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Author: Paul Edwards
Editor: Donald M. Borchert
Date: 2006
Encyclopedia of Philosophy
From: Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Vol. 1. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 22
Content Level: (Level 5)

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The words atheist and godless are still frequently used as terms of abuse. Nevertheless, there are relatively few people nowadays in whom the thought of atheism and atheists arouses unspeakable horror. It seems to be agreed that an atheist can be a good person whose oaths and promises are no less trustworthy than those of other people, and in most civilized lands atheists have the same orPage 357  |  Top of Article nearly the same rights as anybody else. What is more, it appears to be generally realized that some of the world's foremost philosophers, scientists, and artists have been avowed atheists and that the increase in atheism has gone hand in hand with the spread of education. Even spokesmen of the most conservative religious groups in the mid-twentieth century conceded that atheism may well be a philosophical position that is adopted for the noblest of reasons. Thus, in "The Contemporary Status of Atheism" (1965), Jean-Marie Le Blond appealed to his fellow believers for a "truly human and mutually respectful dialogue" with atheists, insisting that a "life without God need not be … bestial, unintelligent, or immoral" and that atheism can be "serene and deeply human." In the previous year Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, had observed that some atheists were undoubtedly inspired by "greathearted dreams of justice and progress" as well as by "impatience with the mediocrity and self-seeking of so many contemporary social settings."


It was otherwise in earlier ages. One could fill many volumes with the abuse and calumny contained in the writings of Christian apologists, learned no less than popular. The tenor of these writings is not simply that atheism is mistaken but also that only a depraved person could adopt so hideous a position and that the spread of atheism would be a horrifying catastrophe for the human race. "No atheist as such," wrote Richard Bentley in Eight Sermons (1724), "can be a true friend, an affectionate relation, or a loyal subject." In the preface to his The True Intellectual System of the World (1678), Ralph Cudworth made it clear that he was addressing himself not to "downright and professed atheists" but to "weak, staggering and sceptical theists." Downright atheists were beyond the pale, for they had "sunk into so great a degree of sottishness" that they evidently could not be reached. Writing almost exactly two centuries later, the Protestant theologian Robert Flint, who readily admitted that he had met atheists of great courage and integrity, nevertheless expressed his extreme concern over the "strenuous propagation" of atheism, especially in the "periodical press." "The prevalence of atheism in any land," he wrote, "must bring with it national decay and disaster." The triumph of atheism in England would "bring with it hopeless national ruin." If once the workers of the large cities became atheists, "utter anarchy would be inevitable" (Anti-Theistic Theories, pp. 36–37). All these quotations are from British Protestants. Very similar and frequently more virulent remarks could be quoted from German, French, Italian, and American believers of the same periods.

In France until the Revolution and in most other countries until some time later, it was illegal to publish works in defense of atheism, and in fact real or alleged atheists were subject to dire persecution throughout the times of Christian domination. Some of the world's greatest philosophers were among those who advocated and in some instances actively promoted this persecution. The story antedates Christianity, and persecution of atheists was already advocated in Plato's Laws. Plato divided atheists into several groups, all of which must be punished; but whereas the members of some groups required no more than "admonition and imprisonment," those belonging to others deserved punishment exceeding "one death … or two." Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, II, 11, 3 and 4) had no doubt that unbelievers should be "shut off from the world by death." Such a course, he argued, is justified since it surely is "a much more serious matter to corrupt faith, through which comes the soul's life," than it is "to forge money, through which temporal life is afforded." If, as is just, forgers of money and other malefactors are straightaway put to death, it is all the more just that "heretics … be not only excommunicated but also put to death."

John Locke, one of the great pioneers of religious toleration, explicitly exempted Roman Catholics and atheists from the application of the principles he advocated. "Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society," he wrote, "can have no hold upon an atheist." Moreover, since atheism is not a religion but, on the contrary, a position that is out to "undermine and destroy all religion," it cannot come under the privilege of the toleration that is justly claimed by bona fide religions (A Letter concerning Toleration). It may be assumed that Locke did not advocate that atheists be shut off from the world, but that he was merely opposed to the free advocacy of atheism in writing and speech.

After Locke's time, the "shutting off" approach became infrequent, but atheists continued to be the victims of persecution and discrimination in various forms. To give some interesting and far from untypical illustrations: Baron d'Holbach's The System of Nature was falsely attributed in its first edition to Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud, a former secretary of the French Academy who had been dead for ten years. Very shortly after its publication in 1770, it was condemned to be burned by the public hangman after a trial in which the public prosecutor expressed his regret that he could not lay his hands on the unknown real author, adding that the corruption ofPage 358  |  Top of Article morals evident in almost all sections of society was very probably due to the spread of ideas like those contained in the condemned book. When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was an undergraduate at Oxford, he published a short and very temperate pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism. This at once aroused a violent protest that resulted in the burning of all undistributed copies and in the expulsion of Shelley and his friend Thomas Hogg from the university. Some years later Shelley was judicially deprived of the custody of his children on the ground that he was "likely to inculcate the same [atheistic] principles upon them." As late as 1877 Annie Besant, the noted social reformer, was judged to be unfit to take care of her children on the same ground, although the judge admitted that she had been a careful and affectionate mother. Until the passing of the Evidence Amendment Act of 1869, unbelievers in Great Britain were considered incompetent to give evidence in a court of law. Atheists were thus in effect unable to sue when they were the victims of fraud or slander. Charles Bradlaugh, whose efforts were largely responsible for the Act of 1869, was also the main figure in a prolonged battle to secure the right of avowed atheists to sit in the House of Commons. After Bradlaugh was elected, he was found unfit to take his seat. He won the resulting by-election and was again declared unfit to sit in the House, and this merry-go-round continued for several years, until a Conservative speaker found a legal way of securing Bradlaugh's admission. In the United States there has not been similar legal discrimination against atheists, but there is perhaps to this day more de facto discrimination and prejudice than in any other Western country.

A comprehensive entry on atheism would, among other things, trace the history of the persecution of real and alleged atheists, of the changes in public attitudes, and of the gradual repeal of discriminatory legislation. It would also inquire into the psychological sources of the hatred of atheists that is sometimes found in otherwise apparently kindly and sensible men. Because of space limitations, the present entry will, however, be largely confined to what is undoubtedly the most interesting question for philosophers: Is atheism a logically tenable position? What are the arguments for it, what are the arguments against it, and how strong are these, respectively? It will not be possible to deal exhaustively even with these questions, but an attempt will be made to sketch the position of a philosophically sophisticated atheist and to explain why a view of this kind has appealed to many important thinkers in recent times.


No definition of atheism could hope to be in accord with all uses of this term. However, it would be most confusing to adopt any of several definitions that can only be regarded as eccentric. These would result in classifying as believers many people who would not regard themselves as such (and who would not commonly be so regarded) and in classifying as atheists many people who have not usually been thought of in this way. Thus, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in denying the charge of atheism, wrote in "Über den Grund unseres Glaubens an eine Göttliche Weltregierung" that the "true atheist" is the person who, instead of following the voice of conscience, always calculates consequences before acting in a moral situation. Friedrich Jodl, who was himself a positivist and an unbeliever, similarly remarked that "only the man without ideals is truly an atheist," implying, no doubt, that, although he did not believe in God, he was not a "true" atheist (Vom Lebenswege, 2 vols., Stuttgart and Berlin, 1916–1917, Vol. II, p. 370.). In the twentieth century Paul Tillich defined atheism as the view that "life has no depth, that it is shallow." Anybody who says this "in complete seriousness is an atheist"; otherwise, he is not (Shaking of the Foundations, New York, 1948, p. 63). Stephen Toulmin, in an article ("On Remaining an Agnostic," Listener, October 17, 1957) in which he championed agnosticism as he understood it, distinguishes his own position from that of both believers and atheists in that, unlike them, he does not "find personal attitudes of any sort in Nature-at-large." The believer, according to Toulmin, regards the Cosmic Powers as friendly to man, while the atheist regards the cosmos as indifferent or as "positively callous."

Whatever the point of the definitions just quoted, their paradoxical consequences make them useless in the present context. For our purposes, definitions of atheism and corresponding definitions of God will be serviceable only if they preserve, at least roughly, the traditional battle lines. Whatever their differences, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, George Berkeley, William Paley, Henry Longueville Mansel, J. S. Mill, William James, Paul Tillich, and John Hick should continue to be classified as believers; T. H. Huxley, Leslie Stephen, and Clarence Darrow as agnostics; and Holbach, Ludwig Büchner, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre as atheists. The definition proposed in the present entry will, in taking account of certain complexities of the situation, depart in a significant respect from the one that is most popular, but it will not involve reclassification of any of the great philosophersPage 359  |  Top of Article of the past. According to the most usual definition, an atheist is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence "God exists" expresses a false proposition. In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God, that is, whether the sentence "God exists" expresses a true proposition. On our definition, an atheist is a person who rejects belief in God, regardless of whether or not the reason for the rejection is the claim that "God exists" expresses a false proposition. People frequently adopt an attitude of rejection toward a position for reasons other than that it is a false proposition. It is common among contemporary philosophers, and indeed it was not uncommon in earlier centuries, to reject positions on the ground that they are meaningless. Sometimes, too, a theory is rejected on such grounds as that it is sterile or redundant or capricious, and there are many other considerations that in certain contexts are generally agreed to constitute good grounds for rejecting an assertion. An atheist in the narrower, more popular sense, is ipso facto an atheist in our broader sense, but the converse does not hold.


Before exploring the implications of our definition any further, something should be said about the different uses of the word God and the correspondingly different positions, all of which have been referred to as "belief in God." For our purposes, it will be sufficient to distinguish three of these. All the believers in question have characterized God as a supreme personal being who is the creator or the ground of the universe and who, whatever his other attributes may be, is at the very least immensely powerful, highly intelligent, and very good, loving, and just. While some of them would maintain that the predicates just mentioned—"powerful," "good," and the rest—are used in a literal sense when applied to God, other believers insist that when applied to God, these, and indeed all or almost all, predicates must be employed in "metaphorical," "symbolic," or "analogical" senses. Let us, without implying anything derogatory, refer to the belief that predicates can be applied literally to God as the "anthropomorphic" conception of God and to the belief that predicates can only be applied analogically to God as the "metaphysical" conception of God.

Among professional philosophers, belief in the metaphysical God has been much more common than belief in the anthropomorphic God. This metaphysical position is at least as old as Thomas (and, it may be plausibly argued, as old as Plato). In the early eighteenth century it was championed by Peter Browne, bishop of Cork, who was trying to answer difficulties raised by the infidel John Toland. In the nineteenth century this position was defended by Mansel in his Bampton Lectures, and in the twentieth century it was a key feature of Tillich's philosophy. God, on Tillich's view, "infinitely transcends every finite being"; between the finite and the infinite there is "an absolute break, an 'infinite jump'"; there is here "no proportion and gradation." When we say, for example, "God is Love," or "God is Life," the words love and life are used symbolically, not literally. They were originally introduced in connection with "segments of finite experience," and when applied to God, they cannot have the same meaning that they have in ordinary human situations.

The anthropomorphic position is by no means confined to unsophisticated believers. It has commanded the support of several eminent philosophers, especially believers who were also empiricists or otherwise opposed to rationalism. Thus, Berkeley emphatically defended the anthropomorphic position against Bishop Browne. In Alciphron Berkeley attacked Browne's procedure on the ground that unless "wise" and "good" are used in the same sense for God and man, "it is evident that every syllogism brought to prove those attributes, or (which is the same thing) to prove the being of a God, will be found to consist of four terms, and consequently can conclude nothing." In the nineteenth century J. S. Mill championed anthropomorphic belief as opposed to the metaphysical theology of Hamilton and Mansel; more recently, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, who is perhaps best classified as a fideist, indicted the metaphysical God as a "Nothing-God" and a "dead thing." In The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples he wrote that such a fleshless abstraction cannot be the answer to the cravings of the human heart. Only the anthropomorphic God can ever be "the loving God," the God to whom we come "by the way of love and of suffering."

Among those who believe in an anthropomorphic God, there are two positions to be distinguished. First, there is the more traditional position that allows no limitations upon the extent to which God possesses the various admirable characteristics—on this view, God is all-powerful, all-loving, infinitely good, perfectly just, and so on. Second, there is the somewhat heretical position of those who, while maintaining that God possesses these characteristics to a high degree, allow that he is limited at least in his power or in his goodness. Mill, who believed in such a finite anthropomorphic deity, claimed that regardless of the official pronouncements of the various religions, in actual practice most Western believers adhered to a theory like his own.

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A few words must be said about the possible meanings of creation when God is referred to as the creator (or ground) of the universe. Thomas Aquinas, in his On the Eternity of the World and elsewhere, makes a distinction between the temporal sense in which God is supposed to have made the universe at a certain moment in time, prior to which it did not exist, and the more sophisticated sense in which it is asserted that the universe is absolutely dependent on God so that it would cease to exist if God were not sustaining it. Thomas himself believed in God's creation of the universe in both senses, but it was only in the second sense that he regarded the theory of divine creation as susceptible of logical proof. Both these senses must be distinguished from the creative activity ascribed to the demiurge of Plato's Timaeus or to Mill's God. Here the deity is not, strictly, a creator but merely an arranger of preexisting material. For the purposes of this entry, a person will count as a believer in the creation of the universe by God if he or she makes any of three claims just distinguished.


Let us now return to our definition of atheism. A person is an atheist in our sense who adopts an attitude of rejection toward all three theistic positions previously stated—belief in a metaphysical God, in an infinite anthropomorphic God, and in a finite anthropomorphic God. He or she will count as a believer in God if maintaining that "God exists" expresses a true proposition, where "God" is employed in one of the three ways described. A person will be an agnostic who does not accept any of these three claims but at the same time suspends judgment concerning at least one of them. It will be observed that on our way of drawing the lines, agnosticism and atheism remain distinct positions, since suspension of judgment and rejection are different attitudes.

The broader definition here adopted enables us to classify together philosophers whose attitudes toward belief in God are exceedingly similar, although their detailed reasons may not always coincide. Rudolf Carnap, for example, regards metaphysical theology as meaningless, while treating belief in an infinite as well as a finite anthropomorphic God as "mythology," implying that both are false or probably false. In our sense, he can be classified as an atheist without further ado, and it is doubtful that believers would consider him less hostile than atheists in the narrower sense. It is also worth observing that our broader definition receives a good deal of backing from the actual writings of philosophers and others who regarded themselves as atheists. Many of them were by no means unaware of the fact that the word God has a number of uses and that what may be a plausible justification for rejecting one kind of belief in God may be quite inappropriate in the case of another. Charles Bradlaugh, for example, made it very clear that in calling himself an atheist he did not simply maintain that there is no God. In his "Plea for Atheism," he wrote:

The atheist does not say "there is no God," but he says "I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word 'God' is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation.… The Bible God I deny; the Christian God I disbelieve in; but I am not rash enough to say there is no God as long as you tell me you are unprepared to define God to me."

The writings of Jean Meslier, Holbach, and other eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century atheists, while certainly containing remarks to the effect that the sentence "God exists" expresses a false proposition, are also full of claims that once we critically examine the talk about a "pure spirit" that supposedly exists timelessly and without a body, we find that words have been used without any meaning. In any event, by using the word atheism in the broader sense, it will be possible to discuss certain antitheological considerations of great interest that would otherwise have to be excluded.


In this section we shall discuss two of the arguments popular among atheistic writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In later sections we shall present considerations commonly urged by Anglo-Saxon writers in more recent years. However, in a rudimentary form these more recent reflections are already present in the writings of earlier atheists, just as the older arguments continue to be pressed in current literature.


The first of the two older atheistic arguments is based on the doctrine of the eternity of matter, or, to bring it more in accord with recent physical theory, the eternity of mass-energy. (As far as the basic issues here are concerned, it is not of any moment whether what is said to be eternal is matter or energy or mass-energy, and for the sake of convenience we shall speak only of the eternity of "matter.") There are two steps in this argument. It is claimed, first, either as something self-evident or as a proposition proved by science, that matter is eternal; second, it is asserted that this claim rules out a God conceived as the creator of the material universe. If the physical universe had been created byPage 361  |  Top of Article God, it would follow that there was a time when the quantity of matter was less than it is now, when it was in fact zero. But physics proves or presupposes that the quantity of matter has always been the same.

Since most ordinary people include "creator of the material universe" in their concept of God, and since they mean by creation a temporal act of making something out of nothing, the appeal to the eternity of matter is effective as a popular argument for atheism. A little reflection shows, however, that by itself the argument is of very limited significance. To begin with, regardless of any scientific evidence, the doctrine of the eternity of matter, in all its forms, would be challenged by anybody who accepts any of the causal varieties of the Cosmological Argument. Such a person would presumably argue that while conservation principles may accurately describe a certain feature of the material universe ever since it began existing, the material universe itself requires a nonmaterial cause. Hence, any atheistic conclusion in the present context would have to be accompanied by a refutation of the causal forms of the Cosmological Argument. But granting for the moment that the eternity of matter is fully established, this is not incompatible with the theory of divine creation in the sense in which it has been put forward by its philosophically more sophisticated adherents. The eternity of matter is no doubt incompatible with the existence of a God who made the material universe out of nothing and with the kind of activity in which the demiurge is supposed to engage (since bringing order into previously chaotic materials requires the addition of energy); but it is not incompatible with creation in the second of the two senses distinguished by Thomas, in which creation means "absolute dependence" and does not refer to any datable act. There may indeed be some difficulty in the notion of a nonphysical entity nonphysically sustaining the universe, and it is tempting to think that this is an intelligible doctrine simply because the words sustain and depend immediately call up certain pictures in one's mind; but these difficulties raise rather different questions. Finally, in this connection it should be pointed out that the eternity of matter in all its forms is compatible with a belief in God or gods, like those of the Epicureans and Thomas Hobbes (if Hobbes was serious), who are physical beings, or in gods of any kind, as long as it is not claimed that these have created the universe or any aspect of it.

A few words should perhaps be added here about the claim of some writers that the doctrine of the eternity of matter in all its forms has now been refuted by physics and that physics even somehow proves the existence of God. In this connection it should be mentioned, first, that the great majority of scientifically informed philosophers agree that the findings of recent physics do not affect the issues dividing believers and unbelievers, and, second, that even if the doctrine of the eternity of matter were now untenable in all its forms, this would undermine one of the arguments for atheism, but not atheism itself. If there was a time when matter did not exist (assuming this to be a meaningful assertion), it does not automatically follow that matter was created by God. To show that matter was created by God, an appeal to the Cosmological Argument (and not to physics) would be as necessary as ever. As for the theory of continuous creation, advocated by some cosmologists, it does indeed imply that the principle of the conservation of mass-energy is false. However, the basic assumption behind the theory of continuous creation is the so-called perfect cosmological principle, which is in effect an endorsement of the eternity of matter. This principle asserts that the large-scale aspects of the universe are the same at all times and in all places; and this, more specifically, means that the stars and galaxies have always been about as evenly distributed as they are at the present time.


Among the traditional atheistic arguments a second type has generally been regarded as more formidable and still enjoys an undiminished popularity. This type of argument points to some imperfection or defect in the universe and argues that the defect is incompatible with the existence of God insofar as God is defined as a perfect being.

Among the imperfections or alleged imperfections, emphasis has frequently been placed on the enormous waste in nature, especially in matters of reproduction, and on the trial-and-error "method" of evolution. Referring to the process of evolution, G. H. Lewes remarked that "nothing could be more unworthy of a supreme intelligence than this inability to construct an organism at once, without making several tentative efforts, undoing today what was so carefully done yesterday, and repeating for centuries the same tentatives and the same corrections in the same succession." And if the end of this entire process is man, it has been questioned whether it was worth all the pain and tribulations that preceded it. "If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in," writes Bertrand Russell, "I should not think Man much to boast of as the final result of my efforts" (Religion and Science, p. 222). Again, it has been suggested by several writers, and not at all facetiously, that if there were a God, then surely he would have provided human beings with clearer evidence of his own existence.Page 362  |  Top of Article If an omniscient and omnipotent God did not take care that his intentions should be understood by his creatures, asked Nietzsche, "could he be a God of goodness?" Would he not, rather, be a cruel god if, "being himself in possession of the truth, he could calmly contemplate mankind, in a state of miserable torment, worrying its mind as to what was truth?" (Morgenröte, Aphorism 91). If a God exists, then, in the words of Charles Bradlaugh, "he could have so convinced all men of the fact of his existence that doubt, disagreement, or disbelief would be impossible."

