Read SUBSTITUTES FOR ATHEISM: CHAPTER XI of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on


Between Atheism and Theism there is no logical halting place. But there are, unfortunately, many illogical ones. Few possess the capacity for pushing their ideas to a logical conclusion, and some position is finally discovered which has the weakness of both extremes with the strength of neither. With many there is vague talk of a “Power” manifested in the universe, and by giving this the dignity of capital letters it is evidently hoped that ether people will recognise it as an equivalent for God. But power, with or without capitals, is not God. It is not the existence of a “Power” that forms the kernel of the dispute between the Theist and the Atheist, but what that power is like. The issue arises on the point of whether it is personal or not. That it is, is what the religious man believes. As Mr. Balfour says, when the plain man speaks of God he means “a God whom men can love, to whom men can pray, who takes sides, who has purposes and preferences, whose attributes, however conceived, leaves the possibility of a personal relation between Himself and those whom he has created.” ("Theism and Humanism,” .) What the genuine believer has in view is not the worthless abstraction of a rationalised metaphysic, but the personal being of historic theology.

It is now my purpose to take a few of these substitutes for Atheism by the aid of which some persons seek to mark themselves off from a declared and reasoned unbelief. As outstanding examples of this one may take two men of no less eminence than Herbert Spencer and Professor Huxley. Both of these men have rendered great service to advanced thought, but both have only succeeded in repudiating Atheism by misstating and misrepresenting it. In addition to the service that Spencer unwittingly rendered the current religion by his use of the “Unknowable” (with which we deal fully later), a further help was given by his destruction of an Atheism that had no existence. This remarkable performance will be found in the first part of his “First Principles.” Respecting the origin of the universe, he tells us, there are three intelligible propositions although neither of these, on his own showing, is intelligible. We may assert that it is self-existent, that it is self-created, or that it is created by an external agency. All three propositions, he proceeds to show, are equally inconceivable. The noticeable thing about the performance is that Atheism is identified with the proposition that the universe is self-existent. A very slight acquaintance with the writings of representative Atheists would have shown Mr. Spencer that “the origin of the universe” is one of those questions on which Atheism has wisely been silent, and it has also insisted that all attempts to deal with such a question can only result in a meaningless string of words. To the Atheist, “the universe” the sum of existence is a fact that no amount of reasoning can get behind or beyond. To think of the universe as a whole is an impossibility; while to talk of its origin is to assume, first, that it did originate, and, second, that we have some means by which we can transcend all the known limits of the human mind. The Atheist can say, and has said, with Mr. Spencer himself whose final statement of Agnosticism differs in no material respect from Atheism, that in discussing the “origin of the universe,” we can only succeed in multiplying impossibilities of thought “by every attempt we make to explain its existence.” No one has pointed out more clearly than Mr. Spencer that “infinity” is not a conception, but the negation of one. The pity is that he did not realise that in taking up this position he was on exactly the same level of criticism that Atheists have pursued. For them the universe is an ultimate fact; all that we can do is to mark the ceaseless changes always going on around us, and to develope our capacity for modifying their action in the interests of human welfare. Farther than this our knowledge does not and cannot go; and it may be added that even though our knowledge could go beyond the world of phenomena, such knowledge would not be of the slightest possible value.

It may also be pointed out that, just as it is not true that Atheism attempts to explain the origin of the universe, so it is unfair to tie the Atheist down to any particular theory of cosmic evolution. As a mental attitude Atheism is quite independent of any theory of cosmic working, so long as that theory does not involve an appeal to deity. As we shall see, Atheism, from the point of view both of history and etymology, stands for the negation of theism, and its final justification must be found in the untenability of the theistic position.

Rightly enough it may be argued that the acceptance of Atheism implies a certain general mental attitude towards both cosmic and social questions, but the Atheist, as such, is no more committed to a special scientific theory than he is committed to a special theory of government. Of course, it is convenient for the Theist to first of all saddle his opponent with a set of social or scientific beliefs, and then to assume that in attacking those beliefs he is demolishing Atheism, but it is none the less fighting on a false issue. All that Atheism necessarily involves is that all forms of Theism are logically untenable, and consequently the only effective method of destroying Atheism is to establish its opposite.

Professor Huxley’s treatment of Atheism proceeds on similar lines to that already dealt with, but is more elaborate in character. Discussing the nature of his own opinions he repudiates all sympathy with Atheism, because:

“the problem of the ultimate cause of existence is one which seems to me to be hopelessly out of reach of my poor powers. Of all the senseless babble I have ever had occasion to read, the demonstrations of those philosophers who undertake to tell us about the nature of God would be the worst, if they were not surpassed by the still greater absurdities of the philosophers who try to prove there is no God.” (On the Hypothesis the Animals are Automata.)

And on another occasion, replying to a correspondent, he expresses the opinion that “Atheism is, on philosophical grounds, untenable, that there is no evidence of the god of the theologians is true enough, but strictly scientific reasoning can take us no further. When we know nothing we can neither affirm nor deny with propriety.” (Life and Letters, .)

