Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be

What passes for public discussion between atheists and theists consists almost entirely of atheist critique and theist response. I wish to begin a critique of atheism.

Atheists say their approach to apprehending reality is based solely on evidence and reason. This is "rational", while theism is irrational due to its lack of evidence and reason.

Reason is actually a red herring, because it is common ground. We all use logic to draw reliable factual conclusions from given factual statements. People like me reach different conclusions from atheists because we have some additional factual statements to work with: God exists, God is good etc. Our conclusions are logical enough given our starting facts.

Atheists' real objection is to these additional starting facts. I expect they mention reason mainly because “irrational” is a far punchier accusation than “not evidence-based”. It's just better marketing.

The objection to the additional facts is that they are not based on evidence. By “evidence”, we all mean evidence that is apprehended and verifiable empirically – by sight, sound, touch, taste or smell, though often with the assistance of technology. Atheists say that, because God and other "supernatural" entities and phenomena cannot be apprehended or verified in this way, it is unreasonable to believe in them. They are insistent about this.

For example, the website of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists states "The answers provided by supernatural explanations are hollow. Stating that something is a result of a supernatural miracle is making a claim that can never be proved".

We know that God's existence, for example, can't be proved. I don't know of anyone in recent times who has said it can be. This is not seriously contentious.

What is contentious is the insistence on empirical evidence as the only basis for reasonable factual belief – which is the position taken by atheists and so-called rationalists. This position is worth looking at critically.

No-one made atheists adopt this position: they volunteered. Not only that, they impose it as a parameter on any discussion with theists, though it is not an agreed position. More important, the position is not established in any way, but merely assumed.

The starting-point for atheists goes something like this: It is reasonable to believe that a thing exists, or that a statement is true, *if and only if* the existence of the thing or the truth of the statement is proved, or at least provable, empirically.

People like me would agree with this statement if the "and only if" were removed. Without that, it's just "Seeing is believing", which is generally  fine. However, including “if and only if” means that empiricism (i.e. human senses) monopolises access to facts. This is contentious.

For a start, the very fact that it is a self-imposed limitation on thought is problematic. It just seems a shame to impose such a severe constraint on thought at the very beginning before the thinking really gets underway. I appreciate a dread of chaos, but this is an overreaction.

There is also a reasoning problem. Atheists believe the whole of the above statement to be true. They are very confident about this position, and even quite insistent about it. Yet, its truth has not been proved empirically. Neither is it the kind of statement that can be proved empirically. They just believe it to be true, even though this belief contradicts the statement. How do they manage this?

I would call it a leap of faith but, to avoid alarm, let’s call it an assumption, like an accepted fact or truth at the outset of an experiment. In either case, it is a “truth” atheists accept before the debate with theists about what's true gets underway – and a truth that underpins their critique of theism, indeed a truth they impose on theists in the course of that critique.

The truth of this proposition has not been established and, so far as I know, no attempt is made to establish it. As the truth of this proposition is not common ground, this central atheist critique of theism is not really time well spent. Atheists must first establish the truth of their start-up proposition, or persuade theists to leap to it instead of to God.

The more interesting comparison between atheists and theists is the comparison of their start-up assumptions and how the two groups live with them. Having adopted a starting position, how does each group fare? Atheists think they’re starting position is superior, but I’m not so sure Certainly, it is less interesting. And I don’t like limitations unless I can’t avoid them.

People like me declare our leap of faith (in God) and, throughout the discussion (and our lives), we continue to recognise that we made this leap. Of course, we also rely on the evidence of our senses on a daily basis. We just don't confine ourselves to empirical evidence: we are open to the possibility that there is more to life than what meets the eye.

By contrast, atheists do not declare their starting position as an assumption. They just assume it and wield it. Their use of it is based on it being true – even though, by its own criteria, it can’t be. There is a fundamental inconsistency between what atheists say and what they did (adopt the above proposition) just before they started speaking.

This is profoundly irrational and needs to be explained.

- Reader contribution by Gavan O'Farrell
 

Comments

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This article plays very fast and loose with some very important epistemological terms. The words "facts" and "knowledge" have important connotations.

The author has already admitted the existence of God cannot be proven empirically. However, he claims that empiricism is not the only foundation of knowledge. I would then pose the challenge, how can you assert the existence of God another way? No argument or method of knowing things outside of empiricism has been presented.

When I say I know my cat is in my chair, we can both look and verify this fact, which is the simplest form of knowledge. When I say I know water boils at 100C and 1 atmosphere of pressure, anyone can verify this fact. When I say I know a particular theorem in geometry is true, I can present a logical proof based on axioms and other theorems for which anyone with knowledge of geometry can verify or disprove. When you say you know God exists, how do you demonstrate this knowledge? If empiricism doesn't work, and no proof similar to geometry works, then how?

If you cannot establish the existence of God either through empiricism or logical proof, then everything that follows is irrational.

"reach different conclusions from atheists... we have additional factual statements...: God exists, God is good etc"

This is presupposition. We use "reason" because we would rather not use logical fallacies like this. Also, facts aren't relative. A fact is either true for all or not a fact.

"Atheists say that, because God ... cannot be ... verified in this way, it is unreasonable to believe"
"That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." - C. Hitchens

"it is a self-imposed limitation on thought".

This argument is so twisted it's hard to respond to. You're trying to argue that something is real, but saying that we need to allow arguments that aren't based in reality. It's not a self-imposed limit on thought, it's the definition of reality.

"There is also a reasoning problem."
This is a "how do we know that reality is real" argument. This is called solipsism, and it's a philosophical statement that adds nothing to the discussion.

