Atheism: Two Views


Atheism: The Case Against God, by George H. Smith, Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Corp., 1974, 355 pp., $8.95.

Wallace I. Matson

This is a fine job of theologian-bashing. In plain and forceful English Mr. Smith shows that belief in God is irrational, and on that account a bad thing—a point that can't safely be taken for granted anymore. Rand and Branden are his philosophical mentors, but his arguments seldom depend on prior acceptance of their doctrines.

Smith defines atheism as nonbelief in theism, and theism as belief in the existence of a supernatural being, which is to say a being not bound by the laws of nature. But to be anything in particular, to have a nature, is nothing other than to have definite abilities, entailing definite limitations; to be bound by laws of nature is just to exemplify a nature in activity. It follows that an infinite being, one with no limitations, would have no nature, hence would be nothing of which we could form any conception. This elegant argument, erected on an Aristotelian foundation, is an important contribution to metaphysics.

Smith makes much of the incomprehensibility of God. The fact that theologians admit it and indeed insist on it leads him to reproach them as "dishonest agnostics" (p. 87). He is right, in a way. But it is misleading to start with a scrutiny of The Infinite Being as if He were the datum from which religion began. If He were, the existence of religion would be as inconceivable as He is. No, inconceivability is a condition He grew into. Contrary to received opinion, all religions do share a common defining property: they are verbal activities designed to bring the unseen Powers That Be to our aid in distress. There is no difference between religion and magic, unless one wishes to say that magic commands, religion entreats. The core of all religion is prayer, and prayer is the attempt to change the world by talking to it. If it is to work, the Powers must be able to hear and understand, which means they must be persons—so we have gods. They must be very powerful, to help when nothing else can; very knowing, to be aware of us, our situation, and the remedy; and very good, to be on our side. Finally, lest they thwart one another, they coalesce into one supremely powerful, wise, and good superperson, e.g. the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; always willing and able to change things for our benefit when we are worthy—and if He doesn't, that proves we aren't worthy. Inscrutable, perhaps, but no more inconceivable than Great-Grandfather Serug.


Comes now the theologian, pondering the divine attributes. Just how powerful is supremely powerful? Well, there can't be any limitations at all on His power; He must be omnipotent, infinitely powerful. How knowing? He must know absolutely everything, past, present, future. How good? As good as can be. And how long has He been this way? Forever, of course—or rather, eternally, which is subtly different. And where is He? To be in one place rather than another would be a limit on Him—so He is everywhere at once, hence (and for other reasons as well) bodiless. And so on. His comprehensibility is waning. He knows everything, but He can't have learned anything—so His knowledge is not like ours. He can do everything, but He has no body—so His acting is not like ours. And (as Smith notes) His attributes conflict: if He knows everything that is going to happen, then He can't alter the course of things once set, so what has become of His omnipotence?

Any theologian can make shift to solve that difficulty, but another which Smith does not note is supremely embarrassing. If God is all-powerful, He made the world; and in the best way possible, if He is all-wise and all-good. Hence any request to have the world changed must be foolish. Hence God could not conceivably answer any prayer. But prayer-answering is His raison d'être. So He—we are speaking now of the God of the philosophers—is not only inconceivable; from a religious point of view He is useless. Smith's remark that "God is exaggeration run amuck" (p. 68) suggests that he is aware of this inference, which points up the extent of the theologian's dishonesty in permitting or even encouraging his congregation in their unsophisticated devotions to the God of Abraham et al. He can hardly give public expression to his reservations and qualifications, for if he did, religion as an institution would collapse.

Which, in any case, seems to be happening, and at an accelerated rate. Smith says in his Introduction, "You are about to read a minority viewpoint." Come off it, George! Perhaps, in the U.S.A., or elsewhere in Christendom, more people would say Yes than No if the Gallup Poll asked them whether they believed in a god. But it would be as surprising to meet a faculty colleague in a church as in an Elks Club. (Unless as a tourist, or in the Unitarian Church, which doesn't count.) Geach and Anscombe seem to be about the only communicants in the first rank of present-day philosophers; if people like Alvin Plantinga are sometimes taken seriously, that only shows how far backwards atheist philosophers will lean in endeavoring to be fair. If Smith's book is not widely read in the academies, it will not be because devotional works preempt scholarly attention, but because of the pervasiveness of the attitude that a friend once expressed as "I'm not enough interested in religion even to be an atheist."


