Monday, June 30, 2008

What’s Desirable About Heaven?

Bart Ehrman has a very popular book on the shelves now called God’s Problem. It was reviewed in the New Yorker recently, and the reviewer gives this very suggestive argument:

“But Heaven is also a problem for theodicists who take the freedom to choose between good and evil as paramount. For Heaven must be a place where either our freedom to sin has been abolished or we have been so transfigured that we no longer want to sin: in Heaven, our will miraculously coincides with God’s will. And here the free-will defense unravels, and is unravelled by the very idea of Heaven. If Heaven obviates the great human freedom to sin, why was it ever such a momentous ideal on earth, “worth” all that pain and suffering?

The difficulty can be recast in terms of the continuity of the self. If we will be so differently constituted in Heaven as to be strangers to sin, then no meaningful connection will exist between the person who suffers here and the exalted soul who will enjoy the great system of rewards and promises and tears wiped from faces: our faces there will not be the faces we have here. And, if there were to be real continuity between our earthly selves and our heavenly ones, then Heaven might dangerously begin to resemble earth.”

Here’s another closely related argument:

1. In heaven we either possess freewill to sin or we will not.

2. Being free and able to sin, all other things being equal, is a better state of affairs than not being free. (The Freewill Defense)

3. If we possess freewill to sin, then we will be able to sin.

4. If we are able to sin in heaven, then heaven will not be the best, most desirable, perfect place.

On a side note, if it is possible for God to make us free in heaven but prevent us from sinning, then it is possible for God to make us free and prevent us from sinning now. But according to the freewill defense, God makes us free but it is not possible for him to prevent us from sinning.

5. If we are not free to sin in heaven, then heaven will not be the best, most desirable, perfect place.

6. So heaven is not the best, most desirable, perfect place.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Moving The Goal Posts

Frequently, when problems with a particular account of God are presented by the atheist, those that are more sympathetic with belief will respond by pointing out that narrow objections like that don’t prove that there is no God. Perhaps all they show is that one particular account of God doesn’t make sense. For the non-believer this perpetual moving of the goal posts can be exasperating. Every earnest attempt to get clear on just what is meant by this mystifying term God meets with evasions and sidesteps.

But let’s not forget the nature of the situation here. The burden of proof for the believer is not merely to change the story about God until they land upon one that doesn’t seem to have the problems pointed out by the atheist. Suppose that the atheist’s objections drive the believer back to some sufficiently vague, general, or abstract account of God that seems to be in less acute conceptual crisis. Has the believer now be vindicated? Is believing now epistemically inculpable? No. What this exercise may have produced is an account of what God could possibly be that is motivated by several arguments about what he cannot be. But redefining or reconceiving God in some fashion that lessens the blow of the problem of evil, or reduces the cognitive dissonance surrounding omnipotence, doesn’t give us reasons to think that that being actually exists. All that might show is that if there were a God then the sorts of being he could be are narrower than the believer held at the start. It’s no more acceptable to conclude that God is actual on the basis that some description is possible than it is reasonable to conclude that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because it is possible that there are. Belief in God doesn’t become reasonable merely by being free of obvious inconsistencies. There’s still the question of evidence—what are the grounds for believing that such a being is real? Unless we can answer that question, having a viable story of what God might be isn’t any more rationally convincing than the possibility that there are invisible, undetectable elves in my garden. Sure, their existence is compatible with the evidence—they can’t be seen or detected. But the mere possibility that something is real isn’t sufficient to make believing that it is actually real supported by the evidence. An account of God needs to make sense and it has to have some substantial evidence in its favor. We shouldn’t confuse far-fetched possibilities with justifications for realities.

In this shuffle, an important point often gets lost. There are some remarkably sophisticated and carefully articulated accounts of God out there being presented by philosophers. Consider this recent definition of omnipotence from Flint and Fredoso:

S is omnipotent at t in W if and only if for any state of affairs p and world-type-for-S Ls such that p is not a member of Ls, if there is a world W* such that Ls is true in both W and W*, and W* shares the same history with W at t, and at t in W* someone actualizes p, then S has the power at t in W to actualize p (Flint & Freddoso 1983, p. 99).

