Chapter 1: The Scope of Atheism

4 April 2006

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During the first part of the chapter, Smith defines atheism and attempts to undermine popular misconceptions, such as that atheists are evil or worthless or whatever. I agree that atheism should be considered on its own merits, not on the supposed character of its adherents.

He then claims that theists must have a definition of what they mean by “God.” I am in wholehearted agreement here. Smith then contends that the Christian God is either incoherent or not really defined.

Smith claims that Christians are confronted with a dilemma- either leave God undefined or “limit His nature” by ascribing to Him characteristics. Right from the start, however, it seems that Smith has gotten the issue wrong. I will agree that God’s “nature is limited” in certain ways (in the most strict sense), and I have no problem with holding such a view. For example, God is omni-benevolent, and thus cannot do anything morally wrong. Yet, I have no problem “limiting His nature” in this way. This is important to notice, for Smith throughout the chapter repeatedly returns to the “argument” that ascribing characteristics “limit” God. When one realizes the triviality of this statement (“limit” is being used as a scare word), Smith’s entire case takes a huge blow.

Smith claims that theists wish to avoid this supposed dilemma by ascribing unlimited attributes to God. But, exclaims Smith, “An ‘unlimited attribute’ is a contradiction in terms. To specify characteristics is to specify determinate qualities, and these qualities cannot be divorced from limitations.” [50] Why is this? We are given no reason, at least initially (other than a quotation from Feuerbach which says the exact same thing). Throughout the chapter, he claims that he has “argued” that unlimited attributes are a contradiction in terms. But it is important to notice that he doesn’t even try to create an argument, let alone succeed in doing so.

But let us consider a divine attribute to see if Smith is right here, such as omnipotence, for example. This characteristic exclaims, essentially, that God can do anything which it is logically possible to do. Why is this a contradiction? Is it logically impossible for a being to be able to do anything possible? It seems not, so Smith is going to have to justify his rejection of the possibility of unlimited attributes. (Furthermore, most philosophers and theologians have noted that omnipotence does have limits, namely, it does not entail that logically contradictory things can be done.)

How about omniscience? Surely Smith will grant that some humans have some knowledge. Indeed, our knowledge is horribly finite. But it is logically possible that a human could know every thing it is possible to know. If a human has 5 units of knowledge, and all of reality consists of 5,000,000 units of knowledge, why is it not possible that a human could, logically, learn all of the units of knowledge? If the mere logical possibility is granted, however, then Smith must concede that the notion of omniscience is not a “contradiction.” 1

Smith distinguishes between negative theology, which describes what God is not, and affirmative theology, which describes what God is. I agree with Him that God must be described at least somewhat in the affirmative sense. If we can establish some affirmative characteristics of God, negative theology will allow us to further hone in on His true nature.

Smith’s Big Mistake

Smith makes a tremendous mistake which basically undermines his entire attempt to show the Christian God to be unknowable. Nowhere in his entire account does he mention the important attribute of personhood. God’s personhood is a piece of affirmative theology. Moreover, it is at least partially knowable, since we ourselves have a sense of personhood.

For example, John Mackie, one of the most influential atheists of the past century, stated, “We know, from our acquaintance with ourselves and other human beings, what a person is- a person, as Swinburne explains, in the ordinary modern sense. Although all the persons we are acquainted with have bodies, there is no great difficulty in conceiving what it would be for there to be a person without a body: for example, one can imagine oneself surviving without a body, and while at present one can act and produce results only by using one’s limbs or one’s speech organs, one can imagine having one’s intentions fulfilled directly, without such physical means.” 2

Thus, as an attribute which is both knowable and affirmative, Smith’s criteria has been met. Not only does this vindicate affirmative theology, it also vindicates negative theology, which tells us what sort of characteristics this personal God does not have. In one fell swoop, Smith’s case comes crashing to the ground. So, I contend, even if the rest of his points are solid, he will still have failed to show that the concept of God is completely unknowable or incoherent.

More Positive Theology

We can know more than that God is a person. There are several other pieces of affirmative theology which help us to comprehend God’s nature. Smith critiques several of them here.

Omnipotence

Smith’s first real critique of omnipotence is that it allows anything and undercuts our ability to trust causality and rational explanations. “In a universe containing an omnipotent being, any action would be open to any entity at any time upon the bidding of God. Causality would be a sham, and rational explanation would crumble.” [70-71] First of all, this argument is simply pragmatic, and carries absolutely no probative force. Essentially, Smith’s claim is that we had better not believe that God is omnipotent, or else we won’t be able to trust rational explanations. But even if Smith is right about this, such concerns have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not an omnipotent God actually exists. This is simply a bad argument.

