Helpful Texts

Link zum Mandala von Bruder Klaus
Ludger Honnefelder

Phenomenon "New Atheism"

Statement at the Beginning of the First Panel Discussion


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria
'zur debatte', 5/2008 P. 21 f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


"Atheism" is a word with many meanings; it awakens many questions and is to a great extent connected with existential and emotional aspects. In my brief statement I'll confine myself to the question that is of prime importance in the perspective of philosophy, namely to that about the truth of atheism. Then I'd like to try to clarify what is actually new in the recently articulated atheism. For the sake of brevity I try to explain it with the help of five theses:


1. Atheism is the title for a proposition the truth of which is argued about.

As philosophy sees it, "atheism" is the expression for the assumption that the statement "God does not exist" is true. Now, according to the usual understanding of philosophy a statement that lays claim to truth or validity, the truth of which, however, is not immediately clear through a perception of its own or on the mere strength of the terms contained in the statement, has to be substantiated in order to prove its truth. Since the beginning of philosophy numerous philosophers regard the assumption that a divine being or principle exists at least as well-justifiable.

Especially since the beginning of modern times that assumption is disputed, to be precise, in various forms: One either denied that (1) our intellectual capacity is sufficient to recognize an immaterial divine principle which transcends the world (agnosticism), or that (2) the reasons presented for the assumption of a divine principle have the character of a compelling evidence or that (3) there are good, even compelling reasons to reject the theistic assumption (atheism).

The defenders of theism have rightly retorted that theism can admittedly not be proved in the sense of mathematical resp. scientific evidence but that it can be justified rationally. Reversely, however, the truth of atheism could on no account be proved in the sense of scientific evidence without getting caught up in a contradiction to the criticism of the provability of theism.


2. Christian faith implies a provable theism.

Christian faith holds in its relevant forms the view that the act of faith in God can be justified before reason (see 1 Petr 3, 15). Faith is "reasonable obedience (obsequium rationabile)", i.e. an act for that you can take responsibility before reason. That's why on the part of theology - at the latest since the entry into the culture moulded by Greek philosophy - one has endeavoured to show that the expression "God" used in the language of faith does not refer to a mythical being or is even empty but that it refers to something for the assumption of which also the natural reason can give justifying reasons. The theism contained in faith would therefore completely insufficiently be defined when you regard it as a mere subjective opinion, as an irrational feeling or even as a mere decision.


3. The atheism of today is based on a rigid naturalism which is connected with a rigid understanding of evolution.

The majority of the authors who today represent a firm atheism do so in connection with a rigid or extreme naturalism or scientism. That does not mean that the natural sciences did not have to follow a method which by definition only accepts what can be recognized and treated with the help of scientific methods (methodological naturalism). Meant is with a rigid "naturalism" rather the position that admits as rationally recognizable only what can be grasped by scientific methods (epistemological naturalism) or the position that regards as real only what is the subject of the scientific method (ontological naturalism).


4. The rigid naturalism does not stand up to philosophical criticism, just as little as a fundamentalist theism.

The position of the epistemological or ontological naturalism is without doubt no scientific but an extremely epistemological and metaphysical assumption. It is - like all all-is-statements of that type - contradictory in itself. According to philosophy of science it also contradicts the self-understanding of the natural sciences which is based on methodological self-limitation, and it denies that there is a view on reality beyond the - as such highly conditioned - scientific method, a perspective which is constantly used by us and which is indispensable for the conception of ourselves as rational beings.

For the natural sciences confine themselves to explaining event chains by showing the reasons [kausal erklären], i.e. the underlying natural laws (event causality). They therefore remain in their judgments bound to the horizon of our empirical experience. But beyond that for man also an understanding of causality is constitutive and indispensable that is called 'agent causality', as it appears in the perspective of the subject acting in the first person singular. Only in that area of agent causality the things are constituted which we call intent and purpose, meaning and importance, reasons and aims, that is, that we intent to do something, we feel as actors of our actions and therefore feel responsible for them, that we say about facts they are true, and that we cannot do without interpretations of reality in terms of meaning. That's why philosophy of science distinguishes between the "area of causes" and the "area of reasons" (W. Sellars). Agent causality can without doubt also be regarded from the perspective of the event causality (as it is done in brain research), but it cannot be reduced to the latter. For our orientation knowledge the "area of reasons" is constitutive, which must not contradict the "area of the causes" but can also not be replaced by it. The natural sciences themselves too get their meaning and their importance only in the perspective of agent causality.

To deny that it makes sense to ask after meaning and significance, intention and aim is therefore philosophically as illegitimate as the assertion that God's action became directly apparent in the area of causes or the assumption he worked in the sphere of causes was a better explanation than the evolution theory (creationism, intelligent design). The latter assumption overlooks the difference between a scientifically understood cause and the ontologically assumed origin, between primary and secondary cause, and is therefore an error in terms of category. "The human understanding of values and of the meaningfulness of life lies beyond the reach of natural science" it says in a statement of 66 academies of sciences worldwide.



5. The scientific interpretation of the world leaves questions beyond its formulation of the question unanswered, questions which must, however, be asked by a thoughtful man and which let theism appear as 'best explanation'.

If it is true that the "area of causes" must be distinguished from the "area of reasons", then it is inadmissible to conclude from the fact that the evolution of life can, without the aid of a divine cause, be explained through the causes shown by Darwin and that apart from the necessity of the natural laws observable since the Big Bang also chance plays a role that the whole is owing to chance and that the assumption of a divine origin is positively ruled out (Ultradarwinism; evolutionism). That would no less be an error in terms of category as the creationism outlined above.

Beyond the scientific explanation, however, questions undeniably arise which the thoughtful man must ask and to which theism and the faith in Creation try to give an answer: Why does it anyway come to a beginning in the form of the Big Bang or why is something and not rather nothing? Why is reality to such a high degree rationally explicable? Why do the circumstances and the Darwinian laws of evolution lead to a convergence of the development towards intelligent beings? All those questions refer to the reason of the causes found out by natural sciences. They can neither be answered by natural science nor be eliminated but ask for a sensible answer from man who is looking for sense. For man's conception of himself and of the word depends in important dimensions on that answer.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'