Other discussions of God’s knowledge, God’s consciousness, and God’s goodness are similarly technical and arcane. Recent explanations of omniscience have included substantial efforts to define God’s knowledge in light of the restrictions that Cantor’s theorem and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem cast on truth.

But in the history of the origins of human religions, none of the accounts of God started out reflecting attempts to evade counter examples the way the modern accounts do. Originally, God was a simple, anthropomorphic figure with various character flaws, and little philosophical sophistication. Richard Gale portrays this dialogue with excess charity. Doubter’s questions and challenges to the conception of God have helped clarify the nature of God. One has to wonder, if these modern accounts of God’s nature are closer to accurate, then why is there no hint of any of them in any of the original accounts of God that founded the major religious traditions? Why did it take thousands of years to uncover God’s nature, particularly since by most accounts he desires that his nature and existence be known? And why is it only with non-believers persistent objections that God’s true nature slowly comes into focus?

No doubt it is a useful and challenging project to perpetually devise new accounts of God and his properties that resist more and more inventive counter examples. But we must keep in mind that doing so only addresses the hypothetical: if there were a God, then this is what he’d be like, not if we can give a sophisticated version of God’s description that isn’t obviously problematic, then God is real.

The same goes for discussions about God outside of the philosophy journals. If the non-believer is troubled by the seeming incompatibility of God’s existence with pointless suffering, and the believer responds, “God’s plan, God’s goodness, and God’s nature are beyond our comprehension,” that doesn’t give us any reason to think there actually is one. In fact, these defense-by-ignorance responses seem to give us even more reason to think that believing is not reasonable or supported by our evidence.

So the question remains: there’s not much point to constructing some seemingly internally consistent account of God that answers complicated counter examples unless we have some substantial reason to think that enterprise is going somewhere. Are we working out the details of something that we know to be true? If so, then on what grounds? (And will those grounds indicate that God's knowledge is defined in part by Cantor's and Godel's theorems?)

Or are we just exploring the conceptual details of a belief that’s going to be procured by faith in the end? If believing by faith is an acceptable route, then why not abandon internal consistency along with any need for evidence?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Everitt on Standards of Proof and Non-Belief

Nicholas Everitt in The Non-Existence of God has some relevant comments about reasonable standards of proof that are relevant to some of my recent posts:

“But we should not approach this search for reasons with unrealistically high expectations. We need to recognize that reasons can vary in strength. At one extreme, there will be those which provide absolutely conclusive support for (or against) a position. At the other extreme, will be reasons which raise (or lower) by only a minute amount the probability that our conclusion is true. In between, there will be reasons which can be ranged along a spectrum of strength. In ordinary life, we recognize the existence of this spectrum by deploying such locutions as:

A proves B beyond all doubt.

A is overwhelming evidence for B.

A is very strong evidence for B.

A makes B more likely than not.

A is good evidence for B.

A is fairly good evidence for B.

A makes B a really possibility.

A suggests that B.

A is some evidence for B.

A is weak evidence for B.

A marginally increases the likelihood that B.

The reason for emphasizing this spectrum is in order to remind ourselves that in the philosophy of religion, as elsewhere in daily life, being guided by reason does not mean demanding ‘proof’ before we can accept anything as true. The term ‘proof’ can of course be interpreted in many ways, but we rightly (i.e., reasonably or rationally) believe many things which we cannot prove. For example, I believe that my car will start when I next turn on the ignition and starter switch. This is a rationally defensible belief (the car has been very reliable in the past, it is regularly serviced, it is kept in a locked garage so is very unlikely to be interfered with, etc.). But the evidence that I have, good though it is, cannot be said to prove that the car will start next time. Nor would I be being rational or reasonable if I said, ‘I cannot prove the matter either way, therefore I cannot form any defensible view on the matter.’