Moreover, Smith’s argument is simply inaccurate. The monotheistic God of classical theism, who has traditionally been conceived of as a rational Being, actually set the foundation for modern science which Smith is so worried to lose. 3 This brings us to another important point- Smith’s analysis does not mention God’s attribute of rationality. Not only does this trait of God undermine Smith’s paranoia of the destruction of science, it also further refutes his claim that God is not coherently defined (since rationality is a completely knowable quality, and meets all of Smith’s criteria for intelligibility).

Ignoring all of this even, it seems that Smith’s claim fails for a separate reason. Even supposing that an omnipotent being did exist, and that we had no reason to suppose that He didn’t arbitrarily interfere with random affairs, we could still establish rational explanations for events in which God did not interfere. For example, if water consistently boils at 100 degrees, and this tendency can be explained by a coherent and successful scientific model, then we can still rationally explain water’s boiling at 100 degrees with reference to this model. We need not be worried that God is interfering since we would have no evidence that He was. So, Smith’s argument against omnipotence is multiply flawed.

Next, Smith contends that omnipotence entails that God does not employ means to an end, does not act, and does not have any kind of purpose. I simply fail to see how these things follow. God could certainly employ means to an end, particularly if that end was used to get around an impossibility that cannot be effected instantaneously. For example, it is arguably logically impossible for God to create persons that are guaranteed to freely love Him. Thus, He may decide to create a world with free creatures who can decide whether or not to love Him. Therefore, God’s desire is to bring agents into a loving relationship, so He acts to create a world and therefore uses a world as a means to achieving the desired end.

Oftentimes atheists will make much of the supposed impossibility of God to possess desires, and Smith is no exception. However, this supposed problem is hardly conclusive. Perhaps being all-powerful does not entail having no desires. I see no contradiction in claiming both that God is all-powerful and that God desires to create a world. Moreover, even if God has a desire, it does not follow that there is ever a time in which God has unfulfilled desire. Perhaps God wills that the universe is created just when He wishes it to be so. Finally, God’s attributes do “limit” His nature in certain ways- for example, His omni-benevolence limits His ability to perform morally wrong actions. However, omni-benevolence can plausibly be used to explain why God choose to create a universe- due to His love He desired that a world be created so that other creatures could enjoy existence.

Smith objects that the actual meaning of God’s unlimited power is unknowable. Most of his case seems to be based on the argument that God cannot act, use means to ends, or have desires, which I think to have shown false. But Smith also argues that we have no way to understand how God causes things to be. He complains that to say God’s will is simply done ignores the question. However, this at most throws us into mystery when it comes to God’s acts to create ex nihilo. God can (and according to Christian theology, does) interact causally with the world in relatively natural ways. In fact, there seem to be several ways that God could interact with the world in ways that are completely comprehendible by us. 4 It may be true that some forms of God’s power may be incomprehensible by us, but this does not show that all forms are and thus does not disprove omnipotence as a successful piece of affirmative theology.

Omniscience

Smith claims that the first problem with omniscience is that it “cannot be reconciled with any theory of free will in man.” [73] Strictly speaking, this consideration does not imply that omniscience is an unintelligible trait that God is purported to have. At most, it shows that men do not have free will. However, even this claim is very suspect, and there are several answers to this problem, including middle knowledge and open theism, which Smith does not even address, let alone refute. He does address one claim;

“One method is to argue that God’s foreknowledge does not ‘impose’ itself on the course of events, and God knows a free action ‘according to the nature of the event itself- which is free.’ This, of course, solves nothing, because it evades the central issue. How can an event be ‘free’ in the first place, if God has infallible knowledge of it prior to its happening.” [74]

Smith is also impressed by the argument from the incompatability of omniscience and omnipotence. “If God knows the future with infallible certainty, he cannot change it- in which case he cannot be omnipotent. If God can change the future, however, he cannot have infallible knowledge of it prior to its actual happening- in which case he cannot be omniscient.” [74] However, this simply shows that God will do what He wants to do, which seems to me not only uncontroversial, but also obvious.

Smith claims that “The major problem with omniscience is that the ‘knowledge’ of God bears no resemblance to the concept of knowledge as we understand it.” [75] Notice though, that even if it is true that certain aspects of God’s knowledge differ in critical ways, as long as at least some aspects of His knowledge are understandable or parallel to our own, then the attribute of omniscience will still be a successful piece of affirmative theology.

