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“Strategies for Dialoguing with Atheists” Or “How Not to Argue”

This essay entitled “Strategies for Dialoguing with Atheists” has been discussed on the forums - appropriately as an example of bad logic and sloppy debating. It is so good, in fact, that I decided to pick it apart for my blog entry this week.

First, I want to say that my point is not to defend atheism or any particular formulation of it, but rather to examine the logic of the arguments being put forth and to expose the sloppy thinking in this essay. Author, Ron Rhodes, gets off to a bad start, offering up some tired canards right off the bat:

People choose to become atheists as much as they choose to become Christians. And no matter how strenuously some may try to deny it, atheism is a belief system. It requires faith that God does not exist.

Wrong and wrong. It is probable that there is a complex set of psychological and cultural factors that determine one’s belief, but conscious choice is likely not a significant factor. I do not believe in any deity and I cannot simply will myself to have any such belief. Given that most people adopt the religion of their parents, it seems that most people do not choose to believe either – they inherit their faith. But framing the issue as a personal choice suits the ideological requirements of the proselytizers (which is the stated goal of this essay).

Neither is the absence of belief a belief system. That is logically absurd. There are potentially an infinite number of unfalsifiable propositions in which I do not believe. This does not mean that I have an infinity of belief systems. Also – this statement glosses over the very important fact that those without faith in god likely came to their lack of belief through a very different intellectual process than the one that lead many to their faith. Specifically those who lack faith will typically justify their position as being due to a lack of compelling logic or evidence supporting such a belief. While “faith”, by definition, is belief without evidence. This claim is also tied to Rhode’s first point.

(1) “There is no God.” Some atheists categorically state that there is no God, and all atheists, by definition, believe it. And yet, this assertion is logically indefensible. A person would have to be omniscient and omnipresent to be able to say from his own pool of knowledge that there is no God. Only someone who is capable of being in all places at the same time – with a perfect knowledge of all that is in the universe – can make such a statement based on the facts. To put it another way, a person would have to be God in order to say there is no God.

This point can be forcefully emphasized by asking the atheist if he has ever visited the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Mention that the library presently contains over 70 million items (books, magazines, journals, etc.). Also point out that hundreds of thousands of these were written by scholars and specialists in the various academic fields. Then ask the following question: “What percentage of the collective knowledge recorded in the volumes in this library would you say are within your own pool of knowledge and experience?” The atheist will likely respond, “I don’t know. I guess a fraction of one percent.” You can then ask: “Do you think it is logically possible that God may exist in the 99.9 percent that is outside your pool of knowledge and experience?” Even if the atheist refuses to admit the possibility, you have made your point and he knows it.

Any serious discussion of “atheism” should at least acknowledge that there is a difference between believing that god does not exist and not believing that god exists. Rhodes simply chooses the former, and then argues that the latter position is actually the same thing. He is therefore arguing against a straw man – the notion that we can know that god does not exist. Most self-described atheists I know do not make such claims. Even if “some” do it is simply wrong to equate all forms of atheism with this stance.

Also, Rhodes fails to see the inherent inconsistency in his position. It is just as “logically indefensible” to uphold belief in a being outside the laws of our universe as it is to profess the absence of such a being. Without acknowledging it, Rhodes is making a case for agnosticism – the inability to know, not for faith. He continues:

(2) “I don’t believe in God because there is so much evil in the world.” Many atheists consider the problem of evil an airtight proof that God does not exist. They often say something like: “I know there is no God because if He existed, He never would have let Hitler murder six million Jews.”

A good approach to an argument like this is to say something to this effect: “Since you brought up this issue, the burden lies on you to prove that evil actually exists in the world. So let me ask you: by what criteria do you judge some things to be evil and other things not to be evil? By what process do you distinguish evil from good?” The atheist may hedge and say: “I just know that some things are evil. It’s obvious.” Don’t accept such an evasive answer. Insist that he tell you how he knows that some things are evil. He must be forced to face the illogical foundation of his belief system.

This is another anemic straw-man argument. Rather, the argument goes something like this: It is not possible for God to be, at the same time, all-powerful and all-loving while there is tremendous human suffering in the world. Note that human suffering is the real issue, not evil. This is a contradiction because if god had infinite love and power he could take steps at least to reduce human suffering, not all of which is the result of human evil. Diseases and natural disasters, for example, are often inflicted upon humanity by random chance, not as a consequence of human evil.

