Monday, September 28, 2009

Atheism and Hetero-theism

In Plato’s Apology, one of the charges against Socrates is that he preaches about different gods than those of the city, and in this respect doesn’t believe in God and is impious. During his defense, he points out that if he believes and teaches certain divinities, but not those of the city, than he can’t be said to be an atheist.

This episode was interesting to me, in part, because I encountered the same confusion when Spinoza is called an atheist during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. For it seemed so strange to me that one could be an atheist and yet at the same time so clearly and unequivocally speak repeatedly of God, even if it were “sive Natura”. Still, today, when philosophers write about Spinoza’s pantheism, this is immediately identified with a certain atheism. My own position on Spinoza’s pantheism and atheism I will here defer until another time.

But there is a certain necessary slippage in speaking of what I might call “hetero-theism” and its indistinction from “atheism.” The reason is this. If we are theists, then we must deny the existence of gods other than our own. Thus, all those whose gods are unlike ours are necessarily pagans, atheists. Whereas, were we to admit the existence of other gods, then we would be admitting doubt about the singular nature of our god. Thus, the hetero-theist shall always be an atheist.


DOCTOR J said...

I don't think your final claim is necessarily true. Even if you just look at the *main* three theisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), you can easily see that even though each recognizes the others' "god" as heterdox, they can still recognize the believers in that other god as theists. You don't hear Christians calling Jews or Muslims "atheists"... or vice versa... you just hear them decrying the others' heterodoxy.

I do like this post, though, and I agree with your intuiion that the "atheist" charge against Socrates is similar to the one we often hear leveled at Spinoza.

Chet said...

And you're a Derridean, despite the fact that you appeal to an empirical state of affairs? Pshaw!

You see, Dr., I'm working on a transcendental level, with the concept of theism and its relation to atheism and hetero-theism. I'm not concerned with hoi polloi and the way that they use language.

Muslims do call Jews and Christians "pagans" or worse "infidels". And despite the fact that there are many Christians who tolerate the religions of others, that is an effect of their culture, not the demands of their concepts.

Chet said...

I.e. the Muslims are more conceptually rigorous.

DOCTOR J said...

But, by your own logic, if heterotheism must always be atheism, then the very term "heterotheism" is vacated of all meaning, n'est-ce pas?

Chet said...

Exactly. QED.

Chet said...

Hic a cliff, hic saltus.