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atheism a faith position? - the "mystery" move

One of the thoughts lying behind the often-made claim that “atheism is a faith position” is that there is a great mystery about life, the universe and everything.

Why, for example, is there something, rather than nothing?

Personally, I haven’t a clue (we'll maybe I have - but let's put that off to another day).

Noting this mystery, the theist/agnostic may then argue like this:

Either (i) the atheist refuses to recognize this question. But this is just a "faith in science" position - it just assumes the only legitimate questions are questions science can settle. Bang - the scientific atheist's position is a "faith position" too!

Or (ii) the atheist admits they haven’t a clue how to answer the question. But once the atheist admits they are in the dark how to answer it, they must admit there’s no more reason to suppose God didn’t create the universe than there is to suppose He did.

So you see? Theism and atheism are equally (un)reasonable!

This is a popular, but bad argument. Atheists often admit that they have no idea why the universe exists. They can admit there are questions it may be impossible for science to answer, and that this may be one of them (Dawkins does, in fact).

But actually, to admit there’s a mystery about why the universe exists is not to concede theism is just as sensible as atheism. To see why, consider an analogy.

Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. There’s been a terrible murder. There are hundreds of suspects. And he just can’t figure out who dunnit.

However, while Holmes can’t say who the culprit is, he is quite sure that certain people are innocent. The butler, in particular, has a cast-iron alibi. So Holmes is rightly confident the butler didn’t do it, despite the fact that he doesn’t know who did.

In the same way, an atheist can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence that, whoever or whatever created it (if anything) it certainly wasn’t the all-powerful, all-good God of Christian theology.

They can be as sure of that as they can be that it is not the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil God. For there is, in both cases, little evidence for and overwhelming evidence against (too much suffering, in the case of the good God; too much good in the case of the evil God) (see my God of Eth, for more on the evil God hypothesis).

Don't make the mistake of supposing that, because there’s a deep mystery about why there is anything at all, that puts theism and atheism on an equally rational/irrational footing. It doesn’t.

[P.S. Of course theists and agnostics can always try to deal with the evidence against and absence of evidence for an all-powerful all-good God by saying, well, that’s not quite what I mean by “God”. See e.g. Mark Vernon’s response to this blog here.

I suggest that any God worthy of worship is indeed pretty decisively ruled out on the available evidence (BTW Mark, don't make the mistake of thinking I'll only accept empirical evidence (which you imply in your blog) - I will happily consider any evidence/argument you have to offer]

[P.P.S Of course I have not actually given a very sophisticated argument for atheism as yet. I admit that. I am merely pointing out the shortcomings of a certain sort of popular argument for atheism being a "faith position". There are more sophisticated arguments, of course.)


Steelman said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steelman said…
The "mystery move," as I've encountered it on Mark Vernon's blog, is very mysterious indeed. It would seem that God is so mysterious in fact, that we can't know or say anything about him. I've pointed that out in a response to Mr. Vernon which didn't show in the comments section, so I posted it on my blog.
Mike F said…
I'm always somewhat intrigued by this whole "athiesm is not a faith" position. If, as many dictionaries define it, athiesm is the belief that there is no god, or there are no gods, then what exactly leads to someone to that conclusion?

I'm happy enough with the "I see no need for that hypothesis" position often attributed to Laplace. Why should I extend that to a position beyond the (lack of) evidence to have an actual belief about this? And if I do, with no evidence at all, then why is this not a faith-based belief?

I see rather a bunch of self-proclaimed athiests wandering around who are certain about their belief and who, when challenged, dispute the dictionary definition, or try to extend the definition to embrace positions more traditionally considered agnostic or who will concede the point momentarily, then go off proclaiming their belief again.

So perhaps you can explain. What gives?
Stephen Law said…
The issue is not whether or not we can conclusively prove God exists, but what the balance of evidence is. After all, I cannot convclusively prove there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden. But that is the overwhelming reasonable position to take.

Now as I see it (and I am willing to be be proved wrong - I'm not claiming infallibility here) there is overwhlming evidence against the al-powerful all-good hypothesis. There is also very little evidence or good argument to support it. Therefore, just as its reasonable to believe there are no fairies, it's reasonable to believe there's no God. Rejecting the existence of fairies is not a "faith position" is it? So, given I am right about the evidence, why is rejecting belief in God?

The evidence? Well, an all-powerful all-good God would surely not put any gratuitous and unecessary suffering into his creation. Not an ounce. Yet there seems to be enormous amounts. Including that produced by natural disasters. And of course 100s of millions of years of unimaginable suffering including that caused by many mass extinction events, the last of which (65 milion years ago) wiped 95% of all species from the face of the Earth.

All-powerful and all-good? Come on!

See "The God of Eth" postings I did for more on this.
Alan MacKenzie said…
The claim that atheism is a faith commits the fallacy of equivocation. The proponent will knowingly use the term "faith" interchangeably to mean two or more different things. Faith can mean a variety of different things, but religious sophists will pretend that a justified belief is similar to religious faith in order to win debates.

