These are a Few of My Favorite Atheists: Thomas Nagel

I originally wrote this series, “These Are A Few Of My Favorite Atheists”, for the Mockingbird blog. This week’s featured atheist is NYU philosophy professor Thomas Nagel. Next week I’ll look at 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.


nagelThomas Nagel (1937 – )

Thomas Nagel had me at, “I confess to an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative as a real option. I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed compels—so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling” (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, p. 12). Whether Nagel, a philosophy professor at New York University, truly lacks a sensus divinitatis is a theological question I won’t take up right now (even some non-Calvinist Christians might say no one has any such thing as a sensus divinitatis). I also won’t take up the argument against the claim that a human design intuition-inference is ungrounded (I think it is well-grounded in a properly chastened common-sense realism). What I find refreshing is Nagel’s candid confession that his purchase of a materialist-atheist worldview is a leveraged buy-out in which he brings no equity at all to the deal. I have found the frequent personal claim of many atheists—those in the public eye and ones I have met—that they have carefully examined all the evidence and come to a completely rational objective conclusion that there is no God, to be a wearying form of denial and confirmation bias. I once invited the president of our local atheists club to speak to my Christian High School Worldviews class on the subject, “Why I am an Atheist”. From earlier conversations I knew he was raised as a conservative Baptist, and that a short while into his post-college career his first wife had died a difficult death of cancer. Yet he never openly factored this into an explanation of his decision to embrace the absence of God. I considered it insensitive to bring this up in the class, but my 12th grade students quite easily poked several holes in his allegedly rational reasons, but to no avail.

Nagel will have none of this. In the concluding essay —“Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion”—of his book, The Last Word, he writes, “I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear [of religion]. I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” Nagel’s transparent self-awareness goes even deeper. He admits he has a “cosmic authority problem” and that many other materialists have it, too. He believes this cosmic authority problem is responsible for “scientism and reductionism” and that it “supports … the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind” (see

It is his substantial and sustained objection to materialist Darwinian reductionism with respect to the human mind and consciousness that has driven much of Nagel’s philosophy, and has made him persona non grata with the Dawkinsian branch of reductionist-scientistic atheism (see ). Nagel started down this path with his influential essay, “What is it Like to be a Bat?” (1974) (, a query about the subjective experience of consciousness, and the impossibility of reducing such experience to physical phenomena as understood within the standard materialist-atheist paradigm. Nearly 40 years later, Nagel specifically takes up his cudgel against “materialist nagel mind and cosmosneo-Darwinism” in Mind and Cosmos: “Something more [than the laws of physics and chemistry] is needed to explain how there can be conscious, thinking creatures” (M & C, p. 20). Consciousness is irreducible, and cannot be accounted for by mutation and Darwinian selection and adaptation. Yet, as I noted, Nagel rejects out-of-hand any divine design explanation because, as he admits, he doesn’t want there to be a God. He argues instead that, because rudimentary consciousness is one of the “already existing properties of the fundamental particles”, and because the laws that govern matter and the unfolding of the cosmos have a “nonpurposive telelogy [?!]”, there is an inevitable “path that leads toward … the existence of living, and ultimately of conscious, organisms” (M & C, pp. 61, 67). This “third way” alternative—a combination of an Aristotelian natural law teleology and panpsychism (a philosophy that holds that everything, including sub-atomic particles, has at least rudimentary consciousness)—will likely appeal to nearly no one on either side of the divide between Design and Darwinism.

I must admit to a certain paternalistic attitude toward Nagel, like a father silently watching a child who insists on mastering a difficult skill with no parental input. I can’t help thinking, “You almost got it! If you could just recognize that ‘nonpurposive teleology’ is an oxymoron and conscious sub-atomic particles is an incoherent concept, and get over your ‘cosmic authority’ problem!” Yet, Nagel’s atypical atheist humility in confessing his “belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts” (“Bat”) reminds me that I frequently need to remove the logs from my own theologically constructive eye.


About Michael W Nicholson

I am a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband, father, and grandfather, a brother and a friend. My professional career has been in education. I taught Industrial Arts in Middle School for six years, four years as an adjunct professor in theology and philosophy, and fifteen years teaching classes in Old Testament, Apologetics, and Worldviews in a Christian High School. Like everyone else who breathes in American culture, I am infected with chronic postmodernity, but I am aware of this and regularly administer the treatment: Historic Christian Orthodoxy as contained in the Scriptures of the Old & New Testaments. I am fascinated by almost every subject imaginable, except economics. I have a Ph.D. in systematic theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I believe in a God who wants to be found; who leaves signs and suggestions, trademarks, signatures, and signposts scattered throughout every aspect of our existence. And if we are truly looking, He will find us. God is the great Story-teller, and the story he is telling is the great drama of Reality, unfolding before us and of which we are all inescapably a part. And so I am collecting fragments, in Philosophy, in Science, and in Art and holding these fragments up to the light and turning them this way and that, and trying to see and say how the Story—the metanarrative, the Christian Worldview—is involved in, and makes sense of, every aspect of our being-in-the-world (to borrow a term from Heidegger and take it where perhaps he did not intend for it to go). And by doing this I hope I am helping to light the way Home; back to the sea, the ocean, the Ocean of Infinite Love. My blog covers a wide range of topics around this central theme that the transcendent realm surrounds and permeates our existence. I put up new posts periodically. I hope you enjoy them. I hope they help.
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