Virtual Colloquium: Jeanine Diller, “Global and Local Atheisms”
March 17, 2017 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God Existence of God  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 5

Today’s Virtual Colloquium is “Global and Local Atheisms” by Jeanine Diller. Dr. Diller received her PhD from the University of Michigan and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Program on Religious Studies of the University of Toledo in Ohio. Her research focuses on the concept of God and alternative pictures of ultimate reality. She is co-editor (with Asa Kasher) of Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities.

Global and Local Atheisms

Jeanine Diller

This paper identifies an ambiguity in the terms ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’: are they about one or all notions of God? I stipulate that a ‘local’ theism or atheism is about one notion; they claim that a specific kind of God exists or not (respectively). A ‘global’ atheism is about all notions; it says that no God worth the name exists. The punch line of the paper is that all atheists should be local atheists right now, given the current state of the debate.

In Part I, I draw the distinction between local and global theisms and atheisms carefully. In Part II, I notice that theisms are going to have to go local if they are to stand a chance of being internally consistent: since some notions of God contradict each other, it’s no good trying to believe them all. In contrast, assuming the ontological argument isn’t sound, atheisms in principle can go local or global, since it’s consistent to say that a specific kind of God doesn’t exist (local atheism) and also consistent to say that over and over again, for every kind of God worth the name (global atheism).

Most uses of ‘atheism’ in the philosophical literature are ambiguous between the local and global senses. Atheists who do explicitly disambiguate almost always go local (to offer an example, Mackie explicitly limits his sights to an omnipotent and all-good God). In fact, explicit global atheism is so rare that my research assistant wondered while I was writing if anyone held it. Interestingly, I recently found clear evidence that there indeed are global atheists in a survey run on this very blog by Yujin Nagasawa and Andrei Buckareff, as discussed in their recent volume Alternative Concepts of God (Oxford 2016). The survey’s framing was fine-tuned enough to positively identify 12.2% of its 286 respondents as global atheists: in the background of several concepts of God which the survey provides, these respondents “hold that no account of the divine is tenable” – a precise statement of global atheism (p. 8).

Parts III and IV of the paper effectively address this 12.2% of respondents and others interested in global atheism (and I’d be grateful to hear responses from any of you reading this). I argue three main claims in Part III: (1) that global atheism is difficult to understand, since denying all notions of God involves knowing at least the main ones, and (2) that global atheism is even more difficult to defend, not only because of the number of notions at play but also because every atheistic argument is against a particular kind of God. Since it’s invalid to move from one kind of God’s not existing to no kind of God existing, global atheists will have to redeploy their arguments or develop new ones against at least the main alternative theisms. Our search in the literature shows that this work has not yet been done; most atheists don’t even mention alternative theisms (regarding (1)), much less argue against them (regarding (2)). I conclude (3) that global atheism is currently unjustified, so atheists should stay local.

Part IV entertains and replies to an objection to Part III: can’t global atheists attack a really general notion of God, and in so doing attack the many species of God it covers, and thereby provide evidence for their claim? This is smart strategy but I give a couple reasons to think it is too early to tell if it can work. Lately I’ve been wondering further whether the idea of God is so flexible that there is no property or notion G that is necessary de dicto to every legitimate notion of God. If so, then an argument denying Gx will always leave some Gods standing and thus fall short of defending global atheism.

How important is the finding that atheists should stay local? On the one hand, local atheisms can be significant: for example, arguments against a OOO God if successful license denying the God of the orthodox monotheistic tradition—no small thing. Still, if global atheism is not justified—if for all that has been said against various Gods there still could be a genuine God of another kind—then the existence of God is not philosophically settled. And that is a big claim: nobody is licensed to move on from theism, not yet—and that not because of a difference of opinion over the state of the arguments (old news), but because the right kind of argumentation is not even in place yet (new news). The required work is to look at the major alternative notions of God and argue either that no such things exist or that such things should not count as God. That adds to the field’s task list for the future.

The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below!

  • Nichole Smith

    I wonder how old type (b) arguments, that being a given kind of being is not sufficient for being God are. Epicurus comes to mind:

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

    Here at least the disjunction of able and willing is a necessary condition for God. Likewise, usually a argument from evil will open with a premise like “If God exists then he is OOO.” and proceed from there. Maybe the premise needs more support, but if I hold that belief globally and also that nothing is OOO, then I would be a global atheist, no? This would lower the conditions of global atheism from individually denying every G_n or else making a generalizable caseю

    The charge then is to identify the general notion of God to target. But if I say G_1 and G_2 would be God if they exist, but they don’t, and every other G_n isn’t actually God, even if they do exist (and anyone who says they exist and are God are just incorrect or using a different meaning of the word “God,” would I be a global atheist (though perhaps incorrect)? The ignostic would be an extreme case of this–Nothing qualifies as God regardless of whether it exists, so nothing existing exhibiting the properties of God would be true, and globally so.

