Atheism/agnosticism 1: Atheism okay…

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.

In the next post I want to make the case for a robust agnosticism in most matters…


*Postscript/erratum (updated)

“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.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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31 Responses to Atheism/agnosticism 1: Atheism okay…

  1. dsholland says:

    Well said. I was also stung by the “fool has said in his heart..” reference having used it in the original thread 😦

    My insensitivity was not (as you point out) intended as a personal attack. Mindful as I am that he who says “thou fool” is in danger of hellfire 😉 It is a consequence of the incongruity that results in atheists being better than their beliefs (as you also point out).

    I do have a minor point of contention however on the “modernness” of personal atheism. The OT is full of references to the attitude that “He” doesn’t see which I believe implies He isn’t there to be looking.

    Another very insightful observation is that people form beliefs then logical systems to support them. Another reason why no one was ever argued into faith (or out of it).

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    • Thanks David – you’re always very encouraging :-).

      My understanding is that when the Bible (particularly the OT) talks of unbelievers and scoffers, it’s not really referring to what we today would understand as atheism, which is generally accepted to be a fairly recent entry onto the ideological scene. As far as I understand it, the ancient mindset would have taken it as read that there was a realm of spirits, angels, gods and perhaps even some kind of supreme uber-deity. However, many would have paid God / the gods only lip service, imagining that they could either be bought off with the odd sacrifice or that they weren’t really bothered what humans got up to. And more specifically within monotheistic Hebrew society, some would not have accepted the righteous demands of the one ‘I AM’ and would have preferred to settle for the less stringent moral requirements of other gods. It’s something along these lines that I think the Psalmist is referring to, rather than the kind of atheism we see today.

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  2. “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 practised by Dawkins, Hitchens, Atkins and friends – is strangely akin to religious fundamentalism.”

    This is a lie. You are, like most theists I’ve met, a liar.

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    • I’m impressed by your willingness to engage in thoughtful, rational debate without resorting to name-calling. You’re a credit to your cause. 😉

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      • PrettyMolecules says:

        Well, he does have a small point: It does seem rather like you lied there. For instance, you stated that Richard Dawkins dogmatically rules out the supernatural, but he (Dawkins) has repeatedly stated that he is ‘a six’ on his own scale of one-to-seven regarding religious certainty. In short, he himself said it was impossible to be absolutely sure that there is no God, just that every bit of logic and evidence points to there being no diety.

        Perhaps it’s an error rather than a lie that you rattle off a series of names, most if not all of which do not fit your argument. You have to understand that in religious discourse, atheists are starting to get rather used to utterly shameless lying on the part of the theist. Lying for Jesus seems to be a major pasttime for the average theist we hear from or about, with creationists being the most dire offenders against honesty.

        So it’s perhaps understandable that when we see you write something that goes directly against the available evidence, we may tend to jump to the conclusion of ‘yet another liar for Jesus’.

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        • I like the idea of there being no ‘diety’ 😉

          Again, ‘every bit of logic and evidence points to there being no deity’ if you’re starting from the materialist premise – as I’ll try to demonstrate if and when I get onto my 3rd post in this series. So it looks to me that Dawkins is either being a tiny bit disingenuous or perhaps just isn’t fully aware of his philosophical underpinnings. Probably the latter, as he seems to me a very honest man. If you’re interested in a more coherent counter-argument than I’m capable of, philosopher Keith Ward has done a pretty good job in ‘Why there is almost certainly a God’.

          By the way, I’m a fairly ardent evolutionist and I too get irritated by creationist arguments, so I understand where you’re coming from on that. I’m not sure that in most cases they’re setting out to lie, but perhaps are often repeating what they’ve heard from their side rather than researching the facts. Which I guess we can all fall prey to.

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      • I dunno. A lie is a lie. If someone steals my wallet, I’m going to call him a thief. If someone kills someone, I’m going to call him a murderer. If someone, such as yourself, tells a lie, I’m going to call him a liar. If you don’t want to be called a liar, rather than stand on courtesy, perhaps you might, you know, *not lie*.

