Atheism


No evidence equals atheismWhen you ask an atheist why they are an atheist, it’s not uncommon for them to respond, “Because there is no good evidence that God exists.”  If that is their only justification for atheism, they have made a gross logical blunder.

In the case of genuine dichotomies (such as God’s existence: God exists, or God does not exist), the lack of evidence for A is neither evidence against A, nor evidence for B.  In order to conclude that A is true or B is true, one must have positive evidence for the truth value of A or B.  The absence of evidence for both A and B simply means that we must suspend judgment.

Applied to the debate over God’s existence, even if one wants to argue that there is no good evidence for theism, it does not follow that theism is false, and it certainly does not follow that atheism is true.  To conclude that theism is false one must present positive arguments against theism.  Likewise, to conclude that atheism is true, one must present positive arguments for atheism.  Atheism is not the default position in the absence of evidence for God’s existence.

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What are your thoughts on this message?  Agree or disagree?  Is atheism a religion?  Why or why not?

atheism not religion

UPDATE: February 13

Now that I’ve heard from you and interacted a bit with your answers, here are my thoughts on the message:

I think the message and image is powerful.  I agree with the message too.  Atheism cannot be meaningfully identified as a religion.  This might seem like a no-brainer for some since atheism lacks belief in a deity, but belief in a deity is not a sine qua non of religion.  Think of Buddhism, for example.

The best reason for rejecting the claim that atheism is a religion is that atheism is nothing more than the belief that God does not exist.  There is no other content to atheism.  For something to qualify as a religion, not only does it need a set of beliefs, but it needs to contain positive beliefs.  Religions typically involve rituals of some sort, and provide answers to questions about origins, what’s wrong with the world, morality, meaning and purpose, and what the future holds.  Atheism does not address any of these elements.

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Lack of FaithHe who makes a claim bears a burden to demonstrate the truth of his claim.  Theists have a burden to demonstrate their claim that God exists, and atheists have a burden to demonstrate their claim that God does not exist.  Nowadays, however, it’s common for atheists to claim that the theist alone bears a burden of justification.  They try to escape their own burden of justification by redefining atheism from a “belief that God does not exist” to “the absence of belief in God.”  Since only positive beliefs can be defended, they are off the hook.  All the pressure lies with the theist.

While I think their attempt to redefine atheism is intellectually dishonest, let’s grant the validity of their redefinition for a moment.  Greg Koukl observed that while it’s certainly true atheists lack a belief in God, they don’t lack beliefs about God.  When it comes to the truth of any given proposition, one only has three logical options: affirm it, deny it, withhold judgment (due to ignorance or the inability to weigh competing evidences).  As applied to the proposition “God exists,” those who affirm the truth of this proposition are called theists, those who deny it are called atheists, and those who withhold judgment are called agnostics. Only agnostics, who have not formed a belief, lack a burden to demonstrate the truth of their position.

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religion_check_boxOver at Uncommon Descent, vjtorley reports on a recent survey of 996 adults conducted between October 17-18, 2013 regarding American religious beliefs.  Some of the more notable findings include:

  • 3 out of 4 adults believe in God: 76% believe in God, 14% don’t believe in God, and 10% are not sure.
  • Young adults aged 18-29 are the least likely to believe in God.  Only 63% believe in God.  A full 25% don’t believe in God, and 12% are not sure, for a total of 37% God doubters/deniers.  That’s 2 out of 5!  Compare this to other age groups:
    • 30-44 = 14% atheist
    • 45-64 = 9% atheist
    • 65+ = 6% atheist

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Universe from NothingLast year theoretical physicist and atheist, Lawrence Krauss, wrote a book titled A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. As the title suggests, Krauss wrote the book to answer the age-old question of why there is something rather than nothing. The book was heralded by many atheists as the definitive answer to theists who claim God is necessary to explain the existence of physical reality. Indeed, in the afterward Richard Dawkins claimed that Krauss’ book devastates theistic arguments based on cosmology just as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species devastated theistic arguments based on design in biology. Other reviewers, however – including scientists, philosophers, and theologians – beg to differ. Having read the book myself (not just once, but two times now), I can see why they were less than impressed with Krauss’ argument.

While my overall assessment of Krauss’ argument is not positive, truth be told, most of the book was quite enjoyable and informative.  That’s because the first 2/3 of the book is a lesson on the historical development of modern cosmology.  Krauss doesn’t make his case for why there is something rather than nothing until the last four chapters.  Unfortunately, that’s where the book falls apart.

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thinking manPhilosohpers David Bourget and David Chalmers recently surveyed 931 philosophy faculty members to determine their views on 30 different issues.  Here were some of the more interesting results:

God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.
Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.
Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.
Free will: compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%.
Meta-ethics: moral realism 56.4%; moral anti-realism 27.7%; other 15.9%.
Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.
Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%
Time: B-theory 26.3%; A-theory 15.5%; other 58.2%.
Truth: correspondence 50.8%; deflationary 24.8%; epistemic 6.9%; other 17.5%.

Notice that although 72.8% of respondents are atheists, 56.4% are moral realists. This goes to show the strength of our moral intuitions. While atheists do not have a sufficient ontological grounding for objective moral values, they still believe in them nonetheless.

I was surprised that only 13.7% believe in libertarian free will. I would expect it to be much higher.  Perhaps this correlates with the high rates of physicalism.

HT: Scot McKnight

disembodiedSome atheists claim that God cannot exist because unembodied minds are impossible; i.e. that persons must be physical beings.  I spoke to this in a 2008 post.  Prayson Daniel recently blogged on the subject as well.  I would encourage you to read his post.  I commented on his post, and wanted to share some points I made that supplement the points I made in my previous post. 

This argument begs the question in favor of materialism and atheism. It merely assumes that minds/persons are reducible to brains; that we have no immaterial mind that is capable of existing apart from our bodies. No reason is given for thinking that a mind/person needs a body other than the fact that we are not familiar with it. That’s a very poor reason.  It confuses common properties of persons with essential properties of persons. 

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Retired particle physicist and outspoken atheist Victor Stenger developed a rhetorically powerful aphorism against religion: “Science flies men to the moon, religion flies men into buildings.”

I think Stenger is being a bit too selective in what he chooses to highlight about science and religion, though.  Science has also been responsible for great moral atrocities, and religion has also been responsible for great moral goods.  To demonstrate how worthless this rhetoric is, I could just as easily develop an aphorism modeled on Stenger’s to make the opposite point: “Science builds atomic bombs to kill millions of people, religion builds hospitals to save billions of people.”

Baby atheistsI have heard several atheists claim that “all people are born atheists.”  One popular slogan says “I’ll die like all believers are born: an atheist.”

If the point of such slogans is merely that no one is born with a belief in God’s existence, and that such a belief develops later, I agree.  Babies do not have beliefs regarding such things.  This much is obvious (although it is irrelevant to the question of the truth of theism).  But if their point is that babies should be described as atheists, this is patently absurd.  Indeed, it’s because babies do not have any beliefs regarding God that they can be neither a theist nor an atheist.

No one is born an atheist.  To claim otherwise is to employ a faulty definition of atheism as “a lack of belief in God.”  So defined, atheism is relegated to a psychological state rather than a rational claim regarding the veracity of a particular proposition.  This is not only a departure from the historic definition of atheism, but it guts it of any rational significance.  Atheism is not a lack of belief in God.  That is more properly described as “agnosticism.”  Atheism is the belief that the proposition “God exists” is false.  No baby is born with that belief, and thus no baby is born an atheist. (more…)

Atheism and the Burden of ProofIn recent years there has been a lot of debate regarding the proper definition of “atheist,” even on this blog.  Traditionally, atheism has been defined as the claim that God does not exist. In the mid-20th century, however, atheist philosopher Antony Flew attempted to redefine atheism.  Noting that the Greek prefix “a” is a term of negation, Flew said the proper definition of a-theism is simply “not a theist.”  Another popular way of cashing this out has been to define atheism as “one who lacks belief in God.”

What’s the difference between these definitions?  The traditional definition is an ontological claim (God is not included among the entities that exist) while the new definition is a psychological description (“I have no belief regarding the existence or non-existence of God”).  We might label these two ways of defining atheism as  “ontological atheism” and “psychological atheism.”

Why does it matter how we define atheism?  It matters because of the burden of proof.  A principle of rational discourse is that he who makes a claim bears the burden to defend it.  If someone claims that God does not exist (ontological atheism), he bears a burden to demonstrate how he knows this to be true.  On the other hand, one who lacks any beliefs with respect to God’s existence (psychological atheism) bears no burden of proof because he is not making a claim to knowledge.  He is merely describing the content of his beliefs – that his stock of beliefs does not include a belief regarding the existence or non-existence of God.  Flew understood this.  He purposely redefined atheism to make it a psychological description so as to absolve atheists from their burden to defend the claim that God does not exist.

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We're all atheistsIn two separate posts I have addressed a common piece of atheist rhetoric that I like to call the “one less God zinger.”  It goes roughly as follows: “We’re all atheists.  Christians are atheists with respect to all gods but their own, while I am an atheist with respect to all gods, including your own.  When you understand why you reject all other gods, you’ll understand why I reject all gods.”

While this is rhetorically effective, it does not stand up to scrutiny.  While much could be said of this zinger, I only want to focus on the first two sentences.  Is it true that we are all atheists?  Can Christians be properly described as atheists because we deny the existence of all gods other than YHWH?  Not at all.

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In his new book, atheist Thomas Nagel had some interesting things to say about why scientists are so opposed to Intelligent Design: “Nevertheless, I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” – Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, 12.

Great post from Amy Hall of Stand to Reason.  Reproduced below in its entirety:

On Harper’s Magazine’s blog, Christopher Beha discusses his recent article on what he calls the “New New Atheists”—that is, atheists (such as Alain de Botton) who, having determined that God does not exist, are now exploring the question of how to restore those aspects of life whose foundations were destroyed along with God: meaning, wonder, morality, etc. But, he says, there’s a problem:

Rosenberg—a philosopher at Duke with a predictable commitment to rigor—insists that doing away with religion means doing away with most of what comes with it: a sense of order in the universe, the hope that life has some inherent meaning, even the belief in free will….

I was interested in the attempts of Harris and Botton to salvage some religious splendor for the secularists. So I was only more disappointed to find Rosenberg’s insistence that such efforts were hopeless far more convincing than the efforts themselves.

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There’s a difference between how we know something to be true (epistemology), and what makes that something true (ontology).  Keeping this distinction in mind would illuminate many debates.  For example, atheists often claim that one doesn’t need God to know morality and act morally.  That’s true, but it misses the point.  Just because one can know moral truths and behave morally without believing in God does not mean God is not necessary to explain morality.  As Greg Koukl likes to say, that’s like saying because one is able to read books without believing in authors, authors are not necessary to explain the origin of books (author-of-the-gaps).  In the same way books need authors, moral laws need a moral-law giver.

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A friend of mine made a point the other day that I thought was insightful.  If matter is all that exists, and there is no free will because everything is either determined or indeterminate, then there is no real distinction between rape and consensual sex since the distinction relies on the notion of free will.  If the will is not free, then strictly speaking, no act of sex is chosen—even so called consensual sex is not chosen.  Every act of sex is chosen for us by forces that lie outside of our control.  We may think that we choose to engage in sexual activity or choose to refrain from doing so, but these are just illusions.  Prior physical processes cause us to either have the desire to engage in sex or the desire not to engage in sex.  

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I have a question for my non-theist readers: Why is it that I can chop up a tomato and eat it, but I cannot do the same to a human being?

While I have already written an assessment of Stephen Law’s evil god challenge, after listening to Law engage in an informal debate on the topic with Glenn Peoples on Unbelievable, I have a few more observations to make. 

Law seems to take as his starting point the idea that people reject the existence of an evil God based on the empirical evidence: there is simply too much good in the world for an evil god to exist.  Then he reasons that if the presence of good in the world makes the existence of an evil God absurd, people should also recognize that the presence of evil in the world makes the existence of a good God equally absurd.  The success of his argument depends on three assumptions:

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Given my recent post on falsely assuming that God’s eternality excludes the possibility that He has a cause (and thinking premise 1 of the kalam cosmological argument proves He doesn’t have a cause), I thought it fitting to address atheists who assume that the universe, if it is eternal, is uncaused.  Some atheists reason as follows:

(1) If the universe began to exist, then it has a cause
(2) The universe did not begin to exist
(3) Therefore the universe did not have a cause

This commits the fallacy of denying the antecedent.  The form of the fallacy is as follows:

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In response to various cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of a creator God some atheists appeal to the principle of parsimony—often dubbed “Ockham’s Razor”—to argue that invoking God to explain our cosmic origins is both unnecessary and unhelpful.  Introducing a divine being to explain the origin of the universe is said to be less parsimonious than simply acknowledging that the universe popped into existence uncaused from absolutely nothing.

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During his recent dialogue with Archbishop Rowan Williams, Richard Dawkins invoked the anthropic principle to say that even if the origin of life is improbable, it “had to” happen at least once on this planet since we are here.[1]  At that point the moderator, Anthony Kenny, an agnostic philosopher, asked Dawkins what kind of necessity he had in mind when he said life “had to” originate here.  Kenny noted that there are two kinds of necessity: metaphysical necessity and epistemic necessity.  Metaphysical necessity means it is impossible that some X not exist, whereas epistemic necessity means it is impossible not to know that some X is true.  He went on to explain that epistemic necessity does not entail metaphysical necessity, so while it may be epistemically necessary that we exist (we cannot not know that we exist), it does not mean we had to exist.  Our existence may be contingent, even if knowledge of our existence is not.  As expected, Dawkins clarified that he was not saying our existence was necessary, but only that it there can be no doubt that life did arise at least on this planet since we are alive.  

What struck me about Dawkins’ response was not his answer to the question, but what he said immediately before his answer: “I don’t know the words ‘epistemic’ and so on, so I’m not going to use that.”  Really?  That is a term so basic to the study of philosophy that no student could pass an intro-to-philosophy course without knowing it.  It leads me to believe that Dawkins does not know the first thing about philosophy (which should not be surprising to anyone who is familiar with Dawkins’ arguments).  

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