    March 17, 2017 — 19:02
  • Thanks for this very interesting paper, Jeanine! I have a worry about the argument that I think is related to your further question (in your introductory comments) about the flexibility of the notion of God. Presumably the atheist should be understood as making the first-order claim “there is no God” and not some meta-linguistic claim like “no one has ever succeeded in using the word ‘God’ to refer to a really existing entity.” This distinction matters because if we interpreted the atheist in the former way then (as Nichole suggests above, and as you worry a bit in later parts of the paper) we would have to raise the question of whether some people are sometimes misusing the word ‘God’ to refer to things that are not Gods (or gods) at all. (The meta-linguistic interpretation would eliminate this worry, but it’s not a very plausible gloss on the meaning of ‘atheism’—maybe some atheists would say things like “whatever you mean by ‘God’, I don’t believe in that thing,” but if someone responded “by ‘God’ I mean the totality of all that exists” or, weirder, “by ‘God’ I mean this apple” the atheist would quickly recognize that she had misformulated her view.) Now, if atheism is a first-order claim, then we have to worry about the semantics of ‘God’, i.e. (on standard but disputable meta-semantic assumptions), the concept for which the word ‘God’ stands.

    In light of this, it seems to me that a straightforward strategy for the global atheist is first to defend certain necessary conditions for an agent’s counting as God, and second to argue that nothing satisfies those conditions. (In my view, one of the most interesting and most thoroughly convincing results of your paper is that if the atheist merely stipulates certain necessary conditions for divinity, rather than defending their adequacy as a description of a pre-existing concept of God, then she ends up arguing, at best, for a species of local atheism.) It does seem to me that J.H. Sobel (in Logic and Theism), for instance, gives this kind of argument when he makes the case that no being could count as God unless it were objectively appropriate to worship that being and then employs general normative skepticism (a la Mackie) to argue that there is no such thing as objective appropriateness.

    You seem to recognize these kinds of moves in the last part of your paper, but through most of the paper you seem to assume that the disjuncts in global theism are more or less unrelated, i.e., that there is no simpler or more informative way of formulating global theism than as a long disjunction. This would be correct if the concept of God were a Wittgensteinian family resemblance concept. Is that your view? There are also some other ways of denying that an informative generic conceptual analysis of ‘God’ can be made, e.g., the view that ‘God’ is a (Kripkean) proper name. It seems to me that these semantic questions are quite important to your approach, but not really addressed in this paper.

    March 18, 2017 — 5:48
  • anonWard

    I have just skimmed through the above paper ,but I think the way from local to global atheisms(if I understand it correctly and as interned by the author) is rather straight forward see Jeff Speaks paper”Permissible Tinkering with the Concept of God” and various other responses to Nagasawa’s “New defence of Anselmian theism” if as those critics argue,this strategy of defending theism fails,then global atheism follows.

    March 18, 2017 — 10:19
  • Tim Perrine

    Hi Jeanine,

    Thank you for an interesting paper! I’m sympathetic to the overall points, but I had one kind of thought I’d like to mention.

    The problem of evil, in its various forms, is an attempt to refute or provide strong evidence against (as you’d put it) the existence of a OOO God. As I would put it, the argument of evil tries to specify what we should expect were the OOO God to exist, then argue that we do not observe what we thought we should expect, thus providing evidence against the existence of the OOO God. Since that kind of argument requires a premise on what we should expect, were the OOO God to exist, and we might expect different kinds of things from different conceptions of God, it would be hard to run arguments like this for all the possibility conceptions of God. This is, I take it, one of your main points about the difficulty of defending global atheism.

    But I wonder about alternative ways of defending global atheism that are not analogous to arguments of evil against the OOO God. One kind of arguments come to mind is a debunking argument. A debunking argument, I take it, is less concerned to prove–a la argument from evil–that something does not exist. Rather, it is to show that believe of that kind is unreasonable because it arises (e.g.) from an unreliable source or a source we cannot otherwise trust. Suppose we had good reason for thinking that belief in the supernatural arises in unreliable ways (e.g. cognitive faculties that were evolutionarily helpful, but overstepped their bounds in certain ways). It seems at least empirically open that many of the religious convictions and experiences from people from a wide range of diverse religions with diverse conceptions of God could originate in some subset of faculties. And if that were the case and we had reason for thinking such faculties were unreliable, that would be give us a debunking argument against most local theisms and thus a debunking argument in favor of global atheism. Further, since the debunking argument does not turn on similarities in the content of different conceptions of God but rather their epistemic sources, the fact that there are lots of different conceptions of God would not undermine it.

