Atheism & Objectivism

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In many circles in contemporary American society, the mere mention of "atheism" frequently evokes an emotionally-charged reaction. Yet atheism is as deserving of dispassionate analysis as is capitalism, socialism or communism. As Mises and Rothbard have shown, a rational approach to economics leads to an awareness of the inherent irrationality (in terms of production and distribution) of an economic system which relies on central planning instead of the market system. Obviously, to effectively argue the case against socialism, it will not suffice to rely on faith, emotion and prejudice.

In short, all aspects of human action—including economics and religion—merit rational analysis.

In his article on Atheism and Objectivism, George Smith sets forth a calm treatment of the subject of atheism. We expect this article to be of special interest to those of our readers who have not previously been aware of the major philosophical differences which exist among different forms of atheism.

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The atheism of Ayn Rand is regarded by many people, especially political conservatives, as the most pernicious aspect of Objectivism. Yet, though vehemently opposed to faith and mysticism, Rand has never placed much emphasis on atheism per se. The Objectivist position on atheism was summarized by Nathaniel Branden in the December 1965 issue of THE OBJECT/VIST NEWSLETTER:

As uncompromising advocates of reason, Objectivists are, of course, atheists. We are intransigent atheists, not militant ones. We are for reason; therefore, as a consequence, we are opposed to any form of mysticism; therefore, we do not grant any validity to the notion of a supernatural being. But atheism is scarcely the center of our philosophical position. To be known as crusaders for atheism would be acutely embarrassing to us; the adversary is too unworthy.

The significance of Ayn Rand's atheism lies not in her atheism as such, but in its philosophical underpinnings. Rand is not unique in her atheism, but she is unique, in several important respects, in the philosophical orientation from which her atheism is derived. Rand's atheism distinguishes her from many other atheists as well as from religionists. It is for this reason that the charges of nihilism and pessimism leveled at some forms of atheism—sometimes legitimately—simply have no applicability to Rand whatsoever.

Atheism has been defended from a number of different philosophical perspectives, and the fact that a person is an atheist does not necessarily mean that he has something significantly in common with other atheists. Philosophers who differ from Rand in crucially important areas have, nonetheless, defended atheism. Existentialists, Marxists, Logical Positivists, Linguistic Analysts—all of these, to name but a few, have defended some form of atheism. But many of these approaches offer weak or invalid defenses of atheism, or they defend atheism at an enormously high cost, such as rejecting theism as a corollary of rejecting metaphysical inquiry altogether. Thus, in the course of examining Objectivist atheism, I shall outline other approaches to atheism, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses, and I shall contrast these approaches with that of Objectivism.

THEISM VS. ATHEISM Before proceeding, it is necessary to specify briefly what I mean by the terms "theism" and "atheism." "Theism" is the belief in a god or in any number of gods. But what is a god? This can be a rather complex question, but, for the purpose of this discussion, I shall consider a god to be any supernatural being—any being, in other words, that is "above" or "beyond" natural law. A god is exempt from some or all of the natural laws that characterize entities existing within the framework of the natural universe.

It is important to note that in order for a being to qualify as a god in this sense, it is not enough that it be superior to man in terms of its attributes and capacities. It is possible that we may eventually discover some kind of superior life on another planet, but these creatures, since they would be subject to natural law, would not qualify as gods. Nor does the fact that one man is extraordinarily strong make him a god in relation to weaker men. If the dispute between theism and atheism is to have any philosophical significance, a god must differ from natural beings in kind, not merely in degree.

A theist, therefore, is a person who believes in the existence of a supernatural being; and, because the supernatural lies beyond man's comprehension, a theist also believes in the existence of the unknowable.

What is atheism? The prefix "a" is a term of negation or privation and means "without," so the term "atheism" literally means "without theism," or "without belief in a god or gods." One who does not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist.

Atheism is sometimes defined as the belief that there is no god of any kind, or the claim that a god cannot exist. While these are categories of atheism, they do not exhaust the meaning of atheism, and they are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism. Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief; it is the absence of belief. An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist; rather, he does not believe in the existence of a god.

An atheist, therefore, is a person who does not believe in the existence of a supernatural being; and, as a corollary, an atheist is one who does not believe in the existence of anything outside or beyond the knowable universe.