Even thoughtful theologians recognize this conflict. One answer is that God is not all-powerful – he cannot, for example, suspend at will the laws of the universe he created without causes more problems. It is also possible (although this is not the preferred solution by believers) that God is not all-loving. He may be a decent guy, all things considered, but his perspective and concerns are so far above what we can conceive that in practice he is aloof. He may not care about human suffering – just like a parent might not see things from the same perspective as a young child who throws a temper tantrum because they cannot stay up late or take home a new toy from the store. The child may feel they are made to needlessly suffer at the cruel hands of their parent – who has the power to grant them what they wish, but chooses not to for reasons the child simply cannot understand.

Rhode’s argument is a simplistic straw-man version of such arguments. That there is evil in the world (rather than suffering) is not a serious argument for atheism or proof in the non-existence of God. It is also vastly simpler to deal with than Rhodes unnecessary semantic argument that just creates more problems for him. Simply put – you can just say that God does not want to interfere with human free will.

Now – it is worth pointing out that what is happening here is that believers are defending the absence of evidence for God with special pleading. God does not manifest his existence by ameliorating human suffering or dealing with the problem of evil because he has good and plausible reasons not to. But in the end – this still leaves us with no evidence for God, and for those who base their conclusions on such things as evidence this is a valid reason to withhold belief in God.

I should also point out that believers often offer as evidence for a benevolent deity random or seemingly unlikely good things that happen to people. Remember the baby that luckily survived the tsunami a few years ago by floating on a piece of debris? This was offered as “miraculous” and therefore evidence of God’s love. It is legitimate to point out that if you give God credit for saving this one life, then you have to also blame him for all the deaths, and wonder why so many others were not saved. This is not offered as evidence for the non-existence of God – but rather as a way of showing the inherent illogic in the “miracle” argument.

Rhodes, however, discusses none of this. Rather he takes this question entirely in a nonsensical direction, creating an even bigger problem for himself. He writes:

After he struggles with this a few moments, point out to him that it is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point which is absolutely good. Otherwise one is like a boat at sea on a cloudy night without a compass (i.e., there would be no way to distinguish north from south without the absolute reference point of the compass needle).

The infinite reference point for distinguishing good from evil can only be found in the person of God, for God alone can exhaust the definition of “absolutely good.” If God does not exist, then there are no moral absolutes by which one has the right to judge something (or someone) as being evil. More specifically, if God does not exist, there is no ultimate basis to judge the crimes of Hitler. Seen in this light, the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God, rather than disproving it.

What a semantic and logical mess. But we have seen this before. The premise – that good and evil only have meaning when compared to an absolute standard, is false. There are many objective and legitimate standards by which we can judge (notice the use of the word “judge”, which implies a value judgment, not an absolute objective metric) the ethics of an action or a person. Ethical systems based upon sound first principles – like justice and liberty – are perfectly legitimate. There are human universals that we can also use as a standard, and such systems can be judged on their logical validity and consistency. Without this false premise, Rhode’s entire argument fails.

Notice also that Rhodes has set a trap for himself and then fallen into it. The entire point of the argument (even though it is a weak straw man) is that if God does exist why does he tolerate evil. The argument that the existence of evil requires God to exist is therefore a non-sequitur – the question is how can both exist at the same time. To deal with that question Rhodes digs himself a deeper hole:

At this point, the atheist may raise the objection that if God does in fact exist, then why hasn’t He dealt with the problem of evil in the world. You can disarm this objection by pointing out that God is dealing with the problem of evil, but in a progressive way. The false assumption on the part of the atheist is that God’s only choice is to deal with evil all at once in a single act. God, however, is dealing with the problem of evil throughout all human history. One day in the future, Christ will return, strip power away from the wicked, and hold all men and women accountable for the things they did during their time on earth. Justice will ultimately prevail. Those who enter eternity without having trusted in Christ for salvation will understand just how effectively God has dealt with the problem of evil.

By now this should easily be recognizable and just more special pleading – God is dealing with evil, but in a way that is completely invisible, and besides he will do it in the future. I see. This is the logical equivalent of a psychic, having made a completely false statement about her mark, declaring that perhaps this is true but the subject does not know it, or perhaps this is not true now but it will become true in the future. Right.

