Monday Math is off this week. School starts in just two more weeks, and I have been making a last push to have as much of my books done as I can before it does. Cuts into my blogging time, alas.
Which is a shame, since there is plenty of fodder. For example, Peter Enns has a new essay up over at Huff Po. It’s title is “Atheists Are Believers, Too” I suspect that everyone reading this could reconstruct Enns’ argument from that title alone.. Still, let’s consider the specifics.
Things start off well with this:
Christians sometimes claim to be certain about spiritual matters. This can be everyday things like, “I know this new job is right where God wants me,” or more important issues like, “I know the Bible is the word of God,” or, “I know Jesus is the Son of God.”
But Christians do not have sure knowledge of these things. They believe them — deeply and sincerely, and for all sorts of reasons — but they do not know them in the same way that we know that fire will reduce a book to ashes, that there are billions of galaxies in the universe, or that gravity works. Some Christians claim this kind of knowledge, but they are wrong.
The same goes for Christians — and any religious person — who would say, “I know God exists.” No one can know that God exists in the sense of proof or logical demonstration. Rather, people of faith believe God exists for all sorts of reasons that can’t be laid out in a spreadsheet or observed through a telescope.
If only the essay stayed at that level! Alas, things now deteriorate quickly.
Atheists are in exactly the same boat.
What holds true for religious people when they talk about God holds for atheists when they talk about not-God.
Really? Exactly the same boat. Seems a bit strong. Let’s see how Enns defends this.
Some atheists claim to have a sure and certain knowledge about spiritual things. “I know — through reason, logic, and evidence — that God does not exist.” These atheists feel that their position is intellectually superior to a belief in God. God does not exist because what cannot be established through “reason, logic, or evidence” is not real.
This sounds rational and objective, but there is a lot of belief tucked away in this assertion. Atheists do not know God does not exist; they believe it.
There are very few atheists who claim metaphysical certainty about spiritual matters. Certainly many of the most prominent atheists — Dawkins, Myers, Hitchens, Harris — claim no such thing. Moreover, the claim is very rarely that things that cannot be established by reason, logic or evidence are not real. Instead we claim simply that we cannot have confidence in the existence of things that cannot be approached with those tools.
So far, so banal. Things really get going in the next paragraph:
To say that God’s existence is detectable with certainty through reason, logic, and evidence is a belief because it makes some crucial assumptions. For one thing, it assumes that our intellectual faculties are the best, or only, ways of accessing God. This is an assumption that privileges Western ways of knowing and excludes other wholly human qualities like emotion and intuition.
Reason, logic and evidence are Western ways of knowing? I think a few Easterners might wish to dispute that.
People familiar with this genre know that where the phrase “ways of knowing” appears, high-grade gobbledygook is sure to follow. In every area of life except religion we expect existence claims to be backed up with evidence and argument. As it happens, rather a lot of theists down through the years have claimed that we do, indeed, have strong physical evidence for God. Given that, I hardly think atheists can be faulted for applying their intellectual faculties to the question.
As for emotion and intuition, please spell out for me how either one provides a reliable reason for believing in God. I cannot even imagine what it means to treat “emotion” as a way of knowing. And many of us have no intuition at all that God exists. In fact, such intuitions as we have lie entirely in the opposite direction. Why should I trust the intuitions of theists over my own?
It also reduces God to an object, a thing, a being among all other beings, whose existence is as open to rational inquiry as anything else. It is an old argument but a good one: any god worthy of the name is the source of all being, and therefore not one more being alongside all others subject to rational control. Any god like that isn’t God at all.
People can think what they want about God. My point here is simply this: no one knows whether our intellectual faculties can determine with certainty whether there is a higher power, prime mover, or whatever you want to call god. That is a belief.
False claims of certainty are far more the province of religion than they are of nonbelief.
