Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Common Criticisms of Atheism (and Why They’re Mistaken) [Revised]

1. You can’t prove atheism. You can never prove a negative, so atheism requires as much faith as religion.

Atheists are frequently accosted with this accusation, suggesting that in order for non-belief to be reasonable, it must be founded on deductively certain grounds. Many atheists within the deductive atheology tradition have presented just those sorts of arguments, but those arguments are often ignored. But more importantly, the critic has invoked a standard of justification that almost none of our beliefs meet. If we demand that beliefs are not justified unless we have deductive proof, then all of us will have to throw out the vast majority of things we currently believe—oxygen exists, the Earth orbits the Sun, viruses cause disease, the 2008 summer Olympics were in China, and so on. The believer has invoked one set of abnormally stringent standards for the atheist while helping himself to countless beliefs of his own that cannot satisfy those standards. Deductive certainty is not required to draw a reasonable conclusion that a claim is true.

As for requiring faith, is the objection that no matter what, all positions require faith? Would that imply that one is free to just adopt any view they like? Religiousness and non-belief are on the same footing? (they aren’t). If so, then the believer can hardly criticize the non-believer for not believing. Is the objection that one should never believe anything on the basis of faith? Faith is a bad thing? That would be a surprising position for the believer to take, and, ironically, the atheist is in complete agreement.

2. The evidence shows that we should believe.

If in fact there is sufficient evidence to indicate that God exists, then a reasonable person should believe it. Surprisingly, very few people pursue this line as a criticism of atheism. But recently, modern versions of the design and cosmological arguments have been presented by believers that require serious consideration. Many atheists cite a range of reasons why they do not believe that these arguments are successful. If an atheist has reflected carefully on the best evidence presented for God’s existence and finds that evidence insufficient, then it’s implausible to fault them for irrationality, epistemic irresponsibility, or for being obviously mistaken. Given that atheists are so widely criticized, and that religious belief is so common and encouraged uncritically, the chances are good that any given atheist has reflected more carefully about the evidence.

3. You should have faith.

Appeals to faith also should not be construed as having prescriptive force the way appeals to evidence or arguments do. The general view is that when a person grasps that an argument is sound, that imposes an epistemic obligation of sorts on her to accept the conclusion. One person’s faith that God exists does not have this sort of inter-subjective implication. Failing to believe what is clearly supported by the evidence is ordinarily irrational. Failure to have faith that some claim is true is not similarly culpable. At the very least, having faith, where that means believing despite a lack of evidence or despite contrary evidence is highly suspect. Having faith is the questionable practice, not failing to have it.

4. Atheism is bleak, nihilistic, amoral, dehumanizing, or depressing.

These accusations have been dealt with countless times. But let’s suppose that they are correct. Would they be reasons to reject the truth of atheism? They might be unpleasant affects, but having negative emotions about a claim doesn’t provide us with any evidence that it is false. Imagine upon hearing news about the Americans dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki someone steadfastly refused to believe it because it was bleak, nihilistic, amoral, dehumanizing, or depressing. Suppose we refused to believe that there is an AIDS epidemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of people in Africa on the same grounds.

5. Atheism is bad for you. Some studies in recent years have suggested that people who regularly attend church, pray, and participate in religious activities are happier, live longer, have better health, and less depression.

First, these results and the methodologies that produced them have been thoroughly criticized by experts in the field. In one case, the metric that was being used to evaluate the health of patients who were being prayed for actually rated some of them as healthier when they were dead. Second, it would be foolish to conclude that even if these claims about quality of life were true, that somehow shows that there is theism is correct and atheism is mistaken. What would follow, perhaps, is that participating in social events like those in religious practices are good for you, nothing more. There are a number of obvious natural explanations. Third, it is difficult to know the direction of the causal arrow in these cases. Does being religious result in these positive effects, or are people who are happier, healthier, and not depressed more inclined to participate in religions for some other reasons? Fourth, in a number of studies atheistic societies like those in northern Europe scored higher on a wide range of society health measures than religious societies.

6. Atheists and atheist political regimes have committed horrible crimes against humanity. Josef Stalin, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, perhaps Hitler, and their atheistic tyrannies tortured and murdered millions.

Given that atheists make up a tiny proportion of the world’s population, and that religious governments and ideals have held sway globally for thousands of years, believers will certainly lose in a contest over “who has done more harm,” or “which ideology has caused more human suffering.” It has not been atheism because atheists have been widely persecuted, tortured, and killed for centuries nearly to the point of extinction.

