Wednesday, February 28, 2007

atheism a faith position?

Reasonableness is a matter of degree. Beliefs can be very reasonable (Japan exists), fairly reasonable (quarks exist), not unreasonable (there's intelligent life on other planets) or downright unreasonable (fairies exist).

There's a scale of reasonableness, if you like, with very reasonable beliefs near the top and deeply unreasonable ones towards the bottom. Notice a belief can be very high up the scale, yet still be open to some doubt. And even when a belief is low down, we can still acknowledge the remote possibility it might be true.

How reasonable is the belief that God exists? Atheists typically think it very unreasonable. Very low on the scale. But most religious people say it is at least not unreasonable (have you ever met a Christian who said "Hey, belief in God is no more reasonable than belief in fairies, but I believe it anyway!"?) They think their belief is at least halfway up the scale of reasonableness.

Now, that their belief is downright unreasonable might, in fact, be established empirically. If it turned out that not only is there no good evidence of an all-powerful, all-good God, there's also overwhelming evidence against (from millions of years of unimaginable and pointless animal suffering, including several mass extinctions - to thousands of children being crushed to death or buried alive in Pakistan earthquake, etc. etc. etc.) then it could be empirically confirmed that there's no God.

Would this constitute a "proof" that there's no God? Depends what you mean by "proof". Personally I think these sorts of consideration do establish beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no all-powerful all-good God. So we can, in this sense, prove there's no God.

Yet all the people quoted in my last blog say you cannot "scientifically" prove or disprove God's existence. If they mean prove beyond any doubt they are right. But then hardly anything is provable in that sense, not even the non-existence of fairies.

The fact that something cannot be conclusively proved either way doesn't mean the two theories are equally reasonable. It may still be that one theory is overwhelmingly confirmed and the other discomfirmed.

So, if theists wish to continue to maintain that their belief is at the very least "not unreasonable" (and they pretty much all do) the onus is on them to come up with some half-decent arguments for God's existence, and to deal more effectively with what appears to be overwhelming evidence against their belief. If they cannot do that, then they can't consistently maintain their belief is "not unreasonable".

Is atheism a "faith" position? If by "faith position" we mean can't be proved beyond all doubt, then yes, it is. But then so is the belief that there are no fairies and that the sun goes round the Earth. It doesn't follow from the fact that both
theism and atheism are "faith positions" in this sense that they are equally reasonable.

If by "faith position" we mean can't be proved beyond reasonable doubt, then I certainly don't accept that atheism is a "faith position". The evidence for atheism is overwhelming (though of course not everyone can see the evidence is overwhelming - this sort of evidence-blindness is an interesting feature of religious belief. That religion certainly does have the power to blind people to the obvious is demonstrated by the fact that in just 50 years, some 100 million US citizens have come to accept both that the entire universe is six thousand years old and that this is consistent with the empirical evidence).

McGrath says there's "no question" of science "proving" anything re ultimate questions.

If by "prove" McGrath means prove beyond reasonable doubt,he's just plain wrong. He doesn't believe in an all-powerful, all-evil God. Why not? Presumably, because the evidence against is overwhelming (there just to much good stuff in the world). But then McGrath must concede that there could conceivably be equally compelling evidence against his all-powerful, all-good God.

If by "prove" McGrath means prove beyond all doubt, he's right science can't "prove" anything re ultimate questions. But that's because it can't "prove" anything at all!

In any case, the fact remains the evidence may settle the matter beyond reasonable doubt. I believe it does.

14 comments:

Steelman said...

SL: "Personally I think these sorts of consideration do establish beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no all-powerful all-good God. So we can, in this sense, prove there's no God."

"In this sense," yes, you've made a good case here against the all-powerful all-good God of mainstream Christianity, but not against any other type of god (theism can be a very broad umbrella). It's not a case against the unreformed, Old Testament Yahweh for instance; a figure just as anthropomorphic and capricious as any in the ancient Greek pantheon (a real punisher and abusive parent; just look what he did to poor Job on a casual bet).

SL: "The fact that something cannot be conclusively proved either way doesn't mean the two theories are equally reasonable."

Agreed. I've often encountered this type of irritating equivocation (a radical relativism?) in Internet discussions. Another common trick is the assumption that a weakness in one argument automatically proves the veracity of the alternative argument (which is also all too often a false dichotomy to begin with).

I agree with you in that the burden of proof rests with the claimant. As Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I think part of the problem here is that theists do not consider their claims about God to be extraordinary, but "common knowledge." I'm reminded of something Daniel Dennett said, in Breaking the Spell, about the efficacy of the tribal ritual of animal sacrifice being "something everybody knows."

SL: "That religion certainly does have the power to blind people to the obvious is demonstrated by the fact that in just 50 years, some 100 million US citizens have come to accept that the entire universe is six thousand years old, and that this is consistent with the empirical evidence)."

I think many prefer proclamations of absolute certainty, and simple answers to complex questions, above the hard work of critical thinking (due to manner of education or religious tradition, or just because they are human). This is reflected in the public relations strategies of commercial advertising and politics, as much as in organized religion. Life in the U.S. includes a constant bombardment of propaganda and, unless you live out in the country somewhere, a fast pace of life. There's a craving for quick, easily understood answers to all of that lifestyle's questions. The Churches and the media are serving that market.

