Friday, 2 September 2016

Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith

Atheism: The Case Against God
George H. Smith 
Prometheus Books 

In the introduction to Atheism: The Case Against God, George H. Smith remarks that what he is offering in his book is essentially a “minority viewpoint.” But in his sobering thesis he builds a solid case against some popularly accepted theistic ideas, and therein lies much of the book’s value.

While it may not be possible to persuade those who are deeply religious, anyone else, even those who have mixed feelings on god, cannot come away from this book without reexamining their basic convictions on not just god and religion, but also on issues related to morality.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Smith’s thesis is the broad intellectual territory that he covers while refuting the concept god. Along with religious ideas, the fields that he traverses include science, ethics, epistemology, history, and psychology.

It is noteworthy that he uses "god" with lower case “g” to refer to the generic idea of god. He uses “God” only when he is referring specifically to the God of Christianity.

Smith points out that atheism is the absence of theistic belief and therefore what it represents is not a belief, but the lack of a belief. A person is an atheist, because he is not a theist. The word atheist will not tell you why the person is not a theist, or what else he believes in.

The theists use terms such as “immaterial” or “incorporeal” to explain the attributes of god. But Smith argues that “immaterial” or “incorporeal” tell us what god is not (that he is not made out of any material substance; that he is not physical)—these words don't tell us what god is. He says that anything that exists must have a specific nature, and it must be created from some material.

According to Smith, the “unknowable” is the central tenet of theism, and that is why it is imperative for the religions to declare war on reason. “If faith is to gain a foothold, reason must be attacked, which brings us to the issue of epistemological skepticism.” The theists are skeptics; they deny knowledge; they believe that facts can’t be known with certainty and it is not possible for men to perceive and understand reality.

But there is a contradiction in the claim that god is unknowable. Smith argues that if god is unknowable, then we can’t know that he exists, but to assert that a god exists is equivalent to claiming knowledge of god. “Insofar as faith is possible, it is irrational; insofar as faith is rational, it is impossible.”

In his critique of the skeptic ideas of the theists, Smith has made a good use of the theory of epistemology that has been proposed by Ayn Rand in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and other works. His discussion of Rand’s theory of concepts and the contextual nature of knowledge is particularly interesting.

The theists often claim that it is the fear of god’s wrath that inspires people to be moral. But Smith says that the concept god has had a disastrous effect on the idea of morality—it has led to a situation where people think that morality has nothing to do with reality, and that in order to be moral one must shun reason and blindly follow the dictates of religion.

By destroying the idea of supernatural morality, atheism brings morality to the realm of reality, so that the moral ideal becomes reachable to man’s mind. The course of action that a man takes in his life is a matter of his personal choice. If he discards reason in favor of nihilism and pessimism, then the issue is with his own mind. Atheism cannot be blamed for the choices that men make.

The idea that God is a supernatural being with much greater powers than man is soundly refuted by Smith. He asks the readers to consider a hypothetical situation where an alien form of life, much superior to man, is discovered in some other solar system. “These advanced creatures have an immense life span, superior strength, agility and mobility, and a superior capacity for memory and abstract thought. Does it follow, in virtue of these superior capacities, that these creatures should be designated as gods?”

Smith points out that if we refer to these superior creatures as “god,” then we will face a very absurd situation where any creature that is superior to another creature will get designated as a “god.”

He demolishes the standard theistic idea of god being omniscient and omnipotent. He points out that omniscience contradicts the attribute of omnipotence. “If God knows the future with infallible certainty, he cannot change it—in which case he cannot be omnipotent. If God can change the future, however, he cannot have infallible knowledge of it prior to its actual happening—in which case he cannot be omniscient.”

In this context, he also cites the problem of evil. “If God does not know there is evil, he is not omniscient. If God knows there is evil but cannot prevent it, he is not omnipotent. If God knows there is evil and can prevent it but desires not to, he is not omnibenevolent.”

Many theologians claim that there is no conflict between science and religion, as these are concerned with different spheres of human existence. But as science is dedicated to understanding reality, it rests on the premise that existence exists and reality is knowable. Theology, on the other hand, rests on faith; it rejects reason, which is the primary means for understanding realty, and it propagates that what we see as reality is simply a creation of god’s will and it can never be understood. Therefore the conflict between science and theology is irreconcilable.

“Reason and faith are opposites, two mutually exclusive terms: there is no reconciliation or common ground. Faith is belief without, or in spite of, reason.”

Overall, Atheism: The Case Against God is a hard-hitting book against the irrational belief in god. Smith’s writing is clear, colorful, and well organized. If you are person of reason, the book will make you feel good about it. 


gordon said...

I read this many years ago alongside of "The Case for Faith" by Lee Strobel. I very much appreciated Smith's reasoning and Strobel's lack of it. Thank you for this insightful review.

Michael Neibel said...

Also, the idea that god has knowledge at all does not make sense. Knowledge is a survival benefit for a consciousness able to acquire knowledge. But god doesn't need a survival benefit. He is eternal and does not face the alternative of life or death. So knowledge would be utterly useless to him. In short, a consciousness not needing to be conscious of anything is a contradiction in terms. In other words, would not exist.