both parties need to be willing at least to work from there, rather than starting with provocative statement known to be considered ridiculous by other participants, e.g. “Matter and motion are all there is,” or “I believe in God because s/he reached out to me.” Where a burden of proof might lie doesn’t seem very interesting; it’s been so long since I read any Nielsen I can’t even recall why he might have made a big deal about it.

  6. Mark says:

    I’m not very sympathetic to the argument you hint at, which holds holds that everyone who is not also an atheist is necessarily deluded, stupid, and so on unlike the wise atheist. In his second chapter Mr Nielsen goes that route saying essentially, “no one who knows philosophy and science can not be an athest”. Implying that if you are not an atheist you must not know enough science or philosophy to know better. I think that is both elitist and in error. I happen to know that except for a very few singular people (of which Mr Nielsen and I are not numbered) there are both atheists and theists who are better versed in both subjects than we. I’m hoping Mr Nielsen does not ultimately depend on arguments of that nature.

    All I was saying is that when any X makes a statement, we can argue all we wish about the correctness or error of the contents of that statement, but it is less likely that we will be arguing about the existence of X. Unless you are of a solipsist bent.

    I might have twigged to the “burden of proof” line because that came up in JA’s and other comments before.

  7. Mark —

    No time today, but I had absolutely no intention of either stating or hinting any such argument.

    Off the top of my head I guess I’d say that when A says B told him something, it’s possible to for A to make a mistake both as to what was said and as to who told him. When B is someone we all know, being mistaken about who B is would be much less likely, in some cases vanishingly so. When B is someone we don’t all know, or is described as having properties out of the ordinary, then the question of identifying B properly may arise.

    I can see a philosophical discussion arising as to what kinds of reasons might be adduced when the identity of B came to be in question. None of which implies solipsism or a prejudged assumption that some categories into which B might fall are assumed ahead of time to be nonexistent.

    And I much prefer to have that discussion with someone who takes reason and evidence seriously, as some strains of Christianity do, including I think yourself.

  8. Mark says:

    As I said, it was an argument “hinted at”. All I guess we’re pointing out is something touched on earlier, that atheists must necessarily reject the validity of revelation, for no matter the content of what X says, having said anything, X therefore must exist. Something like “I hear, therefore a speaker exists”, which would sound nicer I suppose in Latin. 🙂