Sam Harris has argued that the problem with these regimes has been that they became too much like religions. “Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag, and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”

7. Atheists are harsh, intolerant, and hateful of religion.

Sam Harris has advocated something he calls “conversational intolerance.” For too long, a confusion about religious tolerance has led people to look the other way and say nothing while people with dangerous religious agendas have undermined science, the public good, and the progress of the human race. There is no doubt that people are entitled to read what they choose, write and speak freely, and pursue the religions of their choice. But that entitlement does not guarantee that the rest of us must remain silent or not verbally criticize or object to their ideas and their practices, especially when they affect all of us. Religious beliefs have a direct affect on who a person votes for, what wars they fight, who they elect to the school board, what laws they pass, who they drop bombs on, what research they fund (and don’t), which social programs they fund (and don’t), and a long list of other vital, public matters. Atheists are under no obligation to remain silent about those beliefs and practices that urgently need to be brought into the light and reasonably evaluated.

Real respect for humanity will not be found by indulging your neighbor’s foolishness, or overlooking dangerous mistakes. Real respect is found in disagreement. The most important thing we can do for each other is disagree vigorously and thoughtfully so that we can all get closer to the truth.

8. Science is as much a religious ideology as religion is.

At their cores, religions and science have a profound difference. The essence of religion is sustaining belief in the face of doubts, obeying authority, and conforming to a fixed set of doctrines. By contrast, the most important discovery that humans have ever made is the scientific method. The essence of that method is diametrically opposed to religious ideals: actively seek out disconfirming evidence. The cardinal virtues of the scientific approach are to doubt, analyze, critique, be skeptical, and always be prepared to draw a different conclusion if the evidence demands it.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would ask the atheist how does he or she know their memory is reliable? How does he or she know their five senses are reliable? As a Christian I believe faith is the foundation for reason. Like Augustine said "I believe in order to understand."

These questions I have asked our first principles of Philosophy that one must presuppose for anything to be intelligible. However, I am curious given the atheism world-life-view in a general form, how does one justify presupposing the reliability of ones memory or five senses? Also, how does one account for the reliability?

Given the Christian worldview the Bible says humans were created in the image of God (Gen 1:26) by the reliable triune God, thus Christians can justify the reliability of their five senses and memory. Furthermore, Christians can account for the reliability of their memory and five senses because God is the one that created us.

Common Objections

One common objection is this does not answer a thing because there is supposable no coherent definition of the Christian God(I disagree, my definition would be found in the Baptist confession of faith of 1689 or the Westminster Confession of Faith)


Christians are appealing to authority. Absolutely if God testifies of himself (in special revelation specifically the Bible) or says something, we would have to believe it on his authority because there is no higher.

Our five senses and memory are not always reliable, so your belief of being made in God's image and justifying the reliability of your memory is false. I would respond by saying we were made in God's image, but once the fall of Adam and Eve occurred sin tainted our cognitive faculties (Total Depravity or Radical Corruption) causing our memories and five senses to be no longer reliable all the time.

The last time I checked my memory and five senses were reliable. This is circular reasoning (or begs the question) to say I know my memory and five senses are reliable because I used them and they were reliable. One must have an objective foundation, which given the Christian worldview is the Bible that accounts and justifies for the reliability of one's memory and five senses. However, both the Christian and Atheist does circular reasoning concerning the relability of one's memory and five senses, but the Christian worldview gives justification for believing it and can account for it. The Atheist given his worldview and his or her belief in a random, chance universe cannot.

What about other religions? I am not arguing for any other religion because I do not believe any other religion is true. All other religions fall short either they are incoherent, self-contradictory or do not provide the necessary preconditions of intelligability (Isaiah 43:10, John 4:16, Acts 4:12, Phil 2:10-11).

If our senses and memory weren't reliable, we all would have died at a very young age." This also begs the question one cannot assume the very thing we are debating about unless he or she has a foundation that gives justification for the relability of one's memory and five senses that does not change like the Bible, not science.

Tom said...

Related to #4 is this criticism:
1. Atheism implies a lack of a God who legitimizes morality.
2. A lack of legitimized morality implies moral relativism.
3. But moral relativism is false.
4. Atheism is false. [1,2,3]

You find this objection, that atheism can't account for an objective morality, in many debates. The intuition is that every action is permissible without a God who legitimizes morality.

I think this line of thought is separate from the criticism that atheism is simply depressing or nihilistic. After all, the latter can be easily dealt with: x being depressing is not grounds for thinking x is false. But the above moral argument seems to resist a similar kind of reply. Maybe it ought to be treated as a criticism independent of #4.

Tom said...

Anonymous, you seem to be right in saying that there are no non-circular ways of defending the reliability of our senses. But I don't think the atheist needs to be committed to the view that our senses and memory are wholly reliable. I readily accept that I'm a fallible being. But on the other hand, unless we bring up the Cartesian evil demon, there doesn't seem to be any reason for thinking that our senses are totally unreliable.