In a similar way, being guided by reason in debates about God does not consist in refusing to accept anything until it can be proved. It is adjusting one’s beliefs in the light of the evidence that is available.” (The Non-Existence of God 13)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Intellectual Cheaters

A deductive disproof would give us the strongest possible example of “proving the negative.” But there are a wide range of other circumstances under which we take it that believing that X does not exist is reasonable even though no logical impossibility is manifest. Juries decide that defendants are not guilty, doctors conclude that patients are not ill, mechanics infer that a car is not in need of repair, computer technicians conclude that a computer is not malfunctioning, and biologists conclude that an animal species is extinct. None of these cases achieve the level of deductive, a priori or conceptual proof. Nevertheless, these and countless other instances like them are instances where concluding that X is not true, or X does not exist is entirely justified and reasonable. These cases are, for the most part, inductive. That is, under a wide range of circumstances it is reasonable to conclude that X does not exist on the grounds that X is improbable. Inductive atheological arguments purport to make just such a case against the existence of God or of gods.

When the critic of atheism objects on the grounds that the justification for non-belief doesn’t achieve deductive certainty—“You can’t prove atheism! How can you be so sure? You’re being unreasonable”--he has invoked an artificially high epistemological standard of justification that creates a much broader set of problems not confined to atheism. If one must achieve deductive proof in order to be justified in believing any claim p, then not being able to justify atheism is the least of one’s worries. This high standard of justification undermines the vast majority of what people believe and normally consider to be justified. It generates a broad, pernicious skepticism against far more than religious and irreligious beliefs. Mackie says, “It will not be sufficient to criticize each argument on its own by saying that it does not prove the intended conclusion, that is, does not put it beyond all doubt. That follows at once from the admission that the argument is non-deductive, and it is absurd to try to confine our knowledge and belief to matters which are conclusively established by sound deductive arguments. The demand for certainty will inevitably be disappointed, leaving skepticism in command of almost every issue.” (The Miracle of Theism, 7)

If the atheist is unjustified for lacking proof, then so are the beliefs that planes fly, fish swim, air contains oxygen, electrons exist, or the Cubs are baseball players, not robots. This critic presents a problem for everyone, believer and non-believers alike. If we are to take it seriously, at all (we shouldn’t) then the challenge is not just the atheist’s to answer because the general problem of skepticism is not uniquely the atheist’s to solve. Addressing it is not more of a problem for atheism than for any other view about an empirical, inductive, or non-a priori matter. Skepticism is an interesting and historically influential problem in epistemology, and it is as old as philosophy itself. But part of what makes it interesting is that no one really takes it seriously. That is, even though the occasional earnest philosophy students presses the issue and makes himself or herself into a pain in the ass, we all talk, act, and think under the pervasive presumption that we do have knowledge. The widespread assumption is that we are justified in believing that planes fly, fish swim, and that oxygen exists even though no one can satisfy the stringent deductive proof standard to support them. It would be a mistake, therefore, to object to inductive atheology or to try to defend it against this charge as if the problem is particular to non-belief in God. Throwing this problem up at the non-believer is a flagrant case of the pot calling the kettle black.

We can also understand this attack on disbelief as an example of the more general mistake of applying a sliding scale of proof. When we encounter an idea, we form rapid reactions to it, many of which happened beneath our conscious awareness. Psychologists have shown that the gears of belief formation are set into motion long before the subject is even aware of what is going on (in one recent study the gap was 7 seconds!!). Then if our immediate reaction is a positive one, we are prone to much more forgiving with reasons or justifications that are given in favor of it. As long as a speaker or writer is drawing a conclusion you agree with—as long as he or she appears to be on your side—then they can do no wrong. But if we are averse to the conclusion they are drawing, then we a high degree of scrutiny to bear on every inferential move they make. We jump on the slightest appearance of mistake and draw the satisfied conclusion that they are mistaken—“See, I knew it all along. What he’s suggesting is outrageous.”

