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 as  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.

Global vs. local atheisms

In a post on the Indian Philosophy Blog, Elisa Freschi distinguishes between global and local atheisms:

“The Mimamsa school of Indian philosophy started as an atheist school since its first extant text, Jaimini’s Mimamsa Sutra. At a certain point in its history, however, it reinterpreted its atheist arguments as aiming only at a certain conception of god(s). In other words, it reinterpreted its atheism as being not a global atheism, but a form of local atheism, denying a certain specific form of god(s) and not any form whatsoever.”

I find this an extremely useful distinction, which in my experience is mostly absent in Western thought. In the West, our religious thinking has been dominated by monotheistic religion — Christianity and to a lesser extent Judaism — which have tended to force our thought into either/or, binary thinking: either I believe in the the monotheistic Christian (or Jewish) deity, or I believe in nothing. It is difficult for us to conceive of any other option.

In the Indian religious landscape, however, there is a multiplicity of deities. I suspect that kind of landscape allows a more nuanced approach to thinking about deities. In one example, Freschi quotes one Indian philosopher as saying: “I have refuted the inference to the existence of the Lord said by other scholars, but I have not refuted the Lord Himself” (Nayaviveka, tarkap?da, end of sambandh?k?epaparih?ra).

But I can see other possibilities that could also be interesting, such as refuting the existence of certain classes of deities. This brings to mind Xenophanes, a thinker from the pre-Christian West, who made some well-known criticisms of the class of anthropomorphic deities:

“Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds” (fragment 15, John Burnet translation); and

“The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair” (fragment 16, John Burnet translation).

Xenophanes also criticized the class of deities that not only looks like but behaves like humans:

“Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another. (fragment 11, John Burnet translation)

All this raises an interesting line of thought: arguments supporting atheism in the Western tradition tend to argue against the monotheistic traditions of Christianity and Judaism. And indeed, Western atheists have developed some powerful arguments against these monotheistic deities. But because their arguments focus so narrowly on the specifics of Western monothesitic deities, I find their arguments less convincing when considering, for example, panentheism. (And no, that’s not a typographical error; see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on panentheism.)

The most interesting point here for me is that in an increasingly multicultural world — that is, in a globalized world where cultures previously separated by comfortable distances now find themselves living literally next door to one another — arguments against the Western concept of “God” might suddenly be revealed to be a local atheism. Similarly, arguments for the Christian or Jewish deity might well be a local theism.

Still more Old Time Religion

I’ve collected a few more parody verses of Old Time Religion, which might be of interest to religious liberals:

Flying spaghetti monster:

If we laugh ourselves unsteady
And keep criticism ready,
Flying monsters of spaghetti
Will be good enough for me!


I am quite sure there are good odds
All who see God are just drunk sods,
So I’d rather worship no gods,
Nothing’s good enough for me!


There are those who worship science
‘Cause they value our reliance
On electrical appliance-es
It’s good enough for me!

In a subsequent post, I’ll post a PDF including these and 27 other verses I’ve collected….

New blog on theism vs. atheism

Chris Schreiner, who is both brave and smart, has started a new blog on how to get theists and atheists to talk with one another sanely and productively. I say that Chris is brave because every time I have tried to start such a conversation, I find myself standing in the middle of two warring camps who are hurling things at each other. Chris is also really smart: he’s a minister, psychotherapist, and author of five books, including Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics; beyond that, when you sit and talk with him, you quickly discover that he is kind, perceptive, well-read, and articulate.

So what are you waiting for? — go read his new blog, Theists and Atheists, Communication and Common Ground.