In recent years, atheists have tried to redefine the term atheism so that it refers not to the belief that God does not exist (which they dismiss as the old-fashioned definition) but rather to an absence of belief in God.
This attempt at rebranding was undertaken after theists began to point out that the nonexistence of God is a negative that can never be proven. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all. Once everyone understood this, the jig was up. And so atheists set about reframing the debate by redefining terms and by declaring that the burden of proof was now exclusively on the theists. Atheism would now be a sort of agnosticism. And instead of a bug, the idea that there is no empirical evidence for God’s existence would now be a feature.
Thus atheism as merely a “lack of belief” in God.
As you might suspect, these maneuvers did little to alter the substance of the debate. And indeed, the new definition of atheism presupposes lots of questionable things: first, that there could ever exist even in principle direct empirical evidence of a spiritual being; second, that empirical evidence is the only basis for belief in God; third, that the claims of God incarnate found in the New Testament are false or somehow otherwise unworthy of being considered evidence. But let’s leave those issues aside for now.
The focus of this essay is what the new definition of atheism leaves on the table: namely, the possibility that God exists.
Unlike the stronger claim of the old definition—that God actually does not exist—the new definition’s weaker claim—that the atheist simply lacks belief in God—makes no claim about the existence of God per se.
As rebranding, it positions the atheist to attack belief in God on the idea that a lack of empirical evidence warrants a “lack of belief.” Thus it concedes the possibility of God’s existence implicitly.
And that’s where things get interesting.
While the new definition may dodge the burden of proving a negative, it only does so by steering atheism into the maw of a different problem.
Namely, the modal ontological argument, which does not in any what whatsoever rely on empirical evidence to demonstrate God’s existence. In fact, all it requires is what atheism concedes by implication on the new definition.
The modal ontological argument goes something like this:
- If it’s possible for God to exist, then God exists in at least one possible world.
- God is that than which nothing greater can be thought (following Anselm).
- If God exists in at least one possible world, then as that than which nothing greater can be thought he must exist in all possible worlds.
- If God exists in all possible worlds, then he exists in the real world.*
- Therefore God exists.
The rebranded version of atheism has no rejoinder to this argument because empirical evidence is simply irrelevant to it. Remember, atheism on the new definition has nothing to say about God’s existence per se. It sets the bar much lower, stipulating only that the atheist lacks belief (on the grounds that there is no empirical evidence for God’s existence). So God could very well exist, according to the new definition.
And the possibility of God’s existence is all the modal ontological argument needs to get off the ground.
My purpose here is not to provide an exhaustive defense of the modal ontological argument but merely to note its renewed relevance—a relevance renewed, ironically, by the attempt to rebrand atheism. Far from shifting the burden of proof, atheists must now defend their “lack of belief” in terms of possibility and necessity—familiar terrain for Christian apologists, who have been arguing in these terms for centuries.
In conceding the possibility of God’s existence by definition, the atheist attempt to shift the focus to empirical evidence has instead shifted the focus back to metaphysics.
Objection: the knowno
None of this is to say that atheists are entirely unversed in the modal ontological argument or that no atheists have attempted to defeat it.
Some, for example, invoke the “knowno”—a being who knows that God does not exist. Is it possible for such a being to exist? Or, posed in contemporary modal terms, does such a being exist in at least one possible world?
If yes, then there is at least one possible world in which God does not exist, or else the knowno would not know that God does not exist in that world, which would be a contradiction. And if there is at least one possible world in which God does not exist, then God does not exist. Because God, being that than which nothing greater can be thought, exists in all possible worlds if he exists in one.
But unfortunately for the atheist position, it is impossible for a knowno to exist.
Why? Because on the new definition of atheism and its concession that it is possible for God to exist, the existence of a knowno in a possible world presupposes a denial of the possible world in which he exists. And that is a contradiction.
Remember: Because God is that than which nothing greater can be thought, God’s existence in one possible world entails his existence in all possible worlds.
But if God exists in all possible worlds, then a possible world in which a knowno exists cannot itself exist. In other words, a knowno can only exist in a possible world if it is impossible for God to exist.