I must also point out that Rhodes is saying that God – the “definition of ‘absolutely good’,” will condemn the imperfect people he created to an eternity of infinite suffering if they were basically good people but chose to find salvation by some path other than Christ. OK. Best I don’t go further down this road of illogic or this blog entry will never end.

Rhodes then writes:

If the atheist persists and says there must be a better solution to the problem of evil, suggest a simple test. Give him about five minutes to formulate a solution to the problem of evil that (1) does not destroy human freedom, or (2) cause God to violate His nature (e.g., His attributes of absolute holiness, justice, and mercy) in some way. After five minutes, ask him what he came up with. Don’t expect much of an answer.

Let me get this straight – if I can’t think of a solution in 5 minutes then it is reasonable to conclude that an omniscient omnipotent and immortal being can never come up with a solution. Got it. As I stated above, this is not a serious argument against God in any case. But since Rhodes is throwing the challenge out there, I can think of some ways to drastically reduce human evil that should not violate anything. Human nature can be tweaked without violating any notion of free will (whatever that means, but that’s a different post). Perhaps humans can become a bit less tribal and blood thirsty, for example. Also, much crime and evil comes from desperate situations. How about a moratorium on natural disasters for awhile, and stop throwing new diseases at us. Anyway, that’s a good start. I’m sure given eternity an omniscient being might just have a few more ideas at their disposal.

Rhodes ends:

Your goal, of course, is not simply to tear down the atheist’s belief system. After demonstrating some of the logical impossibilities of his claims, share with him some of the logical evidence for redemption in Jesus Christ, and the infinite benefits that it brings. Perhaps through your witness and prayers his faith in atheism will be overturned by a newfound faith in Christ.

Wow, this guy needs to get out more. I may suggest that it is a flawed strategy for the faithful to confront non-believers with logic. That is not a field of combat they wish to take – as evidenced by Rhode’s effort. Talk about bringing a pea-shooter to a gun fight.

To be clear, I have nothing against people of faith – as long as they keep their faith, faith. But “logical evidence for faith” is an oxymoron. Once you enter the arena of evidence or logic – prepare for a smackdown.

40 comments to “Strategies for Dialoguing with Atheists” Or “How Not to Argue”

  • fredeliot2

    There was a survey in the news recently that found nearly half of Americans change their faith. It would be great if someone offered debate training for skeptics.

  • NeuroTrumpet

    fredeliot2, there’s place on RichardDawkins.net that has an index of common theist arguments and counter-arguments rendered by contributors to the forum. Here’s the link:

    http://richarddawkins.net/cat1_Reason,cat2_Debate-Points

  • I am always amused when Christians use the false syllogism:

    1. I have proved the existence of God.
    2. Therefore, Christianity is the correct religion.

    What? As you demonstrate, they haven’t even done #1, but how exactly would it prove #2 in any case? Maybe the Hindus are right.

  • Dr. Steve, this was a really great post. Thank you so much for elaborating on this topic. I always like hearing/reading you give a healthy smack-down when it’s needed.

  • somegoodusername

    I’m not sure amused is the right word.
    I’m often rather confused.

    I meet each week with an evangelist who befriended me about six months ago. Our meetings are always amiable and I feel that a calm, systematic approach to highlighting the errors in his logic is the best way forward. He doesn’t get it.

    Logic evades many. It’s no biggie, answers will abound (I’m assured) along with virgins, underground rivers, an absence of anything, anthropomorphized explanations of natural phenomena (e.g. wind (Zephyrus) and lightning (Tlaloc)) and really long cutlery.

    ‘In the case of rapture, this post will be authorless’

  • Jon Blumenfeld

    There’s also the counterargument to God being the absolute standard of good. If that’s true, then anything God does is by definition good. Killing the first born, flooding the world and killing everyone except one family and a few animals, accepting human sacrifice (Jephthah’s daughter), having a contest with Satan over how one man will react to suffering (Job) – all of these things are by definition good, because God is doing them.

    Personally, I think I’ve got a better standard of good and evil than that. So there.

  • Sporkyy

    That compass analogy works great for religion! Look at what happens when you navigate using an “infallible” instrument.

