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  • : The blog of Frank Beswick. It deals with my interests in religious, philosophical spiritual matters and horticulture/self-reliance
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December 1 2011 5 01 /12 /December /2011 11:57




There are three broad positions that a thinker can take:  atheism, the rejection of belief in God, theism [or its near relatives pantheism and deism, both of which accept belief in a  deity of a kind] and agnosticism, which is rejection of a formal conclusion on the issue. Theism is belief in a God who acts in the world; deism accepts a deity who created the world but does not act in it; and pantheism thinks that God is the world. They can all be lumped under the general heading a belief in a deity.


Let us dispense with one error, that atheism is not a belief. It is an error trawled up by several people who assert that if a child has never heard of God, he is an atheist, but he has no idea of God to reject, therefore atheism cannot be a belief. Therefore he has no specific belief in arheism. This is correct, but it is the not the case with most atheists, who have heard of God and reject him. So even if there is an atheist child who has not heard of God, other atheists, having heard of God,  make the assertion that there is no God, therefore their atheism differs from that of the merely ignorant person/child. As they make an assertion, their atheism is as much a belief as the claim that there is no God is a belief.


There is an ulterior motive behind the claim that atheism is not a belief. It is to allow the atheists to distance themselves from the conflicts about belief and claim that they rise above them. It is not a position that is tenable. Atheism is part of the conflict about beliefs, as it is a belief, or rather a cluster of beliefs centred on the idea that there is no deity.


Belief is distinguished from knowledge in that knowledge can only be held with certainty, whereas belief is incapable of being so. Knowledge has to be proven beyond all doubt, whereas belief requires mere justification. Humans have knowledge of very few things outside their immediate experience. The issue of whether or not there is a God is not an area where humans can have knowledge. At best, atheists, theists and agnostics can have only belief held with varying degrees of justification.


Why is this? God is beyond the visible, obvious world in which our senses work. Hence when we make any claim about God's existence or non-existence, or even express doubt, we are going beyond the senses and what we can securely know. This leads to one inescapable conclusion: philosophically no one can go beyond agnosticism. The person who asserts "I have not enough evidence for belief in God" cannot be defeated in argument. Either side might gather their arguments to persuade the agnostic, but he/she can simply assert that he remains unconvinced because neither set of arguments is compelling for him/her. The agnostic can point out that both atheism and theism make inferences, a process of going beyond the sensory data to hypothesise a conclusion that explains it, but that those who rely purely on the data derived from the senses cannot come to a conclusion about God's existence


This is not to say that there are no arguments in favour of each case. Both atheists and theists can marshall arguments in their favour, but they do not coerce assent. They remain justifications of an uncertain case. Agnostics can comprehend both cases, yet opt for neither, demanding more evidence.


So if there is any philosophical position which is "in possession" it is agnosticism. Yet both atheists and theists insist on going beyond the data to make inferences about God's existence. How can they justfy  their cases. The scholastic idea that God's existence can be proved has not proved to be sustainable, so the best that Christian philosophy can do is come up with a justification for belief, which is quite cogent. However, the most secure religious case is to admit that God lies beyond a gap which human understanding cannot cross, but that God has crossed the gap by disclosing himself to humans through revelation and religious experience. Humans cannot reach up to God, but God can reach down to humans. Many religious people believe that he works through messengers, such as prophets. So a theist can accept that the philosophical case for God is not proven, but can rely on the claim that God has disclosed himsef to humans in a  way that overrides the limitations of philosophy.


But what can an atheist say. To make their case with certainty atheists have to imply or assert that they know all the beings that there are in this world, all worlds and outside all worlds, and that none of them matches the description of any god or any conceivable god. To do this they must have inspected all worlds throughly. I doubt whather the most dedicated atheist will claim to have been in a  postion to have done this. So the case for atheism cannot be phiosophically sustained, though it is not disproven. Of the three possible cases, atheism is not philosophically the strongest, but the weakest. This is not to say that belief in God is proven. It is not, but disproving God is a very difficult task indeed. Religious believers though need to ensure that they rely  not purely on philosophical arguments, which are not good enough, but on the content of religious experience and revelation, on which their strongest case lies.




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