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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