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
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!