Here, again, we have the common error that Atheism seeks in some way to explain the ultimate cause of existence. And this in spite of continuous disclaimers that all search for a “first cause,” or for a “cause of existence” is midsummer madness. The fault here, we suspect, is that both writers took their statement of Atheism, not from Atheistic writers but from their opponents. But it is none the less surprising that it was not recognised that both “a first cause” and an “ultimate cause of existence,” are, strictly speaking, theistic questions. I do not mean that these questions may not suggest themselves to non-theists, but that when they are raised clearly and definitely they are seen to belong to a class of questions to which no rational answer is possible. To the Theist, however, the questions arise from his primary assumptions. His theory is one of final causes; his deity is postulated as the cause of existence, and he cannot give up the questions as hopeless without admitting his position to be indefensible. It is quite usual for the theist to propound problems which only arise on his own assumptions, and then call upon his opponents for answers to them, but there is no justification whatever for non-theists playing the same game. Atheism has nothing to do with final causes, and therefore is not concerned with defending its illogicalities. Theism is a doctrine of final causes, and in arguing that it is absurd to express an opinion upon the subject Professor Huxley was adding a good reason in support of the position he believed himself to be destroying.

Huxley’s other objection to Atheism is that it perpetuates the absurdity of trying to prove there is no God. How far is that true? Or in what sense is it true? The danger in all discussion on this point lies in our taking it for granted that “God” conveys a definite and identical meaning to all people. But this is very far from being the case. What anyone means by “God” it is impossible to say until some further description has been given. When this has been done, and not until then, “God” may become the subject of affirmation or denial. Until then we are playing with empty words. By itself “God” means nothing. It offers the possibility of neither negation nor affirmation.

Now Professor Huxley would have readily admitted that the truth of a proposition may be denied whenever its terms involve a contradiction. And the ground of this is the sheer impossibility of bringing the terms together in thought. That a circle may be square, or that parallel lines may enclose a space, are propositions the truth of which may be denied offhand. The ground of this is that the conception of squareness and circularity, of straight lines and an enclosed space are mutually destructive, they cancel each other. And so far as Atheism may be said to involve the denial of particular gods that denial is based upon precisely similar grounds. When defined it is seen that the attributes of this defined god cancel each other as effectually as squareness rules out the idea of a circle; either this or they are simply unthinkable. You cannot have an infinite personality any more than you can have a six-sided octagon, nor can you posit an infinite personality without divesting the terms of all meaning.

It may also be noted in passing that both the theist and the Agnostic actually do deny the existence of particular gods without the least hesitation. No rational Agnostic would hesitate to deny the existence of Jupiter, Javeh, Allah, or Brahma. No Christian would hesitate to deny the existence of the gods of a tribe of savages. Even believers in the current theology have evolved beyond the stage of the primitive Christians, who accepted the existence of the Pagan deities with the proviso that they were demons. And it is a mere verbal quibble to say that these people merely deny each other’s conception of deity. Each man’s conception of god is his god, and to say that no being answering to that conception exists is to say that his god does not exist, and in relation to the god denied the denier is in exactly the position in which he places the Atheist.

So far then the Atheism of each is just a question of degree or of relation. So far as Atheism involves the denial of deity the follower of one religion is an Atheist in relation to the followers of every other religion. Each religion among civilised people is atheistic from the standpoint of the followers of other gods. The affirmation of one god involves the denial of other gods. This would really seem to be the historical significance of the term. The early Christians were called atheists by the Pagans, and some of them accepted it without demur. At a later date Spinoza, Voltaire, Paine, and others were called atheists, and the epithet has lost its force to-day only because the evolution of thought has broken down many religious barriers, and is rapidly dividing people into two groups those who believe in some god and who believe in none at all. Now all that Atheism conscious and reflective Atheism does is to carry a step further the restricted denial of the ordinary religionist. The Christian theist denies every god but his own. The Atheist, seeing no more evidence for the existence of the Christian deity than for the existence of any of the deities discarded by the Christian, seeing, further, that there are exactly the same contradictions involved in assuming the existence of any one of the world’s deities, places the Christian deity on the list as among those gods in whose existence he does not believe, and whose existence, so far as it is defined, may be logically denied.

The really distinguishing feature of philosophic Atheism is its comprehensiveness, the ranking of all known deities, big and little, ancient and modern, savage and civilised, gross and subtle, upon the same level. Historically, we see them all originating in the same conditions, passing through substantially the same phases of development, finally to meet with the same fate as civilisation developes. In this respect Atheism has to be considered in its historic developments. It begins, as we have seen in the rejection of a particular god, in favour of some other deity. It is only at a very much later stage that the whole idea of god is subjected to examination and analysis in such a way as to lead to the rejection of the conception of god as a whole. But with that aspect of the subject we shall be concerned later.