It should be noted that it’s not just serious believers criticizing atheists who are guilty of playing this crooked game of poker. Its just as often the case that a self-professed agnostic who is guilty of stacking the deck. This critic of atheism doesn’t subscribe to the religious excesses of the hard-core believer. But he thinks that the atheist is just as guilty of going to extremes that the evidence cannot support. But for many agnostics, the high standard of justification that they invoke against believers and non-believers is one that few of their other beliefs would satisfy. They are being highly selective about which matters they will apply this epistemic standard to and which they won’t. The agnosticism, as a result, is arbitrary and disingenuous. This double-standard agnostic amounts to a sort of closet believer, holding out some false hope for something he’s reluctant to give up. He’s not so much an agnostic because it’s what the evidence indicates but because he doesn’t have the courage and consistency to follow through. (Just pull the band-aid off quick!)

The atheist, I have been arguing, has been subjected to a great deal of this inconsistency. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett gives an example of a believer and a non-believer playing tennis. When the believer serves, he lowers the net on his own behalf. The beauty of faith after all is that it doesn’t play by any rules of reason. It’s virtue is abandoning the dictates of reason and evidence. But when the non-believer tries to return the serve and challenge some preposterous claim, suddenly then net is raised high, making it nearly impossible to successfully return the volley. It gets even worse when two believers get together to play and exchange ideas, Dennett says. Philosophical theology amounts to “intellectual tennis without a net” at all.

Friday, June 6, 2008

More on the Epistemology of Atheism

Atheists are, for the most part, evidentialists. That is, they think that whether or not belief in a divine being is epistemically acceptable will be determined by the evidence. I intend to treat “evidence” in a broad sense including a priori arguments, arguments to the best explanation, inductive and empirical reasons, as well as deductive and conceptual premises. (Also note that one could be an evidentialist theist.) The evidentialist theist and the evidentialist atheist may have a number of general epistemological principles concerning evidence, arguments, implication in common, but then disagree about what the evidence is, how it should be understood, and what it implies. They may disagree, for instance, about whether the values of the physical constants and laws in nature constitute evidence for intentional fine tuning, but agree that whether God exists is a matter that can be explored empirically.

Many believers are non-evidentialists, however. They will deny in one way or another that the acceptability of God belief depends upon evidence, reasons, or arguments. Faith based belief in God, or prudential belief, as examples, will fall into this category. The evidentialist atheist and the non-evidentialist theist, therefore, may have a number of more fundamental disagreements about the acceptability of believing a proposition despite inadequate or contrary evidence (faith), the epistemological status of prudential grounds for believing, or the nature of God belief. Their disagreement may not be so much about the evidence, but about the legitimate roles that evidence, reason, and faith should play in human belief structures.

Justifying atheism, then, will end up being a battle fought on several fronts. There are the evidential disputes over what information we have available to us, interpreting it, and deciding what it implies. But the non-believer will also need to consider the issues and make some larger decisions about epistemic policies generally—the roles of argument, reasoning, belief, and religiousness in human life. The atheist often finds herself not just arguing that the evidence indicates that there is no God, but defending science, the role of reason, and the necessity of basing beliefs on evidence. Theism by contrast is wildly popular, and as a result of people’s general affection for religious belief, such justifications of belief and of one’s epistemic policies are rarely demanded of the believer in a like manner.

For all of these projects, the atheist and the theist need to be clear on the terms that are being used. If one does not believe in God and the reasonableness of belief is in contention, then we must be clear about what sort of God it is that does not exist. A person’s grounds may render atheism about one sort of god reasonable, but not another. Reasons for concluding that the Christian God does not exist may not be sufficient for concluding that no Omni-God exists.

