Theism vs. Atheism

Though Darwin didn’t casually forsake his religious faith, many of his scientific descendents have been much less reticent to equate evolutionary theory with atheism. Indeed, many theists see their religious belief system as incompatible with evolution; consequently the theism vs. atheism debate is often fought in the theory of evolution arena. This is unfortunate as the idea of evolution has no bearing on the claim that God does or does not exist. Evolution no more proves that God does not exist than gravitational theory.

Theism is at its most embarrassing and cringe worthiness when it adopts a contrary position to evolutionary theory. It plucks out of the air a ridiculous idea called creationism and subverts its own self by imposing the artificial claim on the bible that it is some kind of ancient scientific text. Any value that the bible has is immediately lost as it is used to propose an alternative unscientific account of the creation of the universe.

At a stroke, creationism turns what was once a sacred text into a competing scientific treatise. It was never the intention of the biblical authors to create a mundane scientific document, yet today that is what the most determined literalists insist it should be. If we are to view the bible as something which should be of scientific interest then we completely miss the intentions of the biblical writers.

The bible is constructed from a wide variety of sources. The bible expresses a variety of different genres. Some parts are historical, creedal or confessional. Other chapters are symbolic, mythical, poetic or devotional. There are many styles of writing in the bible but none of them, we can be sure, are scientific writings. Further we can be sure, that little, perhaps none of the work should be taken literally.

Literal truths seldom exist in any form. Any truth has to be placed into the context in which it is spoken, written or was intended to be applied. It is very difficult to find a truth that can be applied in all circumstances at all times for all men. To take one of the largest documents of all time and interpret it in a literal way is just nonsensical.

But the antagonism between theists and atheists cannot be blamed solely on the intransigence of the literalists. For many atheists, their lack of belief is rooted deeply in what has become known as scientific materialism; that all existence, mind, spirit and God can be explained by neuronal complexity. The argument goes that some future perfect science will one day prove that thought is nothing more than complex arrangements of matter. Despite the fact that materialism has been a discarded philosophy for about a century there are still those who wish to couch evolutionary theory in materialistic terminology.

Evolution is a scientific theory and does not require being couched in materialist dogma. Indeed, the atheist who takes this step is no longer just an atheist who has a disbelief in theism. The material atheist now has a positive belief which states that all things are reducible to the material. This is far removed from the benign “I do not believe in theism” that a mere atheist is committed to.

Stripped of the two incoherent extremes in the theism vs. atheism debate we find that the difference in opinion gets ever narrower. A theist who views the bible as a metaphoric aid to a deeper understanding of existence is committed to very little in terms of belief. An atheist who doesn’t get bogged down in a material interpretation of existence is quite able to adopt positions of the universe that contains ideas of the universal spirit or idealistic notions.

The acute or strong philosopher, will in debate, look at the opponents argument and shape that argument in to its strongest form. Where the debater fails to make his strongest case it is incumbent on his opponent to make that strongest case for him. That strongest position is the position that you demolish. In the theism vs. atheism debate, all too frequently the protagonists attempt to demolish only the weakest positions of their opponents. The atheist will only attack the literalists; the theists will only attack the materialists.

Stripped of its unnecessary materialist veneer, atheism can mean a wide variety of things. Stripped of its scriptural literalism, theism can also be relatively broad. Though there is probably clear daylight between the two positions the difference between the non-material atheists and the metaphorical theists is far less than some would have you believe.

Over the next few posts I shall look more closely at atheism, theism and pantheism and attempt to identify their similarities and their most crucial differences.