    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/359497_bus18.html?source=rss

    (Of course most religious people don’t navigate by compass. They just let someone else interpret for them what the compass says.)

  • I like how he throws the word “logic” around with a subjective meaning. His definition, of course being special pleading that, “what we understand to be true makes sense”.

    I do like how his whole straw man anecdote is about “evil” and you easily make the distinction between human suffering and evil. These types of arguments are easier to digest when equipped with real logic. Funny you wrote about this today, I actually had the following link bookmarked and I came upon it minutes before checking your blog:

    http://www.christianfaithandreason.com/metcalf.html

    Hilarity.

  • eatasandwich

    The more I read articles like this the more I appreciate my parents and school for teaching me the tools to try and find the answers rather than just the answers.

    This guy is obviously quite intelligent and yet his logic and reasoning so twisted that it boggles my mind.

    The Article should be titled, “Strategies for Dialoguing with Atheists so that they Walk Away Shaking their Heads”

  • royourboat

    Dr Novella, your quote
    [But “logical evidence for faith” is an oxymoron. Once you enter the arena of evidence or logic - prepare for a smackdown.]
    is amazing. I just pictured the SGU crew in a wrestling ring with Rhodes because of the word ‘smackdown’.

  • Nevar

    This site also has a rather nice collection of arguments/counter-arguments : http://www.geocities.com/paulntobin/god.html

  • Nevar

    Ooh, I just came across this :

    Test Your Scientific Literacy by Richard Carrier
    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/SciLit.html

    One that caught my eye; “2. Science is an Empirical ‘Faith’” ;)

  • Jim Shaver

    Smackdown, indeed! Ron Rhodes apparently fancies himself as an intellectual authority, held in high esteem by good Christians, and happy to help them understand the simplistic and utterly defenseless minds of non-believers. I suspect many Christians writhe at these presumptions, keenly aware that most atheists, agnostics, and natural-world-view philosophers fully outshine Rhodes’ pathetic arguments without sweating. There are surely decent arguments to be made for the case of theism, the fact that this guy has found precisely none of them notwithstanding.

  • Great post Steve.

    A small nitpick: the traditional argument about “the problem of evil” (for so it is called) is that if God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent AND omniscient human suffering shouldn’t happen. (I.e. you forgot omniscience). That’s a tiny point of detail though.

  • Aragon

    You took Issue with the following logical propositions/arguments:

    “People [may] choose to become atheists as much as they choose to become Christians.” As you can see by merely inserting [may] your issues with the statement are overcome. I think it fair to assume that the author did not intend to go into a dissertaion regarding the origins of beleif rather he was asserting that we have the capacity to choose if we wish to. Of course, if you beleive in a deterministic world then the issue of choice is problematic. However, I would venture that you don’t subscribe to the idea that we have no choice or free will.

    “And no matter how strenuously some may try to deny it, atheism is a belief system. It requires faith that God does not exist.” No amendment necessary. It is logically a proper proposition assuming, of course, a broad operating definition for “belief or faith”.

    Compare:

    1. I beleive in x, y, and z.
    2. I beleive in x and y only.

    “1″ is properly referred to or categorized as a beleif. And “2″ may be categorized either as a beleif exclusive of z or may be categorized as a beleif in x and y.

    Now for purposes of illustration:
    x = science
    y = objective reality
    z = god

    As you can see it is not necessarily improper to refer to a beleif which embraces x & y only as a beleif which excludes z or in the case god.

    While you expertly tear apart the arguments advanced in “Strategies for Dialoguing with Atheists” you are sometimes also engaging in semanitc slight of hand. Not fair.

    Anyway, someone has to disagree with you here :) .

  • somegoodusername

    Aragon,
    It seems to me, interestingly, that in the cases you’ve listed, the two formulations (1 and 2) should ammount to the same thing.

    1. I believe in science, objective reality and God.
    2. I believe in science and objective reality only.

    Without knowing for sure what ‘objective reality’ means, I’m going to assume that as a phrase it stands for ‘what there is’. If this assumption is true then the suggestion that there is a distinction between a belief in 1. on the one hand, and 2. on the other, must be false.

    A.’I believe in science’- no real problems ascribing a truth value to that. We’ll say it’s true, quite what it means is beyond the point.

    B.’I believe in objective reality’- the real problem. If the phrase means what I specified, then, if God exists, I believe in God. God would form part of ‘objective reality’ and hence the third premise is superfluous.