With this admittedly brief presentation of theism and atheism, we shall now examine some of the ways in which atheism manifests itself. Please remember that in dividing the varieties of atheism as I am about to do, it is sometimes necessary to simplify matters a great deal, so none of the following should be construed as definitive presentations.

ETHICAL APPROACH The first form of atheism I shall call ethical atheism, by which I mean the rejection of theistic belief for ethical reasons. This approach is typical of existentialist atheism, such as promulgated by Sartre and Camus, whose position may be summarized as follows: If God existed, life would not be absurd and meaningless. Life is absurd and meaningless; therefore, God does not exist. In the name of misery, anxiety and helplessness, existentialists have espoused atheism.

A major theme in existentialism is human freedom, and the existence of a god, it is claimed, would jeopardize this freedom. At first glance, this position appears to have merit, but this merit soon disappears upon closer examination. By freedom, existentialists do not mean simply the freedom to choose one's own values; they mean, in effect, the freedom to choose one's own nature. Man, according to existentialism, is born into an absurd, meaningless world, without purpose and without values. Man exists, but he is without an essence. His existence precedes his essence. This, understandably, fills him with dread and despair; and to escape the inherent meaninglessness of life, man must, through freely chosen commitment, shape his own essence.

Where Objectivism says that man should freely select his values according to a rational standard of value—a standard determined by man's nature—existentialism says that each man must choose his own standard of value. Each man must decide for himself, through some unspecified and presumably arbitrary means, what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. Good and evil depend solely on individual choice; existentialists are overt defenders of ethical subjectivism, and it is in the name of this subjectivism that they reject God.

To introduce God into the universe would be to introduce a kind of objectivism into ethics, because the good would become synonymous with God's decrees. With this universal standard of goodness, man would no longer be free to choose his own subjective good. In more blunt terms, existentialists reject theism because the existence of God would eliminate ethical caprice, and caprice is essential to the ethics of existentialism. There is a very important sense in which "freedom," for the existentialist, means freedom from the facts of reality, and it is in behalf of this kind of freedom that he defends atheism.

With ethical atheism of the existentialist variety, we see a paradigm of what is the most disastrous move, philosophically speaking, that an atheist can make: to defend atheism in the name of subjectivism. Ethical subjectivism, or the denial of objective ethical standards, is only a step removed from ethical nihilism, or the obliteration of ethics altogether. To defend atheism solely in the name of subjectivism is to grant theism an honor which it does not deserve; it is to imply that theism is on the side of reason in ethics, while atheism is basically antireason. When atheism is the consequence of a general nihilistic attitude, as it is in existentialism, then it is not an atheism which is in any sense desirable.

There are, of course, other forms of ethical atheism that do not defend subjectivism. Some atheists, such as Eric Fromm, have criticized theism on the grounds that it advocates authoritarianism in the sphere of morality, and this Fromm regards, rightly, as antithetical to human happiness and autonomy. But any variety of ethical atheism, whether it defends subjectivism or objectivism, is on weak theoretical grounds, because the ethical consequence of theism is a secondary issue beside the issue of truth and falsehood. Can the belief in a god be justified rationally? If so, one should be a theist. If not, one should be an atheist. The existence of a god would indeed have unfortunate consequences for morality—especially if this god were the God of traditional Christianity—but these unfortunate consequences do not, in themselves, provide grounds for the rejection of theism. The issue of ethical implications should arise only after the rationality of theistic belief has been determined.

Another kind of atheism is psychological atheism, which means the rejection of theistic belief through an explanation of its psychological origins. A little known philosopher who took this approach was Ludwig Feuerbach, a nineteenth century German philosopher who greatly influenced such men as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. In THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY, Feuerbach argued that the belief in a god represents man's highest aspirations in an otherworldly form. Man dehumanizes his ideals, such as love, strength and wisdom, and places them in a supernatural realm under the name of God. But this alienates man from these ideals, making them seem unattainable and appropriate only to God. Thus, according to Feuerbach, we should reject God, but not the divine attributes themselves. These should be returned to the natural world, within the grasp of man, where they properly belong. (Freud used a variant of this approach, postulating the desire for a father image as the origin of religious belief. "God," wrote Freud, "is at bottom nothing but an exalted father.")

