Atheism is just thinking there aren’t any gods

Andyman writes:

Also, if there is one criticism of atheism I see too often its that naturalism is, apparently incoherent. It would be great if you could explore this a little bit more, as I’ve seen far more theists attack naturalism than actually defend their own arguments.

I’m probably only going to do one post on this, because I don’t find this topic very interesting, but it’s worth one post. Basically, I’m a naturalist in the sense that I think there aren’t any gods, the miracles claimed by the world’s various religions didn’t happen, there isn’t an afterlife, magic spells don’t work, and so on. But I’ve never heard anyone say naturalism in that sense is incoherent, and I can’t imagine how you’d argue that it is.

When people say naturalism is incoherent, they’re generally talking about some very broad philosophical thesis that’s supposed to have lots of implications for lots of other philosophical issues. I don’t find those debates very interesting, since I’m a David Chalmers-style dualist in philosophy of mind, and don’t care much about most of the other philosophical issues that get roped into debates about “naturalism” (say, abstract objects issue).

Worse, I can’t think of any critiques of “naturalism” I’ve seen that are careful to say, “in this article, I’m going to be arguing against the version of naturalism defended by professor so-and-so.” If they did that, their critique would at least be of interest to people who care about the philosophical issues involved. But instead, critics tend to come up with their own definition of naturalism, and then attack that. I don’t know why anyone would find that sort of critique terribly interesting.

Andyman is right that criticisms of naturalism are often presented as criticisms of atheism, and this is one of the things that makes me think most theistic arguments are best ignored. Atheism is just thinking that they’re aren’t any gods. Arguing that some very broad philosophical thesis is wrong doesn’t do anything to show that there are any gods. When apologists suggest otherwise, they’re no longer making anything remotely like a reasonable argument.

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  1. I’ve always assumed that what theists are thinking is that atheists reason like this:

    1. If naturalism is true, then there are no gods.
    2. Naturalism is true.
    3. Therefore there are no gods.

    And then the theists are attacking number 2, in hopes of weakening atheists conviction that there are no gods.

    A lot of theistic arguments come in this form. Its not strictly illogical, but its often frustrating. I posted a comment on Philosophical Disquisitions a while back on this topic… he was discussing arguments for and against physicalism, and I remarked that debates about physicalism always leave me cold because its clear that the attackers of physicalism are, 9 times out of 10, really just trying to come up with something, anything, that counts as non physical so that they can then claim that this foot in the door will help them towards proving that once upon a time a war god named Yahweh murdered a couple thousand people because they complained about how he was always murdering people, or some such superstitious nonsense.

  2. Patrick is right. The advance of naturalism has done more damage to belief in Christianity than anything else in the last 200 years. I’m a naturalist and materialist, but it seems obvious that some of the Christian claims would be rendered more likely if naturalism were discredited.

  3. Graham Oppy, in his review of that book pictured, say something very similar to what you’re saying here:

    “The main difficulty is one which is tacitly acknowledged by the editors on the first page of the preface: there is no consensus amongst the various authors about what “naturalism” amounts to. Given that each author is allowed to decide for himself what “naturalism” is, there is no sense in which the essays in the volume constitute a sustained attack on a single target. Moreover, since some of the authors insist on an absurdly strong characterization of “naturalism”, there is a good sense in which some of the essays do nothing but set fire to figures of straw.”

  4. Great post! I love how you take peoples questions (like mine) and dedicate an entire post to it! Anyways, I’ve looked into ex-atheist accounts, and found that many of them claim that they felt that naturalism wasn’t as good as supernaturalism in terms of explanitory power. That’s why I asked the question. You can hear all about them on Ed Feser’s blog, he and some of his fans are ex atheists. I believe you were their and he told you himself.

    Also, Interestingly, many don’t convert for evidential reasons. At least I hadn’t heard of any intelligent atheist who has. I also found that many ex-atheists are Catholics or Progressive Cristians.

    I mean, why Catholicism? I can’t even think of a single notable philosipher of religion that is a Catholic or a progressive christian. It seems like as much a minority as atheism.

  5. Daniel Almeida

    JS Allen:

    How can you be a Materialist? I thought you became a christian not too long ago?

  6. Chris Hallquist

    @ JSA:

    “The advance of naturalism has done more damage to belief in Christianity than anything else in the last 200 years.”

    Why do you say that? I personally don’t have any idea what’s done the most damage to Christianity in the last 200 years.

  7. Daniel Almeida

    Hey, I got a question.

    It concerns theology. I was debating a friend, and used an argument that was essentially that the best philosiphers of religion were conservative chrisians, so evolution, if true, most likely defeats christianity.

    However, they claimed most theolagians disagree with fundamentalist christianity. So, I am curious as to what type of christianity philosiphers of religion and theologians subscribe to. Do they think the bible is innerant-or are they more liberal in their approach. Do they have a consensus or not? Thanks!

  8. My impression of the Notre Dame philosophy department was that the members of the philosophy of religion clique tended to be inerrantists and to some degree uncomfortable with evolution, but also open to interpreting Genesis non-literally.

    I don’t pay much attention to the academic theology* world, but my impression is that the theology departments at “big name” universities tend to be quite liberal. My impression is that this was true at Notre Dame, though I’m less sure about that than about my impressions of the Notre Dame philosophy department.

    On the other hand, if you did a survey of all theologians in the U.S. that lumped together Yale and Notre Dame with explicitly Evangelical seminaries, the Evangelicals might have the majority.

    On the third hand, I’ve heard about professors at Evangelical colleges privately dissenting from the statements of faith they’re required to sign. So maybe even once you count the Evangelical institutions, academic theologians are pretty liberal on the whole.

    *Edit: oops, said “academic philosophy” when I meant to say “academic theology.”

  9. Interesting. I’ve seen many internet theologians claim that they actually believe in Adam and Eve AND evolution (well, ID). I suspect this attitude is not uncommon- trying to harmonize both science and the biblical accounts. It leads me to question whether they believe in the flood or exodus? And if they believe that the first five books of the bible are ahitorical, which parts ARE historical?

  10. Chris Hallquist

    I once heard William Lane Craig say that the Noachian flood was probably just a local flood. I suspect that many well-informed Evangelicals would, if pressed, say that the implausible numbers of people supposedly involved in the Exodus is a mistranslation or the result of hyperbole, but I don’t really know.