Atheism is usually defined as the belief that God does not exist. It is contrasted with theism which is generally understood to be the contrary belief that God does in fact exist. But is that right? Is that what theists actually believe? When someone says, “I believe in God”, is that person really saying, “I believe that God exists”?
To answer this question we need to understand what we mean when we say that something exists. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, says of things that exist that it is possible for them to be or not to be. That which exists exists in contrast to that which does not.
Further, Thomas points out that things that exist exist in the midst of (and in contrast to) other things that exist:
Things that exist are “in motion” (i.e. subject to change) and things that are in motion are moved (i.e. changed) by the influence of other things.
Things that exist are caused by other, “prior” things.
Things that exist exhibit various qualities to various degrees when compared to other things that exist.
And finally, things that exist normally behave in ways that are consistent with their self-interest (i.e. conducive to an optimal end). But for anything to achieve an optimal end, it must coordinate its behavior with the behavior of other things, each of which must also be coordinating its behavior. Such coordination is a species, albeit benign, of contrast.
So existence is a very special sort of property. A thing that exists exists in contrast to that which does not exist and in contrast to each and every other thing that does exist. G.W. Leibniz and Alfred North Whitehead both contend that every single ‘existent’ must be related to every other existent but also must be different from every other existent. Every existent must be unique or it would not ‘be’ at all.
Is this what theists mean when they talk about God? Is God a thing existing amidst other things and in contrast to no-thing? Decidedly not! Theists do not believe that God has the potentiality of not being; nor do they define God in terms of contrasts with other, ontologically congruent existents…since there aren’t any.
On the contrary, theists generally believe that God is necessary, not accidental, and that nothing is ontologically congruent to God. God does not exist among other things that exist; God is the ground of Being that lets everything that does exist exist.
Consider the words of the Nicene Creed, arguably the most famous creedal document in Western theology: “I believe in one God, Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible…”
“One” because God is unique, not only in contrast to every other thing, but unique in contrast to all other things. Every actual entity exists in contrast to every other actual entity but God is in contrast to the set of all existing actual entities.
“Father” because God is the origin of all things, again not a thing among things. A father, hopefully at least, is not just another child among his children. He belongs to a different logical category; so does God.
“Almighty” (literally, “omnipotentem”) because God is the potentiality from which all actuality springs.
“Maker”, like father, belongs to a different logical (and ontological) category than things made; and the Nicene Creed makes it clear that there is nothing that exists that is not made by God.
This final point is underscored by the famous opening verses of the Gospel of John, “All things came to be through him (i.e. the Logos, the Christ) and without him nothing came to be.”
These foundational Christian statements make it as clear as clear can be that God does not “exist”; and yet most theists, even Thomas, speak of the “existence of God”. How can that be? When a true theist applies “exist” to God, he is misusing the concept of existence. God is Being, and for that reason if for no other, the concept of existence cannot logically apply to God. Being is the ground of all existents, not another existent among existents. To say that God exists is to commit what modern logicians would call a “category error”.
So then what do theists believe when they say, “I believe in God”? They are saying that the qualities inherently associated with “God” characterize Being and that the nature of Being influences in some way the character of every single one of the existents it supports.
So where does this leave the atheist? Both the theist and the atheist agree that God does not “exist”. But when the theist says, “I believe in God”, the theist is saying that Being is characterised by God (as above). And this is where atheism parts company with theism: atheists do not believe that Being is necessarily characterized by the qualities we associate with “God”. It may be so characterized, but not necessarily so!
To understand this better, we need to turn to Einstein. Einstein said that the greatest cosmological question was whether or not the Universe is, on balance, benign. In spite of all the disorder and evil we experience, is there a bias, even just the slightest bias, the tiniest tilt, towards Good? To answer this question in the affirmative is to believe in God, i.e. to believe that the qualities we attribute to God necessarily characterize Being.
Conversely, to answer Einstein’s question in the negative, to deny any tilt towards Good, would constitute atheism. Note: to deny that there is a tilt towards Good is decidedly not to say that there is a tilt towards evil; that would be Satanism, not atheism. The atheist position would be that there is no tilt at all, that Being is qualitatively neutral.
There is one other possible variant: some atheists may deny the concept of Being entirely. They would argue that existents don’t need a ground, that there is no need to posit something shared among existents, that existents qua existents are all we need, that “things just are”, and that Being is a superfluous or meaningless concept.
And they would be right! Because if Being is qualitatively neutral, if it does not influence the character of existents in any way, then Being is an irrelevant concept and may be discarded from discourse. Of course, that is precisely what theists contest. They believe that Being does indeed make a difference, nothing short of the ultimate difference, and therefore cannot be disregarded or discarded.
This argument can be turned on its head. In the Process Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, it is the Good that characterizes Being essentially that makes it possible for existents to emerge. All ‘actual entities’ begin their ontological journey seeking the Good that is Being (God). “He is the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire…the ‘initial object of desire’ establishing the initial phase of each subjective aim.”
Without that urge, that desire, that lure, no actual entities would come to be. Whitehead’s argument recalls the ‘ontological argument’ in favor of God. Einstein’s question boils down to another more basic question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Atheists struggle mightily with this question; but for theists, the mere fact that things do exist demonstrates that there must be a fundamental bias toward Good and therefore a God.
Some “atheists” may not recognize their beliefs anywhere in this formulation. It turns out that to encompass all the varieties of belief commonly labeled as “atheist”, we actually need to distinguish three different types of atheism. The type described above, the belief that Being is qualitatively neutral (or entirely absent), we’ll call “Philosophical Atheism”. In addition to Philosophical Atheism, we need to recognize “Thetic Atheism” and “Iconoclastic Atheism”.
