Is Atheism Rationally Justifiable?
|January 7, 2013||Posted by William J Murray under Atheism, Fine tuning, Philosophy|
First, I’d like to thank Mr. Arrington for granting me posting privileges. I consider it quite an honor, and I hope this post (and any future posts) warrants this trust.
Second, the following is an argument I think will help us to focus on a fundamental issue that lies behind ever so many of the debates here at Uncommon Descent, and elsewhere. That is, is the sort of implicit or even explicit atheism that is so often built in on the ground floor of a “scientific” mindset truly rationally justifiable? Such cannot be assumed, it needs to be shown.
I’ll begin by defining some terms for the sake of this argument:
Definition of God (for the purpose of this thread): First cause, prime mover, root of being, objective source of human purpose (final cause) and resulting morality, source of free will, mind, consciousness; omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent inasmuch as principles of logic allow; an interventionist as necessary to facilitate movement towards final cause and also inasmuch as logical principles are not violated; source of logic — “reason itself.” (I am not talking in particular about any specifically defined religious interpretation of god, such as the Chrstian or Islamic God.)
Definition: Weak, or negative atheism is the lack of any belief that a god exists, and the position that a god probably doesn’t exist, and is not the positive belief that gods do not exist (strong atheism), and is not agnosticism (the lack of belief that god either does or does not exist and the further view that there is a lack of sufficient probability either way). Strong atheism is the belief that no god or gods exist at all.
Definition: A worldview or mindset is rationally justified when it answers adequately to the facts of the real world as we experience or observe it, makes good sense and fits together logically, is simple but not simplistic, and honestly faces the issues and difficulties that all worldviews face.
Definition: Intellectual dishonesty occurs when (1) one deliberately mischaracterizes their position or view in order to avoid having to logically defend their actual views; and/or (2) when someone is arguing, or making statements against a position while remaining willfully ignorant about that position, and/or (3) when someone categorically and/or pejoratively dismisses all existent and/or potential evidence in favor of a conclusion they claim to be neutral about, whether they are familiar with that evidence or not.
These will be important as we consider:
Evidence in favor of God: The following is a brief summary of the evidence that typically leads many people to make a general finding that a god (as described above) exists, even if variantly interpreted or culturally contextualized:
(1) Anecdotal evidence for the apparently intelligently ordered anomalous, miraculous (defying expected natural processes and probabilities) events attributed to god, such as signs, supernatural events (e.g. Fatima, Guadeloupe, Paul’s Damascus Road Experience), or answers to prayers to god;
(2) Testimonial evidence (first-hand accounts) of experience of such phenomena, including interactions with a god-like being or accounts of god-like interventions; Also, the testimony of religious adherents of various specific gods can be counted as evidence of the god premised in this argument in the manner that various cultures can vary widely in their description of certain phenomena or experiences, and come up with widely variant “explanations”; what is interesting as evidence here, though, is the widespread crediting of similar kinds of phenomena and experience to a “god” of some sort (which might be the case of blind or ignorant people touching different parts of an elephant and thus describing “what the elephant is” in various ways). Such testimonial evidence can be counted in favor of the premise here, but cannot be held against it where it varies, because it is not testimony that such a god doesn’t exist.
(3) The various Cosmological and Ontological Arguments for the existence of god;
(4) The Strong Anthropic (or Fine Tuning) argument and other evidences for design of our world and of life in it;
(5) The empirical, scientific evidence assembled in support of the design arguments in #4 (such as recently persuaded Antony Flew — formerly the world’s leading philosophical atheist — that there is a god);
(6) The Moral arguments for the existence of god.
(7) Empirical and testimonial evidence of phenomena closely correlated to the existence of a god as described above, such as the survival of consciousness after death, and the existence of an afterlife realm; the evidence for interactions with correlated entities such as angels and demons (which seem to act to influence our free will towards or away from our human purpose), etc., gathered by various serious and scientific investigations into what is often referred to as the “paranormal”, including mediumship studies dating back to William Crooke and ongoing through the work at Pear Labs and the Scole Experiment, including consciousness-survival research published in the Lancet. While indirect, this evidence tends to support the proposition that god exists.
