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Atheism and the Church of Wonderful Nothingness

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Nicholas Frankovich has written an excellent essay for the National Review Online, titled, Do Atheists Exist? A new “godless” church makes you wonder. Frankovich’s article is outstanding for its depth and maturity of thought, and I would highly recommend it to readers of Uncommon Descent. He begins his piece with a description of an atheist church (yes, you read that right) founded in the UK at the beginning of 2013:

For people who like church except for the parts about God, a British couple have bodied forth a new denomination that cheerfully excludes him, raising the volume on the question “What is atheism?” several decibels overnight. The Sunday Assembly, a “godless congregation” founded in East London last January by standup comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, now boasts affiliates in Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Canberra, Melbourne, New York, and Portland, Ore[gon]…

“Church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked),” Jones and Evans confess in a short piece that appeared in the New York Times to mark the launch of their venture. Stuart Balkham, an earnest convert, told the Guardian that at a London meeting he attended the Assembly was “unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format,” which he thought was great…

The founders of this new “atheist church” declare that they want to “help people (ourselves included) to live better, help often and wonder more.” This invites the question: does that make it a religion of sorts? The founders of the new church deny this, on the grounds that they don’t require their members to have any sort of faith; their beliefs, they say, are driven by evidence. But as Frankovich observes, not all atheists agree with this assessment:

If “religion” remains the inevitable word for a certain moral and philosophical seriousness, however, atheism is, or should be, counted as religious after all. Among the latest to advance that thesis is Ronald Dworkin, whose Religion without God was published posthumously in September. His argument is solid at least insofar as it’s not original; his readers may be quicker to grasp it than he anticipated. Citing Torcasco v. Watkins (1961), Dworkin quoted Hugo Black, who in a clarifying footnote to that Supreme Court decision had commented that “among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others,” a list to which the casual observer could be forgiven for adding several mainline Protestant denominations whose vanishing theism quotients have haunted the landscape of organized religion in America for half a century or more. And so the Sunday Assembly, its rejection of the label “religion” notwithstanding, joins a distinguished parade of institutions demonstrating that religious practice persists as an anthropological fact even where belief in God is muted or absent…

I should add that not all religions demand faith, in any case: the Buddha warned that even his own teachings should be tested before being accepted as fact; while the religion of spiritualism rejects the need for faith, as it maintains that the truthfulness of their claims can be tested scientifically.

But wonder is a distinctively religious emotion, and one which the new atheist church openly encourages. And as Frankovich notes, the dangerous thing about wonder is that there’s no telling where it might lead:

Wonder more: No one disputes that atheism is compatible with wonder at the physical universe and how it works. Wonder at how it came to be just so, however, soon leads to wonder at how it came to be at all, a question that atheists typically sidestep. The pleasure of contemplating it is forbidden fruit to which the Sunday Assembly approaches nearer than a good atheist ought.

Philosophically if not historically, the theism of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam and major religious currents outside the Western tradition, begins with the observation that the mystery of being is irreducibly mysterious, absolutely immune to attempts at demystifying it…

What Frankovich finds ironical is that modern atheists reject the Judeo-Christian concept of God as petty and anthropomorphic, even though the utter ineffability of the Divine was emphasized by “succeeding generations of thinkers descended from the union of Greek philosophy and Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology,” leading to an identification of God with Being itself – or what Aquinas termed “ipsum esse subsistens” (the Ground of Being, in modern parlance). Aquinas was not the first to make this identification: Frankovich points out that the notion “developed organically over the course of more than a millennium.” Fr. Aidan Kimel confirms this observation in a thought-provoking article titled, Being, Beyond Being, or Oz the Great and Terrible? (26 November 2013), over at his blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy:

Right off the top of my head, I can think of three Christian theologians of antiquity who identified divinity and Being — St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Augustine of Hippo, and St Thomas Aquinas. I can also think of three Christian theologians who preferred to speak of God as “beyond Being” — Dionysius, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Gregory Palamas. And not one had a problem identifying their God with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The intensity of New Atheists’ loathing for the God of the Old Testament (or Tanakh) not only renders them totally oblivious to the classical theist conception of God as Being Itself, but also impels them to embrace an absurd conception of reality: the notion that Nothing can explain literally everything. As Frankovich remarks in his essay, the New Atheists are deadly serious about their beloved Nothing, to the point that it effectively functions as a God-substitute in their thinking:

For their rejection of all “gods” in the familiar sense of the term, Christians in ancient Rome were sometimes accused of being atheists. Now the misunderstanding is turned on its head: Atheists hold the Christian, and indeed any modern theist, to be most glaringly wrong in his understanding that God is a person, like a god of pagan antiquity. Training their sights on the notion of an anthropomorphic god, they excite and distract themselves. God as Being itself barely registers with them.