A useful way to divide up the territory here is to think of God (capitol “G”) as an all powerful, all knowing, and all good or morally perfect being. The major monotheistic religious traditions seem to share at least this much in their characterizations. Beyond that definition we can identify the Christian God, or the Muslim God, as an omni-being that also possesses the particular features of that religious tradition. The Christian God, for example, has the three omni-properties (by many accounts), but also sent his only son for the salvation of human kind, rewards belief and piety with eternity in heaven, punishes sinners, etc. An argument or a set of reasons that purport to show that the omni-God does not exist, or that the Christian God does not exist is, therefore, no small matter, particularly since several billion people on the planet currently believe in that sort of being.

Human religious traditions are populated with examples of other beings who are not all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect. See 500 Dead Gods. These beings are most likely not omni-beings, but they have clearly played a comparable role as a divine object of worship in people’s lives. Nevertheless, non-believers have argued that atheism about these lesser beings is reasonable too, albeit on the basis of justifications that are usually different in kind from the justifications of atheism about the omni-God or the Christian God. One’s reasons for rejecting divine beings that are live, relevant, and familiar possibilities are probably different from the reasons that one lacks a belief in some culturally and historically remote being like Zeus, Guangchengzi, Binbeal, or Nin-man. Someone might be an atheist about the Muslim God and about Guangchengzi, but for very different reasons.

If any sort of theism is going to be reasonable, then there is a burden on the believer to account for the general differences, evidential or otherwise, between her belief in a god and her disbelief in these and other gods that she does not accept, whether they are proximate or remote culturally. Often, believers have not met this burden. Consider Zeus believers, their belief, their reasons, and the context of their belief. Given the epistemic, cultural, psychological, and anthropological similarities between their belief in Zeus and many modern believers’ beliefs in their gods, at the very least a significant shadow of doubt is cast on the uniqueness of modern belief. It would seem that we can reasonably conclude that the modern versions of god do not exist for the same reasons that we have reasonably concluded that Zeus or Binbeal do not exist. A useful exercise for the believer and the non-believer is to reflect on the reasons why they do not believe in Zeus, Guangchengzi, Binbeal and try to determine what the general epistemic principles are that are at work in these cases. For most believers, there are far more gods that they do not believe in than gods that they do. A serious challenge is to explain why they are different on non ad hoc, question begging, or fallacious grounds.

There is a frequent complaint against atheism that arises from the wide range of religious ideas, practices, and god conceptions that we find in humans. There are too many god ideas out there and there is too much that we don’t know for anyone to draw any sort of strong conclusion about the non-existence of a divine being. In order to address this criticism, it is useful to consider the various characterizations of God and gods that have been given as target descriptions with specific properties that distinguish them. We can represent these different accounts as occupying different regions of god space—with the omni-conception at the top, or logical limit of this space. The atheist can consider the various god hypotheses in turn, reflect on the evidence that we have that might recommend them, conclude that the arguments are insufficient in favor of that god, or conclude that there is adequate counter evidence to show that no such god exists, and then move on to other conceptions. If atheism about broad categories of god descriptions is reasonable, then broad categories of god space will be empty. As this project proceeds, there will be less god space where a real divine being could exist.

The familiar refrain of “You can’t prove a negative”might lead someone to think that there will always be some description of a god, some region of god-concept space that we have not or cannot consider, so wide-atheism (see Some Varieties of Atheism, Wide Atheism: There Are No Gods Whatsoever) will never be justified. But at some point, these protestations become disingenuous. At some point, the intellectually honest and constructive course of thought should be to see the larger implications of our inquiries and move on. As the probabilities and plausibilities dwindle for Zeus and Binbeal, the project of trying to sustain belief in them amounts to foolish, backward looking foot-dragging. Humanity should be ready to move on. As the gaps for the God of the gaps shrink, we should be prepared to not be enslaved by the concept and abandon it as it becomes more and more difficult to reconcile the idea with everything else we know.

