Atheism, Theism and Agnosticism.
There are three broad positions that one can take: Theism, by which for the sake of this article I mean all kinds of belief in God; atheism, a range of cases that involve denial of any God; and agnosticism, the acceptance that one does not have enough evidence to decide either way. Which of these cases is the most intellectually credible?
Agnosticism As a philosophy lecturer I have taught philosophy of religion over many years, and have come to the conclusion that philosophy can neither absolutely prove nor disprove the existence of God. Philosophy can come up with God scenarios, whereby the existence of some kind of God is justified by argument, but it can come up with non-god scenarios, which explain the world without positing God’s existence, and there are arguments to justify these views as well. Thomas Aquinas tried to prove that God existed, but he did so within the Aristotelean thought system, which is now discredited, so Aquinas’ arguments went with it. It seems to me that philosophy cannot rise above agnosticism, but this is not a final or satisfactory answer. We need to answer the question of whether God exists, because it is a matter of existential urgency that bears upon our ultimate destiny. We need thought systems and techniques beyond what philosophy can provide.
Atheism. There are many different atheists, some militant haters of God, and others for whom God simply does not exist. What is the case for atheism? Clearly, there is no absolute evidence of God, and we canot locate him within the physical, observable world. Atheists can declare that there is no reason within their own lives for there to be a belief in God. God has not impacted on them in any way whatsoever, and that the philosophical non-God scenarios, that do without a creator, are quite good enough. But this exposes a weakness, as these non-God philosophies are not philosophically compelling, you cannot base certainty upon them.
Let us look at some contentious claims. Some atheists claim that atheism is the case “in possession.” This means that we have to be atheists unless we have grounds to say otherwise. They make the point that the child never taught about God would have no reason to believe. in him/her. I suppose that if no one had ever mentioned God to anyone, then atheism would be in possession, but we live in societies in which religion and discourse about it and God have a long history, and there are philosophical arguments for both sides. So God is a concept within public discourse, and so we cannot simply assume the atheist case. We have gone beyond the child never taught about God. In fact, I think that if any case is “in possession” whatever this phrase dubiously derived from law means, it is agnosticism, a position that cannot be out-argued, as the agnostic can always say that he has not enough evidence either way. And who can gainsay him.
Another claim is that because atheists believe that there is no God, atheism is not a belief. This is not a sound position. A person who has never heard of God does not have a belief that there is no God, so his atheism is not a belief; but one who asserts “There is no God.” is making a testable and meaningful claim, so he is asserting a belief, albeit a negative one. I believe that the fairies don’t exist. This is a negative assertion and belief, but a belief and an assertion all the same.
Going beyond the evidence Both theism and atheism have one thing in common. They both go beyond the physical evidence provided by philosophy and science. We are used to this in the case of religion, but atheists have been unwilling to admit this, but it is so. To be an atheist is to be certain that there is no God; but to be thus certain, the atheist must confidently assert without any doubt that he has become familiar with all beings and causes in all worlds and outside all worlds, if there be such realities, and having fully inspected them he has found that none conforms to any God of any description. To be an atheist he must go beyond the observable world in an act of intellectual exploration, a supposed fault of which atheists accuse theists. If an atheist admits that he is not thus familiar with all beings, then what qualifies him to assert that the being that he does not know is not God. God may be the being that he has missed. This is the abyss that undermines atheism.
Theism. However, theists still have to make their case. They cannot inspect realities beyond the world, and even if they challenge the atheists that they do not know all beings, nor do theists. So what enables theists to cross the gap of ignorance that separates humankind from the ultimate reality? They have to admit that they cannot cross the gap, so are they any better off than the atheist? Only one way is open. It is the acknowledgement that God has crossed the gap to them. Religious believers think that God has addressed humans in a variety of ways. They are sometimes aware of a presence/power in nature, which they call divine; they believe that God approaches them in prayer; and there are specially holy people whom they believe pass messages from God on. We call this revelation.
Let us be clear. Theists have an advantage, as they have a way of crossing the immense gap between ultimate reality and the world, but they cannot deceive themselves that they understand God, or that this gap has been crossed by their own intellectual power. As people grow in prayer they come to realize that they are dealing with a profound mystery and that God ever eludes comprehension. They struggle to describe him/her in human language, which is ever inadequate. In a criticism of theologians, my old Theology tutor said that some theologians speak with so much unwarranted certainty that you would think that they have been up in heaven having tea with the Trinity. Theists are those who have ventured on a voyage into a glorious ocean of mystery. They are yet in coastal waters. What will they find when the reach the distant shore?