Answering Bill Maher’s Question: ‘Why don’t we have an Atheist’s Day’?

In late March, Bill Maher remarked that we have all kinds of days for religious believers and asked why we don’t have an Atheist’s Day.  Maher suggests that religious believers could use that day to ask “Why (do I believe)?” because the belief in God is “belief in ghosts.” 

As usual, Maher’s questions are not serious but are part of his act.  But theologians and philosophers have come up with powerful reasons to believe in God.  One is St. Anselm’s “ontological argument” that purports to deduce God’s existence from the mere concept of God (roughly, the argument that the possibility of God implies the actual existence of God). 

Thomas Aquinas (13th-century Catholic philosopher/theologian), holds that there are “five ways” to prove the existence of God:  1.) the argument from motion, 2.) the argument from causation (the “first cause argument”), 3.) the argument from contingency, 4.) the argument from supreme perfection, and 5.) the argument from “final causes” (also called the “teleological argument” or the “argument from design).”  As objections are raised against one these arguments philosophers have continually come up with a new formulation that escapes that objection, resulting in a plethora of formulations of all of these arguments.

Whether the Ontological Argument and Aquinas’ “five ways” work or not is extremely difficult to say.  However, many of the great philosophers believe that one or more of them does work.  Norman Malcolm (1911-1990), one of Cornell University’s most famous professors in its entire history,, believes that a modal version of the ontological argument (based on the logic of necessity and possibility) works.  Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), who still hold the record for earning all three degrees, B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in four years at Harvard, also argued that a version of the ontological argument is sound.  Alexander Pruss (1973-present), who holds PhDs in both mathematics and philosophy, asserts that a new version of the cosmological argument works. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for his part, appears to believe in God on non-rational Kierkegaardian “existential” grounds.  Wittgenstein also states that “Life can educate one to believe in God” or “force” this concept on one (in order to make sense of the universe).

The reason it is so difficult to feel certain that one has even grasped these arguments is that all of them take one to the very limits of human understanding.  Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in his Critique of Pure Reason, divides arguments for God’s existence into three types, the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the argument from design, which he calls “the physio-theological” argument.  Kant argues that since human knowledge is always conditioned by the human condition, and since the questions about God’s existence concern purported knowledge of “the unconditioned,” none of the arguments for God’s existence work.  One must, he says, “deny knowledge [of God] to make room for faith.” The common view is that since Kant denies knowledge of “the unconditioned,” and since knowledge of God would be knowledge of the unconditioned, he denies that any possible proof of God’s existence can succeed. 

In fact, what Kant actually says about the argument from design is that since it is “most commensurate with common human reason” and because “any attempt to detract from [its] authority … would be hopeless” he [Kant] has “no objection … against the rationality … of this procedure and must … recommend and encourage it.”  In brief, although he holds that the “argument from design” may not rise to the level of an absolutely certain proof, it would be irrational not to believe it and it acts as a rational support to faith! 

The point of this brief survey of some of the high points in the history of rational theology is that the question of God’s existence is a serious business, not a matter for eternal undergraduates who pretend to know things they are not equipped to know.  The greatest minds in human history have taken different stances on this question but a fair number of them have concluded that some of these proofs do work.

Since Maher has no expertise in philosophy or theology, he commits the “straw man” fallacy, i.e., he distorts the religious believer’s views into something silly and then attacks the silly view.  Maher lectures us only to believe in what is “visible.” Does that mean one should not believe in numbers, classes, abstract universals (like humanity), theoretical entities like electrons, and subjective thoughts and feelings? 

Maher also finds it telling that some religious people believe in ghosts (presumably, the Holy Ghost).  In fact, the etymology of the word “ghost,” “in the Biblical use,” tracing to from Proto-West Germanic “gaistaz,” means "soul, spirit, life.” This has nothing to do with the meaning of word “ghost” in the ordinary sense of the manifested spirit of a dead person.  This is why Hegel’s 1807 Phänomenologie des Geistes is translated into English as Phenomenology of Spirit, not as Phenomenology of Ghosts.

It is because “ghost“ in the Biblical sense means life or spirit that Aquinas states that “God is life itself”  (Summa Theologica, Que. 3, Art 3). Thus, Maher’s argument against belief in God based on the meaning of the word “ghost” is a fallacy of semantic equivocation (i.e., he substitutes the vulgar meaning of the word “ghost” for the actual Biblical meaning). Maher also thereby commits a fallacy of ad hominem abuse (roughly, name-calling) in his effort to demean people who believe differently from himself.

It is now possible to answer Maher’s two questions, 1.) Why do believers not stop and ask why they believe, and 2.) Why there is no Atheists Day to glorify non-believers like himself.  The answer to his first question is that that for several thousand years, people have asked precisely that question and provide quite sophisticated answers to it, although Bill displays no knowledge of them whatsoever.  

The answer to the second question, why there is no Atheists Day, is that we generally commemorate special days for people who believe in something, e.g., Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Jews, Christians, etc., not for people who don’t believe in anything (or in very much). We do not normally have a Sophists Day for people, who don’t believe in truth or reason or a Nihilists Day for people who believe in nothing.  This is partly because not believing in something is easy.  One doesn’t have to defend anything.  One doesn’t even have to think or research at all.  One can sit on the sidelines and make money by making childish quips about people who do believe in something. 

Image: E.J. Pace

If you experience technical problems, please write to