60 Years On
Academic Atheist Philosophers Then & Now
By Professor Graham Oppy (Monash University)
In 1955, SCM Press published New Essays in Philosophical Theology, edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre. The volume features contributions by various well-known academic atheist philosophers: J. J. C. (Jack) Smart, Flew, J. N. Findlay, and Bernard Williams. Smart claims that ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments are unsuccessful, though perhaps they appeal to something deep-seated in our nature. Flew defends the view that considerations about evil furnish a successful logical argument against the existence of God. Findlay offers an ontological ‘disproof’ of the existence of God that he suggests is no worse than ontological ‘proofs’ of the existence of God. Williams suggests that, when religious people make claims about God and the world, it is inevitable that those claims are ‘partly incomprehensible’. All of these positions have received considerable refinement and consolidation in subsequent work by academic atheist philosophers.
The last sixty years have been a very fertile period for academic atheist philosopher critiques of theistic arguments. Among large-scale works that have attempted to establish that theistic arguments are unsuccessful—i.e. not such as ought to persuade non-believers to change their minds—we should certainly mention: The Existence of God (Wallace Matson, 1967), The Miracle of Theism (John Mackie, 1982), Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Michael Martin, 1990) The Logic of Theism (Jordan Howard Sobel, 2004), and God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason (Herman Philipse, 2012).
Jack Smart’s contribution to his debate with John Haldane—in Atheism and Theism (2002)—was a natural development from the views expressed in his 1955 papers; but, by then, he had thoroughly rejected the idea that theistic arguments appeal to something deep-seated in our nature, and professed embarrassment that he had ever written such nonsense.
Apart from works treating theistic arguments collectively, there have also been attempts to provide thorough examinations and refutations of particular theistic arguments or families of theistic arguments, as for example, in The Cosmological Argument (William Rowe, 1975). Unsurprisingly, there are no academic atheist philosophers who suppose that there are successful theistic arguments, i.e. arguments that ought to persuade academic atheist philosophers to become theists.
The fortunes of the view that considerations about evil furnish a successful logical argument against the existence of God have waxed and waned over the past sixty years. In 1955, John Mackie provided a robust logical argument from evil in his classic paper ‘Evil and Omnipotence‘ (Mind, 64, 200-12).
In the face of theistic responses—in particular, the ‘free-will defence’ provided by Alvin Plantinga, in The Nature of Necessity (OUP, 1974), and elsewhere—many academic atheist philosophers eventually came to be persuaded that logical arguments from evil are unsuccessful.
In 1979, in ‘The Problem of Evil and some Varieties of Atheism’ (American Philosophical Quarterly, 1979), William Rowe published an evidential argument from evil that replaced Mackie’s logical argument from evil as the canonical atheistic argument from evil. In the face of theistic responses—in particular, sceptical theist responses initiated by Plantinga and William Alston—many academic atheist philosophers have since retreated to the view that we do not yet have any successful arguments from evil, i.e. arguments from evil that ought to persuade believers to give up their theism.
Moreover, while some other arguments have risen to prominence—e.g. John Schellenberg’s argument from hiddenness, which was given its canonical formulation in his Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (1993), and Paul Draper’s various arguments from evil, starting with the one outlined in ‘Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists’ (Noûs, 1989)—there are at least some academic atheist philosophers who are sceptical that we yet have any successful arguments against theism, i.e. arguments that ought to persuade theistic believers to give up their theism.
Since Findlay’s foray, many academic atheist philosophers have explored the idea that all alleged proofs of the existence of God can be parodied in ways that utterly defeat their claims to be proofs of the existence of God. Christopher New’s ‘Antitheism-A Reflection’ (Ratio, 1993) is a very nice—and quite accessible—example of this genre.
