Atheism v. Theism or Naturalism v. Supernaturalism?

Is a better term for atheist, naturalist? And is a better term for theist, supernaturalist? British philosopher Anthony Grayling thinks so, and in a Gaurdian essay from two years ago he suggests that shifting from the atheist-theist to the naturalist-supernaturalist designations has the effect of putting theists on the defensive, for it is no longer theism that is in the default position (with atheism its offshoot, providing reaction or refutation to it). Instead, anyone who claims that something is going on in the world that is more than physics, chemistry, and biology is obligated to actually provide evidence for it:

[P]eople with theistic beliefs should be called supernaturalists, and it can be left to them to attempt to refute the findings of physics, chemistry and the biological sciences in an effort to justify their alternative claim that the universe was created, and is run, by supernatural beings. Supernaturalists are fond of claiming that some irreligious people turn to prayer when in mortal danger, but naturalists can reply that supernaturalists typically repose great faith in science when they find themselves in (say) a hospital or an aeroplane – and with far greater frequency.

I think, as a practical matter, if the purpose of atheism is to win debates with, or score points against, theists, that Grayling offers good advice. But as an existential concern, this kind of semantic jostling seems to me close to pointless. Every person must look at the world whole, and ask herself what worldview, as a whole, makes the most sense. Therefore, it doesn’t actually matter who “goes first.” Both atheist and theistic worldviews require more than rhetoric or positioning from their honest adherents. All worldviews require metaphysical, epistemic, and evidentiary justifications. In matters of truth nobody gets the presumption of innocence, or gets to leave certain of her assumptions unstated and simply “given.” As the Royal Society of London’s famed and hundreds of years old motto has it: Nullis in verba (“Take nobody’s word for it”).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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