But does Atheism deny the existence of any possible god? This question might admit of a simple answer if one only knew precisely what it meant. It is easy enough to understand what is meant by God so long as we keep to any or all of the gods of the world’s religions. But what is meant by god standing alone and undefined? Historically “God” means a deity believed in by some people, some where, at some time. And if we put on one side these particular gods we have nothing left that can be either affirmed or denied. God in the abstract is not a real existence any more than tree in the abstract is a real existence. There is a pine tree, a pear tree, an apple tree, etc., but there is and can be no “tree” apart from some particular tree. So with “god.” There are particular gods, but if we do away with these, we have no god left as a separate existence. “God” then becomes a mere word conveying no meaning whatever. Atheism does not deny the existence of a god for the same reason that it does not deny the existence of Abracadabra both terms mean as much, or as little. And it is more than absurd for people who have rejected theism to continue using the word “god” as though it had a quite definite meaning apart from the gods of the various theologies. We have Professor Huxley admitting that “there is no evidence of the existence of the god of the theologians,” and we imagine that he would have met the affirmation of their existence with a flat contradiction. At any rate he would have been quite justified in doing so. But when he asserts, with a show of logical precision, but in reality with great looseness, that “it is preposterous to assert that there is no god because he cannot be such as we think him to be,” he is using language for which no precise meaning can be found. To be intelligible, the sentence implies that we have some conception answering to the terms used, and this, as we have pointed out with almost wearisome insistence, is not the case. It is not a case of saying to the theist, “I fully understand your hypothesis, but as at present I do not see enough evidence to convince me of its truth or to demonstrate its error I must suspend judgment.” We do not understand it. And when we seek to we discover that the terms of the proposition we are asked to accept refuse to be brought together within the compass of a single conception. Suspended judgment where the subject under discussion is understandable is right and proper, but it is quite out of place, and indeed cannot exist, where the proposition before us is void of meaning. In such circumstances suspended judgment is absurd, and it may be added that the affirmation or negation of such a proposition is absurd likewise.

Only one other word need be said on this point. It may be urged that educated believers mean by “God” not the anthropomorphic deity of the theologies, but a personal intelligence controlling things. But this is really not less anthropomorphic than the form in which the god idea meets us in the popular theologies. Its anthropomorphism is only, to unobservant minds, less apparent. The conception of an intelligent, personal being controlling nature is not fundamentally less objectionable than the frankly man-like being of the early theologies. Intelligence, as we know it (and to talk of an intelligence that is unlike the intelligence we know is absurd) is as much a characteristic of human, or animal, organisation, as arms and legs are. Mind, after all, is only known to us as a function of an organism. That it is more than this, or other than this, is a pure assumption. And to divest “God” of all physical parts, while retaining his functions, is sheer nonsense. There is the personal intelligence of Smith, or Brown, or Robinson, but it is absurd to wipe out all the particular Smiths, and Browns, and Robinsons, and then talk as though their qualities continue in existence. So with God. If we reject all the gods of the theologies one after another, what god have we left to talk about? All we have left is the memory of a delusion.

It is equally fallacious to talk of “God” as an equivalent of force in the abstract, or as the equivalent of some non-intelligent force. This is not what people ever meant, or mean, by god. What religious folk believe in, what they pray to, is a person who can hear them, and who can do things. A god only dimly apprehended may be tolerated, but for how long will faith continue to worship an existence that can neither do nor hear nor sympathise? There is a limit to even religious folly. And even a savage only worships “sticks and stones” after he endows them with life and intelligence.

Finally, if there is one thing clear to the modern mind it is that science has no room in its theory of things for an over-ruling intelligence. Sir Oliver Lodge well sums up the attitude of science in the following sentences: “Orthodox science shows us a self-contained and self-sufficient universe, not in touch with anything above or beyond itself the general trend and outline of it known nothing supernatural or miraculous, no intervention of beings other than ourselves, being conceived possible.” (Man and the Universe, , Popular ed.) Personally, we question whether there are any scientists of repute who really believe in the existence of a personal intelligence above or beyond nature. Some may make professions to the contrary, but it will usually be found that the qualifications introduced rob their professions of all value. Certainly their teaching is destitute of any such conception. Modern scientific thought leaves no room for the operations of deity. The miraculous is generally discarded. Response to prayer is whittled down to a species of self-delusion, to be valued on account of its subjective influence only. The scientific theory of things, incomplete as it may be in many of its details, leaves no room for the operations of a god. Not alone does it leave no room for a god, but if the scientific conception of the world is to stand, then it would be necessary to repeat Bakunine’s mot, and to say, “If there were a god it would be necessary to destroy him.” You simply cannot have at one and the same time a universe in which all that occurs is the consequence of calculable and indestructible forces, the operations of which can be foreseen and relied upon, and a universe controlled by a self-determining deity, capable of modifying the action of these same forces. You may have one or the other, but it is sheer lunacy to imagine that you can have both. Either uniformity with invariable causation, or a world in which every scientific calculation must be prefaced with the “D.V.” of a prayer meeting. And the Atheist, who accepts the principles of modern science, says, not merely that he is without a belief in god, but that he fails to see any necessity for his existence, or anything for him to do if he did exist. He passes the gods of the world in review and categorically dismisses each one as a myth. In doing this he has the concurrence of all theists in discarding every god save one his own. The Atheist simply applies the same rule to each, and metes out the same judgment to all.