The Atheist named Richard Swinburne

I was reading the Martyrdom of Polycarp recently, which is “the oldest written account of a Christian martyrdom outside the New Testament.” (The Apostolic Fathers, updated edition, edited and revised by Michael Holmes, p.222; hereafter: TAF). Polycarp was killed between 155 and 160 C.E:

The Martyrdom of Polycarp sets out quite clearly both the issue at stake–Lord Christ versus Lord Caesar—and the state’s (as well as the general population’s) view of Christians as disloyal atheists who threatened the well-being of the empire. (TAF, p.222)

Long ago, long before Joseph McCarthy became a senator, long before the John Birch society existed, long before the Boy Scouts were formed, long before the words “one nation under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance, Christians were looked upon as ‘disloyal atheists’.

Polycarp was an elderly bishop of the church of Smyrna, a major seaport in the Roman province of Asia (located on the west coast of Turkey).  He went into hiding, was hunted down, arrested, tried, and was then executed.  His confrontation with the Roman authorities makes reference to the idea that Christians were considered to be atheists:

But as Polycarp entered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.”  An no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice.  And then, as he was brought forward, there was a great tumult when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp.  And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, “Have respect for your age,” and other such things as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the Genius of Caesar; repent; say, ‘Away with the atheists!’”   So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!”

(TAF, p.233 & 235)

Ever since Polycarp, Christians have been trying to throw the word ‘atheist’ at us “lawless heathen” as an insult, deflecting the application of the word away from themselves.

Now, of course Christians do believe in a god, specifically, they believe in ‘God’, the God of western theism.  The philosopher Richard Swinburne is a Christian, and a fairly traditional one at that, so he too believes in God.  Nevertheless, Christians are atheists, in that they deny the existence of many gods.  Swinburne not only denies the existence of Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Ares, etc., but he also denies the existence of God as conceived of by Thomas Aquinas and other great Christian philosophers.

In The Coherence of Theism, Swinburne attempts to show that the sentence “God exists” makes a logically coherent statement.  In his effort to do this, he sets aside various beliefs about God, and conceptions of God, that he quite rightly rejects as being logically incoherent.

For example, Swinburne rejects that idea of a God who is omnipotent in the sense that ‘God can do anything’.  God cannot make a married bachelor nor can God make a four-sided triangle, according to Swinburne.  So, belief in an ‘omnipotent’ God, where the believer understands this to mean that God can literally do anything, is an incoherent belief which ought to be rejected in Swinburne’s view.  Thus, Swinburne is an atheist, in that he rejects the existence of God, conceived of in terms of that very strong sense of ‘omnipotence’.

Swinburne also rejects the existence of God, where God is conceived of as being omnipotent in the sense that ‘God can do anything that it is logically possible for a person to do’.  It is logically possible for me to divorce my wife, but it is NOT logically possible for God to divorce my wife, at least not until AFTER he marries her (and it is also not clear that that would be possible).  So, no such God exists, according to Swinburne, for the idea of such a being is logically incoherent.  There are things that it is logically possible for some persons to do, that it is not logically possible for God to do (COT, p.154).

More importantly, Swinburne rejects the existence of God, where God is conceived of as being omniscient in the sense that ‘God knows everything that has ever happened and that ever will happen’.  Many people, including many Christian believers, believe in such a God.  But Swinburne asserts that these many devout Christian believers are mistaken, and that there is no such being.

God is a perfectly free person, according to Swinburne, and a perfectly free person cannot know with certainty what actions he/she will choose to do in the future (COT, p. 177).   Perfect knowledge of the future is logically incompatible with perfect freedom; therefore, it is logically impossible for God to both be perfectly free and for God to also have perfect knowledge of the future.

God must either be perfectly free and have imperfect knowledge of the future, or else God has perfect knowledge of the future and does NOT have perfect freedom.  Thus, Christians who believe in a God who is both perfectly free and who has perfect knowledge of the future believe in a God who not only does not exist, but they believe in a God who cannot possibly exist, because they believe in the existence of a being with attributes that are logically contradictory.

Swinburne also denies the existence of God conceived of as a person who exists outside of time, contrary to the view of many Christian theologians:

Most of the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas taught that God is timeless. (The Coherence of Theism, revised edition, p.223)

Not only is this conception of God impossible to reconcile with the common Christian belief that God interacts with human beings, responding to prayers and requests for forgiveness, but the idea of a person who exists outside of time is logically incoherent (COT, p.228-229).  This idea requires that God observe my actions today simultaneously with observing my actions tomorrow, but that means that today is simultaneous with tomorrow, which is incoherent (COT, p.228). There can be no such being.  Yet many Christians, including many great Christian philosophers and theologians have believed in such a God.

Swinburne believes that God is a source of moral obligations for human beings, but he denies that morality is in general grounded in the commands or will of God (COT, p.210, see also p.203-207).  Yet, many Christian believe that God is the ultimate ground and basis for morality.  Swinburne believes that basic moral principles are necessary truths, truths that would hold whether or not God existed.  Basic moral principles are like basic truths of logic and mathematics.  Such necessary truths exist and are true independently of the existence of God.

Thus, the idea of a God who is the ground of morality is logically incoherent in Swinburne’s view.  Many Christian believers hold the belief that such a deity exists, and Swinburne strongly disagrees.  Not only are these many Christians mistaken in believing that such a God exists, but the God they believe in cannot possibly exist, because the very concept of this God is logically incoherent.

Swinburne rejects the belief that God is immutable, in the strong sense that God never changes in any way.  According to Swinburne “Being perfectly free is incompatible with being immutable in the strong sense.” (COT, p.222).  But Aquinas and other Christian thinkers believe in a God who is, by definition, immutable in this strong sense.  Thus Swinburne rejects belief in the existence of God as conceived of by Thomas Aquinas.  Such a being does not exist, and cannot possibly exist, because the concept of an absolutely unchanging person who is perfectly free contains a logical contradiction.

Finally, although Swinburne believes that there is a sense in which God may be considered to be a ‘necessary being’, he rejects the belief that God is a logically necessary being.  In other words, he rejects the view of some Christian thinkers that the existence of God is a necessary truth. Swinburne argues that God’s existence is a logically contingent fact, not a necessary truth.The idea of a God who has logically necessary existence is incoherent.  The existence of such a God is impossible, logically impossible, according to Swinburne.

So, the next time a Christian tries to throw the word ‘atheist’ at you or other “lawless heathen”, as a term of insult, please remind him or her that one of the leading Christian philosophers of our time is also an ‘atheist’ in that he has strongly rejected belief in God, at least in God as conceived of by many Christian believers.

I agree with Richard Swinburne’s atheism.  I agree with him that many Christians believe in the existence of a god who not only does not exist but who cannot possibly exist, because they believe in a God who has logically contradictory attributes.  There is, however,  at least one point on which I part company with Mr. Swinburne.  I believe that his God, the God that he believes in, does not exist, and I believe that his God is also logically incoherent, that his concept of God contains logical contradictions and thus cannot possibly exist.