The most widely discussed of all these arguments from the imperfections of the universe is the argument from evil, and it may be best to restrict our discussion to it. The following is a statement by Brand Blanshard:

We are told that with God all things are possible. If so, it was possible for him to create a world in which the vast mass of suffering that is morally pointless—the pain and misery of animals, the cancer and blindness of little children, the humiliations of senility and insanity—were avoided. These are … apparently … inflictions of the Creator himself. If you admit that, you deny his goodness; if you say he could not have done otherwise, you deny that with him all things are possible. ("Irrationalism in Theology," in Faith and the Philosophers, edited by John Hick, London, 1964, p. 172)

It should be emphasized that the argument from evil, as here stated, is directed against the conclusion of the believer in an infinite anthropomorphic God and is not merely a criticism of his evidence. On occasions, for example in David Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, the argument has been used for the milder purpose of showing that the Design Argument cannot succeed in establishing a maker of the universe who is both omnipotent and perfectly good. It argues from the nature of the world to the nature of its cause, and since the world is a mixture of good and evil, it cannot be established in this way that its creator is perfectly good. The form in which we are concerned with the argument from evil—what we may call its stronger sense—maintains that the evil in the world shows the theological claim to be false. The argument may be construed as comparing the theological assertion to a falsified scientific hypothesis: If the theory that the universe is the work of an all-powerful and all-good being were true, then the universe would not exhibit certain features; experience shows that it does exhibit these features, and hence the theory is false.

The argument from evil has no logical force against belief in a finite God. The evil in the world is perfectly compatible with the existence of a God who is lacking either omnipotence or perfect goodness, or both. In fact, E. S. Brightman and the American personalists and other well-known champions of belief in a finite anthropomorphic God adopted their position precisely in order to reconcile belief in God with the existence of evil. There is also no obvious incompatibility between the existence of the metaphysical God and the evil in the world, since it is not claimed for the metaphysical God either that he is all-powerful or that he is perfectly good in the ordinary senses of these words. Mansel, for example, in Limits of Religious Thought openly acknowledged that in the light of the injustice and suffering we find in the world, the moral character of God cannot be represented "after the model of the highest human morality which we are capable of conceiving." His position, Mansel insisted, unlike the position of anthropomorphic believers, to whom Mansel referred as "vulgar Rationalists" in this context, was immune from difficulties like the problem of evil Substantially similar remarks are to be found in the writings of many other members of this tradition.

The most basic objections to metaphysical theology will be discussed in the next section, but perhaps it should be mentioned in passing that according to some critics, philosophers like Mansel have a tendency to revert to the view that God is good in the very same sense in which human beings are sometimes good and, more generally, to anthropomorphic theology. This is not at all surprising since, like other believers, they derive or wish to derive comfort and reassurance from their theology. Such comfort may be derivable from the view that the ultimate reality is good and just in the sense or one of the senses in which we use these terms when we praise good and just human beings. No comfort at all, on the other hand, seems derivable from the statement that God is good and just but that "the true nature and manner of all the divine operation of goodness," in the words of Bishop Browne, "is utterly incomprehensible" or that they differ from human justice and goodness, as Mansel put it, "in kind," not only in degree.

There is a long history of attempts by believers to show that the argument from evil does not really refute the assertion that an infinite anthropomorphic God exists. It has been maintained by some that evil is unreal; by others that, although real, it is of a "privative" rather than a "positive" character; that it is real and positive but that it is the consequence of man's abuse of his gift of free will and that a universe without evil and without free will would be worse than one with both; that the argument is based on a narrow hedonistic conception of good and evilPage 363  |  Top of Article and that, in any event, the theological position cannot be adequately judged unless it is viewed in conjunction with belief in an afterlife in which the wrongs of the present life will somehow be righted; and many more. Critics have come up with various answers to these rejoinders, and the discussion has been going on with unabated vigor in recent years. There would be little point in reviewing this debate here, but something should perhaps be said about two retorts by believers that have not been adequately discussed by the proponents of the argument from evil.

A Christian rejoinder

One rejoinder to the argument from evil seems to be of considerable value in showing that this argument does not by itself justify rejection of belief in an infinite anthropomorphic God. It has been argued (for example, by Arnold Lunn in his exchange of letters with C. E. M. Joad published in Is Christianity True?, London and Philadelphia, 1933) that although the existence of evil cannot be reconciled with the existence of an infinite anthropomorphic God, this is not too serious a problem in view of the powerful affirmative evidence for this position. In other areas too, Lunn reminds us, we do not abandon a well-supported theory just because we meet with some counterevidence. He is not in the least disturbed by "the fact that divine science, like natural science, brings us face to face with apparently insoluble contradictions." This hardly disposes of the argument from evil, as Lunn seems to think. The comparison between the difficulty that a believer faces from the facts of evil and the difficulties besetting a scientific theory for which there is otherwise strong evidence is somewhat tenuous. There are indeed cases answering to this description in science, but they are invariably resolved by further inquiry. Either we come to see that the difficulty or exception was merely apparent or else the original theory is modified or abandoned. In the theological case, several millennia of experience and debate do not seem to have brought us any nearer a resolution. But, assuming that Lunn's comparison fails as a defense of belief in an infinite anthropomorphic God, there can be no question that he would have made out a strong case in favor of agnosticism as opposed to atheism if there were in fact good evidence for the existence of the God in question. If, for example, the Cosmological Argument were, as far as we can judge, free from fallacious transitions, we would have a situation similar to the kind we frequently face in which there is significant and roughly equally impressive evidence both ways (for example, some apparently trustworthy witnesses implicating the defendant in a court case, while other equally trustworthy witnesses exonerate) and in which suspense of judgment is the most rational attitude. The moral for our discussion is that an atheist cannot afford to neglect the arguments for the existence of God. Unless they can be demolished, the argument from evil will not by itself establish the atheist's case, even if none of the answers mentioned earlier are in fact successful.

A fideistic rejoinder

Another rejoinder to the argument from evil has become extremely popular in recent years among existentialist believers and all who maintain that arguments for or against the existence of God are, as it is put, radically beside the point. We are told that one simply either has faith or one has not, one is either "open" to the presence of God or one is not. If one has faith, proofs and reasoning are not needed; if one lacks faith, they are of no avail. A person who has faith is not shaken by absence of evidence or by counterevidence; a person who has no faith will never become a true believer even if intellectually convinced by the arguments of rationalistic theology.

Systematic defenses by those who adopt such a position are exceedingly rare, but in 1964 an article appeared by an existentialist philosopher who seems familiar with contemporary analytic philosophy and whose answer to the argument from evil is representative of this entire approach. In his "On the Eclipse of God" (Commentary, June 1964, pp. 55–60), Emil Fackenheim insists that the essential mark of the faith of a person who is "primordially open to God" is certainty, or, specifically, "the believer's certainty of standing in relation to an unprovable and irrefutable God" (Fackenheim's italics). It is this "irrefutability" of his faith that, Fackenheim believes, enables him to circumvent the problem of evil. No conceivable experience, he insists, can possibly upset the true biblical faith. If there is good fortune, it "reveals the hand of God." If the fortune is bad and if this cannot be explained as just punishment, the conclusion is that "God's ways are unintelligible, not that there are no ways of God." To put it "radically": "Religious faith can be, and is, empirically verifiable; but nothing empirical can possibly refute it" (Fackenheim's italics). Fackenheim cites the examples of Jeremiah, Job, and the Psalmist, all of whom encountered tragedy and disaster without losing their faith in the existence of God. Biblical faith, he observes in this connection, "is never destroyed by tragedy but only tested by it," and in the course of such a test, it "conquers" tragedy. To underline the invulnerability of this position, Fackenheim adds that no amount of scientific evidence can "affect" biblical belief any more than "historical tragedy" or "an empty heart" can.

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What is to be said in reply to all this, especially to the remarkable claim, made in all seriousness, that although faith is empirically verifiable, nothing can possibly refute it? The answer is surely that there is a confusion here between logical and psychological issues. Fackenheim may well have given an accurate account of faith as a psychological phenomenon, but this is totally irrelevant to the question at issue among believers, agnostics, and atheists—namely, which position is favored by the evidence or lack of evidence. All the words—destroy, test, conquer, affect, and refute—are used ambiguously in this as in countless similar discussions. They refer on the one hand to certain psychological effects (or their absence) and on the other to the relation between facts and a proposition for or against which these facts are (or fail to be) evidence. If the question at issue were whether tragedy and injustice can produce loss of belief in a person who has the "biblical faith," the answer may well be in the negative, and Fackenheim's examples support such an answer. They have not the slightest bearing, however, on the question of whether the tragedies and the injustices in the world disprove or make improbable or are any kind of evidence against the statement that the world is the work of an all-powerful and all-good God—the statement in which the believers have faith. The first question may be of great psychological and human interest, and if Fackenheim is right, then a person interested in dissuading "biblical" believers would be foolish even to try. It is the second question alone, however, that is of interest to philosophers, and it alone is at issue between believers and unbelievers. By telling his biblical stories, Fackenheim has done nothing whatsoever to circumvent the problem of evil or to show that what the believer has faith in is immune to criticism.

Before leaving this topic, a few words are in order about a certain concession, occasionally made by unbelievers, which does not appear to be warranted. Some atheists are willing to concede that whereas they can come to grips with rationalistic believers, they are powerless when faced with a fideist like Fackenheim. Thus, Ernest Nagel, in his "Defense of Atheism," remarks that such a position is "impregnable to rational argument." Now, if a proposition, p, is endorsed on the basis of faith and not on the basis of logical arguments, then indeed a critic cannot undermine any arguments supporting p, but may well be in a position to test (and falsify) p itself. If a fideist were to maintain, admitting from the outset that there is no evidence for the proposition and that it is based on faith alone, that the New York Times sells for 50 cents on weekdays, there is of course no evidence for the proposition that can be attacked, but this would not prevent us from disproving the assertion. Any plea by the fideist there is no evidence or that no evidence can ever move him or her will not have the slightest bearing on the soundness of the refutation. A proponent of the argument from evil would similarly maintain that the assertion of the existence of an infinite anthropomorphic deity has certain publicly testable consequences—that there is no evil in the world or at least not certain kinds of evil—and that experience shows these to be false. It would be to the point to argue either that the assertion of the existence of such a deity does not really have the consequences in question or that experience does not really falsify them; but it is totally beside the point to maintain either that faith in an infinite anthropomorphic God is not, in the case of a particular believer, based on any evidence or that the believer will not abandon his or her position, come what may.