But before we delve into these other types of atheism, we need to make a quick detour. What if a person says, “I don’t know if there is a tilt towards Good; I don’t know whether Being is characterized by Good”; is that what we mean when we say that someone is “agnostic”?
Surprisingly, no, because when someone labels himself an agnostic, he states that he does not know (a-gnosis). But theists and philosophical atheists are also “agnostics” in this sense; they don’t know either. God is not a matter of knowledge but of faith.
Propositions such as “The qualities of God characterizes Being” and “there is a fundamental tilt towards Good” are inherently undecidable. They cannot be deduced logically from a set of incontrovertible axioms and they cannot be tested scientifically. More importantly, because they refer to the entirety, they are self-referential and subject to an infinite logical regress a la Gödel.
We have folks who believe that there is a tilt towards Good (theists) and folks who believe that there is not a tilt towards Good (philosophical atheists); both views are ultimately matters of faith. So when a person says he does not know whether or not there is a tilt towards Good and does not believe one way or other, he says nothing different from the theist or the atheist about the proposition itself. He merely abstains on the matter of faith. This is not a distinct philosophical position but merely the lack of one.
Now we are ready to return to the topic of this essay, atheism.
Theists and philosophical atheists agree on the fundamental point that God does not “exist”. But what about people who disagree with this, people who believe that God does in fact exist? Who are they, what exactly do they believe and where do they fit into this scheme?
To believe that God exists (is an existent) is necessarily to believe that God’s being is contingent (not necessary): God happens to exist but might not have. Universe might have included God…or not. They believe that God exists among other, ontologically congruent existents, and that God can be defined by contrasts with those other existents.
Are there any such people? In fact, there are…and they may well constitute the majority of humans living today. But who are they? In Biblical terms, these are the folks often pejoratively labeled as “idolaters”. Now that term does not have a very positive connotation in our era but such was not always the case. In ancient times, idolatry was the almost universal norm and a/theism the extreme exception. Idolatry was hip, a/theism was punishable by death.
Today, almost no one would label himself an “idolater”…but that does not mean that no one practices idolatry. An idolator takes a selection of God’s qualities and turns them into his conception of God.
Some people endow material things (good in and of themselves) with ultimate, god-like importance (e.g. wealth, power, sex, etc.). Others practice magic or follow superstitions, endowing mere existents with divine attributes. Even among the “faithful”, we find folks whose true allegiance is not to God but to ritual, custom or law.
Among self-proclaimed “atheists” we find those who have turned the absence of God into its own universal organizing principle. This is what we mean by “Thetic Atheism”. While the philosophical atheist merely denies the validity of qualitative conclusions drawn by theists from their faith in God, the thetic atheist draws her own qualitative conclusions from her belief in “No-god”.
The distinction is admittedly subtle. The philosophical atheist, true to the etymology of the word itself, merely denies the validity of certain propositions; the thetic atheist, on the other hand, asserts the validity of certain other (very different) propositions.
The “No-god” belief of the thetic atheist falls into the class of beliefs we are calling “idolatry”. In order for the absence of God to be an active organizing principle (not just the passive lack of a different organizing principle), that absence must somehow operate on the plane of existents, influencing and organizing other existents, and not on the plane of Being. Otherwise, the thetic atheist would be a philosophical atheist.
Finally, true agnosticism falls into this class of beliefs as well. While theism and philosophical atheism are both grounded in primal agnosticism, those who embrace the agnostic label in contrast to a/theism hold that god might or might not exist, that the existence of god is at least theoretically knowable, that the concept of god as an existent among other existents is logically possible and intellectually tenable. The agnostic simply states that he does not know whether such an existent actually exists or not.
Agnosticim is not a “third way” in contrast to theism and philosophical atheism; but it most definitely is a third way in contrast to idolatry and thetic atheism.
This brings us to the third type of atheism, “Iconoclastic Atheism”. The Iconoclastic Atheist is atheistic with respect to some particular deity, and by extension, a whole class of deities (idols), but not necessarily with respect to the concept of deity in general. It turns out that such Iconoclastic Atheism is logically and historically the root of both philosophical atheism and theism.
Iconoclastic Atheism was born out of the intellectual, emotional, even political rejection of idols and, ultimately, of idolatry itself. While many ancient rebels abandoned one set of idols and took up the worship of others, Iconoclastic Atheists saw through the entire notion of idolatry and rejected it.
Consider Abram turning his back on the gods (idols) of Ur; Moses rejecting the gods of Egypt; the early Christians of Asia Minor and Southern Europe abandoning the gods of Greek and Roman mythology in favor of Paul’s “unknown God”; Mohammad rejecting the desert deities of his tribe. These iconoclasts, who shaped the intellectual history of the West, did not reject the gods of their fathers in favor of other gods; they rejected that concept of god, period.
Of course, ultimately many of these revolutionaries and their followers came to be what we today would call theists. But their God is very different from the gods they overthrew:
“I am who am” (YHWH). Tell the people “I am sent you.” In other words, “I am am-ness itself.”
These religious pioneers did not merely trade one god for another; they traded one concept of God for another. They came to see God, not as an existent among existents, but as Being itself, characterized by that complex of qualities that “all men call God” (Thomas). The faith of the early Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities was faith that God is Being, that the qualities associated with God characterize Being, that there is therefore a fundamental tilt towards Good.
So atheism plays a central role in the theological history of the West. Starting with idolatry as a nearly universal phenomenon, Iconoclastic Atheists turned theology on its head. Many became what we today call theists; some of their descendants have since become philosophical atheists. Meanwhile, idolatry itself went “underground” where it remains very much alive and well in all its various manifestations: materialism, magic, legalism, thetic atheism and agnosticism. The real dichotomy, therefore, turns out not to be between the theist and the atheist but between the a/theist and the modern day idolater.