New argues that the standard case for the existence of a perfectly good God is mirrored by an equally convincing case for the existence of a perfectly evil God. New’s argument is updated and amended in Stephen Law’s ‘The Evil-God Challenge’ (Religious Studies, 2014). Many academic atheist philosophers suppose that the kinds of considerations adduced in the arguments of New and Law provide significant support for the idea that there are no successful theistic arguments, i.e. no arguments that ought to persuade non-theists—including atheists—to become theists.
The question of whether atheists should suppose that theism is comprehensible or meaningful is one that continues to divide academic atheist philosophers. Some—e.g. Smart, Mackie, and Sobel—have supposed that there could hardly be serious straightforward dispute with theists if theism were meaningless, or incomprehensible, or the like. Others—e.g. Martin and Philipse—have argued that there is good reason to suppose that theism is literally meaningless.
While Martin and Philipse have also gone on to suggest that they can nonetheless engage in serious straightforward dispute with theists under the pretence that theism is meaningful, many academic atheist philosophers have worried about the propriety of this manoeuvre. It is worth recalling that, in Language, Truth and Logic (1930) A. J. Ayer argued that, if ‘theism’ is meaningless, then so too is ‘atheism’. While some atheistic philosophers—e.g. W. V. O. Quine—have argued that a sentence Not-S is true when the sentence S is meaningless, there are many academic atheistic philosophers who suppose that, where S is meaningless, Not-S is also meaningless.
The range of topics canvassed by the atheistic contributors to Flew and MacIntyre (1955) was narrow and traditional: the same topics were central preoccupations for Bertrand Russell—in ‘Why I am not a Christian’ (1927)—and, indeed, for David Hume—in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1776). However, in the last sixty years, there are many other topics that have been taken up by academic atheist philosophers.
One quite traditional topic concerns the consistency of theistic accounts of the divine attributes, i.e. of the properties that God would have were God to exist. Among large-scale works that have taken up this topic, we should certainly mention On the Nature and Existence of God (Richard Gale, 1991), The Impossibility of God (Martin, 2003), and the works of Mackie, Martin, Sobel and Philipse mentioned above.
There have also been significant works that have focussed on particular attributes, e.g.: The Incomplete Universe (Patrick Grim, 1991), which takes up questions about omniscience; Can God Be Free? (William Rowe, 2004), which takes up questions about freedom; and Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Erik Wielenberg, 2005), which takes up questions about goodness and meaning. Academic atheist philosophers have contributed their fair share to the ‘patch and puncture’ industry of attempting to provide definitions for divine attributes: perfection, infinity, simplicity, eternity, necessity, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, perfect goodness, perfect freedom, and so on.
Another quite traditional topic takes up criticism and rejection of particular kinds of theistic worldviews: Christian worldviews, Muslim worldviews, Jewish worldviews, and the like. Examples of this kind of work by academic atheist philosophers include The Case against Christianity (Michael Martin, 1993) and Atheism and the Case against Christ (Matthew McCormick, 2012).
Of course, many academic atheist philosophers have worked on the project of explaining and justifying atheistic worldviews: secular worldviews, naturalistic worldviews, humanistic worldviews, and so forth. Under this head, one might consider, for example, Naturalism and Religion (Kai Nielsen, 2001), The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (Alex Rosenberg, 2011) and Life after Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism (Philip Kitcher, 2014).
Naturalistic worldviews have been very widely adopted by academics since the middle of the twentieth century. Much work on the elaboration and development of naturalistic worldviews has been carried out by academic atheist philosophers focussed on problems in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, moral philosophy, and the like. While it would be odd to take this work as a direct contribution to debates in philosophy of religion, the work of Willard Van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, Jerry Fodor, Gilbert Harman, David Lewis, David Chalmers, and countless others has marked a significant contribution to the development of atheistic worldviews by academic atheist philosophers.