In presenting the case against metaphysical theology, we shall concentrate on the views of Tillich and his disciple, Bishop J. A. T. Robinson, whose Honest to God created such a stir among theologians when it was published in 1963. No defender of this position had as much influence in the mid-twentieth century as Tillich. Moreover, his statement of the position is radical and uncompromising and is thus easier to discuss than more qualified versions. At the same time it may well be the case that some of these more qualified versions are not open to quite the same objections. In particular, it might be claimed that the Thomistic doctrine of analogy enables its proponents to escape both the difficulties of straightforward anthropomorphic theology and those besetting Tillich's position.

Tillich and Robinson entirely agree with atheists that belief in any anthropomorphic deity should be rejected. Traditional theism, Tillich writes, "has made God a heavenly, completely perfect person who resides above the world and mankind" (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 271). Against such a highest person, he goes on, "the protest of atheism is correct." Elsewhere Tillich repeatedly pours scorn on what he terms "monarchic monotheism" and the theology of the "cosmic policeman." Following Tillich, Bishop Robinson tells us that we must now give up belief in God as somebody "out there," just as Copernican astronomy made people abandon "the old man in the sky." Most believers, he writes, are inclined to think of God as a kind of "visitorPage 365  |  Top of Article from outer space" (Honest to God, p. 50). Unlike the "old man in the sky" or the "visitor from outer space," the God of Tillich and Robinson is not another individual entity beside the familiar entities of experience, not even the "most powerful" or the "most perfect" one. He is "being-itself." As such, God is not contingent but necessary, and arguments for his existence are not required. The idea of God, writes Tillich, is not the idea of "something or someone who might or might not exist" (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 205). "In making God an object besides other objects, the existence and nature of which are matters of argument, theology supports the escape to atheism.… The first step to atheism is always a theology which drags God down to the level of doubtful things" (Shaking of the Foundations, p. 52).

It should be mentioned in passing that to some readers of Tillich and Robinson there appears to be a radical ambiguity in their entire position, specifically in the reasons they give for rejecting the anthropomorphic theory of the God "out there." At times we are told that the old-fashioned believers are mistaken because God is really inside us—insofar as our lives have "depth," insofar as we live "agapeistically." This is what we may call the Feuerbachian tendency in Tillich and his followers. At other times anthropomorphic theology is denounced because God so radically transcends anything we ever experience that the picture of a glorified man cannot possibly do justice to the reality. In the former context, God must not be said to be "out there" because he is really "in here deep down," in the latter context, because he is too removed to be even out there. In the former context, theological sentences become a species of very special psychological statements, and in the latter they are clearly items of transcendent metaphysics. There seems to be a constant oscillation between these two positions, so that at times traditional theology is denounced for not being sufficiently this-worldly, while at other times it is condemned for being too close to the world. The former position is of no interest to us, since it may rightly be dismissed as not being in any accepted sense a theological position at all—it is clearly quite compatible with the most thoroughgoing positivism and atheism. Our discussion will therefore be confined to the latter position exclusively.

As already explained in a previous section, Tillich (that is, Tillich the transcendent metaphysician) regards God as so vastly transcending any finite, familiar entity that predicates taken from ordinary experience cannot be employed in their literal senses when applied to God but must be used symbolically or metaphorically. There is just one statement that we can make about God in which all words are used "directly and properly," namely, that "God as being-itself is the ground of the ontological structure of being without being subject to the structure himself." Tillich expands this statement as follows: "God is that structure; that is, he has the power of determining the structure of everything that has being" (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 239). If anything is said beyond this "bare assertion," Tillich insists it cannot be regarded any longer as a "direct and proper statement." Although all other predicates must be used symbolically when applied to God, certain symbols are justified or appropriate, while others are unjustified or inappropriate, since the former "point" to aspects of the ultimate reality, while the latter do not. Thus, we are justified in speaking of God, symbolically, as "King," "father," and "healing." These are "pointers to the "divine life."


A philosophically sophisticated atheist would object to Tillich's theology not on the ground that it is false or not proven but on the very different ground that it is unintelligible—that it consists of sentences that may be rich in pictorial associations and in expressive meaning but that fail to make any genuine assertions. Tillich's position may indeed be immune to the difficulties of an anthropomorphic theology, but only at the expense of not saying anything about the world. This criticism would almost certainly be offered by anybody who accepts an empiricist criterion of meaning, but it is worth pointing out that it is an objection that has been endorsed, in substance if not in precisely these words, by numerous believers in an anthropomorphic God. Voltaire on occasion objected on such grounds to the theologians who claimed that we must not use words in their familiar senses when applying them to God, and it has already been mentioned that Unamuno dismissed the metaphysical God as a "Nothing" and a "dead thing." Similarly, William James objected to the emptiness of the "universalistic" theology of the Hegelians of his day, preferring what he called a particularistic belief.

Untranslatable metaphors

This criticism might be backed up in the following way: While recognizing that he constantly uses words symbolically or metaphorically, Tillich does not appreciate the difference between translatable and untranslatable metaphors, and he does not see that his own metaphors are untranslatable. Very frequently indeed, especially in ordinary life, when words are used metaphorically, the context or certain special conventions make it clear what is asserted. Thus, the editor of an encyclopedia, when asked why he or she looks so troubled, may reply, "Too many cares are weighing down on me—the pressure is too great." Obviously the words weighing down and pressure are here metaphorical, yet wePage 366  |  Top of Article all understand what is being said. Why? Because the metaphorical expressions are translatable—because we can eliminate them, because we can specify in nonmetaphorical terms what the sentence is used to assert. If the metaphors could not be eliminated, we would not have succeeded in making any assertion.

A critic would proceed to argue that Tillich's metaphors are of the untranslatable variety and that when he has offered what seem to him translations, he has really only substituted one metaphor for another. Tillich believed that in his basic statement, quoted earlier, all words are used literally, or "properly." But this is open to question. The word ground, for example, is surely not used in any of its literal senses when being-itself is said to be the ground of the ontological structure of being. It can hardly be used in the physical sense in which the floor or the grass underneath our feet could be regarded as a "ground," or in the logical sense in which the premises of an argument may be the ground for endorsing the conclusion. Similar remarks apply to the use of structure, power, and determine. Hence, when we are told that "God is personal" (which is acknowledged to be metaphorical) means "God is the ground of everything personal," or that "God lives" (which is also acknowledged to be metaphorical) means "God is the ground of life," one set of metaphors is exchanged for another, and literal significance is not achieved. Tillich's God, it should be remembered, is so transcendent that not even mystical experience acquaints us with him. "The idea of God," he writes, "transcends both mysticism and the person-to-person encounter" (The Courage To Be, p. 178). Consequently, he does not have at his disposal any statements in which God is literally characterized and that could serve as the translations of the metaphorical utterances. The absence of such statements literally characterizing being-itself equally prevent Tillich from justifying the employment of his set of "symbols" as appropriate and the rejection of other symbols as inappropriate.

Unfalsifiability of metaphysical theology

We noted earlier that a metaphysical theology like Tillich's avoids the troublesome problem of evil because it does not maintain that God is perfectly good or, indeed, omnipotent in any of the ordinary or literal senses of these words. This very immunity would, however, be invoked by some critics as a decisive objection and they would, by a somewhat different route, reach the same conclusion—namely, that Tillich's theological sentences do not amount to genuine assertions. The point in question may perhaps be most forcefully presented by contrasting Tillich's position with that of anthropomorphic believers such as John Hick or A. C. Ewing. Hick and Ewing are (theoretically) very much concerned with the problem of evil. They argue that given the nature of man and a world with dependable sequences (or causal laws), evil of certain kinds is unavoidable, and furthermore that (though they do not, of course, claim to be able to prove this) in the next life there will be appropriate rewards and compensations. They admit or imply that their belief would be logically weakened, perhaps fatally so, it if could be shown that there is no afterlife or that in the afterlife injustice and misery, far from vanishing, will be even more oppressive than in the present life, or that the evils which, given the nature of man and a world of dependable sequences, they thought to be unavoidable, could in fact have been prevented by an omnipotent Creator. Tillich, however, need not be (theoretically) concerned about any such contingencies. Even if things in this life became vastly more horrible than they already are, or even if we had conclusive evidence that in the afterlife things are so bad that by comparison, Auschwitz and Belsen were kingdoms of joy and justice, Tillich's theology would be totally unaffected. Being-itself, as Tillich put it, would still be "actual": It is not "something or someone who might or might not exist." God, as Bishop Robinson puts it, is not a "problematic" entity, which might conceivably not have been there." This is true of the anthropomorphic deity, but not of what Tillich in one place terms "the God above God" (Listener, August 1961, pp. 169ff.).

In other words, unlike the position of Hick and Ewing, Tillich's theology is compatible with anything whatsoever in this life as well as in the next one; and it is the opinion of many contemporary philosophers, believers as well as unbelievers, that if a putative statement is compatible with anything whatsoever, if it excludes no conceivable state of affairs, then it is not a genuine assertion (it should be noted that "state of affairs" is not used in a narrow way so that much that positivists exclude, for example, happiness or suffering in the next world, could count as conceivable states of affairs). This criterion may, of course, be questioned, but if it is accepted, then Tillich's theology, unlike that of anthropomorphic believers, would have to be condemned as devoid of any assertive force.

We have not here considered other variants of metaphysical theology, but those opposed to Tillich's system for the reasons here outlined would maintain that other forms of this general outlook are bound to be open to some of the same objections: In every case, words would have to be used in a metaphorical way in crucial places, and these metaphors would turn out to be untranslatable;Page 367  |  Top of Article in every case it would be impossible to justify the employment of one set of metaphors or symbols in preference to another, and in every case the author of the system would be unable to specify what conceivable state of affairs is excluded by his sentences or, if he did do so, the exclusion could be shown to be arbitrary in a way that would not be true of the statements of anthropomorphic believers.


It is time to discuss a very common challenge to atheists. The challenge is usually issued by agnostics, but it would in general also be endorsed by fideistic believers. "It is admittedly impossible," the critic would reason, "to prove the existence of God, but it is equally impossible to disprove his existence; hence, we must either suspend judgment or, if we embrace some position, we must do so on the basis of faith alone." To avoid misleading associations of the words prove and disprove, the same point may be expressed by saying that we have no evidence either for or against God's existence. Sometimes the reminder is added that the mere failure of the arguments for the existence of God does not show that there is no God. Anybody who supposed this would plainly be guilty of the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam.

