Taking A Step Beyond Atheism by Matthew Turner

Matthew P. Turner wrote to Atheism UK in March 2017 asking

“Is there a name for the position that no meaningful debate can be conducted regarding ‘god’ because we lack a satisfactory definition of what ‘god’ even is?”

I replied suggesting ‘ignosticism‘.

M.P. Turner said:

“Dear Chris,

Many thanks for educating me today with regards to Ignosticism, which I think is a very strong, logical position. I have one concern, which I hope you may be able to assist me with: By taking religion and the concept of god/gods seriously enough to even try and refute them, does atheism not badly compromise itself? These concepts are so silly, vacuous and incoherent, they cannot possibly merit serious attention, discussion or argument. Please tell me if I am missing something”

and

“You have helped me ENORMOUSLY by helping me to clarify my position. I cannot thank you enough… honestly!!! Logically-speaking, ignosticism invalidates atheism. If ‘god’ has no objective meaning, then atheism has nothing to refute. What can it do: deny the existence of something which has no meaning? That sounds absurd and pointless to me!”

and

“Do you think it is valid to argue that atheism is a paradox, denying the existence of something which has no existence?”

and

A syllogism:

1. Atheism argues there is no god.
2. God is nothing.
3. Therefore, atheism argues there is no nothing.

This double negative causes atheism to argue there is ‘something’. What I am getting at is: atheism, by associating itself with the meaningless concept of ‘god’, inadvertently perpetuates it.

A wiser strategy to adopt would be to steer clear of the word and concept of ‘god’ altogether, which is what ignosticism does and this is why I believe ignosticism is a stronger, logical position to adopt than atheism.

I brought M.P. Turner’s essay to the attention of the Atheism UK Council. Council member Norman Bacrac has responded to his essay.

Matthew P. Turners essay:

Matthew P. Turner – Taking A Step Beyond Atheism

Inspired by a James Randi quote: ‘No amount of belief makes something a fact’, I devised my Randi Equation (above): infinite belief does not equal one fact.

For some time now, especially since the 2006 publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, New Atheism has become a well-established, favoured position amongst many skeptics and freethinkers. But is it time for nonbelievers to go ‘beyond atheism’? And is such a theological position even possible?

Allow me to pose what may seem, at first, an unrelated question: What do you think is the emptiest, most meaningless word in the English language? As I shall demonstrate, this question directly impinges on atheism and what I regard as its fundamental weakness. In my opinion, ‘god’ is the emptiest, most meaningless word in the English language. It is the term/concept, above all others, which we are least likely ever to obtain a satisfactory description of. Despite exciting and ongoing advances and discoveries in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, issues relating to the ultimate origin of the universe/multiverse may well prove to be always beyond our reach or comprehension. Thus, I think it is highly unlikely that the linguistic lacuna of ‘god’ will ever be meaningfully filled.

In my opinion, ‘god’ is the emptiest, most meaningless word in the English language. It is the term/concept, above all others, which we are least likely ever to obtain a satisfactory description of. Despite exciting and ongoing advances and discoveries in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, issues relating to the ultimate origin of the universe/multiverse may well prove to be always beyond our reach or comprehension. Thus, I think it is highly unlikely that the linguistic lacuna of ‘god’ will ever be meaningfully filled.

Hence, there is an argument that atheism commits a logical error. Atheism formally denies the existence of ‘god(s)’ but, in doing so, is it making an unwarranted and unjustifiable leap in the dark? Is it intellectually honest to formally deny what one cannot accurately define? But this is atheism’s position: treating ‘god’ as a term and concept officially deserving of an official refutation.

To put my argument into formal terms, with very helpful assistance from two professors of philosophical logic, I devised what I term an ignostic syllogism:
1. Whenever a conclusion, X, is drawn from premises containing an insufficiently defined term, Y, one commits the logical fallacy of insufficient definition.
2. Atheism draws the conclusion: ‘god does not exist’ from premises containing the insufficiently defined term ‘god’.
3. Therefore, atheism commits the fallacy of insufficient definition.

It may be worth noting that the fallacy of insufficient definition is very similar to the fallacy of ambiguity.