Willy-nilly, however, my friend was an atheist by Smith's criterion (as are also, e.g., uneducated children) because he didn't believe in a god. An extreme case of nonmilitancy. Smith's rather elaborate classification of atheists takes no account of degrees of militancy; but it should, for this characteristic is important theoretically as well as psychologically. Militant atheism shares enough unpleasant qualities with religion to be about equally objectionable where it is powerful, as a glance toward eastern Europe will make plain. Smith is rightly indignant at the attempt to identify atheism with communism. Of course, not all atheists are communists; on the other hand, all communists are atheists. The question ought to be raised, why is this so? The answer, which is by no means obvious, must explain why communists are militant atheists.

For militant atheism is not merely basic atheism plus strong conviction and energy. Smith is an example in point. Certainly he is energetic and has strong convictions. But so far from being a militant, he denies any aim to proselytize, and states flatly (p. 277) that "atheism, as such, is not an answer to anything.…Under no circumstances should atheism be regarded as a cure-all or as an escape from personal responsibility."

But unlike religion, atheism "provides a general context in which answers are possible," by removing "definite obstacles to happiness." Many of these are in the form of rules to which religion demands obedience. Rational ethics on the other hand is said to require application of standards. Certainly rational decision-making is not to be reduced to rule-following, a long line of philosophers from Plato to Skinner to the contrary notwithstanding; and the distinction is crucial for ethics. I am not sure, though, that it coincides exactly with the line between religious and secular. It is more akin to the difference between spirit and letter, about which Our Lord Jesus Christ made some remarks. There is always a tendency, not just in religion, for standards to degenerate into rules. Smith takes "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife" to be a rule, doubly objectionable because it tries to command the emotions. No doubt many people so interpret it. But it could be construed in meliorem partem as a standard à la Aristotle: the man of practical wisdom doesn't mess around.

I have touched on only a few points from this comprehensive book. Looking at it more as a whole: Mr. R.A. Childs, Jr., says on the dust jacket that it "will create a storm center [sic] of controversy in theological circles. Many Christians will attempt to meet its challenge." Not likely, I should think. One has a sinking feeling as soon as one sees the title: "—But nobody who needs to read it will! Or if perchance someone does, what difference will it make to him? How can rational argumentation have any effect on anyone's total way of looking at things? Did you ever try to argue a paranoid out of his paranoia?"

To which Freud replied, in The Future of an Illusion: "We may insist as much as we like that the human intellect is weak in comparison with human instincts, and be right in doing so. But nevertheless there is something peculiar about this weakness. The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind."

If so, Smith should go on writing books.

Wallace Matson is a Ph.D. graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, where he is professor of philosophy. Among other writings is his book The Existence of God.

David Bryant

This book reads very smoothly. It is presented with all the zeal of a reformer—rather like a Walter Kaufmann turned Libertarian—though Smith makes it clear at the outset that it is not his purpose to persuade anyone to atheism. He intends rather to demonstrate to "the layman" the "irrationality to the point of absurdity" (in Parts I-III), and the harmfulness (Part IV) of theism, or more aptly, Catholicism. If, after reading the case against God, a reader chooses to retain or adopt an irrational, harmful belief, that is his prerogative!

I think no reader will agree with Smith's contention that atheism contains no positive content—that his brand of atheism has nothing to defend, the "onus of proof" being solely on the theist—since even a cursory reading makes it clear that his critique of theism rests on a multitude of standard libertarian principles which he defends at length in the style of such libertarians as Tibor Machan. Although he never declares himself a libertarian, the view of atheism Smith offers seems best described as "the beliefs of a libertarian as he turns his attention to the claims and the history of Christianity." In a sense the book is misleadingly titled, then, for it is not an exposition and defense of atheism, which would presumably include analyses of atheistic forms of Buddhism, attacks on pantheism, etc., but a staunchly libertarian critique of Christianity.

Atheism, both in ordinary parlance and in the Oxford English Dictionary, means "disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a [any] god," but Smith begins Chapter I with a rejection of this sort of definition. Instead he presents a redefinition—what philosophers since Charles Stevenson have called a "persuasive definition"—and this redefinition undermines the effectiveness of major parts of Smith's thesis. For Smith, atheism (a-theism) in its "broad," "primary," and "widest" sense means "without theism," and this does not entail a belief that a god does not exist but, he emphasizes, 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." (p. 7) It follows from this definition that anyone ignorant of theistic claims—a child, for example—is an atheist! Such persons are said to be "implicit" (vs. "explicit") atheists, but atheists in the "primary sense" all the same. If this definition were adopted, Smith proposes, many of the common misconceptions about the moral and intellectual depravity of atheism would be laid to rest: after all, no theist believes children are malicious, intentionally corrupt, or immoral beings.