Of course, much work on the elaboration and development of naturalistic worldviews has been carried out by academics working in disciplines other than philosophy. Many academic atheist philosophers have been considerably influenced by recent work in anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, sociology, history, and a host of other disciplines; and, in some cases, academic atheist philosophers have collaborated in interdisciplinary studies with those working in other disciplines. One very prominent example here is the work of academic atheist philosophers that belongs to—or has been significantly influenced by—the cognitive sciences of religion. Perhaps the best-known example of work in this genre is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Daniel Dennett, 2006).
Some academic atheist philosophers have been concerned that the vast majority of academic atheist philosophers do not pay sufficient attention to recent work in philosophy of religion. In particular, Quentin Smith—in ‘The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism’ (Philo, 2001)—argues that those academic atheist philosophers who are unfamiliar with development in philosophy of religion very likely lack justification for their atheistic beliefs. Other academic atheist philosophers think that no academic atheist philosophers ought to continue to engage in philosophical discussion with theists: see, for example, Huw Price’s ‘Starving the Theological Cuckoo’ (Spontaneous Generations, 2007).
Flew and MacIntyre (1955) is notable for its exclusive focus on what might be called ‘analytic’ philosophy of religion, and for its failure to include contributions by women. There has, of course, been much significant recent work by both ‘continental’ academic atheist philosophers and women academic atheist philosophers. Readers might consider Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (Louise Antony, 2007), Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Martin Hagglund, 2008), and Difficult Atheism (Christopher Watkins, 2011).
Flew and MacIntyre (1955) is also notable for its exclusive focus on the Abrahamic religions and, in particular, on Christianity. While it is obvious that academic atheist philosophers do not accept the teachings of theistic religions, it is predictable that many academic atheist philosophers are also not enamoured by the teachings of any other religions either.
In particular, those academic atheist philosophers who are naturalists, or humanists, or secularists reject the teachings of the non-Abrahamic religions just as much as they reject the teachings of the Abrahamic religions (except for those ethical teachings that happen to remain acceptable to naturalists, humanists, secularists, and the like).
Very recently, academic atheist philosophers have put together histories of atheism, and anthologies of atheistic philosophical writings. Notable works include A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (David Berman, 1988); The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Michael Martin (ed.), 2006); The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Tom Flynn (ed.), 2008), and The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Stephen Bullivant and Michael Ruse (eds.) 2013). There is much in the history of atheism—including academic atheism—that remains to be considered; it is reasonable to expect more volumes like these in the coming years.
Another quite recent development is the appearance of websites and blogs to which academic atheist philosophers make significant contributions. For an example of a blog run by an atheistic academic philosopher, consider Atheism: Proving the Negative (Matt McCormick, http://www.provingthenegative.com). Many academic atheist philosophers have contributed content to The Secular Web (http://www.infidels.org), and to other similar websites.
While the past sixty years has seen a considerable increase in the formal organisation of academic theistic philosophers—with the formation of new societies (e.g. the Evangelical Philosophical Society and the Society of Christian Philosophers) and the launch of new journals (e.g. Philosophia Christi and Faith and Philosophy)—there have been few similar developments for academic atheist philosophers.
The PhilPapers Survey (http://philpapers.org/surveys/) may suggest part of the reason for this: it tells us that, of 931 academic philosophers respondents, 73% either accepted or leant towards atheism, while only 15% accepted or leant towards theism; but, of 47 respondents who specialised in philosophy of religion, 73% accepted or leant towards theism, and only 19% accepted or leant towards atheism. While the exact numbers may be questionable, there is no doubt that atheists are represented in philosophy of religion at a much lower rate than they are represented in philosophy overall.
Flew and MacIntyre (1955) appeared when ordinary language philosophy was strongly ascendant, and when the shadows cast by logical positivism had only just started to recede. As a consequence of this fact, many philosophers now claim that philosophy of religion was at its lowest ebb in the mid-1950s, and that it is has been growing steadily stronger throughout the ensuing years.
