Kinds of atheism, kinds of theism

Elisa Freschi, a philosopher specializing in Indian-subcontinent philosophy, has written an interesting post about atheism, in which she says: “in European history, atheism is the refusal of theism as conceived in modern times, with God as one ‘thing’ among others.” Thus if you refute a theism in which God is a “natural cause” — which is mostly what modern atheism does — you wind up with modern atheism, which can be defined as atheism-as-naturalism. However, such atheism-as-naturalism doesn’t have much to say about the God of Meister Eckhart.

In Indian philosophy, according to Freschi, when people talk about God, “God” may have at least four different meanings: the devatas (the mythological gods); the isvara (the God of rational theology); the Brahman (an impersonal deity); or the bhagavat God (the God of personal devotion). Freschi contends that “atheism in India is mostly targeted at two concepts of god, on the one hand the gods (devata) of mythology and on the other the Lord (isvara) of rational theology.” Freschi goes on to outline how in the 13th to 14th centuries C.E., Indian philosophers such asĀ  Venkatanatha responded to the atheism of the earlier Nyasa school by developing new forms of theism, which Freschi calls “post-atheism theism.”

This discussion becomes relevant to Unitarian Universalism when one considers that many current arguments against theism in our congregations are arguments for naturalism; that is, arguments for modern atheism, which considers God as a “thing.” These arguments become less intelligible when considered as arguments against, e.g., Martin Buber’s conception of God as “Thou,” or God considered in panentheist or pantheist terms.

Another way of saying this is that when using the English-language term “God,” you have to be careful to define in what sense you are using that term. When you argue against God as a thing which is a natural cause, your arguments will have little effect on those for whom God is defined in terms of a personal devotional relationship.

Furthermore, if a modern atheist winds up arguing with a mystic, someone like Henry David Thoreau or me, they might find they’re arguing with a religious naturalist who agrees entirely with their naturalist arguments, but who does not define God as a thing which is a natural cause. If we don’t clarify which definition of God we’re using, the argument is going to get confusing very quickly.

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