        Of course, truth is an affirmative defense against both slander and accusations of lying. If you want to show quotations or specific citations (not merely your own broad interpretation), well, that would be another story. I’d like to see evidence of dogmatism, of advocacy of violence, of going “way beyond reasonable grounds for not believing in God.”

        If you want to *argue* these points, argue them. If you just want to tear apart straw men, well, you can join the rest Christians whose egregious intellectual dishonesty and incompetence has led me to abandon any hope of rational debate.

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        • No problem – if you are also able to offer quotes and evidence concerning ‘the rest [of] Christians’ (a fairly sweeping statement) to back up your accusation of their ‘egregious intellectual dishonesty and incompetence’.

          I’m very willing to engage in a rational – and courteous – debate. I understand and share some of your anger against the behaviour and thinking of many Christians. I hope you noticed that in my original post I criticised the circular arguments of religious apologists, acknowledged that there is a perfectly reasonable case for atheism and also emphasised that in a number of areas (many) atheists are way ahead of (many) Christians.

          I hope you are also aware that there is quite a major difference between a lie and an error. If I make an incorrect statement, that may indeed be a deliberate lie. It may on the other hand be a genuine error. (It may also be a joke, though in this case it wasn’t.) Or, just possibly, it may neither be a lie or an error.

          I’ve freely acknowledged that I may be mistaken in what I originally said, and have added a postscript/erratum accordingly. However, to the best of my reading of Dawkins, it still seems to me (please note the qualifier) that what I said was broadly correct. Of course it may be open to interpretation and debate; it’s surprisingly difficult to make a 100% unarguably true and fully accurate statement except in pure maths (where 1+1 is fairly unequivocably 2). Even Dawkins is apparently only 85% sure that he’s right, though he didn’t title his book ‘The 85%-probable God delusion’. Last I saw, we were all entitled to hold and state our interpretations and opinions of the evidence as we understand it.

          Now it seems to me that it would be merely courteous and reasonable to assume, from the overall tenor of my post, that I’m not deliberately setting out to lie but that I’m mistaken, or even that my interpretation may possibly have some validity even if it is different to yours.

          You are of course welcome to say what you like – it’s a free country. However, please be aware that you only damage your own position by making unnecessarily belligerent accusations before stopping to ask if there may be any other explanation to cover the facts.

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    • “I’m very willing to engage in a rational – and courteous – debate. ”

      I dunno. If you’re going to start out a so-called debate by poisoning the well and demolishing a straw man, why I should I believe you even know what a rational and courteous debate actually is? You remind me (just a little) of a guy I know who writes about the inferiority of black people and Jews, and then complains that everyone insults him by calling him a racist and anti-semite.

      If you want to talk about so-called “philosophical Atheism,” then maybe you might want to engage more directly with the material you seem to reference, rather than insulting, broad generalizations that seem — by virtue of your lack of quotations or specific citations — to reflect your own prejudices rather than an honest examination of the material.

      And if you want an example of a Christian being intellectually dishonest, just look at the OP.

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      • I didn’t actually set out to start out a debate; I wrote a blog post stating my perceptions, and you responded.

        I also had no intention of poisoning any wells or demolishing any straw men – I’ve seen quite enough of this from both sides to know that it’s not helpful. I stated my own interpretation of Richard Dawkins’ position, in the context of a post which praised atheists in general – which I will continue to do, despite your responses. My crime seems to be simply that I called Dawkins a dogmatic philosophical Materialist, when in fact he’s only 85% certain of his position and therefore not dogmatic.

        My point was simply that many of the main arguments that he raises in his (very well-written and enjoyable) book do seem to depend strongly on the Materialist/Naturalist assumption. For those who have not already broadly accepted philosophical Materialism, the arguments lose a lot of their weight (I’m happy to go into more detail later). It therefore seems more respectful to Dawkins’ intellect to assume that he is aware of this and is fairly committed to Materialism, rather than to assume that he is simply unaware.