Another trick is to feign that science is a religion, by firstly "reducing" science to the level of religion, and then arguing that neither science or religion can provide the better answer. This tactic, usually employed by apologetics, usually results in products such as "scientific creationism" etc. The proponent must, in order to achieve their goal, engage in a very peculiar logical contradiction, in which they relegate science to the level of faith, deny that their own faith is of lesser importance, and then promote that same faith using science. Incredible!

The use of the term "faith" is hardly appropriate for most atheists, because it assumes that atheism is necessarily a denial of the existence of God, usually one particular God belonging to a certain religion. The best thing to do when confronted with religious sophists is to point out that their definition of atheism is inadequate: that strong and weak atheism do not exist, and that there is only one form of atheism, that is absence of theism. People like Dawkins are not strong atheists, but strong sceptics. It is important to remember that being godless does not always mean being sceptical; one's atheism does not "increase in magnitude" when one becomes more critical of religion, nor does one become "more reasonable" for refraining from scepticism.

I am an agnostic atheist, but that does not mean I "became" an agnostic in order to "balance" my atheism. There is no evidence for God, and so I am an agnostic. I lack belief in God, so I am also an atheist. I am critical of religion, but this does not make me "more" of an atheist, only more of a sceptic.


Anonymous said…
(this may have already been suggested, but still..)

Suppose something can't come from nothing, and there was ALWAYS something.
Such as the law of thermal dynamics suggests in which energy cannot be created or destroyed, Therefore energy has always existed and existence and non-existence of matter and energy is an illusion (instead it simply in constant flux/change).
God is a hypothetical uncaused cause. In other words no one created this being. So I suggest there is no god, but that the universe and the energy which composes it has always existed without a first cause.

I would very much like a response to this.
Tim Symonds said…
I don't know whether Sherlock Holmes was religious, even after reading the Canon often enough, but in my latest sherlock novel titled Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein's Daughter Holmes is put through a testing time trying to maintain is famous disguise as a Nonconformist clergyman:

Excerpt from Chapter 111:

The sound of people engaged in fierce argument burst in on us. Two men locked in each other’s clasp fell through the door, the one an elderly cleric, the other a member of the bank’s staff trying to prevent his entry. High-pitched tones emanated from the priest as he pushed himself into the room past the employee. Under a wrap-rascal he wore baggy trousers and white tie, topped by a broad black hat, the exact dress of the Nonconformist clergyman I described in A Scandal In Bohemia. He demanded to speak to the bank manager come what may, insisting he needed to open a safe deposit box on the instant, ‘poor as a church mouse as those of my calling may be’.
With a triumphant flourish at having gained entry, the clergyman dropped a heavy pouch on the manager’s desk. It was the very pouch of gold coins given to us by the Prince Regnant of Bulgaria five years before. The purse split with the force of the fall, scattering the glittering coins across the desk and into every corner of the room. At the sight of the gold coins the bank manager rushed around the desk and waved the staff member away.
‘I am sure Dr. Watson will not mind if we are joined by a clergyman,’ he expostulated. ‘I myself am a son of the manse, with a strict Presbyterian upbringing.’ ‘Not at all,’ I responded amiably. ‘The clergyman is most welcome.’
My Heavens, I thought. Holmes has gone a step too far. He will be found out within a matter of minutes. I turned to the bank manager.
‘You say you are a son of the manse?’ I enquired.
‘I am,’ he replied. ‘Every day my aged father proclaims the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Christ.’
‘Then I am sure our clergyman friend here would enjoy sharing his knowledge of the Sacred Book. A short test, perhaps?’
Embarrassed, the bank manager began to protest. Holmes cut back in.
‘Come now, Sir,’ he told the bank manager, gesturing towards me, ‘as our young friend here demands, you must question me. Test the simple preacher seated before you on his knowledge of the Scriptures.’
The bank manager agreed, immeasurably pleased. ‘The Epistle of Paul to the Church at Philippi,’ he began,’ the book of the Gospel where…’
‘Acts, Sir,’ Holmes broke in, chortling. ‘You shall have to do better than that.’
‘Which book? Ninth, I believe?’ asked the son of the manse.
‘Eleventh,’ Holmes returned.
‘But you agree it was written on St. Paul’s first missionary journey?’
‘Second,’ Holmes parried.
‘49-51 AD,’ Holmes ended, triumphantly.
‘I too have a question,’ I broke in. It was a question my Tractarian mother had once posed on my return from Sunday School.
‘Where in the Bible does it refer to 'Five Golden Emerods' and 'five golden mice'? Kings or Chronicles – or Ruth?’ I asked.
‘Good, Watson,’ Holmes whispered, ‘but not good enough!’ followed aloud by ‘Samuel, my dear fellow. 1 Samuel 6:4 if I am not mistaken.’
Heavens, Holmes, I thought admiringly. The stage may have lost a great actor when you took up crime, but the Church lost a doughty scholar.

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