God is dead. – Nietzsche
Nietzsche is dead. – God

In America, and apparently some parts of the developing world, it can be very shocking when you tell people that you do not believe in God. Indeed, even among America’s educated classes, you’ll rarely hear an expression of outright atheism (though you will encounter a fair amount of agnosticism).

I asked a friend once why this was and he replied, in effect, that people claim to be agnostic mainly because they are cowards. At first I thought he meant that they, like Pascal, were basically hedging their bets. I mean, what if they’re wrong? Better not to commit either way.

Now I believe that he was pointing instead to their fear of communal opprobrium. Agnostics don’t fear God, after all (if they did, they wouldn’t be agnostics). The only thing they have to fear is Believers.

For my part, I’ve tended to be fairly forthright about my atheism. I do not believe that God exists. At the same time, being of a rather philosophical bent, I’m not entirely comfortable with that manner of expressing things. Why? Well, it all depends on what your definition of “is” is.

You see, we humans tend to have a pretty strong physical bias when it comes to “existence.” When we say that something exists in the course of daily conversation, one can safely assume that we mean “physically” exists. And to the extent that we are particular in questions of fact, we have some fairly rigorous and straightforward standards regarding proof of physical existence.

For example, one should be able to supply fairly precise coordinates of an existing entity’s location in space if one wants to definitively claim that it does indeed exist. One should also be able to specify it’s mass, its physical dimensions, and so on. (In the case of those “objects”—electrons, black holes, photons, etc.—for which precise location or exact mass, among other things, may be difficult to establish, we have mathematical models and experimental procedures that provide a great deal of circumstantial evidence from which existence can be reasonably inferred, if not postively demonstrated.)

Unfortunately, the existence of God doesn’t lend itself to such procedures and demonstrations. If it is argued that the reason for this is that God does not exist “physically,” then I must respond, “Well, then, in what sense of the word ‘exist’ does God exist if not in the physical sense?”

The Church Fathers decided to show that God’s existence, while notoriously resistant to physical proof, could at least be proved “logically.” Descartes and Leibniz followed them in this, to one degree or another. The problem there was, as Kant shewed in Critique of Pure Reason, that logic could provide both proof of God’s existence as well as its opposite. Kant’s aporia pushed the question of existence back into the physical realm (and thus did Kant essentially endorse atheism without explicitly advocating it).

Which brings us back to God vs. Nietzsche. When we read those two sentences, at first we think: “Take that Nietzsche. You are undeniably dead. First round goes to God.”

But we quickly realize that there is a problem. The words, “Nietzsche is dead,” are clearly a statement of fact. The statement “God is dead,” on the other hand, does not strike us as factual but, instead, as some kind of rhetorical provocation. Why is this?

The first issue is the “grammar,” as Wittgenstein called it, of the word “God.” To say “God is dead” doesn’t make sense because “being dead” is not part of God’s grammar. God simply can’t be dead; the sentence seizes up semantically.

The non-sensical nature of “God is dead” raises another question, however: Is God “alive”? Not being dead means always being alive, right? Would it make sense to say, “This animal is not dead, but it is also not alive”? Would it make more sense to say it of God?

This is the brilliance of the “God is dead” motif which, we must recall, is not a proclamation of atheism so much as a heretical claim from within the horizon of theism itself. I call it brilliant because, by granting God’s existence, this phrase doesn’t invite God’s partisans to demonstrate His existence so much as prove that He is still alive. To do so, however, is naturally far more difficult, for, as it turns out, God is not alive in the same sense that living things are alive (though, as we shall see, He may be “alive” in the sense that an idea may be).

And yet, for all that, I do believe that there is a way that God actually exists, though it is not a way that will make any believer particularly happy.

Consider, for example, the question, “Does the meaning of a word exist?” I am absolutely comfortable saying, “No, the meaning of a word does not exist,” because it does not exist in a physical sense; I cannot point to a precise physical location where the meaning exists nor can I produce it’s mass, physical dimensions, chemical make-up, etc.

Nevertheless, it is also senseless, grammatically speaking, to say that words have no meaning. Of course, they have meaning (or are you simply looking at the screen without reading it?). So, if the meaning does not exist physically, how then does this meaning exist?

The meaning of a word exists in an absolutely relative and contingent way depending both on the structure of the language in which it occurs and the conventions of the community which uses the language. Indeed, the meaning is strongly tied to this usage as Wittgenstein emphasized when he stated that the meaning of word is it’s “use in the language.”

God exists in the same way that the meaning of a word exists. This non-physical, non-localizable entity, “God,” like the meaning of a word, depends on a community for which it serves as a linguistic and, at times, liturgical point of reference. God has no existence independent of this community. In fact, it is as absurd to think in those terms as it is to ask where we might find the meanings of words from long dead and forgotten languages (that of the Rugians, for example).

(Note: The non-existence of God may be the only thing that makes the plurality of religions, similar to that of languages, possible. If there were a God, any god, then His religion would be as universal as mathematics or physics. Instead, and in spite of the widespread hegemony of certain faiths, we have a multi-ethnic universe of deities and an incredible regional diversity of worshipful practice in even the most catholic of creeds.)

Long story short, I would restate my atheism along the following lines: It is not so much that God doesn’t exist, but that the word “God”does not refer to any physical object existing in space. (The word does, however, refer to an elaborate semantic web produced by the dense interplay of texts, practices, places, physical objects, as well as human thoughts, emotions, and psychological states.)

Of course, we see this, if we look hard enough, in my epigraph. Nietzsche was, without a doubt, the author of his dictum. Likewise, some anonymous human was indubitably the author of God’s.

Image Source: Daquella Manera.

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6 Responses to Atheism

  1. Jessica says:

    Interesting post, Matt! A truly engaging late night read.

    The problem I’ve struggled with when it comes to identifying myself as an Atheist is the perceived arrogance of such a claim. Who am I – insignificant human that I am – to make such a bold declaration? I wouldn’t say that Agnosticism seems like a safe alternative, but to me it indicates that there might be some sliver of a doubt.

    I think it was Sartre who said, “She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an Atheist.”

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  3. admin says:

    I hear ya, sister, especially about the “perceived arrogance.”

    When I was growing up, if someone asked me my religion, I used to say I was a Methodist because that’s what I was. It was as automatic as saying, “I’m American.” There was no particular pride or any feeling associated with it. It was just a fact.

    Being an atheist, for some reason, can’t just be a fact; it has to be a statement.

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  5. Randy says:

    Personally, I don’t buy the “sliver of doubt” defense of agnosticism, and I think it only serves to prove Matt’s (or his friend’s) point. There are lots of things that we believe or don’t believe without being beyond-a-shadow-of-doubt certain. We don’t say I neither believe nor do I disbelieve man made global warming because we’re not absolutely certain. Agnostics that I know are typically 95%+ sure that God is a myth. They don’t hedge their bets with prayer or attending services. They are not worried about going to hell. I’ll leave it to the agnostics to say what they are worried about, but I think Matt is certainly in the ballpark.

    …and I don’t think it’s arrogant to say, “I don’t believe in God” unless it’s arrogant to say, “I believe cigarettes are bad for you.”

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