    In any case, I’m not necessarily defending such a debunking argument. (And it certain requires several empirical premises that I think we lacks much good evidence for.) But I wonder if you think that such an argument might be a promising way to try to defend global atheism.

    Thanks again,

    March 20, 2017 — 9:51
  • Jeanine Diller

    Hello all – I’m new to blogging so hope this message is visible to all those who’ve written so far. First of all, thank you all for the helpful and interesting replies! A few thoughts back:

    Nichole, what a great quote from Epicurus and a nice instance of how far back thoughts about what it takes to be God go!

    About your par. 2: I’m not sure what you mean by taking a claim about a single notion of God “globally,” but maybe you are noticing something I hadn’t thought of, that taking a notion to be the only one worth the name interestingly does imply a sort of “global” claim about the entire range of candidate notions: that the rest of the notions are just noise, aren’t notions genuinely of God. So picture the whole long disjunction of candidate notions. A claim like “necessarily de dicto, if you’re God then you’re OOO” would make us circle the class of OOO ones in the disjunction and cross off all the rest. And then you’re right, if you also thought that nothing is OOO, then you’d have a global atheism on the basis of just the OOO disjuncts. Am I with you? If so, then my reply focuses on this part: “maybe the premise [that God has to be OOO] needs more support”. Right, and not just maybe. I’m trying to urge people not to underestimate how much support a claim like that needs, e.g., Part III argues that the action of crossing out all the other notions to leave the OOO ones standing, if it’s going to be done philosophically carefully, will require knowing what at least the major notions you are crossing off are and then arguing either (a) that they are not instantiated or (b) that they are not genuine notions of God. That work hasn’t been done yet.

    To Kenny, much good food for thought here too. Yes to a first-order claim; in Part I I mean to show that it’s these first-order claims which are ambiguous between the local “I don’t believe in God as defined by e.g. the way I was raised ” etc. and the global “I don’t think there is any kind of God.” Also good point: I should have stated more clearly that global atheism is about there being no God “in any legitimate sense of the term” (to use Curley’s nice language from the end of Part II) in order to knock out the uninteresting “God is an apple” cases. I see global atheism as a serious claim about serious going notions of God — that none of them pick out anything real.

    And yes to your strategy for arguing global atheism: “first to defend certain necessary conditions for an agent’s counting as God, and second to argue that nothing satisfies those conditions.” That’s a nice crystallization of my (a) and (b) at the end of Part III plus paragraph 2 of Part IV. The second half of Part IV raises a couple hesitations about how well that strategy is going to work—since it takes judgment to light on general targets, and once you do they might be tough prey—but as I say there, it’s pretty hard to assess their fate in the abstract. We need some real instances of these arguments to see how well they go.

    And yes, though this is still a new realization for me, I do have (deep breath) a family resemblance view about notions of God, inspired I suspect from being awash for years in 30+ distinct notions of God/Ultimacy as I prepared Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities with Asa Kasher. These views bear many resemblances to each other owing in part to their philosophical and religious moorings; at the same time, these very moorings among other facets also constitute sites of difference between them (see my Epilogue to the book for more). Bottom line: I can’t think of a property all the notions in our book share. The best candidates for the job I know of are from John Schellenberg who in his The Will to Imagine takes ultimacy (a genus of Godhood) to consist in metaphysical, axiological, and soteriological ultimacy. Still, I know of views that drop one or more of even these generalizations so I read even them disjunctively (see my “The Conceptual Focus of Ultimism”).

    Also, anonWard, thanks for the lead to Jeff Speaks’ paper! I will have to take a look.

    Finally, to Tim: I like your framing of the problem of evil here that evil disconfirms the hypothesis that there is a God (my gloss–close?). And yes, our expectations on what the world would look like would change with the concept of God we adopt, certainly on notions where God creates the world; Hick for instance exploits this fact when he says evil is exactly what we’d expect if God were, in the act of creation, not trying to show us a good time but rather trying to get us to grow good souls. And yes that is a good way of voicing my argument in Part III.

    What you say last about arguments against theisms that are based not on their content but, say their epistemic source for example, is really interesting. Though I’m not a fan of that particular debunking style of argument (and you aren’t committed to being one either) since it sounds like it commits the genetic fallacy and since not all notions of God have religious or even experiential roots, in general turning to arguments for global atheism that don’t rely on the content of implicit notions of God sounds like a promising way to go, for just the reason you give: if an argument does not turn on conceptual content, “the fact that there are lots of different conceptions of God would not undermine it.”

    March 20, 2017 — 17:00
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