        Now it seems to me that it is you who are making far broader and apparently more prejudiced generalisations when you say that ‘the rest of Christians’ are guilty of ‘egregious intellectual dishonesty and incompetence’. That’s a fairly major accusation compared to what I levelled at Dawkins, and you are levelling it at all Christians – something I think you will find very hard to prove, short of meeting every single Christian on the globe. However, I am not going to call you a liar.

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  3. Boz says:

    ” 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 practised by Dawkins, Hitchens, Atkins and friends”

    Can you provide quotes(evidence) please, that these people hold this opinion.

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    • I take it you haven’t read The God Delusion recently then? 😉

      Pretty much the entire logical thrust of the book rests on the materialist premise, implicitly if not explicitly. Have a read again and see if you can spot it. It’s not a bad book, even if its philosophical underpinnings are not as watertight as Dawkins thinks.

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      • PrettyMolecules says:

        The book in which Richard Dawkins makes the point that, even if we can’t be sure God doesn’t exist, it’s possible to at least point out that the abrahamic God idea is extremely improbable?

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        • Yes, that would be the one ;-). I’ve read and enjoyed The God Delusion and Dawkins is – in my view, and I fully accept I may be mistaken – slightly inconsistent in his argument here.

          Dawkins does indeed say that God is improbable rather than impossible. However, almost all his arguments to show that God is improbable rest – perhaps unwittingly – upon materialist assumptions. The arguments only pack philosophical punch if you’ve already accepted that matter/energy/nature is all there is. I’ll happily concede that Dawkins is not 100% certain about his premise – good for him – but it does (on my reading) still lead him into circular reasoning: God probably doesn’t exist because the materialist premise is probably true.

          I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve had to put up with lots of ‘liars for Jesus’. I’m sure that’s the case, and it saddens me. If you read my post carefully you will see that I’ve repeatedly said ‘to my mind’ or ‘I think’ rather than stating as unequivocal fact. I’m willing to accept correction and to admit that I’ve got something wrong, but would prefer not to receive aggressive accusation of lying.

          I hope you’ll re-read my post in full and see that I’m trying very hard to be courteous and fair-minded towards atheists – and also critical towards religious believers. It would do your side no harm if those who disagree with me could accord similar courtesy in response. 🙂

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  5. It’s worth noting that you have been asked both politely (by others) and somewhat rudely (by myself; I don’t mince words, and if you want to invoke academic courtesy, you will need to hold yourself to standards of academic rigor) to substantiate your assertions. You have consistently failed to do so, preferring to object to the form of the demands rather than their substance.

    Whether or not TGD rests on the “materialist premise” is really not germane and simply avoids the question. You have made specific assertions that have nothing to do with materialism, specifically dogmatism, violence, and going “way beyond” reasonability.

    I have finally stumbled across your “Postscript and erratum,” but it does not seem to address the fundamental issue. Foisting the assertions off on your “impression” simply place the issue outside the bounds of debate; you are indubitably correct as to the content of your own impressions. If, however, you want to discuss whether those impressions are reasonably justified, we’re back where we started, with a demand for quotations and citations.

    A precise and coherent argument wouldn’t hurt either; simply objecting to materialist or naturalist premises (materialism and naturalism are substantively different) is not by itself meaningful, much less interesting. You must give us a precise and specific definition of what these premises are, you must show evidence that some notable atheists (who can unobjectionably stand in for common themes of atheist discourse) actually rely on these premises, and you must show how these premises are philosophically objectionable. This is basic mid-semester English Comp 101 stuff: specificity, precision, relevance, and justification.

    Show me you know how to conduct a reasonable and courteous debate, and I will — like any good skeptic — revise my opinion about your character and competence and be happy to engage with you on that basis.

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    • Okay, Larry. I hear you. I’m also glad to know finally what it is exactly that I was meant to be lying about as both PrettyMolecules and I seem to have gone off on a tangent, hence my postscript.