    C. ‘I believe in God’- another problem. If the third premise is what distinguishes 1 from 2, it would have to be held that God didn’t fit into the ontology of the universe. The list of ‘what there is’ wouldn’t include God!

    All this means that the second belief is equivalent to the first and there is a false dichotomy being drawn. This dichotomy seems to be based on the assumption that God does not form part of ‘objective reality’ and so you have in fact defined God out of possible occurrence in your model.

    I hope the point isn’t too pedantic…

  • GHcool

    As a skeptic and, more specifically, as a Jew, Rhode’s argument is extremely offensive to me. Members of my family were murdered in cold blood by people who, like Rhode, believe that “Those who enter eternity without having trusted in Christ for salvation will understand just how effectively God has dealt with the problem of evil.” In fact, the Jewish survivors of the long history of anti-Semitic pogroms understand how INEFFECTIVELY God has dealt with the problem of evil and how those who trust in Jesus for salvation often are agents of the evil Rhode condemns.

    To be clear and fair to Rhode, I do not believe that the twisted argument Rhode uses is proof that he is a murderous anti-Semite. All I am saying is that much of the same rhetoric Rhode uses to condemn atheism has also been used as a justification to murder, torture, and persecute Jews throughout history. Right after Rhode’s argument condemnation of people who don’t believe that Jesus is a messianic figure, Dr. Novella wrote, “Best I don’t go further down this road of illogic or this blog entry will never end.” While he was probably right not to for the sake of brevity, I hope that someday he will return to this topic.

  • [...] May 5, 2008 by markii via the skeptics’ guide. [...]

  • It requires faith that God does not exist.

    I have no faith in anything. I see no evidence there’s a god, therefore, I don’t believe in god. And to borrow from Sam Harris, I see no evidence frozen yogurt can fly, so I don’t believe my frozen yogurt will levitate. It’s really quite simple.

    And I didn’t choose to “become an atheist.” I’m simply a person who doesn’t believe in unproven crap, and “atheist” is what people tend to call people like me. Of course, I prefer something a little more fun, which is why my business card reads, “Amy Alkon, godless harlot.”

    Yes, really. You can have a lot of fun with the mundane if you aren’t depending on a lot of stuffy asshats for tenure.

  • Duke

    Wow, I must be listening to too much SGU, cos I spotted those logical fallacies immediately! Thanks for arming us with weapons of logics, guys. :)

  • Aragon

    somegoodusername

    Your post gave me a headache because I had to concentrate really hard. Your logic is irrefutable :) .

    That was an awesome analysis of my example. But, alas, unfortunately, it was an example meant to illustrate something else and not stand alone as something internally consistent or logical.

    I should have said

    1. apples, oranges, god
    2. apples, oranges

    No doubt you’ll tell me that apples and oranges and god are necessarily exclusive of each other or redundant referencially :) .

    Anyway, I recognize your analytical mind. Now do me a service and turn it to agreeing with me and disagreeing with Novella. Please?

  • Howdy

    Is there value in trying to analyse logically something that is by is very nature supernatural?. Defining supernatural as;

    1. of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena; abnormal.
    2. of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or attributed to God or a deity.

    So if God is outside of nature (i.e. not part of creation), and science is concerned with observations of the physical universe, then scientific analysis is an extremely limited tool.

    Amy’s assertion of “I have no faith in anything” is unlikely to be true. We can’t always be experts in everything and so tend to believe others who have more specialist knowledge. This can certainly lead to faith without proof.
    Do I understand cosmologists when they talk math?
    Not often. I have faith that they’re correct due to peer review. But I still don’t have proof. We all have faith in something.

  • James Fox

    Over in Science Based Medicine Harriet Hall makes a statement regarding belief and notions of certainty that I am in agreement with and speak to the issues in discussion.

