In our last articles, we explored Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Although there’s much more that could be said about this important and influential book, I have to plead exhaustion. Taylor is not always the easiest author to understand, and we’ve spent a lot of time on him already. For the rest of the series, I’d like to explore some of the authors and ideas that have influenced my thinking on this important topic, or that seem to be shaping the discussion as it’s been playing out over the last generation or so. A good place to begin, it seems, would be with Antony Flew’s famous paper, “The Presumption of Atheism” [PDF]. Flew’s argument has been tremendously influential among skeptics, and has presented no small challenge to people of faith. According to Flew, atheism, not theism, provides the proper starting place for a discussion of the merits (or lack thereof) of faith.
Flew begins his argument by drawing a distinction between three different kinds of skepticism: positive atheism, negative atheism, and agnosticism. For Flew, positive atheism—the assertion that we have probable knowledge that God does not exist—is unnecessarily strong. We may have this knowledge, we may not, but in any case we don’t need it. What we need to do, rather, is set the ground rules for the discussion, and for that purpose he turns to his own position, that of negative atheism. Negative atheism means that a person simply is not a theist, the prefix “a-“ indicating not positive opposition toward, but only the absence of, the root it modifies in—in the word “atheist” just as in the words “amoral,” “atypical,” “asymmetrical,” and so on. The third position, agnosticism, Flew also rejects, as presupposing that we have some adequate conception of God that we are able to sensibly consider, and form an opinion about—namely, that we are uncertain whether it is true. Again Flew argues this concedes too much, for do we, in fact, have some adequate conception of God? If we do not, then the question whether it corresponds to reality simply does not arise. Hence the agnostic, like the positive atheist, concedes too much to theism.
Flew is careful to qualify what he means by “the presumption of atheism.” He doesn’t mean that atheism is presumptuous, in the sense of being impudent or daring. And when he asks the theist for proof of their position, he doesn’t mean that they have to produce a demonstration on the order of “all bachelors are unmarried” or “all triangles have three sides,” or something equally certain. The appropriate model is not provided by logic or geometry, but by a courtroom procedure, where the burden of argument is defined in terms of probabilities (from “probable cause” to “beyond a reasonable doubt”), rather than by absolute (and unobtainable) certainty. Similarly, in a courtroom, the accused carries a presumption at the outset of the trial: either of innocence, as in the United States, or of guilt, as in the Soviet Union of Flew’s time (i.e., the 1970s.) This presumption defines at the outset where the burden of proof lies. In the United States, if the prosecution fails to make its case, the accused is set free. So, too, in the debate, if the theist fails to make his case, we remain atheists in the negative sense, i.e., people lacking (but not necessarily opposed to or uncertain about) theism.
The third thing that Flew wants to draw our attention to about this presumption, is that, again as in a courtroom, it is a matter of procedure rather than of outcome. The presumption of atheism is just that—a presumption, not a conclusion. No less an authority than Thomas Aquinas, Flew argues, accepted this presumption, when in his famous “Five Ways” he undertook a positive demonstration of theism. But if he believed that we begin from a position of theism, no such demonstration would have been necessary. All he would have needed to do would have been to show that positive arguments for atheism are false, and theism would have been upheld by default. So theists shouldn’t feel that the presumption of atheism is somehow unfair to them, that it precludes them from carrying their argument, or that it is foreign somehow to Christian thought itself.
