One of the strangest claims often made by purveyors and consumers of today’s popular atheism is that disbelief in God involves no particular positive philosophy of reality, much less any kind of religion or creed, but consists merely in neutral incredulity toward a certain kind of factual asseveration. This is not something the atheists of earlier ages would have been very likely to say, if only because they still lived in a culture whose every dimension (artistic, philosophical, ethical, social, cosmological) was shaped by a religious vision of the world. More to the point, it is an utterly nonsensical claim—so nonsensical, in fact, that it is doubtful that those who make it can truly be considered atheists in any coherent sense.
Admittedly, I suppose, it is possible to mistake the word “God” for the name of some discrete object that might or might not be found within the fold of nature, if one just happens to be more or less ignorant of the entire history of theistic belief. But, really, the distinction between “God”—meaning the one God who is the transcendent source of all things—and any particular “god”—meaning one or another of a plurality of divine beings who inhabit the cosmos—is one that, in Western tradition, goes back at least as far as Xenophanes.
And it is a distinction not merely in numbering, between monotheism and polytheism, as though the issue were simply how many “divine entities” one thinks there are; rather, it is a distinction between two qualitatively incommensurable kinds of reality, belonging to two wholly disparate conceptual orders. In the words of the great Swami Prabhavananda, only the one transcendent God is “the uncreated”: “Gods, though supernatural, belong . . . among the creatures. Like the Christian angels, they are much nearer to man than to God.”
This should not be a particularly difficult distinction to grasp, truth be told. To speak of “God” properly—in a way, that is, consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Bahá’í, much of antique paganism, and so forth—is to speak of the one infinite ground of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.
God so understood is neither some particular thing posed over against the created universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a being, at least not in the way that a tree, a clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.
To speak of “gods,” by contrast, is to speak only of a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality. Any gods who might be out there do not transcend nature but belong to it. Their theogonies can be recounted—how they arose out of the primal night, or were born of other, more titanic progenitors, and so on—and in many cases their eventual demises foreseen. Each of them is a distinct being rather than “being itself,” and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one—not merely singular or unique—but is oneness as such, the sole act of being by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together.
Obviously, then, it is the transcendent God in whom it is ultimately meaningful not to believe. The possibility of gods or spirits or angels or demons, and so on, is all very interesting to contemplate, but remains a question not of metaphysics but only of the taxonomy of nature (terrestrial, celestial, and chthonic). To be an atheist in the best modern sense, and so to be a truly intellectually and emotionally fulfilled naturalist in philosophy, one must genuinely succeed in not believing in God, with all the logical consequences this entails.
And the question of God, thus understood, is one that is ineradicably present in the mystery of existence itself, or of consciousness, or of truth, goodness, and beauty. It is also the question that philosophical naturalism is supposed to have answered exhaustively in the negative, without any troubling explanatory lacunae, and that therefore any aspiring philosophical naturalist must understand in order to be an atheist in any intellectually significant way.
Well, as I say, this should not be all that difficult to grasp. And yet any speaker at one of those atheist revivalist meetings need only trot out either of two reliable witticisms—“I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden” or “Everyone today is a disbeliever in Thor or Zeus, but we simply believe in one god less”—to elicit warmly rippling palpitations of self-congratulatory laughter from the congregation. Admittedly, one ought not judge a movement by its jokes, but neither should one be overly patient with those who delight in their own ignorance of elementary conceptual categories. I suppose, though, that the charitable course is to state the obvious as clearly as possible.
So: Beliefs regarding fairies concern a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional and rational shape as beliefs regarding the neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found.
God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for photons and (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him.
The question of God, by contrast, is one that must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, act and potency, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, pervades every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.
All of which is to say (to return to where I began) that it is absurd to think that one can profess atheism in any meaningful way without thereby assenting to an entire philosophy of being, however inchoate one’s sense of it may be. The philosophical naturalist’s view of reality is not one that merely fails to find some particular object within the world that the theist imagines can be descried there; it is a very particular representation of the nature of things, entailing a vast range of purely metaphysical commitments.
Principally, it requires that one believe that the physical order, which both experience and reason say is an ensemble of ontological contingencies, can exist entirely of itself, without any absolute source of actuality. It requires also that one resign oneself to an ultimate irrationalism: For the one reality that naturalism can never logically encompass is the very existence of nature (nature being, by definition, that which already exists); it is a philosophy, therefore, surrounded, permeated, and exceeded by a truth that is always already super naturam, and yet a philosophy that one cannot seriously entertain except by scrupulously refusing to recognize this.
It is the embrace of an infinite paradox: the universe understood as an “absolute contingency.” It may not amount to a metaphysics in the fullest sense, since strictly speaking it possesses no rational content—it is, after all, a belief that all things rest upon something like an original moment of magic—but it is certainly far more than the mere absence of faith.