Defining Our Gods

The theologian Alvin Plantinga was interviewed for The Stone this weekend, making the claim that Atheism is Irrational. His conclusion, however, seems to allow that agnosticism is pretty reasonable, and his thought process is based mostly on the absurdity of the universe and the hope that some kind of God will provide an explanation for whatever we cannot make sense of. These attitudes seem to me to require that we clarify a few things.

There are a variety of different intended meanings behind the word “atheist” as well as the word “God”. I generally make the point that I am atheistic when it comes to personal or specific gods like Zeus, Jehovah, Jesus, Odin, Allah, and so on, but agnostic if we’re talking about deism, that is, when it comes to an unnamed, unknowable, impersonal, original or universal intelligence or source of some kind. If this second force or being were to be referred to as “god” or even spoken of through more specific stories in an attempt to poetically understand some greater meaning, I would have no trouble calling myself agnostic as Plantinga suggests. But if the stories or expectations for afterlife or instructions for communications are meant to be considered as concrete as everyday reality, then I simply think they are as unlikely as Bigfoot or a faked moon landing – in other words, I am atheistic.

There are atheists who like to point out that atheism is ultimately a lack of belief, and therefore as long as you don’t have belief, you are atheistic – basically, those who have traditionally been called agnostics are just as much atheists. The purpose of this seems to be to expand the group of people who will identify more strongly as non-believers, and to avoid nuance – or what might be seen as hesitation – in self-description.

However, this allows for confusion and unnecessary disagreement at times. I think in fact that there are a fair number of people who are atheistic when it comes to very literal gods, like the one Ken Ham was espousing in his debate with Bill Nye. Some people believe, as Ken Ham does, that without a literal creation, the whole idea of God doesn’t make sense, and so believe in creationism because they believe in God. Some share this starting point, but are convinced by science and conclude there is no god. But others reject the premise and don’t connect their religious positions with their understandings of science. It’s a popular jab among atheists that “everyone is atheistic when it comes to someone else’s gods”, but it’s also a useful description of reality. We do all choose to not believe certain things, even if we would not claim absolute certainty.

Plenty of us would concede that only math or closed systems can be certain, so it’s technically possible that any conspiracy theory or mythology at issue is actually true – but still in general it can be considered reasonable not to believe conspiracy theories or mythologies. And if one includes mainstream religious mythologies with the smaller, less popular, less currently practiced ones, being atheistic about Jesus (as a literal, supernatural persona) is not that surprising from standard philosophical perspectives. The key here is that the stories are being looked at from a materialistic point of view – as Hegel pointed out, once spirituality is asked to compete in an empirical domain, it has no chance. It came about to provide insight, meaning, love and hope – not facts, proof, and evidence.

The more deeply debatable issue would be a broadly construed and non-specific deistic entity responsible for life, intelligence or being. An argument can be made that a force of this kind provides a kind of unity to existence that helps to make sense of it. It does seem rather absurd that the universe simply happened, although I am somewhat inclined to the notion that the universe is just absurd. On the other hand, perhaps there is a greater order that is not always evident. I would happily use the word agnostic to describe my opinion about this, and the philosophical discussion regarding whether there is an originating source or natural intelligence to being seems a useful one. However, it should not be considered to be relevant to one’s opinion about supernatural personas who talk to earthlings and interfere in their lives.

There are people who identify as believers who really could be categorized as atheistic in the same way I am about the literal versions of their gods. They understand the stories of their religions as pathways to a closer understanding of a great unspecified deity, but take them no more literally than Platonists take the story of the Cave, which is to say, the stories are meant to be meaningful and the concrete fact-based aspect is basically irrelevant. It’s not a question of history or science: it’s metaphysics. Let’s not pretend any of us know the answer to this one.

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  1. Hi,

    On the issue of Plantinga’s use of the words “atheism” and “agnosticism”, when Plantinga says that atheism is irrational, he’s talking about “the belief that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions”.

    While Plantinga does not define what he means by “the God of the theistic religions” in the interview, given the context of his work and the fact that he briefly addresses the argument from evil in the interview, it seems that he’s talking about a being who (among, perhaps, other properties) is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect, and created all other beings (either directly or by means of creating beings who in turn created other beings, etc.), or at the very least a being who rules his creation effortlessly and is morally perfect.

    So, even though he’s not talking about Yahweh in particular, he’s not talking about an “unnamed, unknowable, impersonal, original or universal intelligence or source of some kind”, either, but one with some specific properties.