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=103
    “As a reminder that there is never a 100% guarantee that we are right, Burton suggests we use the words “I believe” instead of “I know.” This is the one place where I disagree with him: I don’t like either word. Belief sounds too much like faith. I don’t like the idea of saying I believe evolution is true. Truth in science, at best, can only mean that the evidence is overwhelming. We can’t “know” absolutely in a metaphysical sense. We provisionally accept evolution because the evidence is so overwhelming that it would be perverse to reject it. We remain open to new evidence.” (end quote)

    At one point in my life I choose to be a Christian. Many years later I decided there was no credible evidence to support a belief in the supernatural; which made remaining a Christian somewhat problematic. While this may have been a logical decision, I don’t feel it had much to do with the applied us of logic and argumentation concerning gods existence. In the end I wanted to have an evidence based rationale for the propositions or beliefs I was willing to agree with.

  • Aragon

    Howdy or is it Howdy there from freerepublic?

    I have no scientific understanding of gravity. Scientists have yet to describe a theory which explains gravity. Scientists don’t know what gravity is (gravitons?, warping of space?, vigrating strings?, etc..). And there is no scientific proof of how gravity works.

    Now, please ask Amy to walk off the nearest cliff.

  • thethyme

    The first sentence in the linked essay is “No one is born an atheist” What are people born if they are not born an atheist? People are certainly not born believing in a God, that is something our parents or culture teach us. I would submit that we are all born atheist, and then most choose to believe in a God(s) at least for a while.

    Thanks for the great post Doctor

  • Howdy

    I can’t agree that we’re born atheist. Surely, we are born agnostic. The belief or lack thereof comes later.

    If atheism is “inherited” from a culture or parent (as was the case in the USSR) then the atheism is surely a belief system, if it derives from a conscious and reasoned decision, then it is not. There is also a difference in “not beliving in God” and “believing in no God” as the former is passive (like a default) and the latter is active.

    In religions, the belief is usually “inherited”, and starts off as a passive (default) belief. Whether the belief becomes active depends on the individual. I think most people usually drift through life as passive believers.

    I think the real issue is that the need for “purpose” is so hardwired into the Psyche. Philosphers and theologians have spend millenia stuggling to determine the pupose of existence/reality/the universe. It is a tough question, and in my opinion one which a lot of non-theistic scientists duck (this is where agnosticism becomes useful). Perhaps the roots to this eternal question lie in natural selection itself. A conscious species may become nihilistic given the prospect of a purposeless existence. This wouldn’t bode well for its survival. Wouldn’t that be interesting though; natural selection promoting deistic beliefs in order to protect the survival of a species until that species discovered natural selection.
    OK – I’m kidding, but I think that using science and logic to prove or disprove the eternal question of “purpose” in existence is seriously flawed.

  • Howdy

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at Aragon:
    “I have no scientific understanding of gravity”. Isn’t emprical observation the basis for scientific understanding?. The gravitational effect is readily measurable even though the mechanism is unknown. So there is evidence that is consistent with the hypothesis of a force exerted on a body (with mass) by another body (with mass). I experience this force everday when I break stuff.
    Some people may not know how an internal combustion engine works, but they know there’s one in their car (least ’til the oil runs out)
    I believe that these effects are real due to direct empirical evidence. Then there is a sliding scale on the things I’m not so sure off. If I’m told there is an earth-like planet a few hundred light years away in a report by NASA, I’d be inclined to believe it – but that’s more like faith (note small “f”)

  • fishshtick

    I don’t see the problem that folks are having with the issue of whether atheism is a belief system or not. Steve presented the key issue in passing. It comes down to how someone defines themselves as an atheist. Namely, not believing in a supernatural God is not the equivalent of believing that God does not exist. The former statement is consistent with the materialistic naturalism philosophy that is central to the view of most, but not all, atheists. This stance is logically defensible under recognition that the absence of an effect cannot be proven in a Popperian (hypothetico deductive) sense. By contrast, an atheist who defines himself as actively believing that God does not exist is engaging in a belief system that cannot be tested within the confines of naturalism (Popper discussed this in detail). Certainly many atheists take this stance, but atheism writ large is probably better (and more broadly)defined to include all those who do not believe God does exist. This is not just a word game, although people like Rhodes have long exploited this logical inversion to paint atheism as hypocritical.

    Ultimately, I agree with Dawkins that in practice atheism logically exists along a continuum with agnosticism. I would add that one’s position on this continuum depends on the weight they place in largely inductive arguments (e.g., the extensiveness of human suffering). Keep in mind inductive arguments are not necessarily wrong, they just can’t be evaluated with the certainty of the hypothetico-deductive approach.

