Progressive Atheism

How Moral Evolution Changes the God Debate

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J. L. Schellenberg
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , August
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John Schellenberg’s book Progressive Atheism reasons from human moral progress to the nonexistence of the personal omni-God of traditional theism. His main argument goes something like this: Humans have made moral progress. Our moral progress means we understand the concept of personal goodness much better than our ancestors did. Since the traditional theistic God is a person, we understand God’s goodness much better than our ancestors did. Now that we understand God’s goodness much better, we see that God’s existence is even less compatible with the imperfect reality of our universe. Therefore, it’s even less likely that God exists. Schellenberg makes this reasoning more precise in the core of the book. He offers a stronger version of the hiddenness argument against God (chapter 6). He offers two new versions of the argument from evil. These are an argument from horrors (chapter 7), and an argument from violence (chapter 8).

Schellenberg’s reasoning is very clear, and his writing is beautiful. The book is written in an accessible way; I believe it would make an excellent textbook in many undergraduate philosophy of religion courses. The main argumentation of the book is successful, but this very success seems to imply an excellent argument for process theology. A process theist might argue that our entire universe has been making great moral progress. The best explanation for this progress is the existence of a moral ideal towards which our universe is evolving. The universe embodies a God-in-process, which is growing towards its own telos (end). Schellenberg mentions but dismisses process theology early in the book (10–11). But versions of process theology return at the end in the forms of emergent theism (161) and Peter Forrest’s developmental theism (167).

On the basis of this better understanding of goodness, Schellenberg says we ought to become atheists. But this is not the hostile “New Atheism.” The New Atheism was a movement in the early 21st century, which did not merely assert that religions are false, but aggressively denounced religious believers as foolish and immoral. Thus Schellenberg prefers a nicer kind of atheism. One of the interesting themes of the book is the way Schellenberg engages with the axiology of theism. He discusses Thomas Nagel as an example of an anti-God atheist. He quotes Nagel’s famous statement “I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that” (23). However, thinking that God is a very good thing, Schellenberg says we should be pro-God atheists. Schellenberg’s take on the value of theism slips out in a crucial remark: “Perhaps in other possible worlds God exists, and we must envy any creaturely denizens of those worlds” (145). God is tragically absent from our actual world. Schellenberg misses God.

Schellenberg urges us to imagine new theologies. Yet his own imagination seems very tightly bound to monotheism. If we let moral progress inspire our theologies, why not a series of ever-better universes, each governed by ever-better Gods? The logic of Progressive Atheism seems to point to something like the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression. Yet Schellenberg does not mention Mormonism. Schellenberg derives many of the faults of the traditional theistic God from that God’s masculinity (89–91). This masculinity includes solitude. So why not (like the Mormons) give God a wife? Or why not posit, with the Wiccans, the existence of a divine God-Goddess couple?

Despite his frequent and welcome insistence that we need to move beyond the old theisms, Schellenberg seems uninterested in the new forms of religious and spiritual life that are actually emerging in the West. Many philosophers of religion have recently turned to the careful study of religious practices. Even atheists are getting in on the spiritual action. They are turning to Stoicism and secular Buddhism. They are going to transformational festivals like Burning Man. Perhaps even more surprisingly, they have embraced a variety of New Age practices in new ways. They are getting into astrology, tarot cards and oracle cards, crystals, psychedelics, shamanism, animism, and so on.

Nevertheless, as recent surveys on religion in America show, what people are not getting into is transcendence. The theme of transcendence, including Schellenberg’s own concept of the triply-transcendent Ultimate, runs throughout the book. This causes a tension with his pro-God atheism—which  includes transcendence at least as a regulative ideal. Organizations like Pew, Barna, PRRI, and Gallup measure the religious behaviors of Americans. If their surveys are correct, then it looks like transcendence is disappearing. It seems odd, then, to stress the future of religion but to cling to this declining religious feature of the past. If Schellenberg were able to just let go of transcendence, it would be very interesting to hear what he had to say.

Schellenberg is rightly celebrated for encouraging philosophers and theologians to take seriously the idea of the deep future. He very successfully argues that our current religions reflect our immaturity. Schellenberg’s book does an excellent job of portraying the position of many people in the Americas at the present time. His work is poised on the edge of a great spiritual transition. At the end of his book Schellenberg acknowledges that we can “manage without transcendence” (172). He recognizes that his own ultimism is a place “where the air is thin and the climb steep” (172). It seems like fewer and fewer people are interested in making that climb. Still, even for them, Progressive Atheism raises the question: what comes next?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Steinhart is professor of philosophy at William Paterson University.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. L. Schellenberg is professor of philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University, Canada.



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