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Atheist presuppositionalism

Stanley Fish thinks that the arguments offered by the most bold of our atheists are actually kinda faith-based.

Update: A few weeks ago, I posted a link that enables folks with .edu email addresses to have free access to TimesSelect material.

Here’s a sample of Fish’s argument, for those who can’t get through the firewall:

A very strong assertion is made – we will “undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct” – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence. This sounds an awfully lot like faith of the kind Harris and his colleagues deride – expectations based only on a first premise (itself asserted rather than proven), which, if true, demands them, and which, if false, makes nonsense of them.


Isn’t that what separates scientific faith from religious faith; one is supported by reasons, the other is irrational and supported by nothing but superstition? Not really. One of the basic homiletic practices in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is the catechism or examination of one’s faith. An early 19th century Jewish catechism is clear on the place of reason in the exercise: “By thinking for himself , let [the pupil] learn the sunny nearness of reason.” Christian catechists regularly cite 1 Peter 3:15: “Be always ready to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” In short, and it is often put this way, at every opportunity you must give reasons for your faith.

The reasons you must give, however, do not come from outside your faith, but follow from it and flesh it out. They are not independent of your faith – if they were they would supplant it as a source of authority – but are simultaneously causes of it and products of it; just as Harris’s and Dawkins’s reasons for believing that morality can be naturalized flow from their faith in physical science and loop back to that faith, thereby giving it an enhanced substance.

You can also find versions of this argument in a lot of Fish’s publications.

Discussions - 18 Comments

Talking about faith: I have to take your word about Fish; I don't want to join TimesSelect.

Of course atheism is based on faith. If 95% of people believe there is a God and you have no physical proof that there isn't, then you have faith in the lack of a deity.

Yeah, I can't see the article either. But does Fish think that atheism being faith-based hurts the atheist ideology?

I don't know that those bold atheists would disagree that their conclusions are drawn from a kind of faith in their own ability to perceive truth (much like that of a religious person). Everyone has to have some sort of "faith" in, at the least, a way to rightfully observe and perceive the objects exterior to themselves as well as their own intuitive insights. If Fish somehow thinks that this debunks the arguments of the atheists, then I might just have to (sigh) sign up at TimesSelect just to get a kick out of that kind of claim.

I did find this quote: it is by missing so much that they are able to produce such a jolly debunking of a way of thinking they do not begin to understand.

That's my problem with atheism too (and it was all over my copy of Sam Harris' book). I find it ironic, though, that someone claiming that this is a bad way of debunking someone's ideology also feels that he is entitled to, in the same manner as the loud, contemporary atheists, tell everyone else that they are wrong (when, of course, he can not begin to understand many of the lives of the people he is telling this to, nor the religious ideologies that have sprung from such lives).

I don't think anyone who is not a Christian can truly understand Christianity or the people who participate in Christianity. How, then, can they criticize it as a personal religion? In the same way, how can Christians claim to understand everything for everyone (or, at least, so far as any human being can understand anything in God's great big plan)? Christianity and atheism are personal ideologies accepted by people for personal reasons (on "faith"). Fish is right to criticize the atheists on their consistent claims that they are right and everyone else is wrong. If that's where he stops in the article, good for him. My inclination, though, is to believe Fish is a deep-rooted Christian who believes his way is the right way for everyone and his ideology should be accepted by all as fact. If that's the case, then he makes the same mistake the atheists do.

Dan K - if you want to see some comments on the article and some quotes from Fish, go here.

O dear, this looks like it could be the start of one of those threads. When you use the term “atheist,” could you maybe just please say which of the following meanings, if any, you give it?

Let G be the proposition “God exists.”

Atheism 1: I believe that G is false.

Atheism 2: I have no belief about the truth or falsity of G.

Atheism 3: G is not a meaningful proposition, so it cannot have a truth value.

There are atheists who subscribe to each of these positions, and they are by no means compatible. Maybe you know of yet another definition. If so, I’d like to hear about it. But to discuss atheism without defining the term is to jabber without useful consequence. Let’s not, whatcha say?

But to discuss atheism without defining the term is to jabber without useful consequence.

No it's not. Your "Atheism #2" is not atheism. It could be agnosticism, but not atheism. I don't think "#3" is atheism either. To an atheist (as defined clearly, I thought . . .) "G" is a meaningful proposition and they reject that proposition. If "G" had no meaning, they wouldn't talk about it and reject it. An atheist also clearly has a belief about the truth or falsity of "G". I mean, if you'd like to pretend, then I can grant that the definition of atheism is disputed, but I'm very sure it is not. And even if I want to be really charitable and grant that it is disputed, the three atheists being discussed in Fish's article (which are obviously the atheists I'm discussing in my response) are all part of your "Atheist #1".

