[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Teaching Philosophy 5:2 (April 1982): 152-55. The page numbers below show the position of the text within that pagination scheme.]
Atheism: The Case Against God,
George H. Smith.
Prometheus Books, 1979,
355 pages. $6.95 pbk.
This book is a hard hitting attack against belief in the Christian God as well as all other supernatural beings (called ‘gods’ in the book). Intended primarily for laymen and consequently relatively free from technical philosophical argument and jargon, this book might well be used in a beginning course in the philosophy of religion as a fair representation of contemporary atheistic thought. Students would, I believe, find it more provocative and challenging, than some other treatment that may be technically more sophisticated. The author’s direct and forceful way of making his points has great appeal; clearly, it is a book written with deep intellectual passion.
However, there are some limitations to the book as an introduction to atheism and teachers of philosophy might wish to supplement it with other works. First, Smith’s critical treatment of the standard arguments for the existence of God is incomplete. Variants of the cosmological and technological arguments are critically evaluated, but the ontological argument and other arguments for the existence of God are not considered. Second, the argument against the existence of God from the existence of evil is (by the author’s own admission) not treated in depth. The author believes (incorrectly, I think) that relative to other difficulties with belief in God the problem of evil is not important (80). Third, arguments against the existence of God using some version of the verifiability theory of meaning are not developed at all.
There is another point that should be mentioned that may (unjustifiably, I believe) make some philosophy teachers hesitate to use the book. According to information provided on the back cover, Smith studied philosophy at the University of Arizona, but it is unclear how much formal training in philosophy he has had. He has, however, been greatly influenced by Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden (Rand and Branden are cited and quoted more frequently in the book than anyone else) and on the back cover Smith is billed as a student of the libertarian point of view and co-editor of a libertarian periodical. However, Smith’s libertarian
views are absent from the present work and his quotations from Rand and Branden have nothing to do with their political views. Other atheists might have been cited and quoted just as easily, atheists with completely different political views. Unfortunately, in Part 1 Smith adopts some of Branden’s arguments for the non-existence of God which seem to me to be dubious. On the other hand, in Part 4 he relies on Rand’s views about the science of ethics which seem to me not to be dubious. In any case, these views seem neutral with respect to a libertarian position.
Space does not permit me to evaluate critically all of Smith’s interesting theses. I will therefore discuss Parts 2, 3, and 4 of the book very briefly and limit most of my critical remarks to Part 1 which contains Smith’s major arguments for believing that God or a god does not exist. It should be noted, however, that Part 2, a critique of faith, and Part 4, a critique of theological ethics–in particular the ethics of Jesus–are worthwhile and fascinating. Part 3, a critique of some traditional arguments for God is less original and useful.
In the first part of the book Smith argues that atheism is simply the absence of theistic belief. So, from the fact that someone is an atheist nothing can be inferred about any of his or her positive beliefs. (Presumably nothing can be inferred either about the absence of any belief except the absence of theistic belief.) In fact, throughout the book Smith seems to use atheism in a broader sense than this. He seems to assume that atheism is the absence of any belief in any supernatural being or beings (Deism, polytheism, etc.). In any case, given Smith’s minimal definition of atheism, agnosticism is not an alternative to atheism since agnosticism is the denial of knowledge of a god or gods. Thus one can be an agnostic atheist: a person who does not have a theistic belief and who denies that knowledge of supernatural beings is possible. One can also be an implicit atheist: a person (e.g., young child) who does not believe in a god or gods but who has not explicitly rejected the belief that a god or gods exist. Or one can be an explicit atheist: a person who has explicitly rejected belief in a god or gods, the motive for this rejection being either rational or irrational (17).
Unfortunately, later on in the book Smith’s own restrictions on the concept of atheism seem to have been forgotten. He maintains that explicit atheism is a consequence of commitment to rationality (98) and that an atheist does not accept the premise that the universe requires an explanation (231). But by Smith’s own admission an explicit atheist could be irrationally motivated, and I see no reason, given Smith’s construal, why an atheist might not believe that the universe requires an explanation although not one in terms of a god or gods.
Although according to the minimal definition of atheism suggested by Smith an atheist does not have to believe that a god or gods do not exist, the atheism actually defended in this book is a stronger version. Smith argues that to claim that a god or gods exist is contradictory and that the concept of the Christian God is contradictory. Smith seems to believe, in other words, that he provides reasons for believing that a claim that God or a god or gods exist could not be true since, presumably, a contradictory claim could not be true and a contradictory concept cannot refer to any existing entity.
Consider first his argument (apparently based on Branden’s view) that to assert that a god exists is contradictory (41-44). First, he argues that anything that exists has a specific nature. Second, he argues that a specific nature is determined by natural law. Third, he argues that since a god by definition transcends natural law, a god does not have a specific nature. Finally, he concludes that a god cannot exist since it has not a specific nature. Consequently, to assert that a god exists is contradictory. One debatable premise in this part of the argument is surely that natural law determines an entity’s specific nature.
Second, he argues that it is contradictory to claim that god or gods exist and are unknowable, His argument is this: if a
god is unknowable, it cannot be known to exist; but to assert that a god exists is to claim that this god is known to exist. This argument has problems. Surely one can assert that a god exists and yet not claim to know that a god exists. One might only claim to believe that a god exists. Further, one might claim that a god’s nature is unknowable and yet claim a god’s existence is knowable except when existence of a god is included in the nature of a god. But this inclusion would mean that existence was a predicate. There is no reason to suppose that a believer in a god is necessarily committed to this dubious ontological view. To be sure, if one did claim that a god’s existence is knowable and a god’s nature is unknowable and indeed incomprehensible, one would have no basis for worshipping this god or attributing any moral attributes to the god. This would be an extremely serious problem for followers of religious practice connected with this god. But it is one thing to claim this and quite another thing to claim that asserting that a god is unknowable is contradictory.