  2. Alvin Plantiga is a philospher not theologian the article mentions it a couple of times when describing his qualifications. A lot of the other stuff you wrote about his positions are simirlarly innacurate I might write more tomorrow

  3. If numbers exist, then gods exist. Gods exist as numbers exist. The question the entities that we call gods are cognitive devices like numbers, for the purpose of extending our sense perception, and our ability to reason and determine terms of cooperation by anthropocentric analogy.

    The purpose of these gods during the ages of transformation as to create a cross group head-man that encourged diverse extended families to treat one another as a single extended family. In modern terms this is simply a contract for trustworthiness. We live in a high trust society. But in prior eras the universal trust that was CREATED by the church was limited to family members, and close relations. The church CAUSED that trust by appealing to a pater familia.

    If we say that gods are, like numbers, tools which have properties bordering on magic, but not magical, simply obscurely complex, then I think that’s probably a true statement, and I think I could prove it without too much doubt, as a purely social but necessary utility in prior eras.

    If we say that like Einstein replaced Newton, we CAN move from anthropocentric allegory to economic modeling and rules of cooperation embodied in law, then that’s logical. However, it doesn’t mean that such magical models don’t work. In fact, they work just fine. And far more people understand those allegories than understand economics and law.

    So to say that I believe in gods, as an educated person, means to me that there are properties of these myths and traditions that even I, with considerable knowledge of economics and law, and philosophy, cannot necessarily anticipate or deconstruct, then that’s just a true statement of complexity bordering on magic.

    I will agree that just as using newton to fly to the stars rather than einstein, the use of mythology will produce externalities that are undesirable. However, for all the complaints we place on magian religion, the fact of the matter is that our attempts at scientific socialism, democratic government, ‘rational’ manipulation of economy and polity, have been far more dangerous and deadly than the institution of religion. I mean, we lost one hundred million lives from marxism alone.

    Reason is frail. Experience is scientific. Reason is not. The anglo empirical method was superior in practice to the continental rational method. Precisely because reason is frail.

  4. I’m with Troy on this–calling Plantinga a theologian and not also recognizing him as a philosopher is a bit unfair. He was once the president of the APA, and his other scholarly credentials as a philosopher are absolutely indisputable. Moreover, his arguments deserve a fair summary, not misrepresentation.

  5. If by absurd you mean,
    “Utterly or obviously senseless,illogical,or untrue, contrary to all reason or common sense; arguably foolish or false” then I do not think it a good description of the universe, as a thing in itself. It seems from what we know about it that it goes on in its own way,and the fact that we do not exhaustively understand it, Does not justify our suggesting it may be absurd.

  6. The Stone article was rubbish, almost unbearable to read. The comments (mostly critical of Gutting and Plantinga) were well deserved. And this essay is much better thought out and compendious which relies on the thoughtfulness. I particularly like:

    Hegel: “once spirituality is asked to compete in an empirical domain, it has no chance.”

  7. Conor Anderson,

    “I’m with Troy on this–calling Plantinga a theologian and not also recognizing him as a philosopher is a bit unfair.”

    It might be unfair to recognise him as either. Unfair, that is, to philosophers and theologians.

    “He was once the president of the APA,”

    That may not speak much for the APA.

    “and his other scholarly credentials as a philosopher are absolutely indisputable.”

    Indisputable by whom? The effect of what’s left of religious power over professional philosophy has been nothing but poisonous. But professional philosophy as a whole; when you account for exclusion on the basis of class, gender, race, familial ties, and then there is a final requirement for belief, and not just plain belief, but a conservative form. Then it’s fair to say, you’ve reached the bottom of the barrel.

    “Moreover, his arguments deserve a fair summary, not misrepresentation.”

    In the NY times conversation, both Gutting and Plantinga, hang themselves…with their own rope. There’s no misrepresentation.

    They’re infuriating, if you’re an atheist. Their discussion isn’t hard theology. It’s the drivelish pseudo-scientific, pseudo-intellectual, cosy little chat, two believers can have when there are no informed atheists around to take them to task. I have heard all these arguments before.

