Is There Such a Thing as a Good Atheist?

I’ve heard the phrase fractally wrong used several times lately to describe some reasoning or conclusion that the arbiter thinks is wrong at every conceivable resolution. Personally, I’ve never been inclined to use such a phrase. I feel it carries far too much insult, especially if one is hoping to resolve differing opinions. I was going to say that phrase feels grandiloquent when I realized that the use of the word grandiloquent is what really feels grandiloquent. With that said, Pastor Rick Henderson’s article titled, “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist,” has helped me appreciate that there may be circumstances where such a phrase is technically appropriate. Please read his article in context. To be clear, I don’t think his article is fractally wrong, but I did find so many points of contention that I thought it worth bringing up this increasingly common phrase.

Henderson asserts:

Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism.

I disagree with the parts prior to this, and find significant problems with the logic of the conclusions he draws about morality later in the article, but for the sake of time I’ll stick to these premises.

  1. In some ways, immaterial things may be the only things that DO exist. Matter is a state of energy, after all. It’s an instability. A vibration in a field whose physics we are just beginning to unravel. It’s the field that creates the wave that creates the particle, not the other way around. What layers lie beneath? It would be tough to know if some supernatural concepts would really be best classified as natural, since we don’t understand all of nature yet. And I don’t have a problem with the existence of the supernatural or think it doesn’t exist. I, like most scientists, support methodological, not metaphysical naturalism (e.g. I run experiments on the properties and relationships of natural objects and find it most useful to assume natural causes, which is not the same as Henderson’s claim that I must have assurance that there is nothing supernatural).

  2. Many people of vastly varying worldviews think the universe is scientific, so this is not much of a point. Personally, I do not hold a positive belief that the universe is scientific. I hold no position on the matter. I treat it as if it is, insofar as it has appeared to be. I have no idea if the entire thing is consistent and entirely running off of discoverable (in principle) laws. At the level we can measure, we measure and hope to continue being able to measure, peeling back the layers. What’s ultimately at the bottom? Who can say? Nobody should say. Over 95% of the known universe that we know is there is presently dark to us (dark energy/matter) and we don’t know how many dimensions we’re dealing with – and all that is just at the resolutions we can measure (in principle). It’s certainly going too far to say if you do not hold a belief in a particular deity you must believe the ultimate foundation of the universe and it’s cause are fundamentally consistent and testable (scientific).

  3. Again, I have no idea. There could be a universal consciousness, or a conscious mind (something like God) could exist and be a part of what we would call nature if we knew enough about nature to fit it inside. Conscious minds are hypotheses of reality which I don’t currently think are the most likely, which is far from saying I think they aren’t possible. There is much to discuss on this topic, but I’ll leave it for another time.

Henderson says that denial of any one of these three premises is a fatal blow to atheism. I disagree with each premises and I still lack belief in God(s). I still think my worldview is consistent and not contingent upon any of his premises. It is the only worldview I know of that I can consistently hold right now.

I’m sure Henderson is a great guy. I think we just have some differing views on what it means to be an atheist and what an atheist must accept. Perhaps one day we’ll meet and talk it out.

Is there such a thing as a good atheist? I’ll leave that up for debate. It depends a lot on who or what is doing the judging, and what they mean by good and by atheist. My position is that if you’re going to claim there are no good atheists and then present a defense for that claim so that we can all be the judge of your reasoning, you should first understand the primary ways the atheist position is interpreted. It is generally held to be one position on one claim – the existence of one or more things that can be considered a “God/god.” Henderson alludes to this, but then he goes too far in assuming it must also mean all those other things as well, and I think he misunderstands “disbelief.” Many self-professed atheists are properly using the label even when they do not hold a positive belief that there is no God. Without knowing more than, “John is an atheist,” you can’t infer that John believes the universe is ultimately material, purely scientific, or ultimately impersonal. I know at least one atheist who technically disagrees with all three. πŸ™‚

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

4 comments

  1. Many people try to link atheism with other positions, when that link isn’t necessary. Atheism is a lack of belief in God. It doesn’t mean you have to believe any of the 3 premises Henderson put forth or any other position.

    Besides, the answer ‘I don’t know’ is acceptable and honest.

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  2. First you must define what goodness means and both agree, and then defend whether or not one can attain these traits without some kind of divine help. And you have to define what that help is, and agree that humans cannot succeed at morality without it. It’s very tricky and I think there’s no way to show an atheist cannot be good without god.

    I agree with the above comment. Saying “I don’t know, but because I dont see evidence I’m going to say there’s likely not a god” is honest and humble.

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