“Why don’t you see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that we can explain the world, life, how it started, from nothing?” Dawkins asked the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, during a debate at the Cambridge Union Society last year. “Why clutter it up with something so messy as God?”

“I’m not thinking of God as being shoehorned in,” Williams answered…

Used loosely, “nothing” is put to practical use every day. Dawkins makes it a placeholder for “God.” By invoking “nothing,” he can point to the source of the universe without implying that You Know Who had anything to do with it…

Richard Dawkins believes that “we can explain the world, life, how it started, from nothing.” This is a self-refuting assertion if ever I heard one. To assert that the world comes from nothing is simply to say that it has no explanation.

However, Frankovich is more charitable; he wonders whether the New Atheists, in their confused terminology, might be trying to convey the same underlying truth as the mystics in the classical theistic tradition, and he gently warns them that in their effort to experience a collective feeling of awe and wonder, they are opening the door to the Transcendent God:

Notice how “nothing” can function for the atheist as “God” does for the theist. Are the two only using different linguistic tokens in parallel efforts to express the same ineffable thought? Their fear and trembling at the prospect of the “eternal nada,” Jones and Evans explain, moves them to cultivate their appreciation for the physical world (Christians call it “Creation”) that tickles our sense organs in the here and now: “Transcendence can be found in a breath of wind on your face or in a mouthful of custard tart,” they write. They pronounce nature “awesome,” a word whose recently acquired colloquial sense still shades into its older, literal sense. Open the door to just that much transcendence, however, and all of it comes rushing in, like a strong wind. Atheists instinctively try to resist it, while those of us who have been blown away by it recommend the experience.

I have to say I was deeply impressed by the learning displayed in Frankovich’s piece. I’d like to close with a couple of observations of my own.

First, while the equation of God with Being Itself is a venerable one in the Christian tradition – many theologians see a hint of it in Exodus 3:14, where God refers to Himself as “I am That I am” – I have to say that I am wary of certain modern theologians who go further, and deny that God is “a being.” If they simply mean to deny that God is a being on the same plane of reality as we are, then of course, they are perfectly correct; but if they mean to deny that God is Someone, then they are badly mistaken. It is worth noting that even in Exodus 3:14, God tells Moses, “I am That I am,” and in the memorable passage in the book of Job where God reduces Job to silence after he foolishly questions the Almighty, He also identifies Himself in the first person:

2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:2-4, NIV.)

I should add that while St. Anselm of Canterbury and Blessed John Duns Scotus both belonged to the classical theistic tradition, they also spoke of God as a Being. For Anselm, God is “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived,” and for Scotus also, God can be described as a being, although One Who is infinitely greater than we are.

The second point I’d like to make is that equating God with Being Itself is not the most profound thing that can be said about Him, as it leaves unanswered the question, “What does God actually do?” It is no good to simply answer, “He exists, and that’s all.” Existence is not the name of an activity; and if God did not have a characteristic activity of His own, then He wouldn’t have any existence of His own. Within the classical theistic tradition, knowing and loving are two activities that have been ascribed to God, as they are the only activities which do not imply any limitations in their possessor; hence they can be fittingly ascribed to God. (Aquinas himself writes that God’s act of understanding is His essence, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 45.1, and he identifies God’s will with His essence in his Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 73.1.) In the eighteenth century, John Wesley took this line of thinking even further: as Professor Thomas Jay Oord points out, Wesley considered love to be God’s reigning attribute.

For my part, I consider the most profound verse in the Bible to be 1 John 4:16, which declares: “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” The statement, “God is love,” cuts both ways: as Jennifer Fulwiler, a convert from atheism, puts it in a post titled, Love and conversion, it not only tells us what God is, but also tells us what love is:

One of the biggest lessons I learned in the conversion process, maybe the biggest lesson I learned in my life, was that the phrase “God is Love” is meant to be taken literally: God is love. God = Love. It’s not just some characteristic, but his essence. To paraphrase the Cynical Christian’s recent post on a similar subject, when we say “God is love,” we’re not describing what God is, we’re describing what love is — love is God.

I see that the New Atheist church founded by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans exhorts its members to “live better” and “help often” as well as wondering more. And I note also that the British intellectual Alain de Botton, an atheist who declares that he has absolutely no interest in mocking religion, has this to say about the awe-inspiring temple to atheism which he wants to build in London:

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”

A temple to love, which is meant to inspire awe? Who knows where that might lead? I’ll give former atheist Jennifer Fulwiler the last word:

…[W]hat I found is this: God is not something you prove; he is Someone you come to know. To know God is to know love. And love is not something you find in a book.

I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year.