There is, however, a bigger point here. Right up until Darwin arrived on the scene it was considered obvious by nearly everyone that there was scientific evidence for some sort of intelligent designer. Some went even further, arguing that the Christian God specifically could be inferred from nature. There is no reason in principle why there could not be such evidence.
The charge that this sort of reasoning reduces God to a thing is simply fallacious. It does not have anything directly to do with God at all. It is merely taking what we know about nature and asking whether we need to invoke an intelligent designer to explain it. In the past, the complexity and adaptedness of organisms seemed to provide the necessary example. Nowadays theists routinely invoke consciousness, or the fine-tuning of the cosmos for the same purpose. I do not find their arguments persuasive, but the relevant point is that they are not diminishing God in the slightest by thinking along those lines. They are merely engaging in abductive reasoning, trying to find the best explanation for what we know about nature.
Also, all people, atheists included, believe worthwhile things for which there is no compelling evidence whatsoever. For example, many people — scientists, philosophers — believe in the principle of uniformity: what we observe now of the laws of nature happens everywhere in the universe, always has and always will.
I happen to believe this is true, but what I believe isn’t the point here. The point is that there is no empirical evidence for this principle, nor can it be logically proven. In fact, there is no evidence for the principle at all unless we assume it to begin with.
Why do people accept the principle of uniformity? Because it can be used to construct coherent scientific explanations of the universe, and that is a good reason to accept it. But this is not too far from what religious people say about their faith. Religious beliefs can be used to construct coherent explanations for things like why there is something rather than nothing.
There is so much wrong with this.
First, religion does not provide a coherent explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. It simply asserts that there is a God behind our reality, and then declares by fiat that this God exists necessarily. The whole notion of necessary existence is deeply unsatisfying, but if we are stuck with it then I do not see what is gained by assuming the thing that exists necessarily must be intelligent.
Second, let us grant for the moment the assertion that the principle of uniformity cannot be defended by logic or evidence. The fact remains that there is no evidence against it, and this puts it in a far better position than the hypotheses of theism. We have strong evidence against the existence of the Christian God in the form of the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness. Theologians have their little arguments to make in trying to defuse these problems, but they have not been terribly successful.
Third, religious believers usually claim far more for their beliefs than merely their practical usefulness. We are typically meant to think that they have a keener understanding of ultimate reality than the rest of us, or that it is only by thinking like they do that one can have a secure basis for morality. People believing what they have to believe to get through the day is one thing, but trying to align public policy to those beliefs is quite another. Relentless bigotry towards homosexuals, support for oppressive sex roles in the name of “traditional family values”, attempts to limit the availability of abortion and to infantilize women who seek them, resistance to important medical research, and casual contempt for atheists are not the result of people hypothesizing things for the sake of providing cogent answers to metaphysical questions. They are the result of a pathological way of thinking, one that is positively encouraged in too many of the nation’s pulpit’s Enns’ little whitewash of religion simply fails to do it justice.
Let us skip ahead to the end:
Oddly, some Christian fundamentalists and some atheist fundamentalists suffer under the same delusion, that their view on ultimate reality is fully supported by reason, logic, and evidence.
Both are wrong.
For both the religious and atheists, there is mystery. Atheists are free to be atheists, but they don’t know any more than anyone else.
So let me see if I understand the situation. Christian theists claim not only that God exists, but that he assumed human form, lived a sinless life, and died on the Cross for my sins. They tell me that if I fail to accept their claims, which are defended, apparently, on the basis of emotion and intuition, then I will meet a grim fate in the afterlife.
Atheists, by contrast, claim simply that there is no good evidence that those claims are true and substantial evidence that they are false.
But we’re all in the same boat?
Enns’ argument here is based entirely on a bogus caricature of atheism. There are no atheist fundamentalists claiming metaphysical certainty or denying that there are mysteries in the universe. By contrast, there are plenty of religious folks, not just fundamentalists, who claim a great deal of certainty on topics about which they have no basis feeling certain. This false certainty has profoundly negative impacts on our discourse and politics.