Kai Nielsen is a
prolific essayist: this volume is one of the latest of his collections
of essays (all of which except the introduction and the final chapter
have been previously published). The title betokens no scepticism about
modernity. Rather, Nielsen means to carry forward Enlightenment
modernity, especially its critique of religion (which he virtually
equates with pre-modernity, although he recognizes that some religious
turns might be called postmodern ). His main concern is with the
biblically-based theistic religions.
The thesis of the
volume is that “belief in God in our times is irrational for someone who
has both a good philosophical and a good scientific educa-tion” (3).
But, as an “analytical Marxist” (229), Nielsen has moral as well as
scientific-philosophical arguments for his anti-religious atheism.
Those who have not
read Nielsen’s other works will not get a balanced portrayal of his
overall argument from the present collection. Some of the steps in it
are argued here in great detail, others minimally or not at all. By
consulting some of his other works, I have reconstructed his overall
argument in terms of the following seven steps:
A. Belief in God is not necessary for morality, and is in fact morally
B. Belief in God, along with the usually associated life after death,
is unnecessary for a meaningful life.
C. Nontheistic accounts of the world are adequate.
D. Natural theology, with its argument for the existence of God, has
not succeeded and cannot.
E. Nonanthropomorphic concepts of God are incoherent.
F. Anthropomorphic concepts of God may be coherent, but they are
superstitious and plainly false.
G. Concepts of God that are neither incoherent nor anthropomorphic are
In the present book
one will find significant support for only a small portion of this
argument. Nielsen has argued elsewhere at length for theses A and
especially B. To my knowledge, C is not, beyond bare assertion, argued
anywhere—and yet it needs support if Nielsen is to make good his claim
that he is arguing for atheism, not simply against theism
(because he needs to show not only that theism is problematic, but that
it is more so than atheism). With regard to D, the contention that
natural theology has not succeeded is supported simply with a nod
to Hume and Kant; the contention that it cannot succeed is based
on an argument that the (nonanthropomorphic) concept of God is
incoherent, which is thesis E. The bulk of this work, like that of
Nielsen’s writings in general, focuses on E, which is employed not only
against natural theology but also against “Wittgensteinian theism,” to
which more than a third of this book is devoted. Nielsen’s point is
that if we cannot give an intelligible account of what we mean by
“God,” it makes no sense to accept the reality of God on
faith—which seems to me irrefutable. A new and valuable feature of the
present work is a refutation of the “parity argument” (3-9).
feature of Nielsen’s argument is the fact that, for it to provide an
effective case against theism, the concepts of God referred to in theses
E, F, and G would have to be exhaustive. But they are not.
“Nonanthropomorphic” concepts refer to traditional theism while
“essentially atheistic” concepts are illustrated by doctrines that
equate God with love or moral ideals.
For the categories to
be exhaustive, that of “anthropomorphic concepts” would have to refer to
everything in between, but in fact it refers only to the crudest
ideas—”Zeus-like concepts of God” (2), ideas that speak of God “as if he
were some kind of great green bird” (224), or “some sort of cosmic
Mickey Mouse” (other writings). Accordingly, the ideas of most
nontraditional theists, such as Pfleiderer, James, Tennant, Whitehead,
and Hartshorne (who all agree that traditional theism is incoherent),
are not encompassed. Nielsen’s argument against theism is, accordingly,
as incomplete as his argument for atheism.