The problem with this is inherent to any program of persuasive definitions of key terms: why adopt such a redefinition? Compelling reasons are required to remove the suspicion that it is an ad hoc move. Otherwise, nothing stops the theist from claiming that those who are not alive to the god hypothesis are really theists; albeit "implicit" theists, they are theists in the "primary" and "broadest" sense all the same.

Smith presents a persuasive redefinition of agnosticism too: contrary to standard usage, agnosticism turns out to be compatible with both theism and atheism; everyone is either a theist or an atheist, but these two classes are each divided into those who are agnostic and those who are not (we might call them "gnostic"). Smith asserts that agnosticism "refers to the impossibility of knowledge with regard to a god" (pp. 9-10). Agnostic theists and atheists maintain in common that the nature of god is unknowable. Such a redefinition of agnosticism urges readers to shift from attributing the term to the psychological state of indecision in a person vis-a-vis theism (its ordinary, in-use meaning) to attributing it to the belief that the nature of god is unknowable. This strikes me as overwhelmingly counter-intuitive, and in dire need of justification.

The justification Smith offers for both redefinitions is that a person who has no knowledge of theistic claims

poses a problem for the traditional classifications. He does not believe in a god, so he is not a theist. He does not reject the existence of a god, so, according to this meaning which is commonly attached to atheism, he is not an atheist. Nor does this person state that the existence of a supernatural being is unknown or unknowable, so he is not an agnostic. The failure of the traditional labels to include this possibility indicates their lack of comprehensiveness. (p. 14)

What Smith fails to see here is the context of application of the trichotomy, "theist-agnosticatheist." (Throughout the rest of the essay Smith is especially attentive to the importance of the limits of context in the application of key terms, as a good libertarian should.) None of the terms of the trichotomy are meant to apply to all human beings openendedly, but only to those who have consciously entertained the claim that there is a god (or God with such-and-so attributes). There are other classifications to cover the class of the ignorant—namely "ignorant" or "naive" or "nonrational."


The case for the irrationality of theistic beliefs in Parts I and II rests on (i) the claim that any wholly transcendent being is necessarily unknowable, and (for good measure) (ii) demonstrations of contradictions entailed by the various "omni-" and "infinite" attributes traditionally applied to God. Smith is on stronger grounds with (ii); (i) is marred by a failure to consider theistic knowledge claims based on reputed personal revelations, i.e. direct "mystic experiences" of God. He relegates his discussions of revelation to criticisms of claims to have witnessed a miracle of some sort.

The three chapters comprising Part III purport to further the case for irrationality via criticisms of natural theology, i.e. the attempts to provide rational proofs for the existence of God. Here Smith is on shaky grounds for two reasons. One is that there seems to be no reason for including these chapters in the book, given his stated purposes. They cannot establish, or even contribute to, the cases for irrationality presented in the first two Parts because it is invalid (an argumentum ad ignorantiam) to conclude, from the fact that various proofs—even all existing proofs—for the existence of X fail, that therefore there exists no X. The other reason is that the proofs he chooses to criticise sometimes contain premises which are never advocated by any theist worth his salt, i.e. he sets up "straw men" to knock down. The causal version of the cosmological argument, for example, purportedly contains the premise, "everything requires a cause," a premise critics of theism commonly but mistakenly foist on the "tradition." Thomists, in particular, argue that every contingent (or "created") entity requires a cause, but this does not entail a contradiction, as Smith argues, when conjoined with the claim that God does not require a cause.

Part IV is devoted to showing how Christianity is bad for you because it advocates an "antilife" ethic based on guilt and "future world" rewards and (especially) punishments. Smith's argument is not that we are not "guilty," or that there are no future punishments—though he no doubt agrees with that argument—but that the Rand-Branden "Objectivist ethics" entails the falsity, and reveals the harmfulness, of Christian morality. This partly explains his proclivity for criticising the Bible and the writings of the "church fathers" (e.g. Augustine, Tertullian, Aquinas) which depend on outdated physics, biology, and cosmology which few intelligent Christians presuppose today. In a similar way, most of Smith's case for the incorrigible incompatibility between faith and reason is made on "the bloodstained history of Christianity" (p. 114) which "negates the foundation of rational ethics." Needless to say, this book is required reading for any layman libertarian.

David Bryant is a Ph. D. graduate of the University of Michigan. He taught philosophy for four years at S.U.N.Y. College at Fredonia, New York, and is now in private industry.