      The offending sentence is: “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.” If I’m correct you’re particularly objecting to the terms “dogmatic” and “violent” and “way beyond reasonable grounds”.

      1. “Dogmatic”. In philosophy, this can mean “Adhering only to principles which are true a priori, rather than truths based on evidence or deduction” (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/dogmatic – perhaps not the most reliable source but my dictionary’s downstairs). If you read my sentence carefully, I was aiming any criticism solely at a kind of philosophical Atheism based ‘dogmatically’ on a priori principles of there being no supernatural realm or beings. In other words, I wasn’t criticising atheism in general, but purely atheism which rests on particular assumptions which cannot themselves be demonstrated. Whether or not Dawkins and others actually hold this position is debatable – if Dawkins says he doesn’t, I accept that.

      2. “Violent”. This was perhaps not the wisest word to use, though given that you call me “stupid” on your blog you may not be best placed to speak on wise word choices. 😉 By “violence” I was not referring to physical acts, but was using it in the fairly common sense of “violent dislike”. This seems to me a fair interpretation – as one who has read a considerable amount of angry and outspoken atheist literature, it’s hard not to get the sense of a “violent dislike” towards religion. I don’t see the need to justify this further – it’s my interpretation as one on the receiving end.

      3. “way beyond reasonable”. Well, in the opening section I set out what I consider to be reasonable grounds for atheism. In the short – and perhaps unwise – aside about “dogmatic atheism” I go on to say that I consider non-reasonable those atheist arguments that are based on particular non-provable assumptions of the primacy or exclusivity of matter.

      As I say, I wasn’t setting out to start up a debate here, and had I been I might have chosen my terms more carefully. Having attempted to clarify my position, I don’t particularly feel compelled to comply with demands for further quotes and evidence – especially since you yourself have made blanket statements which cannot be backed up by evidence, notably the egregious intellectual dishonesty of all Christians.

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      • “‘Dogmatic’. In philosophy, this can mean ‘Adhering only to principles which are true a priori, rather than truths based on evidence or deduction'” (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/dogmatic – perhaps not the most reliable source but my dictionary’s downstairs). If you read my sentence carefully, I was aiming any criticism solely at a kind of philosophical Atheism based ‘dogmatically’ on a priori principles of there being no supernatural realm or beings.”

        That definition is close enough, so long as we don’t blithely assume that subtleties ignored by a capsule definition are actually absent. I accept that later you back away from this assertion. But I repeat my criticism, if only for the record: if you’re going to assert dogmatism, you need to support it with evidence. Given its nature, it seems especially important to support the assertion of dogmatism with actual evidence.

        “In other words, I wasn’t criticising atheism in general, but purely atheism which rests on particular assumptions which cannot themselves be demonstrated.”

        Note that you’re subtly shifting the goalposts. First, you assert that dogmatism is belief based *only* on a priori beliefs; here you’re omitting the “only” and criticizing a position because it might rest on *some* a priori beliefs. This sense is objectionable for reasons I describe in my other post.

        “By ‘violence’ I was not referring to physical acts, but was using it in the fairly common sense of ‘violent dislike’.”

        The problem then becomes that “violent” dislike is not at all unreasonable. I violently dislike Jagermeister, but that does not mean we can conclude my preferences are irrational.

        “‘way beyond reasonable’. Well, in the opening section I set out what I consider to be reasonable grounds for atheism. In the short – and perhaps unwise – aside about “dogmatic atheism” I go on to say that I consider non-reasonable those atheist arguments that are based on particular non-provable assumptions of the primacy or exclusivity of matter.”

        Again, I will repeat: I understood what you *meant* from the start; I criticized you for not providing evidence that Dawkins et al. actually did go way beyond what is reasonable.

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    • PS I’ve updated my postscript accordingly, as my original one was clearly based on a misunderstanding (you obviously may need to refresh the page to see the change).