If certain of the considerations advanced by atheists that were discussed in previous sections are sound, this agnostic charge would be quite beside the point as far as belief in an infinite anthropomorphic or a metaphysical God is concerned. For in that event, the first theory can be shown to be false (with certain qualifications explained earlier), and the second can be rejected on the ground that it is unintelligible. In the case of an infinite anthropomorphic God, there is evidence against the position; in the case of a metaphysical God, we do not have a coherent position. However, when we turn to the question of a finite anthropomorphic God, the challenge does at first sight seem very plausible. As already pointed out, the argument from evil does not affect this position, and we may, at least provisionally, grant that belief in a finite anthropomorphic God is intelligible because the predicates used in expressing it are applied to this deity in their familiar senses. We shall see, before long, that there are difficulties in regard to the intelligibility of even this position, but waiving all considerations of this kind for the moment, let us inquire how an atheist could reply to this challenge. It is admitted by the challenger that there is no evidence for the existence of such a deity; where, he asks, is the evidence against its existence? If there is none, why should one be an atheist rather than an agnostic? Why is atheism justified if we cannot be sure that there is no God in the sense under discussion?


In justifying his position, an atheist should perhaps begin by calling attention to the fact that the agnostics who suspend judgment concerning God are not also agnostics in relation to the gods of the Greeks or in relation to the devil and witches. Like the majority of other educated people, most agnostics reject and do not suspend judgment concerning the Olympian gods or the devil or witches. Assuming that rejection is the appropriate attitude in these cases, what justifies this rejection?

It will be instructive to look at a concrete example of such a belief that is rejected by agnostics and atheists alike and, incidentally, by most believers in God. Billy Graham is one of the few Protestant ministers who still believe in the devil. The devil is introduced by Dr. Graham as the only plausible explanatory principle of a great many phenomena. He is brought in to explain the constant defeat of the efforts of constructive and well-meaning people, the perverse choices of men who so commonly prefer what is degrading to what is "rich and beautiful and ennobling," the speed with which lies and slander spread in all directions, and also the failure of the world's diplomats. "Could men of education, intelligence, and honest intent," asks Dr. Graham, "gather around a world conference table and fail so completely to understand each other's needs and goals if their thinking was not being deliberately clouded and corrupted?" All such failures are "the works of the devil" and they show that he "is a creature of vastly superior intelligence, a mighty and gifted spirit of infinite resourcefulness." The devil is no "bungling creature" but "a prince of lofty stature, of unlimited craft and cunning, able to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself" (Peace with God, New York, 1954, pp. 59–63).

What reasons could or would be given for rejecting this explanation of diplomatic failures in terms of the devil's cunning ways? Aside from possibly questioning some of Dr. Graham's descriptions of what goes on in the world, that is, of the "facts" to be explained, our reasons would probably reduce to the following: First, we do not need to bring in the devil to explain the failure of diplomats to reach agreement on important international issues. We are confident, on the basis of past experience, that explanations of these failures in terms of human motives, in terms of human ignorance and miscalculation, are quite adequate, although in any particular case we may not be in the possession of such an explanation;Page 368  |  Top of Article and, second, the devil hypothesis, granting it to be intelligible, is too vague to be of any use. It is hinted that the devil has a body, but what that body is like or where it lives and exactly how it operates, we are not told. If "devil" is construed on the analogy of the theoretical terms of the natural sciences, our complaint would be that no, or none but totally arbitrary, correspondence rules have been assigned to it.

It should be observed that the devil theory is rejected although it has not been tested and, hence, has not been falsified in the way in which certain exploded medical theories have been tested and falsified. There are, in other words, theories that we reject (and which agnostics, like others, believe they have good reason to reject), although they have not been falsified. It is important to distinguish here two very different reasons why a theory may not have been tested and, hence, why it cannot have been falsified. The theory may be sufficiently precise for us to know what would have to be done to test it, but we may be chronically or temporarily unable to carry out any of the relevant tests. This is to be sharply contrasted with the situation in which a theory is so vague that we do not know what we must do to subject it to a test. In the former case, suspension of judgment may well be the appropriate attitude; it does not follow that the same is true in the latter case, and in fact most of us regard rejection as the appropriate attitude in such a situation until and unless the theory is stated with more precision.

An atheist would maintain that we have just as good grounds for rejecting belief in a finite anthropomorphic deity of any sort as we have for rejecting belief in Zeus or in the devil or in witches. It should be noted that the believers in the finite anthropomorphic God usually advance their theory as a hypothesis that is the best available explanation of certain facts. Mill, for example, thought that the Design Argument, in the form in which he advocated it, affords "a large balance of probability in favor of creation by intelligence," although he conceded that new evidence for the Darwinian theory would alter this balance of probability (Three Essays on Religion, New York, 1874, p. 174). An atheist would argue that we do not need a finite God to account for any facts any more than we need the devil theory; and, more important, that the theory is too vague to be of any explanatory value. Mill, for example, talks of "creation by intelligence," but he does not tell us in any detail what the "Author of Nature" is like, where he can be found, how he works, and so on. Furthermore, because of its vagueness the theory is totally sterile. It does not lead to subsidiary hypotheses about celestial laboratories or factories in which eyes and ears and other organs are produced. Nor does it help us to interpret fossils or other remains here on earth. It is tempting, but it would be misleading, to say that the accumulation of evidence for the Darwinian theory (or some modified version of it) since Mill wrote on the subject has put the design theory "out of court." This would suggest that the theological explanation was at some time "in court," in the way in which a falsified scientific explanation may once have been a serious contender. It is true, of course, as a matter of history, that informed people cease to bring in God as an explanation for a given set of phenomena once a satisfactory scientific or naturalistic explanation is available. In a more important sense, however, the theological explanations were never serious rivals, just as the devil explanation of diplomatic failures is not a serious rival to psychological explanations. The theological explanations never were serious rivals because of their excessive vagueness and their consequent sterility. We do not at present have anything like a satisfactory scientific explanation of cancer, but no theological theory would be treated as a genuine alternative by a cancer researcher, even a devoutly religious one.

It should be added to all this that believers who, unlike Mill, do not treat their theology as a kind of hypothesis, are not affected by the above objections. Indeed, quite a number of them have strenuously opposed any kind of "God of the gaps." However, some of the very writers who insist that their theology must not be regarded as a scientific hypothesis elsewhere make statements that imply the opposite. They also frequently maintain that certain phenomena—for example, the universal hunger for God or the origin of life—can be explained only, or can be explained best, on the assumption that there is a God, and a God of a certain kind. Whatever they may say on other occasions, insofar as they propose their theology as the only possible, or as the best available, explanation of such phenomena, they are committed to the position that has been criticized in this section.


There was a good deal of discussion in the late nineteenth century of an antitheological argument that ought to be briefly mentioned here. To many persons, including unbelievers, the argument will seem to be merely grotesque; but in view of the revival in more recent years of several forms of extreme materialism, it deserves some discussion. Moreover, even if it is granted that the argument fails to prove its conclusion, the very grotesqueness of some of its formulations enables a more sophisticatedPage 369  |  Top of Article contemporary atheist to state a challenge in a particularly forceful way.

The two writers chiefly associated with this argument were the German physiologist Emil Du Bois–Reymond and the English mathematician W. K. Clifford, both of whom wrote extensively on philosophical subjects. However, the argument is really much older, and versions of it are found in Meslier and Holbach. The remark attributed to Pierre Simon de Laplace that "in scanning the heavens with a telescope he found no God" may be regarded as an argument belonging to the same family. "Can we regard the universe," asked Clifford in his essay "Body and Mind," "or that part of it which immediately surrounds us, as a vast brain, and therefore the reality which underlies it as a conscious mind? This question has been considered by the great naturalist, Du Bois–Reymond, and has received from him that negative answer which I think we also must give." The student of nature, Du Bois–Reymond had written, before he can "allow a psychical principle to the universe," will demand to be shown "somewhere within it, embedded in neurine and fed with warm arterial blood under proper pressure, a convolution of ganglionic globules and nerve-tubes proportioned in size to the faculties of such a mind" (Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens, p. 37). But, in fact, no such gigantic ganglionic globules or nerve-tubes are discoverable, and, hence, we should not allow a "psychical principle" to the universe. The following would be a more systematic statement of the argument: Experience shows that thinking, volition, and other psychological phenomena do not and cannot occur without a certain physiological basis—more specifically, without a brain and nervous system. Our observations appear to indicate, although this is not a matter of which one can be certain, that no cosmic brain or nervous system exists. Hence, it is probable that no cosmic consciousness exists either.

This argument has been criticized on the ground that it assumes a certain view (or a certain group of views) about the relationship between body and mind that is not self-evidently true and that many believers would deny. It assumes that consciousness can exist only in conjunction with a nervous system and a brain. However, the objector would maintain, the actual evidence on the subject does not warrant such a claim. It is true that within our experience, conscious processes are found only in connection with a highly developed brain, but this does not prove that consciousness may not occur in conjunction with other physical structures or without any physical "attachments" whatsoever. This is a big question about which nothing very useful can be said in a few words. Perhaps all we can do here is point out that if materialism of some kind is true, then the demand to be shown the bodily foundation or aspect of the divine consciousness is not misplaced, while if the opposite view that consciousness can exist independently of a physical structure is correct, the Du Bois–Reymond argument would have no force.

Quite aside from this objection, the argument probably seems to many people, believers and unbelievers alike, to rest on a total, one is almost inclined to say a willful, misunderstanding of the theological position. James Martineau, who replied at some length to Du Bois–Reymond, protested that the "demand for organic centralization" was "strangely inappropriate," indeed quite irrelevant to the question at issue between the believer and the unbeliever. If Du Bois–Reymond himself, wrote Martineau, were "ever to alight on the portentous cerebrum which he imagines, I greatly doubt whether he would fulfill his promise and turn theist at the sight: that he had found the Cause of causes would be the last inference it would occur to him to draw: rather would he look round for some monstrous creature, some cosmic megatherium, born to float and pasture on the fields of space" (Modern Materialism and Its Relation to Religion and Theology, p. 184). Martineau then likened the argument to Laplace's remark, mentioned earlier, that in looking at the heavens with his telescope, he could nowhere see God and to statements by certain physiologists that in opening the brain, they could not discover a soul. All such pronouncements Martineau regarded as absurd. Although the physiologist finds no soul when he opens up the brain, "we positively know" (by introspection) the existence of conscious thought. Similarly, that "the telescope misses all but the bodies of the universe and their light" has no tendency to prove "the absence of a Living Mind through all." If you take the "wrong instruments" you will not find what you are looking for. "The test tube will not detect an insincerity," nor will "the microscope analyse a grief"; but insincerity and grief are real for all that. The organism of nature, Martineau concludes, "like that of the brain, lies open, in its external features, to the scrutiny of science; but, on the inner side, the life of both is reserved for other modes of apprehension, of which the base is self-consciousness and the crown is religion."