What would you say of the external world skeptic who not only denies the reliability of her senses but also denies the existence of God? He would not be engaged in the circular reasoning you accuse of atheism, and so this position seems to be more justified than your version of theism. While the skeptic escapes your criticism, you still have to find a way out of circularity: you use a non-deceptive God to justify your senses, but still rely on a posteriori arguments (based on experiene) to defend the existence of God. I'm assuming this, of course; maybe you have some a priori argument up your sleeve.

Matt McCormick said...

Anonymous, I'm sorry, but I just don't understand most of your sentences. You need to work a bit harder composing them, getting them grammatical, and making sure they say what you mean.

The reliability, or lack thereof, of the human senses can be tested empirically. So we know that humans are notoriously unreliable eyewitnesses, for instance. See several of my previous blogs about the unreliability of memory, and for citations for lots of psychological research about cognitive mistakes that humans are prone to make.

MM

Reginald Selkirk said...

Anonymous: Given the Christian worldview the Bible says humans were created in the image of God (Gen 1:26) by the reliable triune God...

Could you provide chapter and verse for where the Bible refers to a triune God, let alone attributes the creation of man to a triune God? Thank you.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Christians are appealing to authority. Absolutely if God testifies of himself (in special revelation specifically the Bible) or says something, we would have to believe it on his authority because there is no higher.

How do we know the Bible is the word of God? Because it says so in the Bible!

thus Christians can justify the reliability of their five senses and memory. Furthermore, Christians can account for the reliability of their memory and five senses because God is the one that created us...
I would respond by saying we were made in God's image, but once the fall of Adam and Eve occurred sin tainted our cognitive faculties (Total Depravity or Radical Corruption) causing our memories and five senses to be no longer reliable all the time.


If our senses are reliable, it's because Christianity is true. If our senses are unreliable, it's because Christianity is true. That pretty much covers all the bases.

What about other religions? I am not arguing for any other religion because I do not believe any other religion is true. All other religions fall short either they are incoherent, self-contradictory or do not provide the necessary preconditions of intelligability (Isaiah 43:10, John 4:16, Acts 4:12, Phil 2:10-11).

Your dismissal of other religions is arbitrary, not rationally justified. You need to show that your standards for rejecting other religions are the same as your standards for accepting Christianity. Also, good luck demonstrating that your religion is coherent, non-contradictory and intelligible.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Sam Harris has argued that the problem with these regimes has been that they became too much like religions.

This argument is not new to Harris. Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famous atheist of the 20th century, was an early supporter of Communism. After touring the Soviet Union and seeing how it wasn't working, he changed his mind. link

In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic* is opposed. The persecuting character of present day communism is exactly like the persecuting character of Christianity in earlier centuries...


* Russell comments elsewhere on the philosophical vs. popular definitions of "agnostic" and "atheist."

Samuel Skinner said...

To be fair, Ignersol was writting in the 1920s when agnosticism meant this:

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/sn-huxley.html

Most people have shot down anonymous, but as for Tom, I direct you to the great Plato himself who crushed that argument with the Euthyphro dilemma.

Anonymous said...

This is not an Exhaustive explaination.

Genesis 1:26 says "let us make man in our image and our likeness" this clearly identifies God as the Creater speaking in a plural, so people have tried to attribute this to angels or refering to God's majesty, but when you take the Bible as a whole it clearly proclaims the concept God is Triune. Especially Gen 1:26, Gen 19:24, Amos 4:10-11. For example, the Bible declares there is one God (Det 6:4, Mark 12:29-30)monotheism, but it also declares the Father is God (1 Peter cpt 3)the Son is God(John 1:1, Titus 2:13, Mark cpt 2, Matt 28:20, John 20:28 ) and the Holy Spirit is God(Acts 5:4). All three mentioned the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all have a will,love, speak, use personal pronouns like me,my,I which by definition makes a person. Thus, the concept is taught in scripture there is one God or Being,that is three persons. One what three whos.

I hope this answered your question.

Tom said...

Hi Skinner,
About Euthyphro's dilemma, I agree that it's a strong objection to the Divine Command Theory. DTC and the moral argument go naturally together. But I wonder if there's some way for the theist to stick to his moral argument while not being committed to DTC.

Maybe he could say: if moral realism is true, then there is a system of universal laws of morality. For any system of laws, there exists a law-maker. God is the only being that could be the law-maker for the system of universal laws of morality. So if moral realism is true, God exists. (Oh, and moral realism is true).

Under this version of the moral argument, the theist might say that he is making no appeal to the necessity of God as the legitimizer of moral codes, a view which invites Euthyphro's dilemma as you point out. Instead, he might say that DTC is false, and yet stick to the necessity of the existence of God as the creator of these universal moral laws. God doesn't really command these laws, he just makes them.

