Atheism and Philosphy:
Essay #2 on the Existence of God

I continue my reading of Mr Kai Neilsen’s book Atheism & Philosophy. First a short bullet list of thoughts as they occur to me while reading this chapter, and I’ll try to follow that with a few paragraphcs summarizing my thoughts about his argument (all below the fold).

  • Initially, I expressed in a former post (or comment?), disappointment with his contention that it is impossible for a person with “enough” training in both science and philosophy to believe in God. This is the kind of elitist, “I’m smart than thou” kind of argument, wherein the only rebuttal to pointing out counter-examples, i.e., people who possess a substantial expertise in both who do believe that they are “not qualified enough” or “honest enough” in their inquiry. Poppycock, I say. This type of argument is insulting and puerile.
  • He brings up objections to the Aquinas “First Cause” argument, with I think, a fallacious counter-example. He proposes that an infinite series of causes will do fine to replace the “First Cause”. Yet, logically speaking that will not do. For ultimately the infinite sum considered as a unit (label the sum “God” or “First Cause”) and voila, an uncreated First Cause logically appears.
  • Mr Nielsen considers the paradox of how we can experience or encounter God if He is pure spirit (see below on apophatic theology) … but how in this does he consider then Christ?
  • Mr Neilsen critically recognizes the acceptance or rejection of the validity revelation to be the crux of the arguments about God. However, he doesn’t spend enough effort to disentangle it. His main argument to distrust religious revelation lies crucially in the psychological naivete of the believer. Mr Nielsen strikes me as a Plato’s men in the cave insisting that there is nothing more, and that there is no reason to turn around and go toward the light and all the while not seeking even turn around to look for the light.
  • He ends the chapter with an (embarrassingly) biased and, well, just plain wrong view of history and the history of the Christian church and the intellectual and moral development in Europe. Culminating with, in my view, a Utopian view of the secular impact in history. This is given in a section in which, having (to his view) disposed of the “reality” behind Christianity, pondered what might be it’s effect. How does Christian eschatology affect for good or ill. In his view, Christian eschatology toward a “heavenly afterlife” (which I think is a puerile misreading of such goals) ignores any mention of sanctification, repentance and theosis concentrating instead on the next world ignoring any problems with the current one.

Well, I was going to be a tad unfair. I was going to accuse Mr Nielsen of not addressing arguments raised by the New Perspective movement, i.e., Sanders, Dunn, Wright, et al. who bring modern historical methodologies to bear on the 1st century Middle East to analyze the message and formation of the early Christian church. But this is very unfair, his book is contemporary with the start of that movement and it is not fair to expect him to be well read in current theological thinking as an unbeliever. Moltmann could appear, but I doubt it (Moltmann wrote in the 50’s and 60’s I think).

Alasdair MacIntyre in Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922 points out the importance of context. In many of Mr MacIntyre’s books there is a repeated theme that philosophy (and theology by comparison) is a dialog. Each philosopher must be read in the context of the philosophical argument which was at sway and against which it is responding. Mr Nielsen ignores this and cherry picks, it seems, his opponent out of context in order to dissect it. Furthermore, Edith Stein was a feminist, philosopher (she was the 2nd woman in Germany to receive a PhD in philosophy), atheist/agnostic Jewess in the pre-WWI (and during WWI) Germany intellectual circles who had a conversion to Christianity. She might be seen as a strident counter example to his “smart people who know science and philosophy” but who are honestly introspective must therefore find it “impossible” to be religious. Ms Stein became a Carmalite nun and was martyred (as a Christian and Jew at Auschwitz). She was later canonized as a Saint by John Paul.

One other thing to note, were Mr Nielsen lists (and looks askance) at common properties ascribed to God and prepares to skewer them, but there is a problem with this approach noted some time earlier. In the 11th century Gregory Palamas noted that when approaching (discussing) God one must distinguish his “energies” from his “essences”. Following an earlier 6th century writer Pseudo-Dionysus he notes that God’s “essences” (the unobservable facets of the Divine) cannot be directly described but instead should be approached “negatively” or apophatically. On the other hand, we can speak positively about his “energies” or those things which are observable, i.e., revelation (and for Christians the Incarnation, i.e., Christ), which brings us back to the centrality of revelation to the claims of atheism.

So far it’s becoming clear to me, actual claims of “contradiction” are not the crux of the differences between the atheist and the Christian (note as mentioned earlier the non-problematic problems with contradictions or unresolvable issues in Quantum mechanics). The key difference hinges on revelation. And what I’m failing to do, as a concrete example, is to get my reading of Lossky to be confronted by Nielsen (and vice versa).

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  1. jpe says:

    For ultimately the infinite sum considered as a unit (label the sum “God” or “First Cause”) and voila, an uncreated First Cause logically appears.

    I don’t think this holds. It seems to me that you’re just stipulating the totality of the time continuum as “god,” which seems to sidestep the objection rather than answer it. It’s possible for one to stipulate so, I suppose, but then we’re talking about a whole other thing than Aquinas’s First Cause.

  2. Mark says:


    The objection centers around an infinite vs finite sum. C0 the entity that created the universe, C1 the entity that created that one. Mr Nielsen’s objection was that he proposed an infinite vs finite series of Cn‘s. My objection is that this can be dealt with notationally with the full (infinite) set of Cn taken as the “first cause”, which by definition has no cause itself.

  3. jpe says:

    So isn’t C(n) then no more and no less than the universe itself? (and its history) In which case it looks like pantheism, the defining of the world as God.

  4. Mark says:

    Cn is not the universe. C0 is the entity which created the universe. C1 is the hypothetically (as per Nielsen) the creator of C0 and so on (Cn+1 creates Cn). Therefore the set {Cn} for all n 0 -> infinity can be defined as “the creator” hence there is no need logically for a “creator” of the Creator.