During that time, philosophy has been through periods where one or another of philosophy of language, metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of mind has been in the ascendant. In many ways, philosophy has become a much broader discipline, open to a much wider range of approaches, and to the discussion of a much wider range of topics.
This constitutes the major difference between the academic atheist philosophers who contributed to Flew and MacIntyre (1955) and those who contribute to contemporary discussion. I shall approach the end of this discussion with an examination of some further topics that are currently being taken up by academic atheist philosophers.
Atheists are defined by their beliefs: to be an atheist, one must disbelieve—or, at the very least, fail to believe—that God exists. But what about their desires? Should atheists want it to be the case that God exists? Historically, many atheists have bemoaned their atheism: they have imagined that they would be happier, or more content, if they were theists.
However, in The Last Word (1997), Thomas Nagel writes: ‘I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’ More recently, Guy Kahane (‘Should we want God to exist?’ Philosophical and Phenomenological Research, 2011) has argued that Nagel’s position is defensible: if God exists, then the lives of some—and perhaps even many—atheists would lose their meaning.
While I have noted that many contemporary academic atheist philosophers are naturalists—and while it would be correct to say that many contemporary academic atheist philosophers subscribe to a broadly ‘scientific’ worldview—I should point out that not all academic atheist philosophers embrace ‘scientific naturalism’.
To take just one example, Nagel—in Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is almost Certainly False (2012)—argues that the fundamental principles that account for the emergence of life must be ‘teleological’, rather than ‘material’ or ‘mechanical’, but he nonetheless insists that God does not exist. Some academic philosophers who claim to be atheists also claim to be Buddhists; most other academic philosophers who claim to be atheists also claim not to belong to any religion.
The sudden rise to prominence of ‘New Atheism’—and, in particular, the explosion in sales of texts by ‘New Atheist’ authors—has generated some discussion among academic atheist philosophers who specialise in philosophy of religion. The works in question—e.g. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2005) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel (2006), and Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto—are not academic treatises in philosophy of religion, and it is not appropriate to treat them as if they are academic treatises in philosophy of religion.
Opinion of these works among academic atheist philosophers is divided: some academic atheist philosophers are in very broad agreement with the views expressed by the ‘New Atheists’; other academic atheist philosophers regard the ‘New Atheists’ with considerable hostility.
On the one side, academic atheist philosophers such as Dennett and Rosenberg would be quite happy to be classified with the ‘New Atheists’. On the other hand, academic atheist philosophers as different as Thomas Nagel (Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament, 2010), Ron Aronson (Living without God, 2008) and Martha Nussbaum (The New Religious Intolerance, 2013) have provided vigorous denunciations of the views of the ’New Atheists’.
Questions about the role of religion in political life have recently loomed large for academic atheist political philosophers. John Rawls—Political Liberalism, 1993—develops the idea that government should be neutral between competing conceptions of the good, and argues that his principles of justice—outlined in A Theory of Justice, 1971—should be attractive to all reasonable citizens, even under conditions of reasonable pluralism.
Needless to say, Rawls’ views are controversial even amongst academic atheist philosophers. While many atheist academic philosophers are liberals or communitarians, there are atheist academic philosophers who are libertarians or conservatives, and for whom the theories of Rawls and his ilk are anathema.
There are some academic atheist philosophers—e.g. Peter Boghossian—who have called for an end to philosophy of religion as a discipline in universities; there are some academic atheists—e.g. Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, Leonard Susskind, and Steven Weinberg—who have called for an end to philosophy as a discipline in universities.
I think it very unlikely that universities will heed these calls, and with good reason. The kinds of questions currently taken up by philosophers of religion—and by philosophers more broadly—would continue to be taken up in universities even if all departments of philosophy were abolished; but, in the absence of departments of philosophy, these questions would just not be recognised for what they really are. Despite the views of some in other parts of the academy and beyond, philosophy of religion, as philosophy more broadly, is currently in robust health—much better than it was sixty years ago—and shows no signs of going away.