While the various arguments listed above have been subjected to counter-arguments and rebuttals of varying strengths and weaknesses across the ages, one must not lose sight that while there is much evidence of all sorts (as listed above) in favor of the existence of god; there is zero empirical evidence (to my knowledge) or and little in the way of rational argument that no such god exists. In other words, decreasing the value of the arguments and evidence for god does not increase the value of the position that there is no god; it can only increase the reasonableness of the “weak atheist” (there isn’t enough evidence) or an agnostic position.
The commonly seen rebuttals to these argument are simply attempting to show weaknesses in or alternatives to the arguments themselves so that such arguments cannot be taken as demonstratively convincing (that god exists); such counter-arguments as a rule do not actually make the case that god (as described above) in fact does not exist.
The argument against weak atheism:
The above shows us that, ironically, strong atheism is a weak position. That is probably why atheism advocates seldom defend it in informed company. So, we must first focus on the “stronger” atheist position, the one they defend in public: “weak atheism,” generally described as absence of belief in god or gods. I will argue that it too is far weaker than is commonly recognized.
I know of no positive arguments for the strong “there is no god” position, other than the argument from evil which has been addressed by Boethius, Adams and Platinga. Aside from that, there are only rebuttals/reactions to various “there is a god” arguments. This exemplifies how rebutting an argument does not eliminate it as evidence, it only offers an alternative perspective that one can evaluate along with the original argument. Depending on the strength of the rebuttal or alternative explanation, that particular positive evidence for god may be decreased in value, but there is no concurrent increase in the value of an argument against the existence of god (as described above).
If a “weak atheist” claims to “lack belief” because there is “no evidence for god,” he or she is necessarily being intellectually dishonest, because we certainly aren’t privy to all potential or available evidence. Are such atheists claiming to be omniscient? If not, then, a more modest and reasonable point would be that they are not aware of evidence for god. However, given what we have already seen, such “weak atheists” cannot genuinely claim to not know of “any” evidence for god after having perused any of the above evidence. That is to say, there is evidence for god, just, they don’t accept it. But incredulity or hyper-skepticism on your part does not equate to “no evidence” on my part. Testimony from otherwise credible sources is not made “less credible” simply because the testimony is about something the listener personally finds to be in-credible; it is not intellectually honest to discredit the credibility of testimony only on the basis of the subject matter being debated.
Also, strong atheists often only refer to themselves as weak atheists because they have realized that the strong atheist position is an assertion they cannot support in informed company. They do this to provide cover for their real view, which is an obvious form of intellectual dishonesty. One can often discern when this is going on when the person ridicules belief in god or makes categorical dismissals about evidence they have never even seen; they believe there is no god, and so assume there can be no valid evidence for god, and advocate for that position rhetorically via ridicule.
Even if the “weak atheist” is not aware of any compelling evidence for god, he or she must know that we humans are quite limited in what we know, and may often be unaware of mistakes in what we think we know. That means that any categorical claim a “weak” atheist makes about the available evidence he or she is not privy to — that it is not credible or convincing — is again intellectually dishonest because you cannot justifiably make a categorical claim about something you have no knowledge of.
So, if we have a weak atheist who is aware of the existence of the above evidence and agrees that there might be more evidence they are not privy to; and who does not categorically assert problems with the evidence they have not yet seen; and who does not categorically dismiss the available evidence as “non-evidence” due to hyper-skeptical bias but rather states that the available evidence they have seen is not compelling towards a conclusion that god exists; then one must ask the following:
In the face of such overwhelming amounts of evidence — thousands of years of testimony and anecdotal stories; many serious arguments based on credible empirical evidence and apparently necessary logical premises and inferences; and, the complete lack of any generally successful attempt to make a sound argument that god in fact does not exist — one must ask: how can any intellectually honest person come to any conclusion other than that on the balance of the evidence, god probably exists, even if god is poorly and diversely defined, and even if the experience of god is open to various interpretations and even to misunderstanding?