Without considering the validity of these psychological pronouncements, it is important to recognize that they constitute invalid grounds for atheism. They commit what is known as the "genetic fallacy," which means the attempted refutation of a belief through an appeal to its psychological origins. Flow a person acquired his beliefs does not affect their present cognitive value, as long as he is willing to present arguments in their favor. Psychologizing is not the business of a philosopher, and to explain the psychological origins of religious belief does not constitute a philosophical refutation. Any variant of psychological atheism, even if its psychological analysis is correct, simply misses the point. It is an altogether incorrect approach to atheism.

Next we come to what may be called, for lack of a better name, sociological atheism. This is the doctrine, prominent in many nineteenth century socialists and anarchists, that religion has served as a repressive force throughout history, aligning with the ruling class and providing it with a justification for its atrocities. According to Engels, God represents "the alien domination of the capitalist mode of production." "Slaves of God," wrote Bakunin in GOD AND THE STATE, "men must also be slaves of Church and State, in so far as the State is consecrated by the Church."

While it is true that churches have often exerted influence through the power of the state, this is an issue of political theory, not of atheism. The fact that Christians have practiced torture and repression does not refute theistic belief, any more than comparable behavior by Communists refutes atheism. Even if no Christian had ever harmed another man, Christian theism would still not be true. Like ethical and psychological atheism, sociological atheism attacks theism on nonphilosophical, and therefore incorrect, grounds.

"DEATH OF GOD" THEOLOGY Another general approach to atheism may be described as pragmatic atheism. This is the belief that, while theism may have fulfilled man's needs in the past, it is no longer sufficient for that task. In other words, belief in a god is deemed no longer "useful" and is therefore rejected on pragmatic grounds.

This approach is so nebulous and philosophically inept that it is rarely defended explicitly. There are strains of it, however, in that modern, absurd spectacle known as "Death of God" theology, whose advocates claim that a transcendent god is no longer relevant to the requirements of contemporary men, and that God is thus dead, at least in the traditional sense. Pragmatic atheism is also sometimes defended by the untrained, armchair philosopher who wants to offer an apparently sophisticated reason for his atheism, so he tells us that theistic belief is not useful or relevant—without specifying, of course, his criteria of usefulness and relevance, and without specifying what all this has to do with the rational basis for theistic belief.

There is hopefully no need to comment on this approach in detail. Pragmatic atheism evades completely the issue of truth and falsehood, not to mention its suggestion that theistic belief was at one time "useful," which extends to theism undeserved credit.

Another variety of atheism is metaphysical atheism, or the rejection of theism on metaphysical grounds. This approach is most often found in strict materialists, such as Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789) and Karl Marx. According to materialistic atheism, only matter exists. But God is allegedly immaterial; therefore, God does not exist.

Within certain limits, this approach may have some merit—at least more than the approaches discussed thus far—but as used by most materialists, it has unfortunate implications. When reductive materialists say that only matter exists, they rule out, not only God, but consciousness and conceptual thought as well. Consciousness, according to strict materialists, is reducible to physical movements in the brain. Other materialists take a moderate position, claiming that consciousness is not synonymous with physical events, but is a byproduct of matter. In any case, metaphysical atheism, whatever form it may take, tends to be a weak defense, primarily for the reason that it shifts the burden of proof from the theist to the atheist. The metaphysical atheist must now demonstrate that only matter exists, and his atheism depends on the effectiveness of this demonstration. In a proper defense of atheism, however, the onus of proof resides entirely with the theist; and the metaphysical atheist, by shifting this responsibility, places himself in a precarious position.

Finally, we come to the most significant variety of atheism, and the variety of which Objectivism is a subcategory. This is epistemological atheism, or the rejection of theism on epistemological grounds. It is epistemological atheism that delves into such issues as the meaning of theistic terms and the evidence in their favor.

Most contemporary atheists are epistemological atheists, and there are many subcategories of this approach. First, there is skeptical atheism, which stems from a generally skeptical attitude regarding the possibility of any objective knowledge whatsoever, whether of God or anything else. Of course, if one can't know anything, then one can't know of God's existence, and atheism follows inevitably—but this is a disastrously high price to pay in defense of atheism, not to mention that it is an absurd position to maintain.

