Middle Way for atheists

Many people who regard themselves as atheists seem to do so because they recognise and reject the dogmatic metaphysics of theism. Belief in the existence of God is perhaps the strongest and most obvious example of metaphysical belief in Western society, so it is likely to be the one that people react against first when they start thinking critically. However,  if we think it through consistently, the same concerns that might lead people to reject belief in the existence of God also need to be applied to his non-existence, and to many other similar metaphysical beliefs.

Here are some arguments against believing that God exists:

  • God is infinite, and this infinity cannot be experienced by a finite being.
  • If we experience something finite that we think is divine (e.g. in religious experience), it is not necessarily God.
  • Belief in God’s existence is unfalsifiable: there are no possible experiences we could have that would clearly show it to be wrong.

These arguments seem to show that God, as a perfect, absolute, and infinite being, is beyond human experience. This could show that we are not positively justified in believing in his existence, and also that any such existence would be irrelevant to us, but not that God does not exist. Most of the arguments given for atheism are strong arguments for agnosticism (meaning a recognition that we do not know whether God exists) rather than atheism (meaning a belief that God does not exist).

Much the same arguments can be used against other metaphysical claims, for example, that there is an absolutely real world made of real matter. Let’s consider the claim that the book in front of me is ultimately real – not just consistently present in my experience, but real in an ultimate sense that would be metaphysical.  I have experiences that I take to be those of a book (turning the pages etc.), but this may not indicate a real book. It is just possible that I may be deluded, even though I have no positive reason to think that I am.

Any claim that there is a real book is unfalsifiable in a similar way to God existing, as any possible experience I could have is compatible with there being a real book. For example, even if saw empty space in front of me, it is still possible that I am just not seeing the real book, which my faulty vision is failing to perceive. But this supposed metaphysical real book is irrelevant to me. A consistently appearing book that I believe in, based on the evidence so far, is all I need to get along with.  So, although the case of God may be more obviously problematic than the real existence of a book, it turns out to be metaphysics in general that is problematic.

The non-existence of God, like the denial of any other metaphysical claim, is also just as impossible to prove. The mere fact that I have no evidence of God, and couldn’t possibly have any evidence, is no evidence that God does not exist. The argument based on evil, that God cannot exist because if he did he would not allow the amount of evil or suffering we experience, is similarly inconclusive, because we cannot fathom the possible reasons why an infinite God might allow evil. It is always possible to plead a special case as to how God might exist.

We are assuming ‘atheism’ to mean a denial of God’s existence here. Some atheists, however, define their atheism much more like hard agnosticism. They are entitled to use whatever language they like, but the disadvantage of using ‘atheism’ in this way is that it leaves us with no clear term for belief in the non-existence of God, and if we use ‘atheism’ to describe a Middle Way position it is also likely to induce premature rejection from theists.

Atheism as the denial of God’s existence, then, cannot be justified. It needs to be replaced by hard agnosticism – the recognition that we cannot, and could not ever, either prove or disprove God’s existence or any other metaphysical claim. But the suspicion that atheists might have of metaphysical commitments is well founded. Metaphysical claims can be used to justify almost anything, because they offer a deluded sense of infallibility, and are not subject to any checks from normal experience. 600px-Christopher_Dresser_-_Teapot_-_1879We can not only fight holy wars, but steam roller our way through all sorts of other objections, armed with a magic metaphysical belief.

At this point it is common for atheists to argue that we are justified in disbelieving what is highly improbable, and that God is highly improbable. Bertrand Russell used the example of a flying teapot orbiting the earth. He argued that although it is possible that there is such a flying teapot, the lack of positive evidence and its low probability justifies us in disbelieving it. However, this example is not an accurate enough analogy for metaphysics, because the teapot falls within the realm of experience and is just very improbable based on that experience so far. In practical terms we would disbelieve in it.  Metaphysical beliefs are not improbable, because probability has to be measured in terms of evidence. Where there is no possible evidence, probability is simply irrelevant.

The Middle Way gives us quite a different perspective on metaphysics, and a far more useful one than the traditional arguments for atheism in Western thought. The Middle Way involves a recognition that the function of metaphysical beliefs is nothing to do with evidence or theory, and that if we try to engage with them in that way, we will just end up in a useless quagmire of argument between positive and negative metaphysical claims, which cannot possibly be resolved. The heated arguments between theists and atheists illustrate the very same rancorous uselessness that the Buddha was said to have warned his monks against when they started bringing up metaphysical questions. Hard agnosticism is a far more powerful response to the God debate than atheism, because it allows us to step back from such rancour and try to integrate the opposed energies represented in the debate by considering what experiences they represent apart from their metaphysical coverings.

Picture – Christopher Dresser teapot 1879 (Wikimedia Commons)

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