Herman Philipse – Atheïstisch manifest en De onredelijkheid van religie. Voorwoord: Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker (2004)

The main importance of this book lies in Herman Philipse’s introduction of a few helpful new philosophical concepts, as well as in what could be described as his logico-linguistic analysis of the choice, or rather: the dilemma between atheism and religion. Or, as you like, his meta-plea-for-atheism. ‘Meta’ because Philipse tries to exhaust all the possible defenses of religion by arguing that all those defenses either fall within the bounds of reason, or outside of those bounds. And that each of those positions is impossible to hold.

I will summarize the two chapters dealing with the difficulties of reconciling science and religion, i.e. chapter II – The emperors clothes and chapter VI – Science and religion.

Chapter II: The Emperors clothes

In The emperors clothes (pp. 51-75) Philipse introduces the theists’ Thesis of the Extra-Rationality of Religion (hereafter: TERR) (p. 51), which states that the question concerning the existence of god is a question which cannot be answered with the help of reason. Thus, the question concerning the existence of god is irrational nor anti-rational but lies beyond the province of reason. If this is the case, god has to be descibed in such a way as to make ‘him’ irrefutable by either empirical evidence or logical considerations. Philipse call this the Postulate of Empirical Irrefutability (PEI). Obviously, the anthropomorphic god of the Bible doesn’t fall within those boundaries, as he regularly interacts with the natural world, for example, by destroying cities and talking to his followers. This god is obviously within the bounds of reason: empirical evidence about him can be weighed, and logical conclusions considering his actions can be made (Victor J. Stenger’s God: the failed hypothesis (2007))does exactly that. He takes on the challenge of hypothesizing and empirical testing).

Semantical atheism

Philipse then proposes that the PEI can only be met by robbing god of all his properties. This leads to a position which Philipse calls semantical atheism: because the concept of god has been robbed of its content, and thus of any meaning, it can never give us any existential meaning.

To summarize: the TERR implies the PEI. God has to be descibed in such a way as to make him invulnerable to logic or evidence. But because any attempt at a definition gives god properties which can be analysed in one of the ways described, it is impossible to define god in such a way as to make meet the PEI. If the PEI can’t be met, god clearly falls within the bounds of reason, thus making him vulnerable to arguments. So the only way to save god from any attack whatsoever is by redefining him so that only an empty description remains. Which is no description at all. And the belief in such a god (i.e. the belief in nothing) is equivalent to the position of semantical atheism.

Philipse’s four strategies

At the end of this chapter, Philipse proposes four strategies which the believer can use (p. 73-74):

(1) The believer can ignore the whole discussion, thereby isolating himself from any reasonable / valuable discussion
(2) The believer can embrace the TERR. But this implies the PEI, which means ‘theological suicide’
(3) The believer can redefine theology as an alternative hypothesis concerning the explanation of belief. But this can already be explained by atheistic, traditional naturalistic explanations, which are preferable on logical, epistemological and empirical grounds
(4) The believer can deny that his faith has any cognitive or dogmatic content, the Bible is just a collection of symbolic stories etc. But this means that the believer is, de facto, no longer a believer.

Chapter VI: Science and religion

Philipse distinguishes three approaches to the relation between science and religion.

(I) The thesis of continuity: there is a continuity from science to religion. The belief in a god can be rationally defended.
(II) The division of inventory: religion and science belong to different domains. The first gives one’s life meaning, while the second tries to analyse life and nature in a scientific way.
(III) The strategy of conflict: science leaves no room for the belief in a god. The development of a naturalistic description of the world obliterates the need for ‘that hypothesis.’

Philipse argues that the first two approaches are vulnerable to critique. The thesis of continuity is wrong because the god-hypothesis either makes no empirical predictions, and insofar as it has made empirical predictions, they’ve all turned out wrong, or can be replaced by naturalistic mechanisms / theories (for a longer defence of this last position see Stenger (2007)).

The division of inventory leads to either obscurantism, or has led to rationalistic theories which have been outdated since new scientific theories arrived. Philipse thinks the strategy of conflict to be the most viable. His thesis is that the belief in a god or gods is irreconcilable with science, and he defines faith as “the doctrinary aspects of religion.”

Particular atheism

He makes the clarifying observation that all consistent believers are also atheists regarding the gods of other, mutually incompatible religions. The claim that there is only one god, being (e.g.) JWH, is incompatible with the islamist’s claim that there is only one true god and his name is Allah. So this means that the Mohammedan thinks the Jewish god to be nonsense, and vice versa.

This is also nicely formulated by Stephen F. Roberts:

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours. [1]

Philipse calls this position particular atheism, (powered by an unreasonable religious favouritism) as opposed to universal atheism (i.e. not believing in any god).

TERR or not-TERR

Next, Philipse diagnoses the believers evasive strategy of continually redefining their beliefs so that reason can’t touch them. So the believer either evades reason by redefining his faith as being untouchable by reason (i.e. the aformentioned TERR), or he maintains that reasons can touch upon beliefs. Philipse turns this into a two-horned dilemma: TERR or not-TERR. Which he uses as follows:

(1) Every religious proposition either falls (a) within the bounds of reason or (b) outside the bounds of reason.
(2) If (a) is the case, the position of semantical atheism follows.
(3) If (b) is the case, the atheist can maintain the ‘classical’ atheistic reasoning.
(4) So, every religious proposition can be dealt with by either (a) a denial of it being a proposition at all, or (b) by the usual method of logical/scientific attacks. Philipse calls this conclusion disjunctive atheism.

This dilemma, so Philipse claims, exhausts all possible religious positions (iff one attests to the ‘law of the excluded middle’, but one would have to go very far to coherently deny that much-needed law).

For a more thorough analysis, I have to refer the Dutch readers to Philipse’s (2004) book, and the English readers to his (2001) paper “The irrationality of religion. A plea for atheism” [PDF].

A note on the translation

The chapters I’m summarizing were originally written in Dutch. I’ve used Philipse’s (2001) short paper “The irrationality of religion. A short plea for atheism” as my primary source for the appropriate English terminology.

[1] Unfortunately I couldn’t find the original book/interview where this was stated. Neither could Wikipedia. I still found it too nice a quotation not to mention. Source.

  • Philipse, H. (2001) “The irrationality of religion. A plea for atheism” (Invited lecture), in: Rationality and Irrationality. Proceedings of the 23rd International Wittgenstein Symposium, Kirchberg am Wechsel, pp. 267-272.
  • Philipse, H. (2005) Atheistisch manifest en De onredelijkheid van religie (Met een voorwoord door Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Amsterdam: Bert Bakker.
  • Stenger, Victor. J. (2007) God: The failed hypothesis. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books.