Many believers see responding to the atheist’s criticisms of the tenability of the God idea merely as a matter of developing, adjusting, and exploring the nature of God. And many of these attempts to salvage the idea are efforts to find a conception of God in god space that is not subject to the problems brought up by the atheist. But these efforts at redefining God are constrained because the account that we settle on must be a being that is worthy of worship, deserving of our adulation, awe, respect, and love. Zeus was not. The tantrum throwing, jealous, genocidal God of the Old Testament was not. So the believer is trapped between the broad range of objections presented by the atheist, and the need to give a suitably god-like account of god. And the atheist does not accept that there are any regions of god space where a being like that can still exist given the evidence.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Some Varieties of Atheism

The most fundamental disagreement between atheists and theists is over the existence of a divine being. The term “atheist” describes a person who does not believe that there is such a being. Worldwide there may be as many as a billion atheists, although social stigma, political pressure, and intolerance make polling difficult.

We can use the term “God” to describe the divine entity that is a central tenet of the major monotheistic religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. At a minimum, this being is understood as having all power, all knowledge, and being infinitely good or morally perfect. We can also use the gods” to describe all other lesser characterizations of divine beings.

The God concept is the focus of philosophical arguments for and against theism for several reasons. First, that being is the essential, common thread in the western monotheistic traditions, as mentioned above. More than 3 billion people now can be said to subscribe to the view that God exists, and countless more in the past have agreed. Furthermore, the existence of such a being, more so than any other lesser characterization, would have profound metaphysical, personal, moral, social, and historical implications. Without exaggeration, the existence of such a being would be the single most important fact ever acknowledged by human beings. Another motivation for focusing atheistic arguments on the notion of a divine being that embodies conceptual absolutes as the omni-God does, is that by implication many of the conclusions we can draw about that being will will apply a fortiori to other, lesser beings. And a being that is not the positive culmination of all possible power, knowledge, and goodness, it has been argued, would not be worthy of the title “God” and would not be worthy of our attention. Many atheists and monotheists have agreed on at least this much.

We can make two useful pairs of distinctions concerning the term “atheism.” It has come to be widely accepted that, at a minimum, to be an atheist is to lack a belief that a God or gods exist. We can follow Antony Flew and label this inclusive sense of the term as negative atheism. Parallels for this use of the term would be terms such as “amoral,” “atypical,” or “asymmetrical.” To identify something as atypical or asymmetrical only indicates that it is does not have something. Contrast “amoral” with “immoral.” Non-human animals like fish are amoral. (Perhaps by they are negative atheists too). But only a person who is capable of moral behavior can be immoral. So negative atheism would includes someone who has never reflected on the question of whether or not God exists and has no opinion about the matter. It would also include someone who had thought about the matter a great deal and has concluded either that she has insufficient evidence to decide the question, or that the question cannot be resolved in principle. Both people lack a belief in God, but in importantly different ways. So the position traditionally characterized as agnostic—neither believing that God does exist nor believing that God does not exist, is a negative atheistic position.

A positive atheist then, is someone who possesses the belief “God does not exist.” Beyond lacking a belief inGod, they will deny the truth of the claim, “God exists,” and affirm that there is no such thing. So positive atheists are negative atheists, but negative atheists need not be positive atheists. An analogy is useful. If a person believes that there is no such thing as unicorns, then she is a positive atheist concerning unicorns. Someone who has never heard of them would be a negative atheist with respect to unicorns. So would a person who has thought about the question, and is not sure whether they exist or not.

A person’s atheism can be narrow or wide in scope depending upon the sorts of entities at issue. The narrow atheist lacks a belief about or denies that existence of God. A wide atheist lacks a belief about or denies the existence of all gods, including but not limited to the traditional omni-God. The wide positive atheist, then, would actively deny that God exists, and also deny that Zeus, Gefjun, Thor, Sobek, Bakunawa and others exist. The narrow positive atheist merely denies that God exists, without taking a stronger view about the existence or non-existence of other supernatural beings. One could be a narrow atheist about God, but still believe in the existence of some other supernatural entities.

