Hyman’s analysis of atheism and some interesting Indian parallels

Gavin Hyman explains in his 2007 contribution to Martin’s Cambdride Companion to Atheism as well as in his 2010 A Short History of Atheism that atheism is always the refusal of a given form of theism. In particular, in European history, atheism is the refusal of theism as conceived in modern times, with God as one “thing” among others. This claim might raise the eyebrows of readers of Julian Baggini, who in his 2003 Atheism. A very short introduction maintained that atheism is independent of theism, since it is tantamount to naturalism. The two claims are, however, less far than it might look like.

Modern atheism as naturalism refutes God because it considers him as a natural cause and shows (or believes to show) that there is no need to accept his existence, since the other natural causes are more than enough to explain the world.

By contrast, Hyman explains that the transcendental God of negative theology or of analogical theology* could not be attacked by atheism-as-naturalism. In short, Richard Swinburne’s God can be attacked by atheism-as-naturalism, whereas this would have much less to say against the God of Meister Eckhart (the example is mine).

The other important move of Hyman is that he discusses the origins of the concept of God which could be attacked by atheism. The shift from analogical theology to God as a thing among many is not the result of the external pressure of secularism. Rather, it is due to a development internal to theology. Hyman especially discusses in this connection the role of Duns Scotus and his attribution of “being” to God in the same sense in which it is attributed to the world.

Now, for scholars of Indian philosophy the parallels with the Indian scenario are hard to avoid. First of all, atheism in India is mostly targeted at two concepts of god, on the one hand the gods (devatā) of mythology and on the other the Lord (īśvara) of rational theology. The first kind of refusal is historically the most ancient one, but it is the second one that comes conceptually closer to European atheism. This second atheism would not be conceivable without the prior elaboration of rational theology, mostly within the Nyāya school, thus indirectly confirming Hyman’s hypothesis.
Later, Indian theology of the second millennium sees the arisal of a post-atheism theism. Authors like Veṅkaṭanātha (13–14th c.) developed a form of theism after the attacks of atheism. They did it by means of two kinds of arguments. On the one hand, they embedded the Lord of rational theology, but “blew him up” in the direction of pantheism, in a way which might remind one of Thomas More’s approach as described by Hyman. On the other, they incorporated the mysticism of the Āḻvārs and moved in the direction of a personal relation to God, thus moving away from an understanding of God as a “thing” towards a God as “Thou”.

*I am using the abbreviated formulation “analogical theology” to refer to the Aquinas’ insistence that all theological understanding is necessarily only analogical.

(cross-posted, with minor variations, on my personal blog, here).

For my summary on the various concepts of God in India, see this post and, for more details, my contribution in Bertini, Migliorini (eds.), Relations, 2018.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

2 Replies to “Hyman’s analysis of atheism and some interesting Indian parallels”

  1. Interesting comparison, and thank you for it. I’m not entirely clear, however, on a couple of things. (Perhaps access to Hyman’s article, or the larger text within which it appears, would help, but it is not immediately available to me.)

    First, is it being assumed here that belief and disbelief are both necessarily propositional? Second, is it being assumed that atheism means the positive denial of the existence of any deity? Without both of these assumptions, it seems to me that a person who has never encountered the concept of a deity would be an atheist, in the sense of dispositionally lacking a belief in any deity.

    When seen this way, atheism appears to be the default position, epistemologically speaking. Of course, in order to respond to any particular formulation of theism, one would likely have to use the terms proposed by the theists in question, but this would not necessarily make the atheistic position derivative of the theistic one.

    Perhaps theism is being given what I would consider undue priority. Nobody seems to think that we must call someone who lacks a belief in leprechauns an “a-leprechaun-ist.” Lacking that kind of belief is simply considered the default position. The only reason I can see why this epistemological order would somehow change for theism is that it is a (set of) position(s) taken seriously by so many people. But that strikes me as a poor reason for treating it as the default, and in fact smacks of an argument ad populum fallacy.

    Thanks for any help you can give.

  2. Thanks Neil, this is a very interesting comment. In fact, your example is almost identical with Julian Baggini’s one, who in his 2003 book suggests that atheism is independent of theism and mentions the example of the belief in the Nessy monster of Loch Ness. Even if at a certain point in time most people in the world should start believing in Nessy, it would not make sense to speak of the non-believers in Nessy as a-Nessyists.

    As for whether atheism means the positive denial of the existence of any deity or not, Michael Martin (2007) distinguishes in this sense between positive and negative atheism. The one you and Baggini refer to is negative atheism (the “default” absence of belief in a god), whereas Hyman discusses the specific historical case of positive atheism and its arising in dependence on a certain form of theism.

    Hope this helps!

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