The presumption of atheism is open to at least two challenges, which Flew undertakes to address. The first is provided by pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce, who points out that universal skepticism simply will not do as a starting place. What this means is that we just do find ourselves with a certain set of experiences, perceptions, beliefs, etc., about the world. Descartes’s project of wiping the slate clean and starting over from nothing is entirely impractical. We can’t be skeptical about everything at once. In fact, no matter when or under what conditions we start to consider philosophy, we’ll begin our study from a certain vantage point, and no matter what conclusions we reach in the process of our philosophizing, they will be in some sense developments of those vantage points. In other words, the new outlook we acquire will presuppose something of the outlook we once had, just as the person I will be tomorrow presupposes the person I am today. So this whole idea of lifting ourselves out of history, somehow, and surveying existence “as if from nowhere in particular,” is misguided. We need to recognize that we can’t help but have some particular beliefs about the world, and cannot have otherwise, and that there is really no possibility of being a really principled, consistent skeptic. Rather, skepticism is always going to be selective. In other words, we make a choice what to be skeptical about. That’s well and good, but it shows that belief, not skepticism, is our starting point; thus beliefs should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty, not, as Flew supposes, guilty until proven innocent. If we find that we are already atheists when we begin to look into the question, then perhaps we require positive reasons to become theists. But if we find that we are theists, then what we require is positive reasons to become atheists. For the theist, then, the proper presumption is theism, not atheism, according to Peirce.
Flew answers this objection by arguing that even if one accepts this as a reason for rejecting the presumption of atheism, just such a positive reason for doubting theism is, in fact, provided by the diversity of “religious experience” itself. In other words, what the theist who wants to argue from their personal experience usually says is that the experience is so profound and so common that the best explanation for it is a theistic one: namely, that there is an underlying, supernatural reality to it, which the experience makes the believer aware of, but which is also independent of that experience. This is called the argument from religious experience. But elsewhere in his writings Peirce points out that the diversity of religious experience is such that this argument seems somewhat difficult to sustain. Consider, for instance, five people who perceive the same tree, the same rock, the same star, or whatever other physical object. Their perceptions, even if not exactly the same, are nevertheless so similar that they give us very good reason for supposing the existence of an underlying reality to them. They don’t give wildly conflicting reports of the same object. But when it comes to God, people who claim to have had these experiences report just about any kind of experience you care to imagine—love, joy, peace, terror, oneness, transcendence, what have you. How can they all have the same underlying referent? The better account would seem to be that they have such different experiences because they inhabit such different cultures, which means the thing they are experiencing is really just their own ideas, transmitted through the traditions they are participating in, rather than some external referent. So, Flew argues, even if we accept Peirce’s contention (which, evidently, Flew does not), the theist would have just the sort of positive proof they ask for.
Another objection, pioneered by Kierkegaard, contends that the demand for evidence or reason is misconceived, because reason has limits, and where we encounter those limits we have necessarily to deal with faith of one kind or another. For instance, we can have no direct experience of the origin of existence—of that, in virtue of which, there is something rather than nothing. We can believe, on the basis of faith, that God is that origin, that the universe is self-existent, or that it has some other origin—but no matter what we believe, we are dealing with a proposition of faith, not of reason. Hence faith has its own legitimate domain. What the skeptic needs is not to have their demand for evidence met, but rather to realize that the demand itself is misplaced. To this Flew answers that, supposing we accept the necessity of faith here, we still have to answer the question of what kind of faith we should have. When we make that determination, either our choice is arbitrary, and therefor also frivolous and unworthy, or we have reasons for making it, in which case we have all of a sudden started using our critical faculties again, notwithstanding we were insisting only a moment ago that to do so would be to transgress the limits of reason. If we’re going to maintain that there are some very definite limits to what we can reason about, and that God is well on the other side of it, then we had better stick to it. But if we find ourselves calling on reason when we like it, only to kick it out when it starts telling us something we don’t like, it’s evident that we’re trying to play the game with loaded dice. So either way, the theistic position doesn’t come out looking very good. The theist is really better off just accepting the presumption of atheism and trying to get to their theism from there (as Aquinas did.)
Has Flew boxed the theist in, demonstrating that atheism, not theism, provides our rational starting point? In the next article, we’ll explore one possible theistic response: Alvin Plantinga’s “reformed epistemology.”
Daniel Halverson is in the PhD program at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto. His research focuses on the history of evolutionary biology in the Victorian and WWII eras.
Photo credit: Retired Professor of Philosophy Antony Flew at his home in Reading, photographed in December 2004. Copyright John Lawrence.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: