Home > Apologetics, Atheism, Science > Defining Atheism #2

Defining Atheism #2

There is a serious logical fault in claiming antitheism. All too often I hear the famous cry, “a lack of evidence, a lack of evidence”, and so the antitheist turns its back to Christianity. There are two major problems with this idea of “a lack of evidence”. First, not all evidence has to be scientific evidence. Historical evidence, archaeological evidence, and Psychological evidence speak boldly for Christianity, and in my experience have gone without adequate refute. When one turns to antitheism for “a lack of evidence” what that usually means is “a lack of evidence for the supernatural”. And so, “a lack of evidence” is truly a masked way to say “a naturalistic bias”.
The second problem with a lack of evidence emerges from the equal lack of evidence that disproves the supernatural. This is a sticky idea, because on the surface it seems to be teetering on the edge of logical fallacy: “There’s no evidence to disprove a pink unicorn, but I don’t, by default, believe it exists.” One cannot, equally by default deny the unicorn’s existence. That denial is based on the same lack of evidence as is the belief. Despite what one may believe, nature does allow for supernature. By definition the two do not overlap. What is the role of the sciences here? Is it not to explore, expose and verify nature? In doing so science will not conflict with the supernatural. In short, there is no evidence for antitheism; one cannot logically reject Christianity and turn to antitheism on the grounds of “a lack of evidence”.
As a side note, I do not believe in pink unicorns (unless it’s a stuffed play thing). There is no archeological, historical, manuscript, philosophical or psychological (Which is scientific, actually) evidence, and quite frankly, it just doesn’t matter if I do or not. In terms of religion, there is significantly more  evidence that lies outside the realm of science, and the implications are immense. It matters if Christianity is true. For that matter, it matters if Hinduism or Islam are true. It is not at all a matter of pink unicorn.

  1. January 28, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    First, not all evidence has to be scientific evidence. Historical evidence, archaeological evidence, and Psychological evidence speak boldly for Christianity, and in my experience have gone without adequate refute.

    So says you. Most atheists include historical evidence in their analyses. While there were a number of historians living in the region at the time Jesus supposedly lived, there are curiously no contemporary sources (including the gospels) for any of it. And psychological evidence? You mean, how you feel about Christianity or god? That is not evidence for the claims of Christianity or the existence of god in any way, shape or form. At most, it is evidence about how you feel about god and Christianity. That’s the extent of any conclusion such data can possibly support. Achaeological evidence? Setting aside that there isn’t a shred of evidence for many things claimed in the bible (The Exodus, for instance, or the Massacre of the Innocents), taking the mention of places and events which are independent of the Jesus narrative as being evidence for its truth value is like saying that because Atlanta and the Civil War are historically true Gone With the Wind is a biography of Scarlett O’Hara. I don’t think so.

    The second problem with a lack of evidence emerges from the equal lack of evidence that disproves the supernatural. This is a sticky idea, because on the surface it seems to be teetering on the edge of logical fallacy…
    Teetering, nothing. It IS a logic fallacy, namely argumentum ad ignorantium. We atheists are not making the claim that the supernatural does not exist. All we are saying is that there is no reason to accept the claim that it does exist. The burden of prood is clearly on those claiming it does.

    In terms of religion, there is significantly more evidence that lies outside the realm of science, and the implications are immense.

    Science can help us understand anything which has an existence in reality. If it is not within reality, as your statement indicates, we can not understand it or even speak intelligeably about it. Ergo, it is irrational to accept it.

    The argument that “you can’t prove it’s wrong so I’m right”, which sums up this blog entry in its entirety (right from the first sentence), isn’t doing anything to change my mind.

    • February 5, 2011 at 4:02 AM

      Hey Shameless, thanks for chiming in, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to reply. First, this blog is not about historical, archaeological, or psychological evidence. However, I do believe you should know that every nation of people, and place, down to specific detail in the bible have been verified archeologically and cross referenced historically. I can provide examples if you like, but this really isn’t the right discussion. For Psychological evidence I was referring mostly to the events of the cross and the following days and the lives of the self claimed eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. Psychologically there is no possibility that what we know happened historically would have happened if they did not believe it to be absolute truth, beyond rumor, but to eye witness status. Again, this is not the place to make the argument.
      The argument I was truly making has been pointed out quite clearly, by you. “you can’t prove it’s wrong so I’m right.” That is precisely what the atheist says when they make their claim of atheism (a truth claim) based on “a lack of evidence” for theism. I don’t want to repeat my blog, so I’ll leave you at that. I hope you keep chatting, it’ll be good to hear from you again.

  2. January 28, 2011 at 10:54 PM

    If you are not willing to use the tools of rational scientific inquiry to discern truth, then what tools are you willing to use? There are at least a hundred major world faiths that are well attested to by historical documents, personal experiance, and archeological evidence. We now refer to most of these relgions as mythologies, but the fact remains that the standards of evidence you suggest we apply warrant belief in dozens of dead gods and discarded faiths.

    Please name one single thing in all of existence that we KNOW (in as much as we can KNOW anything) to be true that has been determined by non-scienctific or non-naturalistic evidence and methods. I dare say you can’t do it, but maybe you’l surprise me.

    • February 5, 2011 at 4:14 AM

      Phantompos, you make a great point in the historical documents, person experience, and archeological evidence for other religions. I like that quite a bit, and thank you for sharing. However, it is important to note that Christianity has been represented as conspiracy and fraud many times. If the historical and archaeological evidences have been tested and find no reason to claim the historicity as fraud, that is important evidence, would you not agree? If, on the other hand, Christianity is presented as fraud, and the historical and archaeological evidence does not agree with the text, then it can be much more easily and readily dismissed. The fact that the evidence is in agreement with the text does not make the content separate from the evident mentions true but, it does make them possible truth to be discerned through other means.
      Also, I do not reject the “tools of rational scientific inquiry to discern truth” But I also do not affirm that the subject of that inquiry is absolute truth, that is the natural (as we define it). I believe there to be a “supernatural” undetected by those tools. This brings me into your question of knowledge. I will refrain from quoting Nietzsche and putting forth Platonic ideas, though they are very relevant in epistemology. You should look into them, they are interesting. I will merely say the problem Knowledge of existence beyond nature is kind of what I was getting at too. We agree there. But you can’t accept atheism by default because of a “lack of evidence” because there is no evidence to support the positive claims to truth inherent with atheism.

  3. January 30, 2011 at 2:00 AM

    As a philosopher I am interested in any evidence for theism possible, but I don’t see anything convincing. I have studied all the arguments and evidence I could find and nothing seemed to imply Christianity or the supernatural. People would prefer not to believe in the supernatural or use the supernatural for explanations in particular. For example, even Christians should prefer evolution over creationism. What was once taken to “require God” didn’t require God after all. God was not a good explanation, and I don’t think it is ever a good explanation.

    Naturalism isn’t merely a bias. We should prefer natural (rather than supernatural) explanations when possible. When you lose your keys and they weren’t where you left them, do you think it was probably moved by a ghost or is it more likely that you just forgot where you put them?

    • February 5, 2011 at 4:33 AM

      James, thank you, I am a fan of philosophy myself, though I am not as well read as I should be. Two thoughts.
      1. Is Christianity’s role to fill the gaps of knowledge and necessity as they arise? If yes, then your statement regarding what requires God now seems not to, then sure, I’ll grant you that (Even though you have far overstepped the bounds of evolution [which evolution far overstepped the bounds of what science actually tells us]). If no, what then is your argument.
      I favor no.
      2. What if natural explanations are not possible. I do not mean to fill the gaps of knowledge, but rather, say, a dead guy who was stabbed in the side, lost blood and water that defies any opportunity of life, who is known by medical science to have had a serious heart condition, and was locked tight and rotting for 3 days. After that he is seen walking around jolly, and the security detail at his grave (who would be executed had they deserted or dishonored their post) are seen scared stiff at the site. Natural explanation, GO! …

      That is all anecdotal evidence, of course, when one believes in the supernatural. If not then… “a lack of evidence”… and my blog reads true.

      • February 5, 2011 at 7:48 PM

        1. My argument is that we all have a preference to nonsupernatural explanations. We shouldn’t accept that something requires the supernatural unless all other options are exhausted. Christians reject almost all supernatural explanations just like atheists.

        2. If natural explanations are not possible, then naturalism is probably false. However, I am talking about reality here and not merely our understanding of reality. For example, it wasn’t possible to understand lightning in naturalistic terms in the past, but now it is. If it is possible for naturalism to explain something in the future, then it might still be true.

        I don’t know all the details about the guy who was “rotting” in your example and it sounds like you are referring to Jesus. One explanation is just that it never happened.

      • February 7, 2011 at 11:37 AM

        James, if “all other options” are knowable, then one would have absolute knowledge. Furthermore, if we could test, “exhaust”, those options one would have absolute means. Both of those (absolute knowledge and absolute means) are qualities attributed to, and only possible in, the supernatural God. In short, what you have said is we should only accept something requires the supernatural if we, are in fact, supernatural, and God, for that matter. In short you’ve created a loop hole of noncommittal. “There’s always other options, even if they are unknowable”.
        Also, you said “almost all”… that’s a qualifier that makes your statement true, but very weak. Christianity is built around belief in the supernatural event of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Clearly that is not “like atheists”.
        Making time a factor is another way of using the same loophole as earlier. “There’s always other options, even if we don’t know them, yet.”

        Yes, I was talking about Jesus. You’re right, it is a valid explanation that it never happened. Now, on that hypothesis one must go and study the testable evidences for Jesus’ death, and resurrection, and the early history of the church based on eyewitness accounts. May I suggest to you Frank Miller’s book “Who Moved the Stone”. Miller set out to disprove Christianity by doing just that, and in the light of the evidences was persuaded to become a Christian. As was Josh McDowell, and many others. Look for manuscript evidence, archeological evidence, psychological analysis of the lives of the eyewitnesses. To say it never happened is to say so without evidence, and in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. You’re a really smart guy James, I hope you stick around to chat some more. I am a sucker for philosophy, as well. :]

  4. January 31, 2011 at 4:30 PM

    Good points all around.

    I am starting to see a new trend in blogging with atheists, the problem with life being not only about ‘science reasoning’ and ‘feelings/emotions’ as part of one’s reality as a human. I am not sure what I mean by this except to say ‘something is missing in the conversation over religion’.

    An example would be love. Love is not always verifiable by scientific methods, and if it were, who has the money to pay to see how much someone loves them? However, love is a prime motivator in all good relationships, as unverifiable as it as.

  5. January 31, 2011 at 7:50 PM

    Love is completely verifiable and scientificaly testable.

    The human brain is extraordinarily complex, and we do not yet have a comprehensive view of the interplay between different emotions and brain chemisty, but we do know SOME things.

    We know what causes the emotion “sadness” or “depression”. We can administer chemicals to your brain to make these emotions change. I can give you an injection that will make you happy, period, you will have no choice in the matter. I can give you an injection that will make you apathetic, and I can also give you an injection that will make you feel Love. We know that love is a result of various hormones, endorphins, and that kinda thing. I (well not me personaly, but if I were a doctor I could) can administer certain chemicals to you and make you feel as loved up as a school-boy with a crush. I can also give you blockers that will make you feel cold and distant to your loved ones.

    The more complex the emotion, the harder it is for us to replicate with chemicals, but we can reliably and repeatedly alter emotions. Love, Depression, Happniness, Detachment, Fear, Agression.I can cause all of these emotions with pills. More complex emotions like greed, jealousy, ambition, are a little harder to replicate.

    The point of this reply is that nothing is lacking from the religious discussion when we refer to things like Love. We have a good understanding of love. It is testable, verifiable, alterable, ect.

    Science gives a far better explaiantion of love than Religion ever could. Religion would never have discovered dopamine. Religion would never have discovered the hormones and complex chemistry that cause good feelings, and Religion never could have used that information to combat depression and brain-damage effects.

    • February 5, 2011 at 4:24 AM

      Phantompos, I really did enjoy reading this very much, thank you. Sam Harris has some interesting material similar to your ideas here. I watched a particular lecture on morality, and it too was very interesting.
      You have given our understanding of neurology too much credit. It is fascinating, the truth of the matter, but as for what we already know of how it works, it is not quite so advanced or exact. Also, it is not the chemicals that create the “emotions” that are important, because in that sense it is not an emotion one is feeling, but a series of electrical signals firing off the in the brain due to production of different chemical/hormone cocktails in the cerebrum. Perhaps it is the relationship that produces the effect- the chemical- that is of emphasis, and beyond science. Anthropology tries to figure this out, but has proven more results in interpreting outcomes than predicting them, though some really interesting trends have proved very promising in that field as well. I’m ranting on and on, it is quite late. goodnight, happy readings.

  6. January 31, 2011 at 8:49 PM

    Terminology is important because we use it to represent ideas we assume others share. For example, non belief in god/gods is what defines the term atheists, although I doubt very much you feel any pressing need to call yourself a non believer in alchemy or a non believer in astrology. Your non belief in all these assertions of supernaturalism in every other field of human inquiry is the default… save for theology.

    And so it is understandable that when you believe something has merit – faith-based beliefs in a god or gods, for example – while others do not, you can assume their position is opposite and contrary to your own… whereas you are FOR your beliefs, these folk must be AGAINST your beliefs. But is this really the case?

    Are you really anti-alchemy? Anti-astrology? I doubt it. If you are like most people, you grant to yourself enough doubt to not take these assertions, these truth claims, seriously by not believing them… yet you probably don’t mind living alongside those who might.

    And so it is with atheists and religious beliefs. Your beliefs are your own and you are welcome to them (as long as you are polite enough not to insist that my non belief – like yours about alchemy and pixies – is intolerant).

    But a line is drawn when these faith-based beliefs enter what I call the public domain. The public domain is that space that represents the public, such as government, law, public policy, education, the military, and so on. These are part of the public domain and need to be kept separated from the state favouring any particular faith-based belief. If the state DOES favour a particular faith-based belief, then your freedom to believe differently is impacted as is the policies and procedures of the government. This is my way of saying that YOUR freedom of religion is curtailed when the government – be it local, regional, or federal – favours one over another. You deserve your freedom of religion… as do I. I deserve my freedom FROM the state empowering some religion… whether or not you happen to favour it.

    I would be quite upset, for example, if something like homeopathy – a faith-based belief in the memory of water to cause a curative effect in human health – were to be publicly funded as part of our health care (I’m a Canadian). That is a diversion of funds away from medicine and into quackery. No matter what the faith-based belief might be, I will always take issue with it inserted by some well-meaning believer into the policies and procedures of an agency or institution or body that represent the public.

    Because the insertions into the public domain of religious beliefs seems never-ending, a pushback has finally developed over the last dozen or so years called New Atheism. It is a direct result of 9/11 where the dangers of devout religious belief carried to its logical conclusion were unleashed against an unaware public. On 9/12, Sam Harris began writing his bestseller End of Faith. Soon after that was published, Dan Dennett called for us to break the religious spell that has protected it from legitimate criticism and serious inquiry (Breaking the Spell)for too long. Fed up by creeping creationism and growing anti-evolutionary bias against his scientific field of evolutionary biology, Dawkins wrote The God Delusion. And sensing an appetite for religious criticism, Christopher Hitchens wrote god is not Great after writing a book highly critical and rightly so of Mother Teresa and her Calcutta mission. These are the Big Four – the Four Horsemen – of what we now call Gnu Atheism, but there have always been very big brained people who have written eloquently about the need to keep religion out of the public domain and for excellent reasons (Einstein and Hawkings, Russell, Jefferson, Hume, Kant, Plato, Donne, Voltaire, Beckett, Wilde, and so on and so forth).

    The response has been important: among youth in Canada and the US, atheism is the fastest growing minority and reaches nearly 50% in Canada but only about 20% in the States. Much of western Europe continues to let religion die a slow death but atheist writers and politicians are much more mainstream (people like Onfray and Steiner). We can see more clearly now, for example, that claims that morality depends on religious acceptance in the public domain is patently revealed to be false by the high quality of life and low rates of negative behaviours in these same countries, and we know this because of a rack of recent studies carried out by organizations (like PEW) that have been spurred into action by public interest in such details. And much of that public interest has come about as a direct response to these seminal atheist works and their accurate and disturbing criticisms about the effects of religious beliefs allowed into the public domain.

    Faith-based religious beliefs in the public domain carry with it a negative net cumulative effect (and a growing danger) in every aspect of the public domain in which it is inserted. That’s really what the gnu atheist argument is all about. That is what the atheist movement has brought into our public awareness not by faith-based statements of belief but by well reasoned arguments based on evidence of what’s true and what is knowable. Counter claims by the religious need to tackle these arguments about negative effect and not get bogged down in such trivial matters as tone and motivation and framing, when much more important issues are on the table, issues like equality of legal rights for LGBTs, abortion and end of life issues on ethical and medical grounds, reproductive rights, religious and political freedoms, the dignity of individuals not based on theological assignments of value based on gender, and so on. The theological impediments to having a grown up discussion about these controversial and important issues are far too often obvious and insidious yet excused and accepted without just cause by those who wish to exempt religious beliefs (that have a direct impact on these discussions) from necessary and important criticisms.

    When religious apologists turn to the supernatural and claim we can’t know anything about it with the tools we rely on in this natural world, we see just how duplicitous is the intention when these same folk then claim to know something about it… by some kind of personal revelation and spiritual osmosis that has no bearing whatsoever on what’s true. If the supernatural exists, we cannot know anything about it because we are not so equipped. Those who claim we are must produce evidence and inform their belief with more than assumptions and assertions and wishful thinking.

    I assume of course that these same folk will not find my argument very persuasive that they must first disprove everything they don’t believe in before they tackle any absurd claims I may favour. That isn’t an argument: that is merely an avoidance tactic from actually having a discussion about what is true.

  7. February 2, 2011 at 10:33 AM

    “These are part of the public domain and need to be kept separated from the state favouring any particular faith-based belief” (tildeb)

    I think this the crux of the argument from ‘gnu’ atheism as tildeb is pointing out – quite articulately in this post. I tend to agree for the most part…seperation of religion and state is the norm in the West, namely in Canada (which I am as well) – and it seems to work quite well. In fact, I don’t think I would want religious leaders determining public policy for all the country – because some of what is believed is not democratically arrived at.

    However, the bigger debate is should Christians keep their convictions on issues to themselves? I don’t think so. In some regards this debate of seperation of church and state reaches a tipping point of oppression the other way around, restricting the religious person’s right to their freedoms (of which religion is a recognized one).

    For example, prayer in school is not problematic one iota. Where I agree not all children should be forced to say the Lord’s Prayer or sing O’ Canada (which used to be the case) – prayer in school should be allowed for the religious children as is their right (which I think has become a more settled issue these days – ie: private meeting space). But any infringement upon a child for being religious is oppressive in detail according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and should be stopped immediately.

    One thing will never jive with any gov’t a Christian serves under – the idea of servitude – to God or the gov’t? As a Christian the measures of standards we hold are a hybrid of country and God…and sometimes they can conflict…when this happens a Christian cannot be satisfied by following a law – or laws – they see as anti-Christian. This is more rare in the West but it is happening more and more in some alarming ways.

    Capitalism is not a Christian system (for example). It’s a system developed for the development of resources in a country – and the original intention was to ‘share’ these resources with the people of the country (in an equitable manner). As the history of Capitalism bears out, this is obviously not the case anymore.

    95% of the wealth in the West resides in the hands of 5% of the people and some estimates have that number a 98%-2% split. This is greed and the Christian morality cannot bare it as ‘normal ethical behavior’. The benefit of the rich is the torture of the middle class and poor and we are seeing this during this recession. Gov’t seems to be sleeping with the corporations (which are considered human – again something I cannot agree with) and allowing these extreme excesses to occur.

    For me, as a Christian, this is an absolutely untenable situation since it abuses an inequity in the system and allows it to thrive. This is not an ideal I could ever support and it’s becoming clear this is a serious problem in 2011. Big business means big problems – and environmentally we are seeing some of the ramifications of that. The removal of wealth from the pockets of the people and their cities also means the middle class is taxed to pay for the excesses leaving their cities – even middle classes are becoming working poor.

    In the end this is an inequity that violates my standards for treatment of people in an equitable way (ie: treat as you want to be treated/measure as you want to be measured). When the stats reveal such a lopsided use of the resources, and abuse of the environment, people sit by and just ‘accept it’.

    • February 2, 2011 at 11:43 AM

      This notion of oppression comes from the curtailment of religious expression. For example, school prayer is seen by many religious parents as merely an expression and curtailing it as oppression. But is that true?

      Any student can say the Lord’s Prayer whenever he or she feels like it. This expression, however is curtailed by various other social and professional concerns like disrupting the class, interrupting activities, and so on. It’s not the prayer that is oppressed: it is its vocal expression. The same is true for breaking into a dance routine… or belting out a song. But no is suggesting that there is an oppression of the arts when its various expressions are curtailed. And curtailed quite properly, I should add.

      So what is it that is being oppressed when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer? If a student mumbles or silently recites the prayer to him- or herself, I can’t imagine any teacher or school administrator bringing forward any kind of discipline. Kids can pray as much or little as they want, so the charge of oppression I think is false… merely appropriate concerns about some student expressing prayers appropriately in a non disruptive fashion.

      No, what is being ‘oppressed’ – and quite rightly so – is the public display of favourtism for christianity … either by the state’s classroom agent (teacher) or the state’s school administration over the public address system. This intrusion into the public education system by those who favour such examples of christian allegiance – like supporting the Lord’s Prayer to be part of the daily routine in classrooms – is not warranted if respect is to be maintained for separation of church and state. This isn’t an ‘oppression’ when an unwarranted intrusion of religious favouritism is rebuffed by policy; it’s maintaining a reasonable secular policy for all in a public institution.

      I also find it horrendous that so many adults assume that children are identified as carriers of the religious affiliation of their parents. When you were born, were you automatically a Republican because your parents supported the Republican party? Were you an economic Keynesian because dear old dad was a businessman operating in a capitalist society? Was it during gestation that you become a Leafs fan because your parents supported this hockey team? Such automatic affiliations by nature of birth are not only ridiculous to believe as true, but clearly there is no causal agency that transfers parents preferences into the identity of the child except by blatant indoctrination. Since when was indoctrination of young impressionable minds with beliefs about superstitions and magic a good thing and why do so many people support it when it comes to infecting young minds with highly dubious religious beliefs? At least with Santa Claus, we allow the child to find out the truth and most of are okay knowing that such a mythical character merely serves to represent our joy of giving. But we don’t hold fast to Santa Claus as a literal and true figure. I would hardly agree to claim that your child is a Santa Claus-ian for life because once upon a time parents represented giving by such a caricature. Nor should any grown up assume a child to be a particular religious affiliate based on his or her parent’s inability to let go of childish metaphorical notions.

  8. February 2, 2011 at 2:24 PM

    “Nor should any grown up assume a child to be a particular religious affiliate based on his or her parent’s inability to let go of childish metaphorical notions.” (tildeb)

    Agreed, about the part with prayer in school and equality…this quote is a stretch IMO.

    Comparing Santa Claus and Jesus is slightly different, similar but different.

    Santa Claus, the coke version anyways, is a product of recent imagination and verifiably mythical (although it does have some connection to a real person in history). Plus Santa is basically understood to be fictititous even a 12 year old can realize that.

    Jesus on the other hand has mythical aspects related to him in scripture (ie: virgin birth). However, he is not verifiably false since we can only make educated assumptions based on the writings about him. He is not of recent mythology (like Santa) and he also had garnered some sort of following that was verified historically (so a little different than Santa as well). No 12 year old is up for the debate on the validity of Jesus’ life, not even Doogie Houser (also mythical).

    So before you say ‘childish metaphorical notions’ and put both in the same category – realize – as hard as this may be to admit – they are not really that close.

    • February 2, 2011 at 2:43 PM

      – they are not really that close.

      Santa is verifiably mythical but the myth of Jesus is not verifiably false? I wonder how you wrap your brain around this supposedly wide difference? I know I can’t. They seem remarkably similar to me in the sense I used them: belief in each is belief in a metaphor that each represents. We can give up the literal former without any difficulty but many of us seem unable and/or unwilling to give up the literal latter. I think that’s very immature.

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