Friday, January 06, 2006

Is Atheism a Worldview?

In the comments on a posting to another blog, one reader argued that atheism is a worldview because it "answers the big questions in life."

The issue of whether atheism is a worldview seems to come up from time to time. And that issue depends upon two cans of worms: the definition of "atheism" and the definition of "worldview." I commented on the meaning of "atheism" in a previous post. I'm not sure there is widespread agreement regarding the meaning of "worldview." In a book review of David Noebel's Understanding the Times, I quoted Christian philosopher Ronald Nash who defined it this way, "A well-rounded world-view includes what a person believes in at least five major topics: God, reality, knowledge, morality, and humankind." David Noebel defines the concept in an even more expansive way. Probably the most noncontroversial statement that can be made about the idea of a "worldview" is that it includes a belief about ethics or morality.

On that basis, atheism alone is not enough to construct a worldview. Atheism does not entail any particular ethical theory; all that atheism entails is a rejection of theological ethical systems, such as divine command theory. Atheism is an important building block for various secular worldviews, however. For example, secular humanism is an atheist worldview, but it is not the only atheist worldview.

9 comments:

Jeff Downs said...

Jeffery. Good name! We share at least one thing in common, although your "e" is in the wrong place :)

Anyway, thought my blog and Website would interest you.

Jeffrey Downs

the metaphysician said...

I have often thought, too, that the common slogan 'atheism is a worldview' is mistaken. If an argument is wanted for why it is mistaken, here it is. Physicalism (the view that all that exists is in some sense 'physical' (where 'physical' includes matter and energy)) is arguably a worldview and entails atheism. Platonism (the view that necessary abstract entities exist as well as physical ones, but where no non-physical and necessary individial exists) is also arguably a worldview and also entails atheism. So we have here two worldviews, physicalism and platonism, which are both atheistic. But if atheism, as such, counts as one worldview, then we'd be lead to obfuscate obvious and important differences between physicalism and platonism. And any method of 'individuating' worldviews which gives us this result, as far as I can see, is just wrong. Since such two radically different worldviews are both consistent with, and can be considered as different tokens of, atheism, I think it is wrong (or wrongheaded) to consider atheism simpliciter, without further specification, as a worldview.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Metaphysician -- great comment. If one accepts a definition of "worldview" that includes a belief about ethics (more than just a rejection of the divine command theory), however, I'm not sure if physicalism would qualify as a worldview, since physicalism also does not seem entail an acceptance of any particular metaethical or ethical theory. For example, physicalism is logically consistent with non-cognitivism (in all of its various forms), error theory, and success theory (ethical naturalism). I could be wrong, but it seems to me this leaves the metaethical 'variable' in the worldview 'equation' way too unresolved in order for physicalism to qualify as a worldview. On the other hand, physicalism does seem to get closer than atheism to fulfilling the criteria for a worldview, simply because physicalism provides a more complete thesis about ontology than atheism does. Your thoughts?

Bradley Bowen said...

Atheism is not a worldview, because it is merely the denial of a worldview: theism. To reject a specific worldview is not to accept a specific worldview.

Furthermore, atheism does not encompass a specific metaphysical viewpoint nor a specific ethical viewpoint. An atheist can believe in spirits and an afterlife, so atheism does not imply naturalism nor does it imply materialism. Some atheists are utilitarians, others are Kantians, others are social contract theorists, so atheists are all over the map in terms of ethics.

Being an atheist just means that I have rejected theism. It does not mean that I have adopted a particular metaphysical viewpoint or ethical viewpoint.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Brad -- atheism is the denial of theism, but I'm not sure I can agree with the statement that theism is a worldview. By itself, theism also doesn't seem to entail any particular view on ethics or metaethics. Theism is compatible with a variety of (cognitivist) metaethical theories, including but not limited to the divine command theory. So I think both theism and atheism fail to qualify as worldviews, though each are important elements in a variety of worldviews.

the metaphysician said...

Internet Infidel said:

"If one accepts a definition of 'worldview' that includes a belief about ethics (more than just a rejection of the divine command theory), however, I'm not sure if physicalism would qualify as a worldview, since physicalism also does not seem entail an acceptance of any particular metaethical or ethical theory."

He also said:

"By itself, theism also doesn't seem to entail any particular view on ethics or metaethics. Theism is compatible with a variety of (cognitivist) metaethical theories, including but not limited to the divine command theory. So I think both theism and atheism fail to qualify as worldviews, though each are important elements in a variety of worldviews."

Although I kind of see your point, and why you would say that, I'm a little puzzled. I'm puzzled because your suggested requirement for something to count as a worldview seems to entail that not only theism but also Christian theism is not a worldview (but I would have thought that that, at least, is a world view). For CT, as such, isn't committed to any ethical (whether normative or meta-ethical) theory, either. For example, a Christian theist, qua Christian theist, can sensibly hold either a version of the divine command theory or the natural law theory.

Perhaps some further 'fine tuning' will help? Well, if the line of thought you suggest is true, I don't see how. For example, is a Methodist Christian theist committed (simply in virtue of being a Methodist, perhaps) to some view of ethics or metaethics? I don't see how. And the same goes for other Christian denominations. (I don't think that holding any particular view of ethics or metaethics is a part of the creeds or confessions of the major denominations.)

In short, I think your suggestion needs some chisholming, but I'm not sure at this point exactly how it should go.

Bradley Bowen said...

Infidel - I'm inclined to agree that theism is not a worldview. It is primarily a position in metaphysics, and does not necessarily correspond to a specific ethical viewpoint. Atheism, then, is the rejection of a particular metaphysical position.

Metaphysician - Good point about Christian theism. I would be inclined to accept that as a worldview, but it does not imply a specific ethical theory. But there are ethical elements and implications of Christian theism: God is perfectly good and perfectly just; God has communicated rules and principles for humans to follow, and humans ought to love and obey God; God will punish sinners and reward the righteous, and God will forgive the sins of those who put their faith in Jesus (and this does not contradict God's perfect justice and goodness), etc.

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