Atheism – November 2006

Question: What are the presuppositions of atheists such as Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett that make these writers so appealing, and how does process theology offer an alternative view?

Publication Month: November 2006

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The intellectual-cultural context in which we operate favors atheism. Obviously this does not lead most people to become atheists. In this culture, in its popular forms, “atheism” is still a negative word. It was associated with “Communism,” for example. Many people call themselves “agnostic” in order to avoid the label and also to acknowledge that certainty about what does not exist is unattainable.

Nevertheless, God has disappeared from the university. That people used to believe in God is recognized in history books. Courses in religious studies also can discuss the varied beliefs of people, some of which affirm God. But God cannot be included in the explanation of any event, historical or natural, not even religious experience. The implication is that everything can be understood without reference to God. This assumes that any God who might exist plays no role in events.

More recently, God has been excluded from public education as well. This is partly because teachers are educated in the university and learn there to exclude God from any role in what happens. It is also because, as society becomes more religiously diverse, the introduction of religious ideas or practices threatens to favor one community over others. The solution is to exclude all from the schools. Of course, teachers may teach about them, but they should not teach their beliefs as truths. This includes belief that there is God.

Theology is taught at the college or university level only in Catholic and conservative Protestant institutions. Much of what I say would need to be considerably qualified in its application to these schools. Liberal Protestant schools and private ones do not allow theology, unless they have attached seminaries. Even in seminaries, very little role is assigned to God. Historians and biblical scholars will discuss the role of belief in God more than their historical peers in other areas, and they may emphasize its importance to a greater extent. But their understanding of historical scholarship differs little from that of secular historians. It is rare, indeed, that professors in these fields will suggest that God actually affects the course of events. The discussion of this possibility is left to professors of theology.

Among theologians also there is some embarrassment about this topic. There are a variety of responses. A traditional one consists in the idea that we can distinguish the primary and secondary causes of events. Science and historical study deal with secondary causes. These leave no gaps. However, this seamless account as a whole is compatible with the view that God is the primary cause of all that happens. There is no need to mention this unless one is asking specifically religious questions.

Sometimes the primary causality can be associated with Being as Such. Thomas Aquinas wrote of esse ipsum; Heidegger of Sein selbst. In other words the being of all that is derives from God, although God is not a factor influencing the forms that being takes. This is explained exhaustively by natural and historical causes.

Another solution has been to bifurcate knowledge. Immanuel Kant is the most influential source of this way of thinking. It is reflected in German universities in the sharp distinction between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften. For Kant, God cannot possibly play a role in the former, but in reflections about ethics and in theology itself, the postulate of God makes sense. Those who have adopted the bifurcation, however, with few exceptions, have found ways to discuss ethics without recourse to God. Theology, however, can still be claimed as a sphere within which God, and even God’s actions, can be affirmed without impinging on the territory of the sciences.

From Kant one may go all the way to a pure idealism, that is, the idea that only mind exists. For him the existence of a physical world depends on the ordering of sense data by the mind. The role he assigned an independent nature is very limited and, given his general position, difficult to defend. Accordingly, many of his followers attributed reality only to mind. Christian Science stands in this tradition and draws its implications practically as most philosophical idealists do not.

In the twentieth century, many theologians have rejected metaphysics entirely. For some of them, such as Karl Barth, this has meant that the biblical worldview in which God is central is affirmed without connecting it in any way to philosophical grounding. For most in the latter part of the century, this has meant instead that all that we have to think about is the world of language and symbols. “God” is important here, but there is no way to go from the word to some reality that exists independently of it. The utterance of the word can have some causal effect, but this does not attribute any role to the reality it has traditionally named.

Another option has been to locate God in the future. For example God can be identified with the ultimate destiny of all things, a destiny that is implicitly anticipated by human beings. In this way God exercises causal efficacy in the present but not in such a way as to compete with the kinds of causes studied by scientists and historians.

In contrast with all of this, popular belief and conservative theology affirm God as causally effective in the world. Since all events are thought to be caused by other events and to be obedient to natural laws, the image of such divine action is necessarily supernatural. God supernaturally created the world and supernaturally acts in the world. It is this supernaturalism against which the university organizes itself. To allow it would be to disrupt the whole program of science and history.

The argument about a God who really does something and makes a difference, therefore, is generally initiated by theists pointing to something that cannot be explained in a natural way. This has been particularly important in relation to the evolutionary theory out of which the question comes. The coming into being of life out of inanimate matter, or complex forms of life out of simple ones, and of subjective experience out of mere objects seems to require miraculous interventions. These claims stir biologists to show that such developments can be explained in naturalistic terms. Even if they admit they do not have complete explanations now, they point to the many gaps, previously viewed as inexplicable naturalistically, that have in time been filled by scientists. They also argue that positing an act of God is not science and cannot be integrated into a scientific explanation. Since such a theory is “theology” rather than science, and since theology cannot be taught outside of theological schools, any reference to God is, in principle, barred from an explanatory role anywhere else.