One is strongly inclined to agree with Martineau that there is something absurd in scanning the heavens for God. Étienne Borne, a French Catholic whose discussions are distinguished by fairness and sympathy for the opposition, refers to this approach as "a tritely positivist atheism" that "misses the point of the problem altogether" (Modern Atheism, p. 145). One must not expect to findPage 370  |  Top of Article God or God's body in the heavens because God is not a huge man with huge arms, legs, arteries, nervous system, and brain. Only children think of God as a "king" sitting on his throne in Heaven. Educated grownups do not think of God in any such crude fashion. Du Bois–Reymond, Clifford, and Laplace are all guilty of an enormous ignoratio elenchi.


Let us grant the force of Borne's objection. A critic may nevertheless raise the following questions: What is God like if he is not a grand consciousness tied to a grand body, if he is so completely nonphysical as to make any results of telescopic exploration antecedently irrelevant? If the telescope, as Martineau put it, is the "wrong instrument," what is the right instrument? More specifically, what does it mean to speak of a pure spirit, a disembodied mind, as infinitely (or finitely) powerful, wise, good, just, and all the rest? We can understand these words when they are applied to human beings who have bodies and whose behavior is publicly observable; we could undoubtedly understand these words when they are applied to some hypothetical superhuman beings who also have bodies and whose behavior is in principle observable; but what do they mean when they are applied to a pure spirit? Do they then mean anything at all? In recent years it has come to be widely questioned whether it makes any sense to talk about a disembodied consciousness. It is widely believed, in other words, that psychological predicates are logically tied to the behavior of organisms. This view, it should be pointed out, is not identical with reductive materialism. It does not, or at least does not necessarily, imply that the person is just a body, that there are no private experiences, or that feelings are simply ways of behaving. It makes the milder claim that however much more than a body a human being may be, one cannot sensibly talk about this "more" without presupposing (as part of what one means, and not as a mere contingent fact) a living organism. Anybody who has studied and felt the force of this thesis is not likely to dismiss as facetious or as "trite positivism" the question as to what words such as wise, just, and powerful can mean when they are applied to an entity that is supposedly devoid of a body. What would it be like to be, for example, just, without a body? To be just, a person has to act justly—to behave in certain ways. But how is it possible to perform these acts, to behave in the required ways, without a body? Similar remarks apply to the other divine attributes.

One may term this the "semantic" challenge to anthropomorphic theology, as distinct, for example, from arguments like the one from evil or from the eternity of matter, which assume the meaningfulness of the position attacked. A proponent of this challenge does not flatly maintain that anthropomorphic theology is unintelligible. For the point—that the predicates in question lose their meaning when applied to a supposedly disembodied entity—would be accompanied by the observation that in fact most anthropomorphic believers do, in an important sense of the word, believe in a god with a body, whatever they may say or agree to in certain "theoretical" moments. If we judge the content of their belief not by what they say during these "theoretical" moments but by the images in terms of which their thinking is conducted, then it seems clear that in this sense or to this extent they believe in a god with a body. It is true that the images of most Western adults are not those of a big king on his heavenly throne, but it nevertheless seems to be the case that, when they think about God unself-consciously (and this is, incidentally, true of most unbelievers also), they vaguely think of him as possessing some kind of rather large body. The moment they assert or deny or question such statements as "God created the universe" or "God will be a just judge when we come before him," they introduce a body into the background, if not into the foreground, of their mental pictures. The difference between children and adults, according to this account, is that children have more vivid and definite images than adults.

This entire point may perhaps be brought out more clearly by comparing it with a similar "semantic" criticism of belief in human survival after death. The semantic critic would maintain that while a believer in reincarnation or the resurrection of the body may be immune from this objection, those who claim that human beings will continue to exist as disembodied minds are really using words without meaning. They do not see this because of the mental pictures accompanying or (partly) constituting their thoughts on the subject. Or, alternatively, they do not see this because, in spite of what they say in certain "theoretical" contexts, in practice they believe in the survival of the familiar embodied minds whom they know in this life. When they wonder whether their friends, enemies, certain historical personages, or, for that matter, anybody did or will go on existing after death, they think of them automatically in their familiar bodily "guises" or else in some ghostly "disguises," but still as bodily beings of some kind. If these images are eliminated on the ground that they are irrelevant or inappropriate because the subject of survival is a disembodied mind, it is not clear that an intelligible statement remains. What, for example, do such words as love and hate or happinessPage 371  |  Top of Article and misery mean when they are predicated of a disembodied mind?

It will be seen from all this that the argument of Du Bois–Reymond and Clifford is not without some point. One may incorporate what is of value in their discussion into the following challenge to anthropomorphic theology: Insofar as the believer believes in a god with a body, what he or she says is intelligible; but in that case the available evidence indicates that there is no such body, and the remarks of Du Bois–Reymond and Clifford are to the point; if or insofar as God is declared to be a purely spiritual entity, the observations of Du Bois–Reymond and Clifford become irrelevant, but in that case the predicates applied to God have lost their meaning, and, hence, we no longer have an intelligible assertion.


Let us summarize the atheist's case as it has here been presented. A philosophically sophisticated atheist would begin by distinguishing three types of belief in God—what we have called the metaphysical God, the infinite anthropomorphic God, and the finite anthropomorphic God. He will then claim that he can give grounds for rejecting all three, although he does not claim that he can prove all of them to be false. He will try to show that metaphysical theology is incoherent or unintelligible, and, if he can do this, he will certainly have given a good ground for rejecting it. He will also question the intelligibility of anthropomorphic theology insofar as God is here said to be a purely spiritual entity. If and insofar as belief in an infinite anthropomorphic God is intelligible, he will maintain that it is shown to be false by the existence of evil. In the sense in which he will allow the existence of a finite anthropomorphic God to be an intelligible hypothesis, he will argue that it should be rejected because it is not needed to account for any phenomena and, further, because it is too vague to be of any explanatory value. We saw that some of these justifications, even if sound as far as they go, would not establish the atheist's case unless they are accompanied by a demolition of the arguments for the existence of God.


If there were reason to believe that any of the arguments for the existence of God are sound or have at least some tendency to establish their conclusions, then they would of course constitute objections to atheism. Since these arguments are fully discussed elsewhere in this encyclopedia, we shall here confine ourselves to objections that are logically independent of them. Some of these objections have been put forward by writers who explicitly reject all the traditional proofs but nevertheless regard atheism as an untenable position.


It has been argued by several writers that whatever the objections to the different forms of theology may be, atheism is also unacceptable since it has no answer to the "ultimate question" about the origin of the universe. Thus, the nineteenth-century physicist John Tyndall, after endorsing a thoroughgoing naturalism, proceeded to reject atheism in favor of an agnostic position. In a paper titled "Force and Matter," he tells the story of how Napoleon turned to the unbelieving scientists who had accompanied him to Egypt and asked them, pointing to the stars, "Who, gentlemen, made all these?" "That question," Tyndall comments, "still remains unanswered, and science makes no attempt to answer it." Later he adds that "the real mystery of this universe lies unsolved, and, as far as we are concerned, is incapable of solution" (Fragments of Science, pp. 92–93). In much the same vein, the celebrated American freethinker and social reformer Clarence Darrow, after pointing out the weaknesses of the First Cause Argument, observed that the position of the atheist is just as vulnerable. If, he wrote, the atheist answers the question "What is the origin of it all?" by saying that the universe always existed, he has the same difficulty to contend with as the believer has when he is asked the question "Who made God?" To say that "the universe was here last year, or millions of years ago, does not explain its origin. This is still a mystery. As to the question of the origin of things, man can only wonder and doubt and guess" (Verdicts out of Court, pp. 430–431).

A philosophically acute atheist could offer a twofold answer to arguments of this kind. First, he would maintain that the question about the "origin of the universe" or the "origin of it all" is improper and rests on the mistaken or doubtful assumption that there is a thing called "the universe." It is tempting to suppose that there is such a thing because we have a tendency to think of the universe as a large container in which all things are located and, perhaps more important, because grammatically the expression functions analogously to expressions like "this dog" or "the Cathedral of Notre Dame," which do denote certain things. Upon reflection, however, it becomes clear, the rejoinder would continue, that "the universe" is not a thing-denoting expression or, putting the point differently, that there is not a universe over and above the different things within the universe. While it makes sense to ask for the origin of any particular thing, there is not a further thing left over, called "the universe" or "it all," intoPage 372  |  Top of Article whose origin one can sensibly inquire. The origin of a great many things is of course unknown to us, but this is something very different from "the ultimate mystery" that figures in the argument under discussion; and there is no reason to suppose that questions about the origin of any individual thing fall in principle outside the domain of scientific investigation.

Furthermore, even if it is granted both that the question concerning the origin of the universe is proper and that we do not and cannot discover the true answer, this is not by itself an argument against atheism. It may well be possible to know that a certain suggested answer to a question is false (or meaningless) without knowing the true answer. All kinds of crimes have never been solved, but this does not prevent us from knowing that certain people did not commit them. An atheist can quite consistently maintain "I have no idea how the origin of the universe is to be explained, but the theological theory cannot be the right answer in view of such facts as the existence of evil." To support his position, the atheist must be able to justify his rejection of theological answers to the question "What is the origin of the universe?" He does not have to be able to answer that question.


In the popular apologetic pronouncements of liberal believers, it is customary to contrast the agnostic, who is praised for his circumspection, with the atheist, who is accused of arrogant dogmatism and who, like the orthodox or conservative believer, claims to know what, from the nature of the case, no mere human being can possibly know. "The atheist," in the words of Dr. W. D. Kring, a twentieth-century Unitarian, "can be just as closed-minded as the man who knows everything. The atheist just knows everything in a negative direction" (New York Times, March 22, 1965).