"This is profoundly irrational "
You're telling me. [Abridged]

The Atheist worldview denies Supernaturalism. This is a logical extension of the humanist Age of Reason. Sadly, atheists must then deny theology, scholasticism, metaphysics and the human imagination, which is a lot to cut yourself off from.

One can’t just declare something a “fact,” “starting" or otherwise. What we see here is yet another attempt at shifting the burden of proof and circular reasoning. God exists because I started with that as fact (“start-up assumption”). “We all use logic..” — apparently not.

Evidence is “not an agreed position.” Well if you want to claim something without any support, then it is not something which merits rational belief or anyone taking seriously. If a person is uninterested in supporting their claims, they need to cease presenting them.  If you can’t or won’t provide good evidence, it's simply something you should have to deal with internally. No one is really obligated to take you seriously, thus the atheist position.

The time to believe something is when there is sufficient evidence and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So how does anyone get from, “God's existence can't be proved.” to all manner of detailed dogmatic religions dictating behaviours and minute details? Upon what is theology based? Why should I read the Bible or the Koran, for example when the very existence of god(s) hasn’t been established?

Assumptions are not facts. You lost the argument right there.

"atheists do not declare their starting position as an assumption. They just assume it and wield it. Their use of it is based on it being true – even though, by its own criteria, it can’t be."

It's a fact that if you can't substantiate a claim with good evidence to back it up, then your claim is unsubstantiated. That's exactly what atheism is, and why it's based on a fact, not an assumption.

The author, a religious believer, claims that some god exists. He can't back that claim up with good evidence. Therefore, it's a fact that his claim is unsubstantiated.

Indeed, toward the end of his essay, he openly admits that his belief in a god is a "leap of faith." Exactly! It's a leap of faith precisely because of the fact that it can't be substantiated with good evidence.

So it's merely amusing how the author tries to pretend atheism isn't based on a fact - and then concludes his essay by openly admitting that atheism really is based on a fact: The fact that belief in a god is a "leap of faith" because it can't be backed up with good evidence.

ChrisWeiss, dak and Gerald: In my limited experience of evangelism, I've never tried to “assert the existence of God”. I’ve only said I believe God exists. I explain why I believe it and commend the belief.
The idea of “asserting” sounds like the sort of thing that concerns something within the confines of the physical/natural world – where facts are asserted authoritatively, on the basis of impressive proof, and acceptance is required because of the agreed rules of proof. Here, you should explain why you insist on proof. All you’re doing is assuming that proof is needed: this is what I’m getting at in the Opinion piece.
If the discussion is contained within empiricism – the way atheists want to contain it – then, of course, God will be rejected for lack of proof. But the discussion doesn’t have to be contained in that way.
I’m interested in your acceptance of the truth of your “starting statement”, or assumption. How do you believe it to be true, given that you have to defy it in order to believe it?
So far, you’re just wielding your assumption in the usual way, to deny the possibility of God. I’m not talking about God, but about your assumption: how do you believe it?

AB writes, "The Atheist worldview denies Supernaturalism. This is a logical extension of the humanist Age of Reason. Sadly, atheists must then deny theology, scholasticism, metaphysics and the human imagination, which is a lot to cut yourself off from."

Yes, of course, here it comes, the ridiculous straw men, and other fallacious arguments.

"Sadly, atheists must then deny... the human imagination."

Oh, really??? So apparently you've never heard of Harry Potter, or Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones. Why "must" atheists deny the human imagination? Of course they don't. In fact, the real issue is that religious believers seem to have serious problems comprehending the difference between fiction and reality.

Then there's the zany fallacy that if there is "a lot to cut yourself off from," then that is somehow supposed to magically make that "a lot" true. (Based on pretending that a lot of rubbish doesn't exist.) Ever heard of Islamic religious beliefs? That's "a lot." Ever heard of Mormon religious beliefs? That's "a lot." Ever heard of Hindu religious beliefs? That's "a lot." So what? "A lot" is irrelevant to whether or not it's true.

"People like me reach different conclusions from atheists because we have some additional factual statements to work with: God exists, God is good etc. Our conclusions are logical enough given our starting facts." This is the poster child example of circular reasoning which is evidence of lazy thinking.

Well, FatMatty et al, teach lazy me to be industrious. Take me through it a step at a time.

What is the principle (or whatever we may call it) that people like me offend? I have formulated it as follows: A thing exists, or a statement is true, if and only if the existence of the thing or the truth of the statement is proved, or at least provable, empirically (scientifically).

If I have formulated it incorrectly, please reformulate it. You've all said it a thousand times: what is it again?

I would argue that the statement "It is reasonable to believe that a statement is true, if and only if the truth of the statement is, at least in theory, empirically provable, or that the statement is a tautology, true by definition (the length of a second, for instance), or logically follows from established truths." is itself a tautology.

If the truth of a statement has a discernible effect on the universe (which is separate from the effect of people simply believing in its truth) then it is, at least in theory, provable. This also means that if a statement is unfalsifiable, whether it is true or not has absolutely no noticeable effect on the universe. This means that there is, quite literally, absolutely no possible rational basis for belief it in.

Excluding this basic requirement makes every possible truth claim equally valid. It is, again quite literally, "unreasonable" to exclude this requirement, as it makes reasoned debate impossible. Thus, my original statement could be rewritten "allowing any statement as a fact, even ones with no possible rational basis for belief, makes rational debate impossible", which looks much more obviously like a tautology.

pip sir, sorry I missed your post. I can't see how the statement is a tautology. And I'm afraid I can't tell where you stand (atheist or not). If you are, please replace my statement with the one you say is correct. The proposition that guides your thinking and that you use to critique my belief in God etc.

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