One thing that particularly seems to annoy theists is the argument that the only intelligent position for someone to have is to be an atheist. The argument is simple, I think, as it merely asks that if you recognise that there is a requirement that people be able to prove with evidence the things they claim (whether it is about science, the weather or football results) then why not have the same requirement for claims about God? Once one sees that there is no empirical proof for the existence of God then ones only position is atheism. That is reasonable.
Alas, some people disregard this. Some sample arguments are:
- A belief in God is just that – “belief” – and that the whole point is that there is no empirical proof for God;
- Atheists are arrogant wankers for calling all theists stupid;
- There is proof (cue Intelligent Design “evidence”).
This goes on. Alas, a lot of theists rarely consider their position. When they feel “under attack” from atheists, rather than examine their beliefs they often reinforce them. Rather than philosophically analyse what it is they are arguing for, they often become brutish and irrational.
This is why I am so surprised to see Victoria Coren, a woman I admire for being fiercely intelligent and an excellent poker player, not only “come out” as a theist but also attempt to defend it in an Observer column. Indeed, the subject of her article is the
new, false distinction between “believers” and “rationalists”. The trickle-down Dawkins effect [that] has got millions of people thinking that faith is ignorant and childish, with atheism the smart and logical position.
The problem I have with the article is that it is so poorly reasoned. I try to be sympathetic to amicable theists who try to defend their position or belief in God, but often this is difficult as their arguments are so poor. I fear that Coren has fallen into that trap and I am going to discuss it now.
An Answer For Everything
There is often an argument made by theists that you must have an answer for everything if you are an atheist. In other words, for theists “God did it” is an acceptable explanation for anything that you cannot understand.
“Why did uncle Fred die?”
“God did it.”
“Why are these giant bones in the ground?”
“God did it.”
“How was the universe created?”
“God did it.”
Of course, for scientists this isn’t an acceptable explanation because, in fact, it does not explain anything at all. It is the exact opposite of an explanation. It’s the answer that adults give to children when they can’t think of answer and don’t want to appear weak.
“Why do I have to go to bed at 8pm?”
“Because.” or “Because I said so.”
One of the reasons why science has become so good at discovering facts and suggesting provable hypotheses is the simple motto that they “take no one’s word for it” – that people search for the answers themselves using a method that is open to everyone, challengeable and reproducible. In other words, if you make a claim about something you need to back that up with evidence – evidence that other people can get for themselves by doing the same experiment as you.
Science often says “I don’t know” when it comes to some questions and theists often jump on this as good reason not to be an atheist. If scientists can’t explain how the first self-replicating gene came into existence or how the universe came into existence then this is good reason to see that they are wrong about everything and that you should believe in God. However, they should know that science has a high burden of proof and won’t accept anything that doesn’t pass muster. “I don’t know” is acceptable simply because it’s the truth. If you don’t know something it’s more truthful to say so, rather than pontificate.
“Ask Them To Explain How An iPad Works.”
It’s worrying, then, to see someone like Victoria Coren remark:
I interviewed the comedian Miranda Hart recently. She told me she believes in God but was nervous of being quoted on it.
“It’s scary to say you’re pro-God,” she said. “Those clever atheists are terrifying.”
“Oh, nonsense,” I said. “Let them tell you it’s stupid to believe in something you can’t explain. Then ask them how an iPad works.”
Atheism itself is fine; good luck if that’s what you sincerely (don’t) believe. But the proselytising, fundamentalist new atheist movement sets itself up as more “logical” than faith, which is ridiculous. Given the incomprehensible scale of the creator we’d be talking about, the only “logical” position is agnosticism.
Here she clearly insinuates that if you’re an atheist that doesn’t know how a complex thing works then you are committing some sort of intellectual contradiction, i.e.: “how can you say that God, an incredibly complex thing, doesn’t exist when you can’t even fathom how he works?”
The argument is, God is so irreducibly complex that saying that He doesn’t exist is impossible and that the only two positions available are:
- He does exist.
- You can’t know if He doesn’t.
The comparison the iPad, she feels, is apt. How can one use a complex thing like a computer, “believing that it works”, without actually knowing how it does? The thing is that it doesn’t matter if you know how it works or not, simply that it does, it is provable that it does. The workings of a computer are provable through scientific investigation and that there are, in fact, people who do know how it works (they built it) and that this knowledge is built on years of scientific evidence. The existence of God isn’t.
Further, agnosticism isn’t dichotomously opposed to atheism. In fact, the position of the atheists is built upon agnosticism. Agnosticism is the belief that it is unknowable that God exists or not, and atheism is the belief that there is no God. Thus, as Wikipedia points out,
Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not have belief in the existence of any deity, and agnostic because they do not claim to know that a deity does not exist.
Atheists that are agnostic state that they do not know one way or the other that God exists, merely that the burden of proof (reliable empirical evidence) has not been satisfied. This burden of proof is the same that is applied to any supernatural phenomena that is purported to exist: unicorns, alien visitations, Santa Claus and Russell’s famous China Teapot.
Theists often like to argue that atheists “cannot prove that God doesn’t exist.” This is true. It is also true of unicorns, alien visitations, Santa Claus etc. Who can prove that unicorns have never existed? The reason why you cannot is simply because it is impossible to set up an experiment to prove an empirical negative on such a large scale.
Some atheists like to argue that it is impossible to prove any negative. This isn’t strictly true. If we consider DNA testing to be reliable, which we do, you can prove that someone isn’t related to someone else. Of course, this relies on the scientific theories of genes, how they are passed onto descendants and that the testing procedure is correct. However, since these are supported by a lot of evidence you can say with a very high level of certainty that someone is or isn’t related to someone else. Depending on your position on absolute certainty, i.e. mathematical certainty, this is enough.
