Negation of God belief

If scholastic thought got the description of negations right, then describing atheism as mere non-presence of belief in God is probably unsustainable, even if, as a theist, I find it more agreeable than what I think the atheist has to say.

Scholasticism divides negative statements into privations and negations. Both are non-being but privation adds to negation that the absence is of something due or fitting to a subject. Privation is not mere absense but absence making a subject in someway worse. So a blind pig neither has vision or a steering wheel, but his blindness is a privation while not having a steering wheel is mere negation.

It would be an odd atheism that saw absence of God belief as a privation. Even allowing for the 19th Century style atheist that mourns his loss of faith, it would be odd if he viewed atheism as leaving him worse off overall. At the end of the day, he has to view any loss from atheism as justified by a greater dedication to, say, throwing off childish consolations, living in accord with evidence, abandoning outdated cosmology, following the truth of history or science or psychology wherever it leads, or perhaps just living in accord with the default settings of human belief.

One common default setting is for all sides to be unsure about whether belief in God makes all persons better off or not. The I’m-okay-you’re-okay settings of modern dialogue, both for atheists and theists, usually bracket the question whether atheism is good or bad. If we call this bracketing of the question “agnosticism” then we have both theist and atheist agnostics, e.g. one is an agnostic theist if he believes in God but doesn’t necessarily believe that those who don’t are worse off for it; and one is an agnostic atheist if he doesn’t believe in God but also doesn’t think that theism is a privation of some due human perfection. This irenic agnosticism is particularly appropriate to postwar sensibilities, and it’s benefits should be familiar to everyone. For all that, it’s unsustainable and ultimately destructive. Amicable doubt might give the same short-term effects as compassion, mercy, tolerance and charity for those in error, but both have their limits beyond which we have to enforce a public consensus about whether belief in God is good or bad.

Assume we all understand what a public consensus about “God is good” would look like; a public consensus that “God is bad” would look like a widespread belief that religion was divisive, backward, anti-LGBT, destructive of masculine virtue, and/or that faith lacks the universal appeal of reason or science or the ethno-state. So taken, “theism” or “religion” are in reality privations, even if this is not how they are signified, and atheism is positive and virtuous in reality, even if it is signified as by negation.*

So the belief that atheism is mere negation is probably too fixated on its mode of signification, and it points to an unstable agnosticism that both theists and atheists will have to resolve somehow. Anyone can see the “a” in atheist signifies the belief as a negation, but the whole question is whether atheism is in reality a virtue or a privation.


*So, for example, in Christianity immaterial is signified as a negation of matter but in reality it is a positive reality better than the material, i.e. the spiritual. So too with other positive perfections signified as negations: immobile, non-temporal (eternal), etc.

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