A Conflation of Atheisms

The mythological conception of God holds that God is basically like Zeus, Odin, or Apollo: having human-like personality traits but vastly more powerful than any human being could possibly be, and able to affect the world in ways that are basically magical. This is the conception of God denied by atheists who talk about “magical sky-beings” in or who use the trope, “we believe in one less God than Christians do.”

The metaphysical conception of God holds that God is the underlying, unifying principle that accounts for the intelligibility of the universe. God is why it is possible for us to understand anything at all about the world, including ourselves. This is the conception of God affirmed by metaphysical theologians like Aquinas, and denied by really quite radical atheists like Nietzsche or Camus.

One could reject the mythological conception and still take science seriously (and one might think that taking science seriously requires giving up the mythological conception) but it is difficult to see how one can give up on the metaphysical conception of God and still take science seriously. (Note: not impossible. Just that there is an intellectual puzzle to be solved here.) I don’t think it’s at all an accident that postmodern suspicions about science and truth begin with Nietzsche’s meditations on the death of God.

In any event, we might have better conversations around here if atheists are more clear if they are rejecting the mythological conception or the metaphysical conception.

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56 thoughts on “A Conflation of Atheisms

  1. phoodoo: People’s belief in a God is almost certainly primarily based on their observation of the world

    If you mean by that, that children observe their parents before the age of reason, then sure. People’s belief in God is primarily caused by upbringing. Religious parents raise their children to share their religion. They take them to church, or mosque, or synagogue, they read scriptures to them, they include them in ritualistic religious traditions, pray with them, and so on. Hence, the children grow up having religion installed. There is an endless number of studies that show this. The most overwhelming, consistent, and reliable predictor of religiosity is religious parenting.

    Children who instead grow up being taught the principles of good critical thinking and rational skepticism, generally stay irreligious instead.

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  2. This in turn raises the question whether an atheist is intellectually compelled to investigate every conception of God and refute each of them in order to be entitled to his or her atheism.
    This is a misunderstanding…
    Everyone is intellectually compelled to investigate nature whether it can be explained purely by random processes. Once in doubt, the nature of God can be investigated.

    When my kids asked what is the nature of God, I asked them why Moses couldn’t see God’s face and needed a rocky cave and “Gods hand” as a shield just to see the back of God’s glory…

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  3. J-Mac: Everyone is intellectually compelled to investigate nature whether it can be explained purely by random processes. Once in doubt, the nature of God can be investigated.

    How?

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  4. Rumraket: If you mean by that, that children observe their parents before the age of reason, then sure. People’s belief in God is primarily caused by upbringing.

    This is a bit too narrow. Children observe their parents’ beliefs and tend to get them baked in early, regardless of the nature of those beliefs. So peoples’ belief in any of several monotheistic gods, or in pantheons of gods, or hierarchies of gods, or mystical great spirits, or manifestation of long-dead ancestors, or whatever religious approach is embodied in their culture, gets instilled. I think one of the primary causes of heterogeneity (as opposed to the melting pot) is the desire to circle the wagons around a particular belief system — whether this be Muslims in Germany, Amish in Pennsylvania, Somalians in Minnesota, or Jews in Brooklyn.

    (There was a German immigrant population in Texas that my wife visited. She’d lived in modern Germany and spoke fluent German, and she was amused that these people had frozen their German culture somewhere around 60-80 years ago, and everything from the clothes to the food to music to the language was WAY out of style. Might be good for a monograph sometime.)

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  5. newton: How?

    In quantum mechanics, for example, cause and effect are blurred, or not really important. If God is quantum, or beyond that level, the effect before the cause that QM allows could explain the existance of the First Cause of energy, leading to matter and the material universe, that didn’t require a cause…

    Yeah, it’s speculative but it’s a hint into the nature of God not everyone would like…

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  6. Flint: Children observe their parents’ beliefs and tend to get them baked in early, regardless of the nature of those beliefs

    My son was an atheist up until he was 12…

    ETA: when I asked him why, he told me that the school environment, teachers, schoolmates, evolutionary theory, had more influence on him than our upbringing…

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