I don’t think you’ll ever find an atheist who claims that they can prove that God doesn’t exist. Even Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins don’t argue for this. They both leave the door open for a deity. However, Hawking merely says that the universe doesn’t require (i.e. it is conceivable otherwise) the existence of God for it to exist; and Dawkins says that Deism is the least objectionable form of theism. What both of them have in common is that they both say that there is no evidence for God, whether it is a Deistic God or Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, and this is good reason not to believe in God. This is crucial in understanding the atheistic lack of belief in God.
The Power Of Faith And Religion
Unfortunately for Coren, her reasoning descends further. She then begins to discuss the recent debates had between atheists and theists in Canada, namely where Christopher Hitchins and Tony Blair debated over whether religion was a force for good in the world.
So why do the proselytisers fight so hard to be right? In place of the comfort which faith can provide in the face of death, grief or loneliness, they offer… nothing. They are suspiciously eager to snatch away the consolations of their fellow men.
Why? Because they think religion causes violence? Human nature contains a streak of fear, greed, selfishness and territorialism that must result in a mean level of dissent and bloodshed, with or without the excuse of religious difference. Without religion, human life is no longer sacred – nothing is – so it’s not “logical” to believe we’d be gentler if it disappeared. All we’d have to replace it is a trust in altruism, which is certainly no less naive than believing in God.
So what would that leave, as a moral framework? The law? Do google “Twitter joke trial” before you throw our future behind that.
Or is it because some religious arguments are misogynistic or homophobic? Believers can still argue back.
I don’t think atheists argue against the fact that faith can allay fears of death or anxiety. Personally, as an atheist, I think this is a redeeming feature of faith. However, the downside of faith is it’s organisational element – religion.
Religion is separate to faith. Faith is personal, religion is not. Religion is an organisation, an institution, and people who have faith are sometimes part of a religion and sometimes they are not. It’s not uncommon for people to believe in God but to have ‘lapsed’ from their religious heritage or simply to believe, one day, that they believe in “a higher power” but not follow the teachings of any specific religion. This to me is far less objectionable, but still bad reasoning.
Atheist “proselytisers”, as she calls them, rally so hard against religion simply because of its history and current status. Religion is a force for evil because of the commands and requirements it has that seem to run against what so much of the secular community consider to be rights that are applicable to all. Things like:
- Marrying someone you are in love with, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, race or religion;
- Letting someone pursue their own life fulfilment and not being forced into a traditional role, such as raising or children or doing housework;
- Forcing a set of beliefs upon someone and then threatening them with violence, death or sanctions if they do not.
The list is endless. Some try to accuse atheists of the third point, of trying to convert people to atheism. There is a grain of truth in this but there is no violence and atheism isn’t an irrational belief system, like religion. Secular humanism is about being allowed to believe in whatever you want to believe but at the same time not forcing your beliefs on anybody else and not expecting the government to support your discrimination. This is why so many people are against state-funded religious schools.
Atheists And Amorality
This is something that she tries to make out as a real possibility – that without religion people would do bad things. Religion is the only acceptable moral framework. As an atheist I find this sort of argument
- Deeply troubling;
- A little offensive.
Firstly, I want to ask these religious people why they don’t do bad things. They don’t do bad things, they might say, simply because it would upset their God, which would then result in punishment from God – perhaps in the form of not getting into heaven. It is troubling because that is a really lousy way of conducting morality. As an atheist I don’t do bad things because it would hurt other people. As a community all of our lives are enriched when we cooperate: when do nice things for each other and work together on things we are more successful and our lives are more enjoyable. The theists suggest that without a divine sense of punishment there is no reason not to do bad things. I suggest that our lives improve when we don’t. It troubles me that a theist can’t see anything wrong with killing someone other than “it might upset God.”
Secondly, I am a little offended simply because they seem to suggest that I operate amorally – that I am incapable of seeing right from wrong. Clearly this is not the case. I have never done anything too seriously wrong. I haven’t raped anyone, I haven’t killed anyone, I haven’t stolen anything of significant value. Having studied both philosophy and ethics in depth I can say that non-theistic ethics is based upon a theory of fairness and equality.
Individuals are to be treated as such within the community that they help build. A community is not located to a locale, as there may be significant benefits from helping those you are close to, for instance, but also to all members of the human race. Some even go as far as to suggest that fairness should be extended to all sentient beings. I don’t agree with them but I can see and understand their argument. Something is good for the community if it is also good for the individuals that comprise it.
Furthermore, enquiry into the origins of morality will not only yield clues to be found in our animal ancestors (which are also found in other animals alive today) but also clues that such that religion is not the alpha and omega of morality. The so-called “Golden Rule” (do unto others as you would do unto them) predates organised religion. The earliest form of it in organised religion, the Old Testament, dealt not with ethical reciprocation but in retribution. “An eye for an eye” is a violent principle of when to punish someone, not how to be kind to someone. Violence and a system of punishments is no foundation for a proper ethical system. It is, unfortunately, a part of our modern systems of laws. Arguably, it is necessary but it should not be the basis.
A belief in God, I have argued, is incompatible with “intelligent” and “rational”. If you live of your life asking questions, looking for evidence and building your knowledge on what you can empirically verify then the existence of God should not be excluded from this. The basis for excluding it was simply that God is too complex to know either way. However, if that is true then God’s existence should be treated much like the existence of unicorns or celestial teapots orbiting the Sun. When one makes an incredulous claim one must ask “how do you know that?” or, perhaps better, “how can I know that?” Asking for proof is the basis of the scientific movement and the world we live in today. It is not up to the atheists to prove that God doesn’t exist, but rather up to the theists to prove that He does.
- As I didn’t say to the archbishop… | Victoria Coren (guardian.co.uk)