Under one horn of the dilemma, we ask: But does God have a reason for making these laws? If the theist says yes, then the reply is that God's command's are superfluous, for we could just resort to these prior reasons instead. But this theist, who rejects DTC, might agree by saying that God doesn't command any of these laws anyway, but that this does not imply that God is not the "law-maker" of these universal objective moral laws.

It's a strange view that probably no theist would ever hold. But I'm just saying, some versions of the moral argument can be independent from DTC, and consequently immune to Euthyphro's dilemma.

To attack this version of the moral argument, rather than raising Euthyphro's dilemma (a new argument in itself), it seems much easier to just attack one of the premises: that laws imply the existence of an intelligent law-maker, or that this law-maker has to be God.

bonez001 said...

hey guys lets start the new war...





AGE OF SERPENTS

Reginald Selkirk said...

I hope this answered your question.

Yes, and the answer is that the Bible fails to back you up. Many of those Bible verses simply do not say what you claim they do. For example, you say that Acts 5:4 identifies the Holy Spirit as God. Yet, here is Acts 5:4 in its entirety: Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
I don't see any mention at all of the identity of God there, or of the Holy Spirit.

Here are the 3 verses you put forward to "especially" support a triune God:

Gen 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Nope.
Gen 19:24: Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven
Nope.
Amos 4:10-11 I have sent among you the pestilence after the manner of Egypt: your young men have I slain with the sword, and have taken away your horses; and I have made the stink of your camps to come up unto your nostrils: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.
[11] I have overthrown some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD.

Nope. Not one of those three verses mentions a triune God.

Also, you assume that if the Bible says something in one place (i.e. God the Father) and something else in another place (i.e. God the Son) that those things are compatible, not contradictory; and yet they are contradictory on their face. I.e. you assume that the Bible is noncontradictory, when this is known to be untrue.

R.C. said...

Divine Command theory is not the foundation of morality. Morality or that which is good, is a reflection of the character of God. Morality is based on the perfect character of God.

R.C. said...

The individual that seems to think he has refuted the Trinity is mistaken. I do not think one can understand the passages presented that refer to God as Triune unless you acknowledge the Bible refers to God plurally which logically speaking would mean God is not one person (Unitarianism). The passages stated show God speaking to God (Gen 19:24) while the Bible declares there is only one God. If one reads Acts 5 carefully one will see the context identifies the Holy Spirit as God.

Reginald Selkirk said...

The individual that seems to think he has refuted the Trinity is mistaken.

No one here has tried to refute the Trinity, this is one more indication that you are deeply confused. The issue under discussion is biblical support for the Trinity, which is nonexistent. You have failed to establish such Biblical support.

I do not think one can understand the passages presented that refer to God as Triune unless you acknowledge the Bible refers to God plurally which logically speaking would mean God is not one person

Some OT passages do refer to God in the plural (Elohim). This is not being contested. It would be up to you to establish that this is a reference to some mysterious three-person one-god entity rather than a polytheistic pantheon. You have not done so.

The passages stated show God speaking to God (Gen 19:24)

No. Gen 19:24 doesn't show God speaking at all, you are flushing your credibility down the toilet. If other passages show God speaking to Himself, that does not speak well for His mental health.

while the Bible declares there is only one God.

The Bible declares that the Jews should only worship one God. Not the same thing. And if it declares other things in other places, once again the onus is on you to establish that this is not contradictory.

Consider this portion of the 10 commandments, Exod 20:2-3
I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.


Why would God tell the Israelites that they shall have no other gods before him, if no other gods exist? Is God really that stupid?

Reginald Selkirk said...

Divine Command theory is not the foundation of morality.

It's good that you agree with that, since Divine Command theory is in deep logical trouble.

Morality or that which is good, is a reflection of the character of God. Morality is based on the perfect character of God.

First, you would have to establish that God exists, and that His character is perfect. Good luck with that.

Otherwise, this appears to be an attempt to embed your conclusion into your definitions. I.e., it is question-begging.

Carlo said...

The reason why atheism implies moral relativism is because it lacks a model. Even a moral doctrine like Confucianism, that has very little reliance on a god head, still implies such. The virtuous man is so perfect in character that if such a man existed he would be like a god to us. A person cannot pick and choose their moral set of beliefs since it will lead to a slippery slope or as psychologists call it "cognitive dissonance reasoning" (rationalization). Moral conduct needs to be guided. The reasoning faculty fails here because it has no inherent good or bad value judgment attached. Rather, its aim is systematic and not good directed. Of course I am not saying atheists are immoral but they have a propensity to be more immoral. That is just a fact contributed by their lack of a moral model. It is no coincidence that Satanism is the only religion that promotes atheism. Oddly, it also denies itself of the religion status…

coltrane02 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.