1. You can’t prove atheism.
Atheists are frequently accosted with this accusation, suggesting that in order for non-belief to be reasonable, they must have presented deductively certain grounds. Many atheists within the deductive atheology tradition have done so, but those arguments are frequently 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 themselves to countless beliefs that cannot satisfy those standards.
2. The evidence clearly supports believing.
Of all the objections considered here, this one has the most traction and is most to the point. 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.
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.
For the most part, the criticisms of atheism that I have encountered fall into one of these categories. Are there others that are interesting or provide us with something more substantial to consider?
Saturday, August 23, 2008
1. You can’t prove atheism.