I am sure atheists would opine that there is a formal definition of ‘god’ which they are perfectly within their rights to formally deny. “Just look it up in the dictionary!” I hear them say. But if we do that, what do we find? OED’s first definition reads as follows: ‘(in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being.’

To some people, including myself, such definitions are so entirely bereft of actual meaning that they do not merit a formal refutation. The name for this intellectual stance and theological position is ‘ignosticism’. A rabbi called Sherwin Wine coined the term in the 1960s. Etymologically, the word derives from the Latin adjective ‘ignotus’ meaning ‘unknown’. I regard myself as an ignostic because, to me, the most outstanding feature of ‘god’ is precisely this: ‘unknown’ and most likely to remain so. To me, ‘god’ is so unknown that, if ‘god’ didn’t exist, we would be none the wiser. And vice versa!

Ignosticism’s argument, that ‘god’ is insufficiently defined, leads to the interesting conclusion that we are in no position to either affirm or deny ‘god’ because there is nothing tangible enough for us to form a significantly meaningful premise around. Therefore, an ignostic would criticise atheism for its rash, argumentative haste, getting ahead of itself by formally denying what it hasn’t, and is never likely to, adequately define.

The argument that ‘god’ is sufficiently defined is extremely difficult to justify in light of the fact that ‘god’ has innumerable, conflicting and mutually contradictory definitions, which would not be the case if the term/concept did possess, or ever had possessed a sufficient definition. In my own lifetime, I’ve had the misfortune to hear and read ‘god’ variously described as, among other things: Energy, Nature, Love, Peace, War, Truth, Suffering and Elvis Presley! I could go on but, for decency’s sake, I won’t! And these descriptions do not even include the ludicrous raft of official, ‘religious’ ones.

All religions are impaled on a similar spike, hoist by their own petard of linguistic dishonesty. For, if theirs was truly the ‘infallible word of God’ then no other religion could exist! No other interpretation would be possible because everyone would be signed up to the one, sacrosanct, literally undeniable truth. But other religions do exist! Thus, the existence of alternate religions disproves the truth of all religions.

Even if atheists concede the point that ‘god’ is insufficiently defined, I am sure they would maintain the importance of their argument against irrational ‘belief in god’, especially when religions are institutionalised and used to manipulate the vulnerable. I totally agree that irrational belief systems need challenging; however, ‘belief in god’ is not ‘god’. ‘Belief in god’ is a subjective experience in the mind of the believer. By the same token, religions are not ‘gods’; rather, they are intersubjective phenomena: subjective interpretations of ‘god’ shared between ‘believers’.

This finally brings me to the irony of ironies: it is my opinion that atheism has inadvertently given more credibility and longevity to the term/concept ‘god’ because of its unwarranted, formal refutation. If atheism honestly examined its premise, it would realise there is nothing linguistically or conceptually concrete enough to even refute the existence of!

So, finally, what can we say is ‘god’? It is the linguistic equivalent of a complex number: the square root of minus one. It is an unsolvable puzzle, a malign riddle. Or even more simply, ‘god’ is the emptiest word in the English language.

When we say the word ‘god’, we are speaking a void; and nature abhors a vacuum.

To repeat, I brought M.P. Turner’s essay to the attention of the Atheism UK Council. Council member Norman Bacrac has responded to his essay.

One Reply to “Taking A Step Beyond Atheism by Matthew Turner”

  1. Mr Turner defines god as ‘nothing’ and then criticises atheists for wasting their time opposing it, but that isn’t the situation.

    I don’t call myself atheist. That is what religionists call me. I simply accept the label in so far as it might apply to me in their theology.

    I am concerned at how the imaginary friends of other people may affect their thoughts and deeds (and therefore affect me). I have no need to care if there’s a god or not, however ‘god’ is defined. Nor do I care if others label me ‘atheist’, ‘agnostic’ or ‘no label’. There is still no god so far defined that shows any sign of actually existing or interacting with reality. Matthew Turner would be better advised to define a god which he thinks exist and try to prove it. Otherwise it is just more religious blather.

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