In this intellectual-cultural context, atheistic biologists have considerable advantage over their theistic critics. They have on their side the whole university culture and the whole community of scientists. Individual scientists may personally believe in God, but their science excludes God from any role. Those who try to introduce God as a causal agent are not providing one hypothesis among others to be considered but are rejecting science as such as it is currently understood, taught, and practiced. If one thinks that belief in God, or at least in any God who makes a difference in the world, depends on finding some supernatural events, the likely result is atheism.

Let us turn now to the distinctive approach of process thought. Process thought continues the effort to understand reality, including God, as given for us rather that as simply part of our language. However, it rejects both materialism and idealism. It criticizes both the science that is bound up with materialism and its theological critics who propose a supernaturalist alternative.

Scientists and supernaturalists accept the same view of the natural world, namely, that of Descartes. By the eighteenth century science had wedded itself to the mechanistic view of what it studied. Its conservative Christian critics do not dispute this mechanistic metaphysics, and they are, accordingly, forced to present their alternatives in a supernatural fashion. If the world is a machine, it is composed of matter in motion. Matter has no interiority. Accordingly, matter can be acted on only externally. Since its only behavior is motion, God would have to be thought of as moving matter in a way that conflicts with the forces and laws already operative. Newton thought this occurred, but for at least two hundred years now, science has excluded it. Such an act of God is, in any case, very difficult to imagine. Process theology has no place for it.

The process alternative can be stated very simply. It is that the entities that make up the world have interiority. That is, they are something in and for themselves and do not exist only objectively for others. This is hardest for many to accept when we talk of elementary entities such as quanta, but with respect to biology, it is enough to speak of living things. We do in fact believe that not only other human beings, but also our pets and other animals, are subjects as well as objects.

The process critique of evolutionary theory, accordingly, does not begin by seeking a gap in explanation that can be filled by God, but gaps that can be filled by the actions of animals. Notice that I say “actions” rather than behavior. Behavior can, on an a prioribasis, be assumed to be the result of matter in motion, but the word “action” points to behavior that is harder to subsume into the matter in motion paradigm. When we think of an action we think of something intentional rather than of something that is simply the outward manifestation of the chance or necessary motions of matter. Behavior can be viewed as simply objective. Action involves the subject. That the actions of animals have an effect on the course of evolution is an assertion for which there is a great deal of evidence, even though it is ignored in standard theories of evolution.

The point of all this is that the sciences exclude the subjective side of reality almost as completely as they exclude God. These two exclusions are closely related. Although people sometimes think of creation and the imposition of law, as well as miracles, as acts of God on the objective world, the great majority of religious thinking deals with how God works in subjective experience. Even Jesus’ healings, which one might suppose occur in the objective world, are attributed by him to subjective states, especially to faith. Whereas any effort to image God’s acts objectively tends to evoke our own incredulity, imaging God’s call and grace and judgment in our subjective experience has considerable verisimilitude. That God influences the subjective experience of other animals as well as human beings is a reasonable judgment.

Access to the world of objectivity with which science deals is through the sense organs. Sensory empiricism is, accordingly, closely related with science. But this kind of empiricism actually provides us no idea of causality, or natural law, or even temporality. Immanuel Kant understood this, and he proposed that all of these are given by the structure of the human mind. Whitehead showed that causality, natural law, and temporality are given, or derivative from what is given, in our subjective experience. So are novelty and freedom, and also the sense of better and worse. He shows that we have nonsensory perception that is more basic than that which is mediated by sense organs. It is in the analysis of this subjective world, excluded by science, that God plays an important role.

Process thinkers believe that what happens subjectively affects what happens objectively and that excluding the subject from the study of living things leads science to incomplete explanations. This is especially true where human beings are involved, but it is true also of other animals. When animals learn new ways of procuring food or enter into symbiotic relations, this affects the selection of mutated genes. Evolutionists rarely deny this, but they do not include it in standard accounts of evolution.

Unless and until the extensive role of animal subjectivity in evolution is acknowledged and included in the account of evolution, evolutionary theory will be thoroughly atheistic and also morally nihilistic. Giving the subjective lives of animals their due place will not automatically lead to theism. But the fullest and deepest account of what transpires in subjectivity, moment by moment, involves the creaturely relationship to God. This relationship grounds both order and novelty, both law and freedom. Through it God influences, but does not determine, what happens in the world.