Smith’s attempt to show that the concept of the Christian God is contradictory is, I believe, also unsuccessful (67-76). For example, he attempts to show that God’s omnipotence is incompatible with God’s action: an omnipotent being would not need to act, but the Christian God does act. He also attempts to show that God’s omnipotence is incompatible with God’s omniscience: if God is omnipotent, He could change the future; if God is omniscient, He could know the future; but if the future could be changed, God could not know the future.
It is impossible here to evaluate these arguments in detail, but they are surely not obviously valid. Consider the first argument. To say that a being is omnipotent is to say that it could do anything that is logically possible. But it does not obviously follow that if God could do anything, then He would. So if God did not need to act because He is omnipotent, it does not mean that He would not act. So omnipotence and action are not clearly logically incompatible as Smith seems to suppose.
The argument proposing to show the incompatibility of omnipotence and omniscience is not obviously valid either. First of all, it is not clear in what sense it is logically possible to change the future. So, if God could not change the future this would hardly be a limitation of His power. But even if it was logically possible in some sense to change the future, it is unclear why this would mean that God could not know the future. Suppose that it is possible to change the future by some action A. Suppose that this means merely that if action A were to be done now, some true proposition P about the future would be false and action A could be done now. Clearly I could know a certain proposition about the future, e.g., that I will be alive one minute from now, and yet it is possible that I could change the future in the above sense by an act of suicide. If this is possible for a mere mortal, it is certainly possible for God.
The upshot, I believe, is that Smith is not successful in showing that the concept of a Christian God is contradictory. Unfortunately, Smith does not attempt to argue on inductive grounds that the existence of God is improbable. His arguments are basically a priori. But as I have argued elsewhere, an a posteriori approach, for example in relation to the problem of evil, is a fruitful one for an atheist to take. Although Smith does briefly consider the problem of evil (76-87), he ends up arguing only that the problem drives Christians to agnosticism and blind faith. He does not argue, as I believe he should, that the existence of evil makes the existence of God improbable. (Smith is wise enough not to claim that the existence of evil contradicts the idea that an all good, all powerful God exists.)
In the second part of the book, Smith contrasts faith and reason and criticizes faith. He argues that faith is based on a deep seated irrationalism which in turn is based on an unwarranted skepticism. He rejects skepticism using familiar arguments: skepticism is self refuting (e.g., the skeptic claims to know we can-
not know anything), doubt is always contextual, universal doubt makes no sense, and skeptics use concepts they have no right to use given their skepticism. He critically evaluates various concepts of faith and appeals to Christian revelation. Unfortunately, in the process Smith seems to embrace uncritically both the view that logical principles are self evident (144) and some form of direct realism in the philosophy of perception (159).
In the third part of the book Smith argues against certain variants of the Cosmological and Teleological arguments. Smith’s criticisms are fairly standard and should be well known to readers of this journal.
In the fourth part of the book Smith attacks religious ethics and contrasts it with what he calls a science of ethics. Ethics as a science guides man’s choice relative to certain human ends, such as survival or happiness. Ethics so conceived is a rational enterprise: certain actions are conducive to survival or happiness, certain actions are not. This can be established by evidence and argument. Ethics construed in this way establishes statements of instrumental value (not intrinsic value). Smith does not attempt to deal with the more difficult question of what ultimate goals humans should pursue–the question of intrinsic value, but simply posits happiness as man’s ultimate ethical goal (286).
Religious ethics, on the other hand, is based on uncritical acceptance of authority and sanction: fear of punishment in the after life or the psychological sanction of sin (300). As a result, religious ethics is not conducive to human happiness and, in fact, encourages guilt, passivity, and a feeling of helplessness (310). These psychological claims about the results of religious beliefs need psychological evidence to support them. Unfortunately Smith does not supply this evidence.
Perhaps the least philosophical but most devastating section of the book for modern Christianity is Smith’s analysis of the ethics of Jesus. By citing passages from the New Testament Smith shows that the ethical views of Jesus are rather different from what liberal Christians like to believe. Jesus is shown as demanding unquestioning obedience and that all worldly pursuits be forsaken. His doctrines are filled with threats of divine punishment. He demands that reason and independent judgment be forsaken. His views are very sectarian: he came to save the Jews, not the world. Furthermore, Smith argues, there is nothing original in Jesus’ ethical teaching. The Golden Rule, for example, was found in Confucianism 500 years earlier.
All in all, Smith’s book provides a lively introduction to atheism. Although professional philosophers will no doubt find fault with many of Smith’s arguments, his critical attack should challenge our students and awaken them from their dogmatic slumbers.
1. For a more complete critical evaluation of the standard arguments from an atheistic point of view see Wallace Matson The Existence of God (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965); Michael Scriven Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
2. For an extended treatment from an atheistic point of view see Edward H. Madden and Peter H. Hare Evil and the Concept of God (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1968).
3. For this approach see Kai Nielsen Contemporary Critiques of Religion (New York: Harder and Harder, 1971).
4. Michael Martin, “Is Evil Evidence Against the Existence of God?” Mind 88. 1978, pp. 429-32.