5 Replies to “Atheism and the Church of Wonderful Nothingness

  1. 1
    Mark Frank says:

    Frankovich should remember Orwell’s six rules of good writing (particularly 2,3 and 5):

    1) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    2) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

    3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    4) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    You might have been less impressed by his learning but I would have understand what he was saying.

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    Dr. Torley, this comment:

    Right off the top of my head, I can think of three Christian theologians of antiquity who identified divinity and Being — St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Augustine of Hippo, and St Thomas Aquinas. I can also think of three Christian theologians who preferred to speak of God as “beyond Being” — Dionysius, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Gregory Palamas. And not one had a problem identifying their God with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    Reminded me of this comment:

    Not Understanding Nothing – A review of A Universe from Nothing – Edward Feser – June 2012
    Excerpt: A critic might reasonably question the arguments for a divine first cause of the cosmos. But to ask “What caused God?” misses the whole reason classical philosophers thought his existence necessary in the first place. So when physicist Lawrence Krauss begins his new book by suggesting that to ask “Who created the creator?” suffices to dispatch traditional philosophical theology, we know it isn’t going to end well. ,,,
    ,,, But Krauss simply can’t see the “difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one.” The difference, as the reader of Aristotle or Aquinas knows, is that the universe changes while the unmoved mover does not, or, as the Neoplatonist can tell you, that the universe is made up of parts while its source is absolutely one; or, as Leibniz could tell you, that the universe is contingent and God absolutely necessary. There is thus a principled reason for regarding God rather than the universe as the terminus of explanation.

    Although I am certainly no philosopher, I have been delighted to see, as far I can tell as a novice, how Aquinas’s and Leibniz’s unmoved mover and necessary Being arguments, respectfully, have been confirmed by modern science:

    For instance, non local, i.e. beyond space and time, quantum actions provide solid support for the argument from motion. Also known as Aquinas’ First way. (Of note, St Thomas Aquinas lived from 1225 to 7 March 1274.) Here is the argument in its formal structure:

    Aquinas’ First Way – (The First Mover – Unmoved Mover) – video

    Aquinas’ First Way
    1) Change in nature is elevation of potency to act.
    2) Potency cannot actualize itself, because it does not exist actually.
    3) Potency must be actualized by another, which is itself in act.
    4) Essentially ordered series of causes (elevations of potency to act) exist in nature.
    5) An essentially ordered series of elevations from potency to act cannot be in infinite regress, because the series must be actualized by something that is itself in act without the need for elevation from potency.
    6) The ground of an essentially ordered series of elevations from potency to act must be pure act with respect to the casual series.
    7) This Pure Act– Prime Mover– is what we call God.

    Or to put the argument much more simply:

    “The ‘First Mover’ is necessary for change occurring at each moment.”
    Michael Egnor – Aquinas’ First Way

    Where this argument finds purchase in modern science is in the infamous double slit experiment:

    Quantum Mechanics – Double Slit Experiment. Is anything real? (Prof. Anton Zeilinger) – video

    Prof. Zeilinger, one of the leading researchers in quantum mechanics today with many breakthroughs under his belt, makes this rather startling statement in the preceding video:

    “The path taken by the photon is not an element of reality. We are not allowed to talk about the photon passing through this or this slit. Neither are we allowed to say the photon passes through both slits. All this kind of language is not applicable.”
    Anton Zeilinger

    Dr. Torley, being a novice in philosophy, I certainly don’t want to overstate the case, but that certainly looks to fit hand in glove with the first mover argument (not to mention it being completely antagonistic to reductive materialism)!

    Also of interest to the unmoved mover argument is that there actually is now known to be a smallest indivisible unit of time:

    Planck time
    Excerpt: One Planck time is the time it would take a photon travelling at the speed of light to cross a distance equal to one Planck length. Theoretically, this is the smallest time measurement that will ever be possible,[3] roughly 10^?43 seconds. Within the framework of the laws of physics as we understand them today, for times less than one Planck time apart, we can neither measure nor detect any change. As of May 2010, the smallest time interval that was directly measured was on the order of 12 attoseconds (12 × 10^?18 seconds),[4] about 10^24 times larger than the Planck time.

    And how this smallest indivisible unit of time plays out in all this is beautifully captured in this quote:

    Lecture 11: Decoherence and Hidden Variables – Scott Aaronson (Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT)
    Excerpt: “Look, we all have fun ridiculing the creationists who think the world sprang into existence on October 23, 4004 BC at 9AM (presumably Babylonian time), with the fossils already in the ground, light from distant stars heading toward us, etc. But if we accept the usual picture of quantum mechanics, then in a certain sense the situation is far worse: the world (as you experience it) might as well not have existed 10^-43 seconds ago!”