Steelman said...

"I've often encountered this type of irritating equivocation..."

Might make more sense as: "I've often encountered this type of irritating supposed equivalence..."

I was thinking of equivocation in regard to the use of the words "faith" and "belief" (reasonable vs. unreasonable), while making a more general point about poor argumentation...but I knew what I meant.

Stephen Law said...

Steelman said: you've made a good case here against the all-powerful all-good God of mainstream Christianity, but not against any other type of god

Yes I am talking about the all-good all-powerful God of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy. Arguments against other gods can also be constructed, of course.

Stephen Law said...

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Even just an ordinary level of evidence would be nice.

The Barefoot Bum said...

There are two "types" of God (or descriptions of God): The falsifiable (and false) and the unfalsifiable.

In my years of discussing the existence of God, mostly on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board, I find theists constantly switching between these types of description. The argument schema goes: "You can't disprove (an unfalsifiable description of) God. Therefore it's reasonable to believe that God exists. Therefore we can talk meaningfully about (a falsifiable description of) God.

If you can stand the pain, you can read a good example of this sort of equivocation in the comments here and here.

-- Larry

The Barefoot Bum said...

Even just an ordinary level of evidence would be nice.

I'm with Ingersoll: I'm begging for a single fact.

Robert said...

"If by "faith position" we mean can't be proved beyond all doubt, then yes, it is. But then so is the belief that there are no fairies and that the sun goes round the Earth."

Well, I certainly agree that belief that there are no gods or fairies is reasonable, but your belief that the sun goes round the Earth is preposterous.

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Anonymous said...

Theistic arguments about an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God make 3 enormous assumptions. However, atheistic arguments tend to make the assumption that these 3 are the only possible criteria of God. Take the heresy of Gnosticism, which posits that the universe was created by an imperfect demiurge (not saying that I agree with this vision, but it does allow for some interesting thought experiments)? Why is it that God must either fit all 3 of these standards or must not exist? It seems so silly to me, and further discredits both yourself and the daffy Dawkins.

Of course, with the recent publication of the marvelous Terry Eagleton's book on the debate, "Reason, Faith, and Revolutin", there should be at least somewhat of a fall in the surety (if they have any sense whatsoever) Dawkins and his cronies crave in their atheism, an atheism which indeed requires extraordinary and unproven certitude. All of these arguments, of course, presuppose absolute faith in reason, reason which for certain matters (such as the human heart or even general relativity) clearly works, but reason for matters that extend past the Big Bang and past the realm of science itself (Swinburne's argument) seems like quite the uncertain and unwieldy tool.

Bearing in mind your philosophical background, I am much more shocked that, you, along with Dawkins (who I am not surprise to see nonsense from) do not even strongly consider in your posts the arguments great theistic philosophers have made which are revelant to the debate of today, debate which here engage yourself in.

Scientists have not always been so unreasonable: Albert Einstein, a much greater scientist that Dawkins can ever hope to become, at least held a pseudo-agnostic, pseudo-pantheistic persepctive, as have many other modern and earlier scientists.

I hate to resort to ethos, but if this atheistic truth should be so self-evident, why is it that there are so many current theistic philosophers? Martha Nussbaum, generally considered to be the greatest American contemporary philosopher, has very strong faith in Judaism. Admittedly, she does not work in the realm of metaphysics or the philosophy of religion, but she must have at least considered the arguments, being the free thinker that she is. And finally, is it out of the realm of possibility that a God matching all 3 aforementioned criteria would not allow for natural disasters for some cause out of of knoweldge (or ability of reason). I know that this is purely speculative, but out of the realm of possibility-absolutely not!

Oh, and your argument about animal suffering also assumes a utilitarian, Singeresque view on animals. What would your fellow atheist Nietzsche say of this preposterous slave-morality? Ha!

"Religions pass away, but God remains."
-Victor Hugo

Anonymous said...

I must clarify: I meant scientific knowledge, rather than reason, in regard to Swinburne's argument. Cheers!

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Ezra said...

I know this post is quite old now, but I've been chatting about it with a friend and its raised a few questions. So I wanted to ask a question about the line of reasoning to do with the scale of reasonableness stated in the first paragraph and what is "reasonable" and "unreasonable". Based on the assertion stated -

SL: "So, if theists wish to continue to maintain that their belief is at the very least "not unreasonable" (and they pretty much all do) the onus is on them to come up with some half-decent arguments for God's existence..."

Depending on the scale of reasonableness if it were reversed toward the Theists way of thinking, would it be fair to say - "So, if atheists wish to continue to maintain that their belief is at the very least "not unreasonable" (and they pretty much all do) the onus is on them to come up with some half-decent arguments for God's non-existence". The outcome of this statement would be to concede agnosticism, which seems like a much more logical stand-point .

Anonymous said...

For you, what is the evidence that operates as the criteria for or against the existance of God?

Ezra said...

To Anonymous: personal experience