So, what's the problem? Is atheism really not that clearly defined? Especially in the context of this conversation?

Based on my experience with professed atheists, they demonstrate quite a bit of emotional investment in their "atheism". They are quite passionate about it. Further, to many, the idea of successfully refuting their beliefs brings considerable fear in their eyes.

Based on that, I'd agree that many atheists possess something akin to "faith," though faith in the supposed absence of something as opposed to the existence of something.

Matt Mingus writes: I don't think "#3" is atheism either. To an atheist (as defined clearly, I thought . . .) "G" is a meaningful proposition and they reject that proposition. If "G" had no meaning, they wouldn't talk about it and reject it.

But they do talk about it and have written whole books about it. Given the gravity accorded to "God exists," if a serious philosopher thought that G were a mistaken utterance, why would he not want to talk about it?

You're entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. You're denying the existence of a robust philosophical literature. You illustrate what I mean by uninformed jabber ... and I suspect that I haven't seen the last of it in this thread.

Absent a comprehensive account of the nature of things it would seem that atheism must remain a matter of belief. The argument for belief based on the incomprehensability of the whole or the mystery of creation is for them unconvincing. The notion that the atheist has no physical evidence for the absence of a deity is also less than sufficient. When believers claim there is a God is not the burden of proof upon them, regardless of the percentage of believers? Would a rational explanation of the origin or character of religious belief on psychological grounds be sufficient for a refutation of belief? It does appear to be the case that some atheists claim to be incapable of belief. It is not out of disdain for religion or lack of appreciation of the religious account of who we are as human beings and our place in the cosmos that they remain unbelievers. Perhaps genuine agnosticism is too difficult to live with. There does, it seems to me, to be a too easily drawn compatibility between faith and reason on the part of many.

To John C: How can belief--faith--be proved? If there is a proof, that would be fatal, of course, for faith. Only some very silly fundamentalists believe that there could be or need be a proof that would convince nonbelievers on, so to speak, wholly rational grounds. (St. Thomas says you can't prove the world was created, only that you can't prove it wasn't, and nothing has changed on this quesion--see Walker Percy on what we really know via either Aristotle or Darwin.) If by "rational explanation" you mean empirical, psychological evidence that our longings point in the direction of a God, even a personal God, how is that either a refutation or, for that matter, a confirmation? If by rational explanation you mean the genealogy Meier found in a draft of something Strauss wrote, then give me a break. It didn't really address or incorporate the claims made about the Creator God Who is both logos and eros made by Augustine or Thomas or, for that matter, Benedict XVI. (On this see the two great books by Remi Brague--one on this history of "nature" as a human guide and the other on the history of the law of God.) I really do wish "the many" today had MORE faith in the compatibility between faith and reason, and "the few" natural scientists and "political philosophers" didn't share with varying degrees of usually therapeutic dogmatism the Islamic view that there's no compatibility at all. It will always be the case that some people are incapable of belief, as well as people like Tocqueville who thought he was, in fact, unfortunate not to believe. I would even be inclined to agree with Maimonides that it's unlikely that God would look unfavorably on those without belief, as long as they are genuine searchers--or give it their best shot given their inevitable human failings.

Let me add that I think Fish is a one-trick pony who's not worth our attention. All honor to Richard Rorty by comparison.

Mr. Lawler, As someone who finds in Tocqueville's lament for his unbelief an expression of their own experience I appreciate your reply to my muddled post. I understand that there can be no rational explanation for the existence of God that would not destroy faith. The difficulty is then that for those like Tocqueville it would seem there is no way to explain one's lack of belief. It does not seem one can rationally lead oneself to belief nor does it seem possible, by way of a psychological investigation into belief, to open oneself up to the possiblity. Of course there is a compatibility between faith and reason, both originating with a concern as to how one should live. The incomaptibility would seem to arise from the need to finally make a choice. Or is there no need for such choice? How does one who seems incapable of belief rescue oneself from the brute fact that they cannot find grounds for their unbelief or discover a capacity for faith? Or is your argument that Tocqueville's unbelief is the product of an insufficient search for truth or closedmindedness?

As one not born to belief, who came to it later through experience judged by reason, I was certainly surprised to find I had the capacity. All sympathy to those who desire belief and cannot find it. I was perfectly happy with the material world, or so I thought. Faced with God, the choice became inescapable. Reason shifts its premise. Certain ways to live become unreasonable that may have seemed reasonable to the unbelieving mind.

What is painful for the believer in relation to the dedicated atheist is the latter's presumption that one is either lying or entirely deluded.
But is there anyone who can live and be entirely faithless? Atheists always seem to have some belief, in science, in a Godless and random universe, in the innate goodness of man, there always seems to be something. To the Christian, that resembles faith, or seems to BE faith, though misplaced. The mind that closes around one or some of those things (or other similar things I am forgetting) may be impossibly blind to God. The mind open to possibility - God as I know and understand him is open to that search.

