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Posted by on May 12, 2007 in atheism a faith position? | 21 comments

“atheism is a faith position” – another example

Here’s a classic example of the “they are both equally faith positions” view, taken from a review on of the book God: The Failed Hypothesis.

For my treatment of this sort of move see here, where we get the same old mantra from Alister McGrath and others. Anyway, here we go…

After considering this book for a time I realise that this has nothing new to add to a debate which is greatly misunderstood.

To use an example:

To say that “the Galaxy Andromeda has life in it” would be an incorrect statement – to say “the Galaxy Andromeda has no life in it” would also be incorrect. The statement “the Galaxy Andromeda DEFINITELY MAYBE has life in it” – is the way to express the situation.

This logic is the way answer the question “is there an all-powerful, all-knowing and in all-places controlling influence or entity?” – DEFINITELY MAYBE is the only logical answer. One can have ‘faith’ that there – is – or – is not – this influence in existence, but it must logically be regarded as a DEFINITE MAYBE in argument. And that IS the WAY IT IS – PERIOD.


  1. The thing I notice about this debate, is that religious people switch from defending the god of the Bible or the god of the Koran – a specific deity with specific attributes and a specific alleged history of intervention in human affairs – and defend a massively weaker conception of god. This “god” need not be personal, need be no more than a law of nature, like e=mc2. They then say to Atheists, how can you be sue there isn’t a god like that? The debate is pointless, because we know the faithful won’t be satisfied with a “god” like that. They only fall back on it in debate.

  2. “To say that ‘the Galaxy Andromeda has life in it’ would be an incorrect statement – to say ‘the Galaxy Andromeda has no life in it’ would also be incorrect.”This guy confuses facts about the external world with our knowledge of them. If person A says “the Galaxy Andromeda has life in it” and person B says “the Galaxy Andromeda has no life in it”, one of them is right and the other wrong. We just don’t know which. And the one that happens to be correct still does not have knowledge, and is (in the absence of any evidence either way) overreaching themselves intellectually, commenting on what they couldn’t know either way.Dawkins uses exactly this analogy in “The God Delusion” to illustrate agnosticism: does life exist elsewhere in the universe? We just don’t have enough information either way. However, with God there seems to be a “default position”: in the absence of evidence either way, you should believe that god does not exist, just like with fairies.Why is the default position concerning god at the atheism end of the theism-agnosticism-atheism spectrum, but the default position concerning alien life somewhere around the middle?

  3. The fact is there is evidence that there’s intelligent life on other planets. We know life emerged here, and we know there are billions of planets like this one out there. So the probability of intelligent life out there somewhere is not that low. It’s just that we have no direct evidence of any such life. Hi CagliostThat there’s intelligent life out there is half way up the scale of reasonableness. It’s not an unreasonable thing to believe. Even if not that reasonable.My view is that the probability of an all-powerful, all-good is much much lower. The evidence and args for are weak. And, most significantly, there’s overwhelming evidence against. See my original “God of Eth” (link on left).

  4. It is always amusing for me to see theists arguing for agnosticism. The argument reproduced in the OP is an argument for absolute philosophical Skepticism or epistemic nihilism: The idea that we cannot know anything at all. It seems pointless to define “knowledge” to require certainty, a definition that entails we cannot acquire even the tiniest bit of knowledge.Regardless of certainty, we know there is no God at least as well as (if not better than) we know there is no Brontosaurus residing in the White House.

  5. I have to say, The God of Eth seems less of an argument directly against the existence of a God, and more of an argument for the incoherence of omni-benevolence and the vacuity of theodicy.

  6. Hi Stephen, your books are great.(Oh, I’m a total atheist. The “spectrum of agnosticism” comes from “The God Delusion”, and like Dawkins I think god might exist, but is as likely as the tooth fairy so I don’t bother to call myself an agnostic.Yes, the problem of evil is a sound argument that an all-powerful, all-good god does not exist. I was talking about god in general.)Even if there was no evidence either way, it seems that life (not necessarily intelligent) would be about half-way on the scale of reasonableness. However, there is no evidence either way for a god, but god is very low on the scale of reasonableness, along with the tooth fairy. At least, it seems that way to me. Why do you think this is?

  7. Yes, but in the case of “God”, there is no good evidence or argument to make a positive case for his/her existence. However, in the case of “life on other planets” there are at least plausible arguments that can be put forward for the case. [As an example, we have some idea of how a self replicating device got started on earth, and it does not seem too improbable that it happened at least one other time on the roughly billion billion possibly-inhabitable planets in the universe. Once there is self-replication, there are inevitable errors in copying (mutations) and from there on, evolution takes over.]Seeing as there are an infinite number of possible assertions, only a tiny minority of which will be in accord with reality, the burden of proof must surely lie with he who would assert his claim. In other words, the default position on any statement should be scepticism, and one should only move from there on the basis of positive evidence or argument for the postion. Thus, having no evidence for a statement is enough to confine it (at least until further evidence comes in) to the “extremely, extremely unlikely” category. I’m not sure you even need arguments against a statement, unless there’s some positive evidence for it that needs combating. (Doesn’t hurt though!)