    Plantinga makes the ‘Fine tuning of the universe for intelligent life’ as an argument for the existence of God. This is pseudo-scientific argument that’s been doing the rounds in the believer world for a while now. The universe is 13 billion years old, there are 300 billion stars in the universe. Earth is 3.5 billion years old. Though there is much life on earth, there are only two species who can recognise their own reflections; humans and chimpanzees. Humans have been on earth for about a million years. But anything that resembles the civilisations expected from intelligent life have only existed for thousands of years. The period of a technologically advanced society has only existed for a few millionths of the age of the earth. All the other planets in out solar system are dead, we have received no sign of life form outside our solar system. The science indicates the conditions of universe are largely hostile to life. That life is a statistical long shot. Hardly fine tuned.

    Plantinga, could make the argument for the existence of God, that there must be a God, because the universe seems peculiarly fine tuned for the existence of Alvin Plantinga. This is in fact, the kind of thing these people believe. It’s an exceedingly primitive belief. Considering it to have a theological nature is an injustice to theology.

    It’s not that it doesn’t stand up to empiricism, it doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

  8. Dr. John Messerly

    I like your distinction about being atheistic regarding specific personal gods–if for no other reason than they are so unlikely–but agnostic about deistic gods (or some other less well-defined gods.) The less well-defined the notion of a god, say as some as yet undiscovered power, force, or energy which might somehow help science to explain reality, then agnosticism is called for. I blog about issues like this at

  9. I think you left out another form of Theism that people are starting to talk about more today, that is, Aristotelian-Thomistic Theism. It is possible to divorce that from Aristotelian-Thomistic Christian Theism when you strip away the bells and whistles like the Trinity, Jesus, sacraments, angels, faith, etc. It’s not some anthropomorphic being among many like the gods, and it’s not really a force. It is, as Aquinas called, ipsum esse subsistence. He is Being itself. That sounds like pantheism but Aquinas also gives a rational justification for ascertaining omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and even omnibenovolence (in the Thomistic sense of the word “love”). Remember, however, that these attributes cannot be understood in the sense that we would apply them to humans. They are not equivocal, or univocal, but analogical, that is to say, not completely identical nor absolutely incomparable. I would recommend looking into this.

  10. “It does seem rather absurd that the universe simply happened…”

    I find this a curious remark in view of modern cosmology.

    On the one hand, the universe may have existed forever. In this case there doesn’t seem to be any sense in which it “just happened.”

    On the other hand, some cosmological models have the universe showing up as a quantum fluctuation out of some sort of timeless state. In this case, the universe didn’t “just happen”, it arose in accordance with the laws of physics. That doesn’t seem absurd to me.

  11. One might rephrase it to say that a universe with no temporal beginning ‘simply happens to be’ (or ‘is simply happening’). And if the universe arose out of a timeless state, one might say that that state also ‘simply happens to be’.

    That a thing has no temporal beginning doesn’t remove the question of why it exists and the ‘absurdity’ presumably lies in the the fact that whatever cosmological hypothesis one favours we still end up with “it just is” at some point.

    I’ve no clue why anyone would think deism could be any help though – it just adds an unwarranted and frankly silly step before we get to “it just is” again.

  12. Robert Oerter,

    “On the other hand, some cosmological models have the universe showing up as a quantum fluctuation out of some sort of timeless state. In this case, the universe didn’t “just happen”, it arose in accordance with the laws of physics.”

    And from whence did these ‘laws of physics’ arise?

    The quantum fluctuation theory is beautifully absurd. If there is a God, then that god is the absolute cosmic joker; on close enough examination their universe seems to have emerged from nothing. The laws of physics that allow the universe to exist from nothing, are a recodification of the old ex nihilo nihil fit. There are absurd sounding logical exceptions to the ex hihilo principle. And those are, something can exist from nothing, if it exists for an infinitesimal length of time. Time and space are relative.

    The formulation of ex nihilo nihil fit in antiquity, is based on an observation of what seems obvious. But the question as to why ex nihilo nihil fit, is something that is being answered by physicists and mathematicians of the 20th and 21st century.

    This is as absurd and difficult for the physicists as it is for everyone else. It’s an ugly theory.

  13. Jim, I guess some people find brute facts absurd, so, yeah. But it’s not a “happening” in the temporal sense.

    JMRC, like it or not, time and space ARE relative – we know that now. Time is part of the structure of the universe; it is not something external to the universe in which there can be “becoming.” So ex nihilo nihil fit doesn’t apply when we’re talking about the universe as a whole: “becoming” (or “happening”) can only occur in time.

    But maybe it’s only because I’ve been a physicist for so long that these things don’t seem absurd to me….

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