Although not himself an atheist, the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume laid the foundation for skeptical atheism in many important respects. Hume did not deny the possibility of all knowledge, but he did uphold certain epistemological positions which, if carried to their logical extremes, lead inevitably to epistemological nihilism. This is not to deny Hume's contributions to the critique of theism—his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, for example, is a masterful work—but many of Hume's criticisms of religion are based on a more basic critique of human knowledge in general. For instance, one of Hume's most famous doctrines is his denial that the principle of necessity in causation has any factual basis. Belief in causality, for Hume, is the result of psychological conditioning, and the idea of a necessary connection between events in nature is without ontological foundation. There is nothing logically impossible, Hume believed, involved in a cat giving birth to baby elephants. We don't see such things happening, so we assume that they are impossible; but we must recognize, argued Hume, that this is mere psychological prejudice on our part, with no metaphysical foundation.

Many alleged proofs for the existence of a god rest on causal inferences, such as the supposed inference we must make to a first cause of the universe. But if causal inference in general is invalid, as Hume maintained, then none of these theistic arguments can be valid. Such theistic demonstrations, therefore, are doomed to failure—and this is one of the ways in which Hume attacked so-called natural theology. In the process of this attack, however, every other argument that rests on causal inference—whether theistic or naturalistic-is doomed as well. Here we have an example of excluding theism as a byproduct of excluding a very important segment of human knowledge in general.

SKEPTICISM AND FAITH It must be stressed that epistemological skepticism, while providing a superficial defense of atheism, works more in favor of theism than atheism. If it is impossible to justify our knowledge claims, then one belief becomes as good as any other. The theist cannot justify his beliefs, but, according to skepticism, neither can the atheist. Skepticism invites everyone to play it deuces wild in regard to knowledge claims; and the belief in a god becomes as defensible—or, more accurately, as indefensible—as any other.

Consider the fact that most forms of theistic belief rely heavily on the concept of faith. Consider also that skepticism is the precursor of faith; it opens the door that makes faith possible. He who defends skepticism sets the stage for faith.

Suppose that one maintains that every claim to knowledge must meet the minimum requirements of rational demonstration or be rejected as irrational. This, which is the position of the antiskeptic, excludes the possibility of faith; there is no room for faith in such a scheme. Suppose, however, that one maintains that many claims to knowledge can never, in principle, be justified. This, which is the position of the skeptic, leaves an opening for faith. Since we cannot justify our beliefs rationally, argues the theist, we must rely on faith. The Christian will frequently defend his faith in God on the grounds that the atheist too is a man of faith, except that the faith of the atheist lies in the material world and reason, rather than in the immaterial world and God. The Christian will thus claim that the position of the atheist is no stronger than his own.

If the atheist relies on skepticism, it will inevitably turn against him and be used as a major defensive ploy by the theist. It is the theist, not the atheist, who must align with skepticism.

Another prominent variety of epistemological atheism stems from the school of philosophy known as logical positivism. Logical positivism is now out of style in contemporary circles, but its influence is still felt. Its most famous doctrine was the principle of verification, which stated that the meaning of a proposition is its manner of verification in experience; and any proposition that cannot be verified in sense experience is literally meaningless.

In LANGUAGE, TRUTH AND LOGIC, the bible of logical positivism published in 1936, A.J. Ayer argued that "to say that 'God exists' is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance." As indicated by this passage, theism was rejected by positivists as a corollary of their rejection of metaphysical inquiry altogether. God was discarded, but so were such topics as causality, natural law and ethics. In fact, most logical positivists held that ethical judgments are cognitively meaningless; and this later evolved into the theory known as emotivism, or the doctrine that ethical judgments are nothing more than expressions of emotion. The atheism of logical positivism was another instance of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Next we come to the atheism of that school of thought known as linguistic analysis, or "ordinary language philosophy." Analysts are united primarily by their common conception of the nature and scope of philosophy. According to linguistic philosophy, the primary function of philosophy, and perhaps the only function, should be the analysis and clarification of language. The endless and confusing problems of past philosophers, claim the analysts, can be resolved through linguistic exploration—exploration that will reveal widespread misuse of language. A person who pays close attention to language will not become embroiled in the many pseudo-problems that have perplexed traditional philosophers.

LANGUAGE AND MEANING A predominantly analytic approach to atheism is presented in Antony Flew's excellent book, GOD AND PHILOSOPHY, which is similar to Objectivism's approach in many respects. Analytic philosophy has its good points and its bad points, which may be summarized as follows.

On its positive side, analytic philosophy has stressed that the meaning of theistic terms, such as "god," must precede any judgment of truth or falsehood regarding theistic claims. Before we can determine the truth or falsehood of the proposition, "God exists," we must understand the meaning of "god." If no intelligible description or definition is forthcoming, the case for theism collapses. Some analysts have also attacked the pompous and verbose terminology that is so typical of theology, and this is another respect in which analytic philosophy has performed a valuable task in defense of atheism.