Gee whiz, Michelle,

Chill out. What facts did I make up, exactly? I am confused. Your posts are not making anything clear to me. I suppose I just am too "uninformed" to understand what you mean. Please, point me to the "robust philosophical literature" of atheists who believe there is no truth value to proposition "G" or who have no belief about the truth or falsity of claim "G". Then, after eating my hat, I will stop my pointless "jabber", of which no good, of course, can come.


Kate, Beautiful, at always. John, I can't rescue you, but I'm not sure how much you need rescuing. It's certainly not your fault that you don't believe, and all you can know without grace is your longings and what you lack. Philosophy by itself might be, in my pitiful experience, adequate therapy for minds, but not whole human beings. Maybe read Ratzinger's encyclical on love and his INTRODUCTION TO CHRISTIANITY...?

Matt Mingus again: Please, point me to the "robust philosophical literature" of atheists who believe there is no truth value to proposition "G" or who have no belief about the truth or falsity of claim "G".

I'm not your nanny or your tutor. Seek and ye shall find.

Uh-huh . . .

Comment 15 by Matt Mingus

Uh-huh . . .

If you quail at the prospect of doing a little research, then start with Antony Flew's "Theology and Falsification" -- and then trace the literature that followed it.

Or do you just take it on faith that a literature you've never discovered cannot possibly exist?

Since Matt Mingus has fallen into silence, I'll fill the pause with a few words from Antony Flew:

My short paper entitled 'Theology and Falsification', which is reprinted below, has some claim to have been the most widely read philosophical publication of the second half of the twentieth century. It was first published in Oxford as the first item in the first issue of an ephemeral undergraduate journal called University. It was first reprinted in New Essays in Philosophical Theology edited by Alasdair MacIntyre and myself (SCM Press, 1955). Since then there have been at least forty further reprintings; including translations into German, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Welsh, Finnish and Slovak. (The qualification 'at least' goes in since two of the reprintings included in that further forty were made without prior permission.)

Like several of the other contributions to New Essays in Philosophical Theology 'Theology and Falsification' was a development of a paper first read to a meeting of the Socratic Club. This was a club which met weekly in termtime for the discussion of religious ideas. It was founded by C.S. Lewis, and throughout the nineteen forties and on into the nineteen fifties its meetings were usually chaired by him.

The five or ten years immediately following the end of World War II were the heyday of what the media dubbed 'Oxford linguistic philosophy' -- something which, as P.M.S. Hacker was later to say, constituted "a flood of energy and creativity in philosophy such as had not been seen in Oxford since the Middle Ages." (Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy Blackwell, 1996, p. 87). It was mainly in meetings of the Socratic Club that Oxford linguistic philosophers, who were often accused of trivialising a once profound discipline, began to explore what Immanuel Kant famously distinguished as the three great questions of philosophy -- God, Freedom and Immortality. At the time when the paper from which 'Theology and Falsification' was distilled was presented to the Socratic Club its discussions about God were tending to become sterile confrontations between Logical Positivists, claiming that what pretend to be assertions about God are in truth utterances, without literal significance, and the various opponents of Logical Positivists, who found that conclusion unconscionable. I wanted to set these discussions off onto new and hopefully more fruitful lines.

The most radical of all the responses to 'Theology and Falsification' was the first, that of R.M. Hare. Hare suggested that religious utterances should be interpreted not as makings of statements but as expressions of what he called a blik -- something like a general approach or a general attitude. So far as I know Hare has never developed this idea further in print. But it is he, surely, who deserves the credit for providing the initial stimulus to the production of a 'religion without propositions'. The most extensive development of such a system of religion is to be found in the numerous works of D.Z. Phillips, who himself accepts the description 'religion without propositions' as appropriate. But he has had precursors and associates. Among their writings are: R.B. Braithwaite An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Relief (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1955); Paul van Buren The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (SCM Press, 1963), Don Cupitt Taking Leave of God (SCM Press, 1988); and T.R. Miles Speaking of God: Theism, Atheism and the Magnus Image (York: William Sessions, 1998).

[boldface added]

Matt, you asked for a pointer to the "robust literature" I referred to. Now you have it.

The main point, again, is that threads like this one tend to get filled with comments from people who haven't even acquainted themselves with the issue of atheism. I give you Matt Mingus as today's Poster Boy.

Let me chime in again. I'm an Atheist. I can't prove the non-existence of God. You can't prove the existance of God. While it's true I think that I'm right and you're wrong, I'm not going to try to take away your right to worship, and I'm not going to try to argue God out of you.

Conversely, I've had believers spend a half hour trying to convince me that I do believe in God and just won't admit it.

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