But the impossibility of God’s existence is precisely what the new definition of atheism takes great pains not to claim. Remember, according to the new definition, atheism merely denotes an absence of belief in God (an absence justified, in the mind of the atheist, by an absence of empirical evidence for God’s existence). The whole point of rebranding atheism in this way is to avoid the positive claim of God’s nonexistence. As we saw above, it can only do this by leaving open the possibility of God’s existence. And it is precisely this possibility that entails the nonexistence of a possible world in which a knowno exists. Thus, it is impossible for a knowno to exist.
Ironically, once the knowno is invoked, it becomes clear that the new-definition atheist’s methodological empiricism** not only opens his atheism to attack on modal ontological grounds, it is actually a defeater for his atheism on those grounds. Because methodological empiricism implies God’s existence in a possible world, which in turn entails the necessary non-existence of a possible world that contains a knowno.
So it seems the atheist must abandon methodological empiricism if he hopes to remain an atheist. Perhaps he can return to the old-fashioned claim that God does not exist.
But in modal terms that claim still stands or falls on the existence of a possible world in which a knowno exists. Does such a world exist if we abandon methodological empiricism?
No. Why? Because abandoning methodological empiricism for the sake of convenience does nothing to change the modal calculus. It does nothing to establish the existence of a possible world in which a knowno exists. Reverting to the (positive) claim that God does not exist is one thing. Demonstrating its truth is quite another.
Consider: In terms of modal logic, the knowno’s knowledge that God does not exist is only intelligible on the possibility that God exists. Otherwise what precisely is it that the knowno is supposed to know? What does the atheist mean when he says the knowno knows that God does not exist? Well, first we must ask, what is knowledge? It isn’t simply true belief. To count as knowledge the belief must also be justified or warranted. Otherwise the knowno’s purported “knowledge” isn’t knowledge at all but merely an assertion of a purportedly true belief. And this presents a problem for the possible existence of the knowno (or, in modal terms, of there being a possible world in which a knowno exists). The knowno would have to justify his belief or demonstrate that it is warranted. And in terms of modal logic, he cannot do that without assuming the possibility of God’s existence as a necessary condition of his belief. As “a being who knows that God does not exist,” without qualification, he cannot resolve the debate about the possible existence of God without it being possible for God to exist. In which case it’s not at all clear exactly which debate his knowledge is supposed to resolve. If it’s logically possible for God to exist, then paradoxically we’re back yet again at square one of the modal ontological argument.
The fact is that it’s impossible for the knowno to know that God does not exist without also knowing that it’s impossible for God to exist.
So what about a knowno who knows it is impossible for God to exist? Well, such a being would still have to demonstrate why he believes what he believes. Otherwise, again, we would just have to accept his assertion at face value. And as we have seen, that’s no hook to hang an argument on. But how would he proceed with such a demonstration? There is nothing internally contradictory about the concept of God. God is not like square circle, which is analytically self-contradictory and therefore unable to exist in any possible world. God is not like that. Indeed, by virtue of his being that than which nothing greater can be thought, God not only exists but exists necessarily. If he exists in one possible world he exists in all of them, including the real world. If there is no way for the knowno to show us that it is impossible for God to exist, then it is impossible for there to be warrant (or justification) for his claim that he knows it is impossible for God to exist. And unwarranted/unjustified knowledge is self-contradictory, just like square circle. And so we know it is impossible for a world to exist that contains a knowno who knows it is impossible for God to exist.
* The actual world does not cease to be possible just because it is actual. Were it otherwise, the actual world would be impossible, which cannot be correct. An impossible actual world is a logical impossibility. Therefore our actual world is one of the possible worlds. It is simply the one that happens to be actual, as the modal logicians say.
** The methodological empiricism of science is utterly irrelevant to modal reasoning about God’s existence because it is utterly irrelevant to the possibility of God’s existence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Indeed, methodological empiricism only makes sense on the possibility that things exist for which we do not have evidence. Otherwise it would rule out scientific discovery altogether. Metaphysical empiricism, taken as the idea that only the scientific method can ultimately produce knowledge, is flagrantly question-begging and obviously self-undercutting: any conceivable controlled experiment designed to test the hypothesis that only the scientific method can produce knowledge would necessarily use the scientific method to test the hypothesis. This is perfectly circular and thus perfectly invalid. Dismissing God’s existence on metaphysical empiricist grounds is no different than simply asserting the impossibility of God’s existence. Hume produced reams of nonsense based on this fundamental error.