  8. [Clarification: comment above addressed to calgiost’s interesting point]

  9. Sorry about the length.Stephen:I am impressed by the “problem of evil”; I described it as “sound”. I think it proves incontrovertibly that an all-good, all-powerful god does not exist.But god might be neither all-good nor all-bad. The Deists’ unconcerned god could exist.I thought that your “God of Eth” was merely to make Christians realise there was no reason to believe that God is good. It also suggests a “Problem of Good” in contrast to the problem of evil. But still, the Deists’ god could exist.Jeremy:You say “the default position on any statement should be scepticism”. This seems to endorse agnosticism; one should be skeptical about the statement “God exists” and skeptical about the statement “God does not exist”. But it doesn’t seem that way to me. Even though there is no evidence either way, and no logical arguments either way, I think the “default position” should be “God does not exist”, just like with the tooth fairy.Or are you saying that alien life shouldn’t be somewhere in the middle of the reasonableness scale, but down towards god (though not as far as god)? At the moment, I think this is more likely – that my original “intuition” that aliens were in the middle of the scale was wrong.I had in mind your mention of the arising of self-replicators. If there are roughly a billion billion possibly-inhabitable planets in the universe, and the probability of a self-replicator arising on any given planet is one in a billion, we would expect a billion planets to have life. We do know that there are roughly a billion billion planets. But we don’t know at all what the probability of life arising on a planet is. So we can’t say either way.How about this:There is no evidence for or against the existence of god. There are no logical arguments for or against the existence of god.There is no evidence for or against the existence of aliens. There are no logical arguments for or against the existence of aliens.All we can say about either is that they could exist, or could not.The difference, and the reason I put them in different places on the “reasonableness scale”, is plausibility. God is a supernatural idea, whereas aliens are natural. So while either could exist, aliens do not require us to postulate something fundamentally different to what we know, whereas god does.Or perhaps a better avenue of exploration would be this “reasonableness scale”. What makes us think something is “reasonable”?Hmm, this particular problem interests me very much. I can’t quite get a handle on it yet; I think I need someone else to sort out my “mental plumbing”.

  10. Cagliost – you make a good point. I should have been more careful with how I phrased things. What I meant to say was that for any positive statement the default position should be scepticism. For example “1 + 1 =” has only one right answer, and an infinite number of wrong ones. The same is true of many statements concerning facts. Therefore, the ‘best bet’ on a default position should be ‘disbelief’ (as in the opposite of ‘belief’). Making the statement into a negative is really the same as putting a minus sign into the equation. “1 + 1 is not =” now has an infinite number of right answers, and only one wrong one. Far from disproving the whole exercise, this really only proves it in reverse: either way, ‘disbelief’ is the way forward (in the second case, the disbelief is built into the phrase with the ‘not’ and thus the statement should be believed until proven otherwise).In this way, “God exists” (positive statement, ‘disbelieve’ until proven otherwise) and “God does not exist” (negative statement, believe until proven otherwise) are seperated nicely.It’s not always as cut and dry, naturally, and there are several objections which could still be raised, but I do think there’s some truth in all this. After all, information-gathering methods that get results (e.g. science) adopt a similar stand. Evidence is what counts – an unprovable claim is considered fairly worthless.Hope that’s a little better (and devoid of some massive flaw like last time!).

  11. CagliostApologies – my earlier post appeared in wrong place v confusingly (either that or I lost the plot). You are quite right of course – 2 issues here: reasonableness of belief in the Judeo-Christian god and reasonableness of belief in any sort of god. Belief in the latter is not as unreasonable as the former, I think. Should we be agnostic about the latter? I think not. But interesting question it would be good to explore more….

  12. It seems to me there is a straightforward argument for “atheism as a faith position”: there is not enough evidence to demonstrate that atheism is correct. Agnosticism is the only position wholly dictated by evidence.

  13. This talk of agnosticism vs. atheism reminds me of an essay by Richard Carrier that I read a few months back. He concluded: “Though these categories aren’t synonymous, you still can’t sort unbelievers into ‘atheists’ and ‘agnostics’ any more than you can sort them into ‘persons’ and ‘people’.”Personally, I have to agree that I’m both an atheist and an agnostic. It just depends on the descriptions of any given God(s) that are being argued.

