My recent post Animism vs Atheism possibly came over a bit atheist-bashing so I’d like to redress the balance a little. That’s just the kind of lovely guy I am. 😉
This is the first in a series of 3 posts: Atheism okay; Agnosticism better; Theism best of all.
The reasonable case for atheism
Let me say for a start that atheists do have a perfectly reasonable case to make – here it is in a nutshell:
- It’s not possible to prove the existence of God or of a supernatural realm (by means of logical argument or scientific evidence).
- Science doesn’t require God or the supernatural as an explanatory hypothesis.
- Religion in general has not proved itself to be an unequivocal force for good in the world, and in many cases has been the exact opposite.
- It’s almost impossible to believe in the all-good, all-powerful God of Christianity in the face of all the considerable mess, badness and sufferings of the world.
That, to my mind, by and large constitutes the reasonable case for atheism, and it’s not bad as far as it goes. Those who accept atheism on these grounds are in my view mistaken, but they’re by no means fools or ignorant. (I actually largely agree with all four points above, but my own thinking leads me in a different direction than the atheist conclusion.)
Of course, these are far from the only arguments put forward for atheism, but they seem to me about the only ones that are not in some way fallacious or based on circular reasoning. (I’ll come back briefly to some of these later. To my mind the silliest is the claim that the God of the Bible is a monster, as if character assassination could ever provide grounds for non-existence!)
Emotional and experiential reasons for atheism
However, I suspect that most of us – religious believers and atheists alike – do not actually come to our beliefs for purely intellectual reasons in the first instance. It’s often only after we’ve adopted a position that we start to seek solid intellectual grounds to justify it; emotional, experiential and cultural factors often play a large part in initially adopting or rejecting a particular belief.
Many – atheists and believers alike – hold their views largely because they have uncritically imbibed the prevailing beliefs of their own backgrounds; or, conversely, because they have rebelled against those backgrounds. (I don’t have a problem with this, but of course it doesn’t provide rational grounds for holding or rejecting a belief.)
There are also many who are atheists because they have been deeply hurt or disappointed by their encounters with religion, and I have great sympathy for anyone in this position. I also feel a great sense of shame and shared responsibility that fellow members and institutions of my own faith have inflicted such damage.
Practical vs philosophical Atheism
I would say then that there are perfectly valid and reasonable grounds for a kind of practical or personal atheism, and I have no wish to knock anyone for taking this position, even if I don’t myself find it ultimately satisfying or convincing.
(As a brief aside, when the Psalmist says “The fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God'”, I do not believe this is meant as an attack on personal atheism, which is essentially a modern phenomenon. Rather it is a warning to those who imagine they can get away with any kind of evil behaviour because there is no Ultimate Justice.)
I would however contrast reasonable atheism very strongly with dogmatic philosophical Atheism (capital A), which a priori rules the supernatural out of court, which is violently opposed to religious belief and which I think goes way beyond the reasonable grounds for not believing in God. To my mind this kind of Atheism – as apparently espoused by Dawkins, Hitchens, Atkins and friends – is strangely akin to religious fundamentalism.* (see Postscript and erratum)
Philosophical Atheism assumes a starting point of Materialism or Naturalism (matter/energy is the fundamental reality; physical nature is all that there is) and bases its arguments on this. But this is essentially a philosophical or metaphysical premise; it cannot be logically deduced or proved, and there are alternatives available which I hope to show in later posts are actually more probable.
Philosophical Atheism puts forward a number of arguments based on its materialist premise, for example: a divine Creator would himself need to be created; ‘God’ is in the category of imaginary mythical beings along with Zeus/unicorns/fairies; religious belief can be explained by evolutionary psychology; religious experience is just a brain state; Occam’s Razor disproves God; etc. All of these only work if you accept the starting materialist premise (some of them don’t work too well even then).