Reasoning of this kind figured prominently in several influential works by nineteenth-century Protestant theologians. Their favorite argument was the following reductio ad absurdum: Atheism could be known to be true only if the atheist knew everything; but this is of course impossible; hence, atheism cannot be known to be true. For a man to deny God, wrote Thomas Chalmers, "he must be a God himself. He must arrogate the ubiquity and omniscience of the Godhead." Chalmers insists that the believer has a great initial polemical advantage over the atheist. For, he argues, some very limited segment of the universe may provide the believer with strong or even decisive evidence, with an "unequivocal token" of God's existence. The atheist, on the other hand, would have to "walk the whole expanse of infinity" to make out his case (On Natural Theology, Vol. I, Book I, Ch. 2). By what miracle, asks John Foster, can an atheist acquire the "immense intelligence" required for this task? Unless he is "omnipresent—unless he is at this moment at every place in the universe—he cannot know but there may be in some place manifestations of a Deity by which even he would be overpowered." And what is true of space equally applies to "the immeasurable ages that are past" (Essays, 18th ed., p. 35). The atheist could not know that there is no God unless he had examined every part of the universe at every past moment to make sure that at no time was there a trace of divine activity.

According to Robert Flint, who endorsed and elaborated the arguments of Chalmers and Foster, the situation should be clear to anybody who reflects on the difficulty of "proving a negative." If a man landed on an unknown island, any number of traces in almost any spot would be sufficient to show that a living creature had been there, but he would have to "traverse the whole island, examine every nook and corner, every object and every inch of space in it, before he was entitled to affirm that no living creature had been there" (Anti-Theistic Theories, pp. 9–11). The larger the territory in question, the more difficult it would become to show that it had not a single animal inhabitant. If, then, it is "proverbially difficult to prove a negative," there can surely "be no negative so difficult to prove as that there is no God." This is plain if we reflect that "before we can be sure that nothing testifies to His existence, we must know all things." The territory in this case is "the universe in all its length and breadth." To know that there is no trace of God anywhere in eternal time and boundless space, a man would have had to examine and to comprehend every object that ever existed. This would indeed require omnipresence and omniscience, and Chalmers was there perfectly right when he maintained that the atheist's claim implies that "he is himself God."

Whatever its rhetorical force, this argument is so patently invalid that it can be disposed of in just a few words. We have in preceding sections of this entry presented several of the most widely used arguments and considerations that have been advanced in support of atheism. These may or may not be logically compelling, but none of them in any way imply that the atheist must be omniscient if he is right. To establish that the existence of evil is incompatible with the view that the universe is the work of an all-powerful and all-good Creator, to show that a given theory is too vague to be of any explanatory value, or to call attention to the fact that certain wordsPage 373  |  Top of Article have in a certain context lost their meaning—none of these require omniscience.

Writers like Chalmers, Foster, and Flint seem to labor under the impression that as far as its refutability is concerned, "God exists" is on par with a statement like "A hippogriff exists, existed, or will exist in some place at some time." It may be plausible to maintain that our not having found any hippogriffs on earth is no conclusive evidence that such an animal does not exist in some other part of the universe to which we have no access. The same does not at all apply to the question of whether one is or can be entitled to reject the claims of believers in God. For, unlike the hippogriff, God is by some declared to be the all-powerful and all-good Creator of the universe; he is said by most believers to be a mind without a body; and it is asserted by some that predicates taken from ordinary experience can never be applied to God in their literal senses. These features of theological claims may make it possible to justify their rejection although one has not explored every "nook and cranny" of the universe.


In the opening section of this entry we referred to the view, common in previous centuries, that atheism is bound or, at any rate, very likely to lead to immorality, to national ruin, and to other disasters. This warning is no longer taken very seriously among reputable thinkers, but certain other statements about the baleful consequences of unbelief in general and atheism in particular continue to be widely discussed. Thus, it is frequently maintained that if atheism were true or justified, life would be deprived of all meaning and purpose. Again, it has been held that without God the universe becomes "terrifying" and man's life a lonely and gloomy affair. "Old age," wrote William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience (New York and London, 1902), "has the last word: a purely naturalistic look at life, however enthusiastically it may begin, is sure to end in sadness." Blaise Pascal, who was particularly concerned about the terror of a "silent universe" without God, observed in a similar vein that "the last act" is always tragic—"a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end forever."

James and Pascal were believers, but very similar statements have frequently come from unbelievers themselves. "I am not ashamed to confess," wrote G. J. Romanes, a nineteenth-century biologist, at the end of his A Candid Examination of Theism (a work that was published anonymously in London in 1878 and which caused a commotion at the time), "that with this virtual denial of God, the universe has lost to me its soul of loveliness."

More recently, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski spoke of the state of mind of an unbeliever like himself as "tragic and shattering." Not only does the absence of God, in the opinion of these writers, make the universe "lonely," "soulless," and "tragic," but it also deprives it of love. Only when we have become accustomed to a "loveless" as well as a "Godless universe," in the words of Joseph Wood Krutch, shall "we realize what atheism really means."

Finally, it has been claimed that atheism is fatal to what William James called the capacity of the strenuous mood. James himself had no doubt that the unbeliever is prevented from "getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest." Our attitude toward concrete evils, he asserted, "is entirely different in a world where we believe there are none but finite demanders, from what it is in one where we joyously face tragedy for an infinite demander's sake." Religious faith sets free every kind of energy, endurance, and courage in the believer and "on the battlefield of human history," religion will for this reason always "drive irreligion to the wall" (The Will to Believe, pp. 213ff.)

Some of these claims seem a great deal more impressive than others. It is not easy to deal with the charge that atheism deprives life of its meaning, chiefly because the word meaning in this connection is both ambiguous and extremely vague. However, if what is meant is that an atheist cannot be attached to certain goals that give direction to his life, then the charge is quite plainly false. If what is meant is that although the atheist may, like other men, pursue certain goals, he will not be able to justify any of his activities, then it should be pointed out that most human beings, even believers in God, do not justify the great majority of their acts by reference to God's will. Hence, the justification of these actions, if they ever are justified, could not be affected by the soundness of atheism. It is difficult to see how such activities as engaging in scientific research, assisting people who are in trouble, singing or dancing or making love or eating superb meals, if they ever were worthwhile, would cease to be so once belief in God is rejected. If what is meant by the charge is that the unbeliever will eventually have to fall back, in his justification, on one or more value judgments that he cannot justify by reference to anything more fundamental, this may be true, but it is not necessarily baleful, and it is not a consequence of atheism. Anybody who engages in the process of justifying anything will eventually reach a stage at which some proposition, principle, orPage 374  |  Top of Article judgment will simply have to be accepted and not referred back to anything else. The unbeliever may, in justifying his acts, regard as fundamental such judgments as "happiness is intrinsically worthwhile" or "the increase of knowledge is good for its own sake," whereas some believers may say that only service of God is intrinsically valuable. If it is a sign of irrationality, which in any normal sense of the word it is not, to accept a value judgment that is not based on another one, then the atheist is not one whit more irrational than the believer.

On the question of zest, it should be observed that neither James nor anybody else has ever offered empirical evidence for the assertion that unbelievers lead less active or strenuous lives than believers. What we know about human temperament suggests that the acceptance or rejection of a metaphysical position has, in the case of the vast majority of men, exceedingly little to do with whether they lead active or inactive lives. The Soviet cosmonauts, who were atheists (to take one relatively recent illustration), appeared to display the same courage and endurance as their American counterparts, who were believers. In general terms, a survey of the contributions of atheists and other unbelievers to science and social progress, often in conditions requiring unusual stamina and fortitude, would seem to indicate that James was in error. The a priori character of James's views on this subject remind one of Locke's conviction, mentioned earlier in this entry, that atheists, since they do not fear divine punishment, cannot be trusted to keep oaths and promises.

As for the "loveless universe" presented by atheism, it must of course be admitted that if there is no God who loves his creatures, there would be that much less love in the world. But this is perhaps all that an atheist would have to concede in this connection. Aside from certain mystics and their raptures, it may be questioned whether a biologically normal human being is capable of feeling any real or deep love for an unseen power; and it hardly seems credible to suppose that a person will cease to love other human beings and animals (if he ever loved them) just because he does not believe them to be the work of God. Perhaps one may hazard a guess that if more human beings grow up in an environment that is free from irrational taboos and repressions (and these, one may add, have not been altogether unconnected with religious belief in the past), there will be more, not less, love in the world—people will be more lovable and will also be more capable of giving love. As far as love is concerned, the record of theistic religions has not been particularly impressive.

The writers whose views we are discussing have probably been on stronger ground when they maintain that atheism is a gloomy or tragic philosophy, but here too some qualifications are in order. To begin with, if atheism implies that life is gloomy, it does so not by itself but in conjunction with the rejection of the belief in life after death. There have been atheists, of whom J. E. McTaggart is probably the most famous, who believed in immortality, and they would deny that their atheism had any gloomy implications. However, since the great majority of atheists undoubtedly reject any belief in survival, this does not go to the root of the matter. It cannot be denied that the thought of annihilation can be quite unendurable; but it may be questioned whether believers, whatever they may be expected to feel, do in fact find the thought of death any less distressing. In the opinion of some observers, this is due to the fact that regardless of his profession, the believer frequently does not really believe that death is the gate to an eternal life in the presence of God. "Almost inevitably some part of him," in the words of Russell, is aware that beliefs of this kind are "myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting" (Human Society in Ethics and Politics, p. 207). Russell and Sigmund Freud regard belief in God and immortality as illusions that usually do not work, but they are quick to add that anybody who refuses to be the victim of unworthy fears would dispense with such illusions even if they did work. "There is something feeble and a little contemptible," in Russell's words, "about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths." Some years earlier, in an essay titled "What I Believe," Russell had put the point very bluntly:

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting…. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.


The only full-length history of atheism in existence is Fritz Mauthner's four-volume work, Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1920–1923). Although this work contains much interesting information that cannot easily be obtained elsewhere, it is marred by extreme repetitiousness and by a curiously broad use of the word atheism, which allows Mauthner to speak of agnostic and even deistic atheists. Probably of greater value are the various works on the history of free thought by J. M. Robertson, chiefly his A Short History of Free Thought (New York: Russell and Russell, 1899). Accounts of the struggles of atheists in England in the nineteenth century will be found in H. Bradlaugh Bonner, Charles Bradlaugh: A Record of His Life and Work (London: Unwin, 1895); G. J. Holyoake's two-volume Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (London: Unwin, 1892); and A. H. Nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (London, 1961).