  14. Timmo: Straightforward, yes. You would have to show both that theism is falsifiable as well as showing that the evidence was not yet obtained.The character of El/Yahweh/Jehovah describes a falsifiable sort of being, for which sufficient evidence is available to come to the strong conclusion of nonexistence.I’ve seen all too often the definitional shell game, where the definition of God keeps shifting between a falsifiable one (so that evidentiary arguments become relevant) and an unfalsifiable one (so that evidentiary arguments against fail).

  15. Steelman,Personally, I have to agree that I’m both an atheist and an agnostic. Theists assert “God exists”; Atheists assert “God does not exist”; Agnostic withhold assent from both “God exists” and “God does not exist”. These are three mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories of people who have considered the issue. So, it is self-contradictory to say that you are both an atheist and an agnostic: you are saying “I accept and do not accept the proposition that ‘God does not exist'”. So which is it? Do you claim God does not exist or do you withold assent?Barefoot Bum,You would have to show both that theism is falsifiable as well as showing that the evidence was not yet obtained.Theism, the claim that a personal God exists and is providentially involved in human affairs (I do mean to contrast this view with Deism), is definitely falsifiable. The problem of evil, or various logical puzzles about the alleged properties of God count as counter-evidence to Theism.I am detecting throughout the comments here the thought that there is a special burden of proof on theists. But, that’s wrong. The burden of proof is on whoever advances a contentious claim. Atheists are in just as much a need for solid arguments as theists.

  16. Barefoot Bum,Also, I am frustrated by the constant shifts between atheism and agnosticism. I’ve all too often seen determined atheists change their position to agnosticism to avoid admitting haste in coming to conclusions.

  17. Personally, I like Dawkins’ suggestion in TGD for getting rid of all this slightly pointless debate on the nature of atheists and agnostics. A seven-point scale with absolutely convinced believer at 1, agnostic at 4 and absolutely convinced atheist at 7. He says he’s a 6 (as a scientist he couldn’t be a 7).I think that formulation disposes of the claim thatthere is a straightforward argument for “atheism as a faith position”: there is not enough evidence to demonstrate that atheism is correct. Agnosticism is the only position wholly dictated by evidence.Being a 6 is (IMHO) perfectly well supported by the evidence. Being a 4 seems to me to place insufficient weight on the explanatory power of evolution and the dodginess of theodicy. Amongst other things.Of course you could have a 9-point scale etc if you preferred (and I haven’t checked my memory as far as TGD is concerned).

  18. Timmo said: “Theists assert “God exists”; Atheists assert “God does not exist”; Agnostic withhold assent from both “God exists” and “God does not exist”. These are three mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories of people who have considered the issue.”I’m not so sure about that. Maybe you’re considering agnosticism in the strictly 50/50 sense? My understanding of those positions is this:Theists believe God exists (i.e. have faith), Atheists do not believe God exists (lack of faith), Agnostics withhold assent from both assertions due to lack of knowledge (either just their own temporary lack, or in humankind’s insurmountable inability to ever know the answer to the God question).Personally, I do not know for certain whether or not any kind of God exists (agnostic = no way to know for sure), and I also do not believe any given God I’ve heard of exists (atheist = no faith to bridge the gap of incomplete knowledge). In other words, there might be some sort of God out there in the universe, or there might have been a Deistic God at some point, but I do not have sufficient evidence for any such deities, so I’m agnostic in regard to any given “plausible” God. Further, I don’t see any reason to believe, through faith, in any given God (make up or buy into other’s stories to cover the gaps in my knowledge).It seems to me that most atheists can be described as agnostics who say, “probably not,” with varying degrees of certainty in regard to the God question. Also, for me, the more specific the description of any given God, the easier it is for me to say, “probably not.”

  19. Potentialla,What kind of argument is there from the Theory of Evolution to atheism? It seems like a non-sequiter.

  20. Timmo: If we are going to look at “God” as an explanatory hypothesis—metaphysicians notwithstanding, this position has been taken by millions of theists over the years—we have to show that without “God”, we cannot explain some phenomena.The nature of (more or less) well-structured organisms were phenomena that lacked an adequate non-God-explanation. Although Hume noted that a designer was at best only a partial explanation (since we would still have to account for the nature of the designer itself) and a detailed investigation of the actual structure of organisms placed some severe constraints on either the basic competence or moral character of the designer, before Darwin even a partial, constrained explanation could still be reasonably seen as better than no explanation at all.However, after Darwin, “God” simply fails as an explanatory hypothesis, pushing an existential God to an ever-narrowing gap, or moving the concept of God to purely metaphysical rococo bullshit.

  21. Wot BB said.I especially like the idea of roccoco bullshit. Metaphysical roccoco bullshit would come as a relief.

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