  • thethyme

    I am not sure I could agree we are born agnostic, if a person is born and raised independent of human culture its highly unlikely in my opinion they would have an idea of God(s)

    Agnosticism is the choice where by a person determines a lack of evidence on either side leaves the question open and person can either choose a side or take the position of not knowing what to believe. However without the outside culture providing the God(s) hypothesis for you I do not think a person would individually develop it on their own, therefore a person would be out belief in God(s).

    I could be wrong here I actually tried to look up some information on Feral Children to see if this has been studied and my brief search did not turn up anything specific to Feral children and belief or lack there of in a God(s)

    The real question to me then becomes what is the default position for a person who is raised outside of Human Culture? I would suspect that is would be a form of atheism, however I would love to see evidence for it either way.

  • GHcool

    thethyme wrote:

    “The real question to me then becomes what is the default position for a person who is raised outside of Human Culture? I would suspect that is would be a form of atheism, however I would love to see evidence for it either way.”

    Obviously, I would love to see evidence for this as well, but I don’t suspect that the answer is some form of atheism. I suspect that it would just be total ignorance, meaning that the person would not even know enough to know that he/she is ignorant. By example, consider a hypothetical time traveler who showed up in medieval England and asked the peasants what them for their views on stem cell research. The medieval peasants probably just shrug and say that they don’t hold any opinion because they don’t even understand what is being discussed.

  • thethyme

    I very much appreciate the response here and I am inclined to agree with you since is not a lack of belief at birth but ignorace of topic. I would stand by the idea that at birth no one has an awareness of God(s), but then it is also true that at birth a person has little awareness of anything. This is not meant as any sort of proof for the exisitence or non-existence of God(s), it just I could not get passed the first sentance of the linked essay.

    Again thanks for the response, and thank you Doctor for the post.

  • Aragon

    fishstick

    That was a perfect summation of matters.

    Question:

    Do you consider the “materialistic naturalism philosophy” brand of atheism to be inconsistent with epistomological solipsism?

  • Aragon

    Howdy:

    Thanks for opening the door.

    You write:

    “I have no scientific understanding of gravity”. Isn’t emprical observation the basis for scientific understanding?. The gravitational effect is readily measurable even though the mechanism is unknown. So there is evidence that is consistent with the hypothesis of a force exerted on a body (with mass) by another body (with mass). I experience this force everday when I break stuff……..
    I believe that these effects are real due to direct empirical evidence.”

    The operative sentence her is “I believe that these effects are real due to direct empirical evidence.”

    I see evidence in the lives of Christians which attests to the benefits of Christianity. I see this evidence over and over and it consistently points to Christian Theology having a positive effect on their lives.

    So I have direct empirical evidence of the power of Jesus Christ (call this the JC hypothesis if you will). Now, you say, well it could be explained by any number of things …. it leads to better life style … people who chose Christianity had a prior propensity to lead healthy and happy lives ….. observation bias on your part. Indeed, I have no direct evidence of the etiology of the perceived causal relationship. I merely have observed cause and effect consistent with the JC hypothesis. By the way, your justification for your beleif in Gravity “is evidence that is consistent with the hypothesis of a force exerted on a body (with mass) by another body (with mass).” The evidence is also consistent with any number of other theories. And there has yet to be shown that a force is exerted (gravitons for instance) by one body upon another but rather that the proximity of two bodies will have an apparent effect upon their time/space localities and behavior within that medium. It could be that they have no effect upon each other rather it is their individual effects upon the fabric of space.

  • [...] why do theists (and oddly enough some atheists) make the claim that atheism is a choice? I don’t get [...]

  • fatherdaddy

    Atheism is not a belief system. There is no bible for atheists. There is no philosophy behind atheism. You would have to step into related territory, like secular humanism, to get to a system of belief. Atheist is too generic of a term to link it to specific beliefs, only non-beliefs. I don’t happen to believe in a lot of things other people who call themselves atheists believe in. My belief system may have a basis in my lack of belief in a god, but, that doesn’t make atheism a belief system in itself. The Russians had very definite beliefs of which some were based in atheism, but, atheism was not even at the core.