An early defense of atheism is found in Vol. II of Holbach's two-volume The System of Nature, translated by H. D. Robinson (Boston: Mendum, 1853) and in his briefer work Common Sense, translated by A. Knoop (New York, 1920). Shelley defended atheism in his essays The Necessity of Atheism and A Refutation of Deism, and in one of the Notes to Canto VII of Queen Mab, titled "There is no God." All of these are included in Shelley's Prose, edited by D. L. Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954). Charles Bradlaugh's "A Plea for Atheism" was first published in 1864 and reprinted in the Centenary Volume, Charles Bradlaugh: Champion of Liberty (London, 1933). Although he rarely used the term atheism, Schopenhauer is usually and quite properly classified as an atheist. His fullest discussion of the reasons for rejecting belief in God are found in his "The Christian System" and in his "Religion: A Dialogue." Both of these are available in a translation by T. B. Saunders in Complete Essays of Schopenhauer (New York: Willey, 1942). Another nineteenth-century work defending atheism is Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (1841), translated by George Eliot, with an introduction by Karl Barth (New York: Harper, 1957). Of early critical works, special mention should be made of Ralph Cudworth's two-volume The True Intellectual System of the World (London, 1678), which is an enormously detailed onslaught on all forms of atheism known to the author, and of Voltaire's article "Atheism" in his Philosophical Dictionary, translated by Peter Gay (New York: Basic, 1962). Part II of Voltaire's article is an extended critique of The System of Nature.

In more recent years, atheism has been championed in R. Robinson, An Atheist's Values (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964); in Ernest Nagel, "A Defence of Atheism," which is available in A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap (New York: Free Press, 1965), and in Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966). Rudolf Carnap's position, which is briefly mentioned in the present entry, is presented in his "The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language," which is available in a translation by Arthur Pap in Logical Positivism, edited by A. J. Ayer (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959). A somewhat similar position is defended by Antony Flew in "Theology and Falsification." This paper is available in various anthologies, perhaps most conveniently in The Existence of God, edited by John Hick (New York: Macmillan, 1964). An interesting and unusual defense of theology against contemporary criticisms like those of Carnap and Flew is found in I. M. Crombie's "The Possibility of Theological Statements," in Faith and Logic, edited by Basil Mitchell (London: Allen and Unwin, 1957). The comments in the present entry about the attempts of fideists to circumvent the argument from evil and other difficulties are elaborated in Paul Edwards, "Is Fideistic Theology Irrefutable?" in Rationalist Annual (1966).

There is a kind of "ontological" argument for atheism proposed by J. N. Findlay in "Can God's Existence Be Disproved?"; this, together with various rejoinders, is reprinted in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (London: SCM Press, 1955). The view that belief in God is not false but self-contradictory and that, hence, atheism is necessarily true is advocated by Jean-Paul Sartre in his Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956). Bertrand Russell wavered between calling himself an atheist and an agnostic. Many of his publications may plausibly be regarded as defenses of atheism. In this connection special mention should be made of The Scientific Outlook (New York: Norton, 1931), Religion and Science (New York: Holt, 1935), and Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Related Subjects (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), which includes "What I Believe."

What we have been calling metaphysical theology is defended by H. L. Mansel in The Limits of Religious Thought (London: Murray, 1858). Mansel's views were vigorously attacked by John Stuart Mill in his An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (4th ed., London, 1872); and Mill in turn was answered by Mansel in The Philosophy of the Conditioned (London: Strahan, 1866). The version of metaphysical theology on which we concentrated in the present entry is expounded by Paul Tillich in Vol. I of his three-volume Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951–1963), in his The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952), and in J. A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (London, 1963). This position isPage 376  |  Top of Article criticized in great detail in Paul Edwards, "Professor Tillich's Confusions," in Mind 74 (1965): 192–214, and in Dorothy Emmet, "'The Ground of Being,'" in Journal of Theological Studies 15 (1964): 280–292. Various reactions to the views of Robinson are collected in The Honest to God Debate, edited by D. L. Edwards (London: SCM Press, 1963). The Thomistic doctrine of "analogical predication," which was not discussed in the present entry, is expounded in the Summa Theologiae, I, 13, 5, and in the work by Thomas Cajetan available in On the Analogy of Names and the Concept of Being, translated by E. A. Bushinski and H. J. Koren (Pittsburgh, 1953). Contemporary expositions of it may be found in G. H. Joyce, The Principles of Natural Theology (London: Longmans Green, 1923), and in E. L. Mascall, Existence and Analogy (London, 1949). The theory is criticized in Frederick Ferré, Language, Logic and God (New York: Harper, 1961), and in W. T. Blackstone, The Problem of Religious Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963). There is an interesting attempt to state the doctrine with great precision by using the tools of contemporary logic in I. M. Bochenski, "On Analogy," in Thomist 11 (1948): 474–497. Tillich's theory, as well as the Thomistic theory, is criticized in Sidney Hook, The Quest for Being (New York: St. Martin's, 1960).

Thomas Aquinas's views on the nature of creation and the possibility of proving that the material universe has not always existed are given in On the Eternity of the World, translated by Cyril Vollert (Milwaukee: Marquette Univ. Press, 1964), which also contains relevant extracts from the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra Gentiles. The argument for atheism based on the eternity of matter is stated in Ludwig Büchner, Force and Matter (4th English ed., London 1884; reprinted New York, 1950). The question of whether contemporary theories in physical cosmology have any bearing on the question of the existence of God is discussed in William Bonnor, The Mystery of the Expanding Universe (New York: Macmillan, 1964); M. K. Munitz, Space, Time and Creation (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957); E. L. Mascall, Christian Theology and Natural Science (London: Longmans Green, 1956); and Antony Flew, "Cosmology and Creation," in Humanist 76 (May 1961): 34–35. All the writers just mentioned incline to the view that physical cosmology has no bearing on the question of the existence of God. The opposite position is supported by E. A. Milne in Modern Cosmology and the Christian Idea of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).

The argument for atheism based on the premise that there is no "cosmic brain" is expounded in Emil Du Bois–Reymond, Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens (Berlin, 1873), and by W. K. Clifford in an essay titled "Body and Mind," which is available in Vol. II of Clifford's two-volume Lectures and Essays, edited by F. Pollock (London and New York, 1879). It is criticized in James Martineau, Modern Materialism and Its Relation to Religion and Theology (London, 1876; New York, 1877). According to Mauthner, op. cit., Vol. III, pp. 439 ff., the remark that "in scanning the heavens with a telescope he found no God" has been falsely attributed to Laplace and occurs in fact in one of the writings of another distinguished astronomer of the same period, Joseph Jérôme de Lalande. Arguments by Indian philosophers, similar to those of Du Bois–Reymond and Clifford, are found in Slovavartika, Sec. I, verses 43–59, reprinted in A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and C. A. Moore (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).

The essay by Tyndall in which he defends agnosticism in contrast to atheism is contained in his Fragments of Science (New York, 1871). A similar argument by Clarence Darrow occurs in his lecture "Why I Am an Agnostic," which was first delivered in 1929 and is now available in Clarence Darrow—Verdicts out of Court, edited by A. Weinberg and L. Weinberg (Chicago, 1963). Agnosticism is criticized from an atheistic viewpoint in several of the writings of Friedrich Engels. There is a useful collection of all the main discussions of religion by Marx and Engels in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Religion (Moscow, 1957; New York: Schocken, 1964).

The argument that atheism must be untenable since, if it were true, the atheist himself would have to be omniscient, is advanced in Thomas Chalmers's two-volume On Natural Theology (New York, 1836); in J. Foster, Essays (London, 1844); and in Robert Flint, Anti-Theistic Theories (London, 1878). There is a reply to Chalmers and Foster in G. J. Holyoake, Trial of Theism (London, 1858). A somewhat similar argument is contained in Paul Ziff, "About 'God,'" in Religious Experience and Truth, edited by Sidney Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1961). There is a reply to this in Paul Edwards, "Some Notes on Anthropomorphic Theology," in Religious Experience and Truth.

Pascal's horror of a universe without God is expressed in numerous passages in his Pensées, translated by W. E. Trotter, with an introduction by T. S. Eliot (New York: Dover, 2003). William James's claims that unbelief is fatal to "the strenuous mood" is contained in his essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," which is reprinted in his The Will to Believe (New York: Longmans Green, 1897). The view that atheism makes the universe "loveless" is defended by J. W. Krutch in his The Modern Temper (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929). Malinowski's remarks about the "tragic" nature of life without God are found in his contribution to the BBC symposium Science and Religion (New York, 1931). The very different view that there is something liberating in the rejection of belief in God is advocated in J. M. Guyau, The Non-Religion of the Future, with an introduction from N. M. Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1962); in Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, in Vol. II of his three-volume Werke, edited by Karl Schlechta (Munich, 1954–1956); and in Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, translated by W. D. Robson-Scott (New York: Liveright, 1927).

In more recent years there have been numerous books and articles by religious thinkers in which the atheist's position is treated with a certain amount of sympathy. The following writings are especially worth mentioning in this connection: James Collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago: Regnery, 1959); Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, translated by E. M. Riley (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1950); Étienne Borne, Atheism, translated by S. J. Tester (New York, 1961); Ignace Lepp, Atheism in Our Time, translated by Bernard Murchlord (New York: Macmillan, 1963); W. A. Luijpen, Phenomenology and Atheism, translated by W. van de Putte (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1964); Jacques Maritain, "The Meaning ofPage 377  |  Top of Article Contemporary Atheism," in Listener (March 1950): 427–432; Gabriel Marcel, "Philosophical Atheism," in International Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1962): 501–514; and Jean-Marie Le Blond, "The Contemporary Status of Atheism," in International Philosophical Quarterly 5 (1965): 37–55.

Baggini, Julian. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Buckley, Michael. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Everitt, Nicholas. The Non-Existence of God. London: Routledge, 2004.

Flew, Antony. The Presumption of Atheism, and other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom and Immortality. London: Pemberton, 1976.

Herrick, Jim. Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985.

Hunter, Michael, and David Wootton, eds. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Routledge, 1996.

MacIntyre, Alasdair, and Paul Ricoeur. The Religious Significance of Atheism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Mackie, J. L. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Analysis. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

McGrath, Alister E. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Nielsen, Kai. Philosophy and Atheism: In Defense of Atheism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985.

Smart, J. J. C., and John Haldane. Atheism and Theism, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Smith, George H. Why Atheism? Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Wallace, Stan, ed. Does God Exist?: The Craig-Flew Debate. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.

Paul Edwards (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3446800128