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  6. It also occurs to me that the dig against Dawkins et al. seems entirely gratuitous. You open with a pretty good summary of atheism; since you admit this is a “live” definition, the principle of charity suggests that you focus on this definition. By invoking your “impressions” of Dawkins and the “philosophical Atheists”, you move the focus of your essay on this uncharitable definition. If you admit a reasonable definition or approach, unreasonable versions become irrelevant. Your tactic here subverts, rather than facilitates, reasonable and courteous debate, but I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility of error rather than mendacity.

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  7. And one other side note: You appear to conflate naturalism, a fundamentally epistemic position, with materialism, an ontological position. Briefly, naturalism defines knowledge as gained by virtue of our reason and our shared perceptual experience. Materialism, on the other hand, states that only that all natural knowledge rests on causes “inside” the material universe. If you were to make an evidentiary case for the existence of God, then you would be, by this definition, making a specifically *natural* case for a *non-material* entity.

    I discuss this position in more detail on my blog.

    http://barefootbum.blogspot.com/2009/06/naturalism-and-supernaturalism.html

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    • Okay, that’s certainly interesting, and I take that on board. However, I’d be glad to see where you derive these definitions from, as they’re certainly different from the ones in the dictionaries I’ve consulted (online and otherwise).

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    • By the way, I think you may be misreading me here: I do actually distinguish in my original post between Materialism (which I define broadly as ‘matter/energy is the fundamental reality’) and Naturalism (which I define as ‘physical nature is all there is’). These are of course only broad and basic working definitions. The two are of course different types of position as you point out, but they are also closely related. You seem to be using the terms in particular and highly technical senses which I don’t dispute, but I’m not convinced that these are the only or indeed the standard meanings.

      E.g. Wikipedia’s article on Naturalism (which I’m aware is far from infallible) refers to ‘ontological naturalism’ (as opposed to epistemic).

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    • If you’ll read my article, you’ll see that I’m trying to create new and improved definitions, because the old ones conflate the underlying ideas. I argue that the underlying ideas are distinct and susceptible to adequately precise definition. The terminology, however, is not the big deal; regardless of the terminology, it’s important to somehow distinguish between the epistemic and ontological ideas.

      If you say were to say that Dawkins is committed a priori to gaining knowledge by natural means (very briefly, creating the best explanation that fits the observed facts), you would be correct, but so what? We have to be committed a priori to *some* knowledge acquisition system. We can push the a priori propositions back a step (e.g., we can assert a priori that an epistemic system must do some particular task, and can be evaluated by some particular criteria) but at the end of the day we’re still left with a philosophical assumption resting on some propositions held a priori. Therefore it’s not really a criticism of any particular party to say that they hold some sort of a priori position; you have to examine the positions that they actually hold, and, perhaps more relevant to your line of criticism, what positions they actually reject.

      On the other hand, if you could show that Dawkins held *materialism* (in the specifically ontological sense as I define it) a priori, you could definitely say at least that he was being inconsistent with scientific epistemology, which rejects any specifically ontological a priori beliefs: all our ontological beliefs must be justified epistemically. You have to be careful, though: there is an important and substantive distinction between a belief held a priori, and a belief simply taken for granted. The difference is that an a priori belief *cannot* be epistemically justified; a belief merely taken for granted could, at least in theory, be epistemically justified. I submit that materialism (or physicalism, if one must pick nits) is usually just taken for granted; it is not held a priori. Materialism can be justified epistemically; the exercise is so obvious and tedious that most people don’t bother.

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  8. dsholland says:

    Not to break up the party but is there a real refutation of the idea presented that there is a form of Atheism which exhibits the characteristic of Dogma (as defined by EL March 18, 2011 at 1:37 pm) WRT the basis of its position? Did I miss it?

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  9. Pingback: Atheism » Blog Archive » The Barefoot Bum: Atheism and philosophy

  10. I’m assuming that you’ve abandoned the conversation; I’m no longer checking for updates. If you want to continue, please email me and I’ll reply.

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  11. Pingback: Atheism » Blog Archive » Atheism/agnosticism 2: Agnosticism better… | The Evangelical Liberal

  12. mwaura says:

    I agree with 100%….

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