    As for gravity, I don’t have to believe it or understand it to know it is happening. I drink, I get drunk, I fall down. I can see it. I don’t have to believe it. Personally, I don’t even wholly accept a whole lot of cosmology, because it is based so much on mathematical evidence rather than physical evidence. I may be a dumbass (strike that, I am a dumbass), but, when the inconsistencies of the current model are worked out I will be more willing to accept what is presented. I don’t think I will ever accept that matter can have only one or two dimensions, so, keep your strings to your kite.

    Amy, I love the “Godless Harlot” title. I want your business card.

  • fishshtick

    Aragon Writes:

    “Question: Do you consider the “materialistic naturalism philosophy” brand of atheism to be inconsistent with epistomological solipsism?”

    Fishshtick Responds: That’s not a straightforward question from what I understand of epistomological solipsism. I guess I would say that my answer depends in part on whether one is talking metaphysically or methodologically.

    Metaphysically, I would guess that materialistic naturalism and epistomological solipsism would not be inconsistent. Epistomological solipsism would simply view the outside universe as unknowable independent of what we infer based on our limited senses and perception. So long as the basis for that potential disconnect between our inner mental world and the outer world reflects a non-supernatural phenomenon, such as the physical limits of our sensory physiology and perception then there is no reason metaphysical solipsism would have to be outside the realm of metaphysical materialistic naturalism. If one starts invoking an inability to know the supernatural then the two become metaphysically incompatible

    In contrast, if we view materialistic naturalism in a more methodological framework, as I intended in my prior e-mail in reference to atheists who simply do not believe in a God, then it becomes harder to rationalize it with any metaphysical or epistomological form of solipsism. The reason I see for this is that one must fundamentally assume that our perceptions of the outside universe at least approximate its actual physical nature and laws for one to see any practical value in a naturalist or materialist perspective. My experience is most atheists/agnostics (including myself) are generally won over to that philosophy because of its practicality and not out of some metaphysical zeal.

    You can probably tell that I am not a fan of solipsism. Its just not practical for someone like me that holds to an evolutionary perspective on human congnition. Once you believe in a materialist view of the brain and an evolutionary basis for its structure and functions then that automatically implies that it was selectively shaped by the outside universe and should thus provide a pretty good tool for experiencing and interacting with it. The most I could really buy into might be some minimalist methodological solipsism that recognizes that each sane individual’s mental conception of the universe may be somewhat different but in largely unimportant ways that don’t really prevent generalization.

    Anyhow that’s a bunch of potentially silly thoughts from an armchair philosopher.

  • Aragon

    fishshtick:

    You knocked it out of the park. Thanks for the response and the candor. You admit to the fundamental assumption associated with “materialistic naturalism in a more methodological framework” (i.e. assume that our perceptions of the outside universe at least approximate its actual physical nature and laws). And you state your reasons for the assumption, practicality, sanity, etc… as opposed to asserting some fabricated logical construct or truth to support the assumption.

    It is that assumption however which I liken to a leap of faith. Certainly you ascribe reasons for the leap of faith, sanity, practicality, but such reasons don’t objectively validate that leap. So while materialistic naturalism is internally consistent or valid as it can be tested and validated via the scientific method it cannot be externally validated. Nor can it be externally invalidated. Alternatively stated, materialistic naturalism is not falsifiable, think null hypothesis.

  • 666

    “…the notion that we can know that god does not exist. Most self-described atheists I know do not make such claims”

    You seriously cannot tell that god is fictional? What would you say about Xenu, Psychics, or the Tooth Fairy – would you claim that we cannot know if the Tooth Fairy is real?

  • Aragon

    “You seriously cannot tell that god is fictional? What would you say about Xenu, Psychics, or the Tooth Fairy – would you claim that we cannot know if the Tooth Fairy is real?”

    Sir, the Tooth Fairy is indeed real! Just ask my kids.

  • 666 wrote: “You seriously cannot tell that god is fictional? ”

    This is an ambiguous statement. What do you mean by “tell.” There is evidence for God as a literary tradition – therefore fiction. But that is not the same thing as the question of whether or not a god exists.

    The key is this – if god, Xenu, psychics, the tooth fairy are proposed as empirical claims about the natural world that are amenable to scientific evidence – then they can be tested, and we can make statements about whether or not they are likely to exist.

    But if any of these things are formulated so as to be unfalsifiable – not amenable to any imaginable evidence or observation – then science can do nothing except declare such claims outside the realm of science.

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