    Dr. Aaronson is not just whistling Dixie with that quote either, but has solid empirical evidence to back it up:

    Quantum Physics – (material reality does not exist until we look at it) – Dr. Quantum video

    If you have trouble accepting the implications of the preceding video, don’t feel alone, Nobel prize winner Anthony Leggett, who developed Leggett’s inequality to try to prove that an objective material reality exists when we are not looking at it, still does not believe the results of the experiment that he himself was integral in devising, even though the inequality was violated by a stunning 80 orders of magnitude. He seems to have done this simply because the results contradicted the ‘realism’ he believes in (realism is the notion that an objective material reality exists apart from our conscious observation of it).

    A team of physicists in Vienna has devised experiments that may answer one of the enduring riddles of science: Do we create the world just by looking at it? – 2008
    Excerpt: In mid-2007 Fedrizzi found that the new realism model was violated by 80 orders of magnitude; the group was even more assured that quantum mechanics was correct.
    Leggett agrees with Zeilinger that realism is wrong in quantum mechanics, but when I asked him whether he now believes in the theory, he answered only “no” before demurring, “I’m in a small minority with that point of view and I wouldn’t stake my life on it.” For Leggett there are still enough loopholes to disbelieve. I asked him what could finally change his mind about quantum mechanics. Without hesitation, he said sending humans into space as detectors to test the theory.,,,

    (to which Anton Zeilinger responded)

    When I mentioned this to Prof. Zeilinger he said, “That will happen someday. There is no doubt in my mind. It is just a question of technology.” Alessandro Fedrizzi had already shown me a prototype of a realism experiment he is hoping to send up in a satellite. It’s a heavy, metallic slab the size of a dinner plate.

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    Also of note:

    Quantum Physics Debunks Materialism – video

    Looking Beyond Space and Time to Cope With Quantum Theory – (Oct. 28, 2012)
    Excerpt: The remaining option is to accept that (quantum) influences must be infinitely fast,,,
    “Our result gives weight to the idea that quantum correlations somehow arise from outside spacetime, in the sense that no story in space and time can describe them,” says Nicolas Gisin, Professor at the University of Geneva, Switzerland,,,

    In further agreement that the universe is contingent while God is necessary, Quantum Mechanics has now been extended to falsify local realism (reductive materialism) without even using quantum entanglement to do it:

    ‘Quantum Magic’ Without Any ‘Spooky Action at a Distance’ – June 2011
    Excerpt: A team of researchers led by Anton Zeilinger at the University of Vienna and the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information of the Austrian Academy of Sciences used a system which does not allow for entanglement, and still found results which cannot be interpreted classically.

  4. 4
    bornagain77 says:

    Dr. Torley, as to the beautiful reflection of ‘God is Love’

    when we say “God is love,” we’re not describing what God is, we’re describing what love is — love is God.

    That is a simple yet profound statement!


    Romans 5:8
    But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

    In my debates with atheists, I Have come to more fully understand that What the sinner who is acutely aware of his sin readily understands, but the sinner, who does not think he is really a sinner (if he even admits that there is such a thing as sin), but who is under the delusion that he is controlling his sin does not readily understand, is that Jesus Christ had the full power and authority of heaven to relieve Himself of the horrid torment of the cross but instead chose, because of His great love for us, to endure it, in its entirety, willingly, so that he might completely overcome sin, hell and death, and all their horrors, on our behalf (since we were incapable) so that we may be reunited with him. Love is the only proper response on our part.


    “Bless The Broken Road” – Rascal Flatts Official Music Video


    The Contradiction of the Cross
    “On the cross, our false dependencies are revealed. On the cross, our illusions are killed off. On the cross, our small self dies so that the true self, the God-given self, can emerge. On the cross, we give up the fantasy that we are in control, and the death of this fantasy is central to acceptance. The cross is, above all, a place of powerlessness. Here is the final proof that our own feeble powers can no more alter life’s trajectory than a magnet can pull down the moon. Here is the death of the ego, of the self that insists on being in charge, the self that continually tries to impose its own idea of order and righteousness on the world.
    The cross is a place of contradiction. For the powerlessness of the cross, if fully embraced, takes us to a place of power. This is the great mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, from Jesus to Martin Luther King Jr., the mystery of the power of powerlessness. As long as I am preoccupied with the marshaling of my own feeble powers, there will be no way for God’s power to flow through me. As long as I am getting in my own way, I cannot live in the power of God’s way.”
    – Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox, Pg 46-47

    Heather Williams – Hallelujah – Music with Lyrics

  5. 5
    vjtorley says:

    Hi bornagain77,

    Thanks very much for the helpful links you provided – especially those dealing with quantum physics and its metaphysical implications. Much appreciated. Thanks again.

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