As an analogy: even if one has never personally experienced “love”; in the face of thousands of years of testimony and anecdotal stories that love exists, and empirical evidence supporting that certain physical states correspond to assertions of experiences of love, would it be intellectually honest to “lack belief” that love exists, or would it be intellectually honest to hold the view that even though one doesn’t experience love (or using the same argument, color, joy, dreams, etc.), that love probably exists – even if people are widely disparate in their explanation, description, or presentation of what love is?
Another analogy: because witnesses disagree in their description of a criminal suspect in a crime, or disagree about the particulars of the crime they witnessed, this doesn’t mean there is no criminal at all. Depending on the testimony and evidence, one may hold that it is likely that a crime occurred, and so it is likely that a criminal exists, but that the arguments, testimony and evidence are not enough reach a finding of “guilty” for any particular suspect.
As far as I am aware of there is no anecdotal or testimonial evidence that god does not exist (because lack of experience of a thing isn’t evidence the thing doesn’t exist), very little in the way of logical argument towards that conclusion, and there is a vast array of logical, anecdotal, testimonial and empirical evidence that god (at least as generally described above) does exist. Because a billion people did not witness a crime, and only a handful did, doesn’t tilt the scales in favor of no crime having been committed at all; imagine now a billion people that report witnessing a crime, and handful that did not, and you have something more comparable to the state of evidence concerning the existence of god.
Even if one doesn’t find that evidence compelling for for a final conclusion that god exists, when one weighs the balance of the evidence for and against god, one should be willing to at least consider whether it is more probable that god (as described above) exists than that god does not exist. Problematically (for the atheist), the view that it is more likely that god exists than not is not any sort of an atheistic position.
The argument against strong atheism:
Strong atheism is defined as the assertion that no god or gods exist whatsoever.
First, it is obvious that strong atheism cannot be logically supported, simply because it is impossible to prove (not in the absolute sense, but in the “sufficient evidence” sense). There may be evidence and good argument that certain gods, or kinds of gods, do not exist; but there is certainly no generally accepted evidence or successful argument that no significant, meaningful god or gods whatsoever exist, including the one as defined for this thread.
Instead of trying to actually support their own claim, strong atheists usually attempt to shift the burden of proof onto theists by essentially asking the theists to prove the atheist position wrong, implying or asserting that atheism must be held true by default. That is, such try to argue that they have nothing to argue and can sit comfortably on their view as a default. However, that is not so; every worldview of consequence has a duty to show that it is factually adequate, coherent and explains reality powerfully and simply. Strong atheism is not a default position; it is a positive assertion that no god or gods exist. The default position is always “I don’t know” or true agnosticism.
Strong atheism is a sweeping, categorical assertion that something does not exist. As such, It has the job of proving a universal negative. Perhaps this could be accomplished by showing the converse positive claim to be self-contradictory, and readers advocating strong atheism are invited to make their case based upon the definition of God at the top of this post.
Also, however unlikely it may seem to an atheist, it might be true that a god of some sort exists outside of the circle of what she or he knows or what the collective of atheists actually know. After all, we all know full well that “to err is human.” So, since the atheist could be mistaken or ignorant of the key fact or argument that would be decisive, the strong atheist position unjustifiably excludes a potentially true explanation from consideration. What is the rationally useful point of a metaphysical position that excludes a potentially true explanation from consideration? Especially when it requires asserting an unsupportable universal negative? What, then, does strong atheism bring to the table of debate other than the potential for intractable error and denial of potential truth for the sake of a sweeping, unsupportable, universally negative assertion?
Conclusion: atheism is an untenable position for any intellectually honest, rational, and informed person. The belief that god (as described above, which is supported by the listed evidence) does not exist, or that it isn’t more likely that god exists than not, can only be a position based on ignorance of the available evidence and argument for god, or a hyper-skeptical, intellectually dishonest, ideologically biased, a priori dismissal of all of the evidence for the existence of god.