To be fair though, religious apologists also put forward a great number of equally fallacious or circular arguments. The worst of these (in my view) are those based on the grounds that the Bible is the Inerrant and Unarguable Word of God, so they put forward ‘proof-texts’ as arguments, as though these would convince anyone who doesn’t already accept the Bible as authoritative.
So practical/personal atheism all fine; philosophical Atheism not so marvellous.
Better than their beliefs
I also want to acknowledge that a great many atheists are far more responsible citizens of the universe than are many religious believers. They are often full of wonder and awe at the universe, and are also doing all they can to alleviate poverty and care for the planet. This puts them far ahead of the many Christians who treat the world as a resource to be exploited, and who view the poor largely as charity cases.
So for example for those atheists who label themselves ‘humanists’, their atheism is in many ways simply a conscious choice to prefer the real needs of humans to the perceived needs of a deity, imagined or otherwise. Again, I would see this as a highly practical and reasonable atheism, in stark contrast to the philosophically-motivated kind.
Nonetheless, I would argue that atheism – as a philosophy – offers less coherent grounds for such philanthropy and wonder at nature than theism. If the universe and its inhabitants are simply random conglomerations of matter without ultimate meaning or purpose, it’s hard to see what (rational) grounds there are for wonder, kindness or goodness. (Of course there are good practical grounds for reciprocal altruism, but I’m not sure that most people do actually behave on the basis of such logic.)
So it seems to me then that many atheists are better than their beliefs (and the same is true for a lot of religious believers). Their attitudes and behaviour are often a great testament to their humanity – but not necessarily to their atheist philosophy.
“I would however contrast reasonable atheism very strongly with dogmatic philosophical Atheism (capital A), which a priori rules the supernatural out of court, which is violently opposed to religious belief and which I think goes way beyond the reasonable grounds for not believing in God. To my mind this kind of Atheism – as apparently espoused by Dawkins, Hitchens, Atkins and friends – is strangely akin to religious fundamentalism.”
It’s been pointed out to me (in no uncertain terms) that I’m mistaken – or indeed lying – in making the above assertions. My choice of the terms “dogmatic”, “violently opposed” and “way beyond reasonable grounds” have all been strongly challenged and it’s also been pointed out to me that Dawkins (for one) does not espouse “dogmatic philosophical atheism”. He is, in fact, only 6/7ths (85%) certain of his position.
Let me assure all concerned that any false impression given was the result either of genuine misunderstanding on my part or of a lack of clarity in my definition of terms, rather than of any desire to deceive. I have no wish to set up straw men, poison the well or be a ‘liar for Jesus’.
I’ve tried to clarify my terms in the comments below, particularly here. I certainly did not mean that Dawkins (or any other particular individual) incites or practices physical violence towards religion – I was using the term in the sense of ‘a violent dislike’. Given the response below accusing Christians of ‘egregious intellectual dishonesty and incompetence’, that seems fair enough to me.
I’m also very happy to be corrected regarding Dawkins’ personal level of dogmaticism and certainty. My point was simply that it does at least seem to me (and I may be wrong) to be possible, and possibly useful, to distinguish between a reasonable and thoughtful type of atheism and a more fundamentalist – and sometimes more aggressive – type based on philosophical premises which are themselves not provable. (In a similar way it’s useful to distinguish between more rational and thoughtful types of theism and more belligerent, unreasonable and fundamentalist versions.)
Now, I will acknowledge that in this, as in everything else, I may be wrong. Indeed, it’s quite likely that I’m wrong. I’m setting out here to write a personal blog, not an academic treatise or an encyclopedia entry; I am stating my own personal opinions and interpretations, based on my own sometimes flawed understanding and memory, rather than peer-reviewed extensively-referenced facts. I’m happy to be challenged on what I say, but I reserve the right to present my own views and understandings – or in some cases misunderstandings – on my own blog without having to justify my every poorly-chosen word or imperfectly-thought-through idea to every angry dropper-by.