Smith claims that “Consciousness is the state of awareness present in some living organisms, and it presupposes an entity, a material organism, with this state of awareness.” [75] Not only is this claim less than obvious (and perhaps question-begging), there are also good arguments against it. Dualists have shown that attempts to describe consciousness through purely physicalist notions are counterintuitive and problematic. Indeed, it seems that consciousness may be necessarily, not just contingently, a nonmaterial entity. 5

Smith also argues that acquisition and verification are “essential to the concept of knowledge as we understand it.” [75] However, this claim is far from obviously true. Humans seem to possess properly basic beliefs, which are neither acquired nor capable of verification. An example of a properly basic belief is one’s belief in the existence of an exterior world, or in the existence of other minds. Since we naturally possess these beliefs, apparently from infancy, and cannot truly verify them by any non-arbitrary means, Smith’s claim that knowledge requires verification and acquisition is proven false. 6

However, even if it is untrue that humans possess non-aquired, unverifiable knowledge, it does not follow that such a type of knowledge is incoherent. After all, the fact that we must acquire and verify our knowledge may be an inherent part of being a finite, material being. As long as we can at least somewhat relate to the type of knowledge that God possesses, we are in a position to affirm to the relevance of omniscience.

It seems to me that knowledge is simply a true belief, such that if one possesses a true belief about something, then one has knowledge of that thing. There is nothing incoherent in the notion of God possessing true beliefs, so omniscience is in an understandable and descriptive notion.

Omni-Benevolence

Smith complains that God commanded atrocities in the Old Testament, which should cause us to doubt his omni-benevolence. However, he makes no attempt to address the passages in context- for answers to all of his objections I can do no better than tektonics.org and christian-thinktank.com. Other than cite Bible verses and ignore context, Smith only offers quotes from Thomas Jefferson (an obvious authority of Biblical context and Ancient Near East society!) and Thomas Paine, who is an expert in unqualified sound bites. 7

Smith also complains about the doctrine of Hell, however, it is clear here that he is operating with the false definition of Hell as a place of constant physical torture and fire. (See PART 4 of this critique for a more comprehensive analysis of Smith’s rejection of the doctrine of Hell.)

On the Problem of Evil, see my main article Here,
and, particularly, my specific refutation of his points as part of my Series on this problem Here. With all of these objections out of the way, Smith’s critique of omni-benevolence fails.

At the end of the chapter, Smith worries that theism and belief in God could result in the crumble of science, that the theist must ‘pay a big price’ for belief in God, namely, “the naturalistic context within which we comprehend reality.” [90] Even if he is right, these considerations do not prove that theism is false, only that it is unfortunate. However, the claim is both false and absurd. It is false because, first of all, God is comprehensible, as I have shown in this critique and, second of all, the existence of the rational God of Christian theism would not undermine science. It is absurd because the historic beginning of science was founded on rational monotheism (primarily Christianity). Most of the great fathers of science- Newton, Kepler, etc.- viewed science as a method of discovering the mind of God, of unraveling the marvelous creation of a rational Creator. Thus, Smith’s paranoia is completely unjustified.

Conclusion

Smith’s critique of God’s intelligibility fails to recognize the attributes of personhood and rationality. These attributes alone undermine Smith’s entire case, since they meet the criteria that he set up for affirmative theology. Moreover, his analysis of omnipotence, omniscience, and omni-benevolence did not demonstrate their incoherency. Since theism, especially Christian theism, is a comprehensible worldview, the entire foundation of Smith’s work comes crumbling. The observant reader will notice that Smith repeatedly comes back to the supposed “incoherence of god” in order to refute theistic arguments. Unfortunately, Smith’s house is built on a foundation of sand.


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NOTES:

1. Some may object that it is impossible, logically, for a human to know everything, since the world contains so much information. But, theoretically, the world could be much smaller and much simpler. If that were the case, then it seems possible for a human with a sufficiently powerful brain to know everything.

2. Mackie, John. “The Miracle of Theism,” (New York: Oxford Press) 1982, pp. 1-2.

3. Professor Livingstone has pointed out, “The idea that science and Christianity have constantly been loggerheads is a gross distortion of the historical record… Indeed, Robert Boyle, the great English student of chemistry, believed that scientists more than anyone else glorified God in the pursuit of their tasks because it was given to them the interrogate God’s creation.” [Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Zondervan: 2000) p. 219]

4. God could interact, for example, by taking on physical form, as Christians hold He did in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Or, he could subtly or drastically alter the laws of nature for brief or long periods of time in order to have causal effects in the world. Smith might find these forms of interaction similarly unintelligible. However, modern science has uncovered an even subtler, completely rational way in which God could interact causally with the world. Quantum indeterminacy demonstrates that the actual location and/or speed of a given particle are unknown and inherently unpredictable. Thus, God could cause the actualization of quantum states and thus affect the world profoundly through the microworld. See Craig, “Cosmos and Creator,” found at http://www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od172/cosmos172.htm.

5. For a good introduction see “Philosophy of Religion: a Reader and Guide.” Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002; New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002

6. Although I do not necessarily agree, Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief in God may actually be properly basic. See, for example, his paper “Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God,” found at http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth03.html

7. For example, see Holding’s review of Paine’s Age of Reason Here.




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