On the negative side, however, many analysts have severely restricted the scope and, consequently, the importance of philosophy. Whereas medieval theologians made philosophy into the handmaiden of theology, analysts have transformed philosophy into the handmaiden of language. Language, not reality as a whole, is made the subject matter of philosophy, and philosophy is reduced to a kind of linguistic therapy.

An unfortunate consequence of this reliance on language is that analytic philosophy sometimes functions as a defense of the status quo, linguistically speaking. Starting from the manner in which language is ordinarily used, it becomes extremely difficult for analysts to discard certain words that have been used for thousands of years, such as the term "god." This has been recognized by some theists, who have subsequently enlisted the aid of linguistic analysis. Religious propositions, these theists argue, have been used by millions of persons for thousand of years, so they must serve some legitimate function. It is not within the province of philosophy to discard them as ridiculous or nonsensical; rather, we must accept these religious propositions as given and proceed to analyze what people have meant by them. It is in this way that ordinary language philosophy opened another door for theism.

RAND'S ATHEISM Our last variety of epistemological atheism is Objectivist atheism. As mentioned previously, there are some similarities between Objectivist atheism and a few of the approaches discussed thus far. For example, Objectivist atheism stresses, but did not originate, the idea that the term "god" must be defined before any attempt is made to establish its existence. This is also true of the "onus of proof principle," or the idea that the burden of proof falls entirely on the theist to establish his case rationally, and that the atheist is obliged to do nothing more than answer theistic arguments. There is no "positive case" for atheism. If theistic arguments fail, theism fails, and atheism emerges as the only rational alternative.

Despite these common grounds, Objectivism differs radically from most other forms of atheism. The most important difference is that, unlike most atheists, Rand is an Aristotelian. Although much of Objectivism (especially its metaphysics) differs significantly from Aristotelian philosophy, Rand falls generally with the Aristotelian tradition, particularly with regard to her view of philosophy, the nature of human cognition, and the role of ethics in man's existence.

The emergence of an Aristotelian atheist on today's scene appears somewhat paradoxical, because the staunchest contemporary defenders of Aristotle are the Thomists—the Catholic followers of Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian who was largely responsible for the reintroduction of Aristotle into Western Civilization. With Objectivism and Thomism we have two philosophical movements claiming Aristotle as their intellectual ancestor, but who stand on opposite ends of the spectrum regarding religious belief.

It is very much due to her Aristotelianism that Rand is unique in her atheism. For one thing, she opposes the general trends of positivism and analytic philosophy, opting instead for a much wider conception of philosophy as the discipline that provides man with a systematic and fundamental knowledge of reality. And, unlike most atheists, Rand is explicitly antiskeptical in her epistemology. Her rejection of God does not stem from the limitation or distrust of reason; rather, it is in the name of reason that she rejects faith, mysticism and belief in the supernatural.

Rand's advocacy of reason extends into the sphere of ethics. Unlike many atheists, Rand rejects the supposed dichotomy between values and facts, arguing that the values required by man derive from the facts of his nature—a notion that has strong Aristotelian overtones. In virtually every area of philosophy, Rand is what may be called a philosophical optimist; she projects strong confidence in the ability of man's mind to acquire knowledge of reality. Nowhere in Rand will one find the pessimism so typical of existentialist atheism, or the skepticism inherent in Humean and positivistic atheism, or the philosophical myopia of analytic atheism.

In short, the atheism of Ayn Rand is not destructive in the least. In rejecting God, Rand does not reject metaphysics, ethics, certainty, or the possibility of happiness. On the contrary, it is because Rand has so much of positive value to offer that she considers atheism to be a comparatively minor issue.

The Thomistic philosopher Etienne Gilson once remarked that "God will really be dead when no one will still think of denying his existence." By emphasizing her constructive philosophy to the extent that the issue of theism fades into the background, Ayn Rand may be said to have written God's epitaph. And this time there will be no resurrection.

George H. Smith studied philosophy at the University of Arizona. He is author of the book ATHEISM: THE CASE AGAINST GOD, forthcoming from Nash Publishing Corp. He co-edits the libertarian magazine INVICTUS, and has contributed to REASON, BOOKS FOR LIBERTARIANS, and BOOK NEWS.

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