Separating these different senses of the term allows us to better understand the different sorts of justification that can be given for varieties of atheism with different scope. An argument may serve to justify one form of atheism and not another, for example, or an argument, while itself focusing on one account of God, may serve equally well against other conceptions. Keeping the positions and the justifications that can support them is particularly important given how many people have doubts about being able to “prove a negative.”

Approaches to the Question

Justifications for atheism have taken forms that can be usefully divided into several categories. For the most part, atheists have taken an evidentialist approach to the question of God’s existence. That is, atheists have taken the view that whether or not a person is justified in having an attitude of belief towards the proposition “God exists,” is a function of that person’s evidence. Towards that end, they, at least the positive atheists, have sought to develop arguments that would serve as evidence to justify concluding that God does not exist. An asymmetry that exists between theistic accounts of belief and atheistic accounts of non-belief is that atheists have not, for the most part, offered faith as a justification.

Atheists have offered a wide range of arguments and justifications for non-belief. One important exception appears to be Antony Flew’s presumption of atheism in God, Freedom, and Immorality: A Critical Analysis. Flew argues that the default position for any rational believer is neutral with regard to the existence of God, and to be neutral is to not have a belief regarding its existence. "The onus of proof lies on the man who affirms, not on the man who denies. . . on the proposition, not on the opposition,” Flew argues. Beyond that, coming to believe that such a thing does or does not exist will require justification, much as a jury presumes innocence concerning the accused and requires evidence in order to conclude that he is guilty. Flew’s negative atheist will presume nothing at the outset, not even the logical coherence of the notion of God, but her presumption will be defeasible, or revisable in the light of evidence. Let’s call this view atheism by default.

The Atheism by Default position contrasts to a more permissive attitude that many people take regarding religious belief. The notions of religious tolerance and freedom are sometimes taken to indicate the epistemic permissibility of believing despite a lack of evidence in favor or even evidence to the contrary. The general principle seems to be something such as, until one has evidence to the contrary, it is epistemically permissible, or in no violation of an epistemic duty, to believe a proposition. In contrast to the jury model, this view treats religious beliefs as reasonable until proven guilty. To say the least, this sort of epistemic policy about God or any other matter has been controversial. We typically do not take it to be epistemically inculpable or reasonable for a person to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or some other supernatural being merely because they do not possess evidence to the contrary. Consider whether or not it is reasonable for a person to begin believing that they have cancer because they do not have evidence to the contrary.

There is a family of arguments, sometimes known as deductive atheology, for the conclusion that God is impossible. Another large group of important and influential arguments can be gathered under the heading inductive atheology. These arguments invoke considerations about the natural world that we have discovered that make belief in God unreasonable. Another approach, atheistic noncognitivism, denies that God talk is meaningful or has any propositional content that can be evaluated in terms of truth or falsity.

Rather, religious speech acts are better viewed as a complicated sort of emoting or expression of spiritual passion. Inductive and deductive approaches are cognitivistic in that they accept that claims about God have meaningful content and can be determined to be true or false.

There is nothing to preclude an atheist’s taking some of these different approaches in conjunction, or adopting one type of argument about a set of God claims and another about the others.

There is a difference between arguing that a given proof for the existence of God suffers from some fatal flaw or flaws, and arguing more generally that there is no God or gods. The implication of the former would only be that that alleged proof does not succeed, not that no God exists. One form of negative atheist, then, would be the person for whom all of the arguments for the existence of God (that she is aware of) appear to suffer from some fatal flaw(s). Smith has read and discussed the question widely and for every argument she has encountered in favor of God’s existence it has seemed to her that there is some serious problem or other that undermines it. As a result, she lacks a belief that God exists. Whether or not positive atheism can be justified in a similar situation is a more complicated matter. It is unclear exactly what, if anything, one can infer generally from the failures of some arguments for X about the prospects of all arguments for X. There is surely some point at which it is reasonable to conclude from our failures to find evidence for Santa Claus, Bigfoot, or an existing Tyranosaurus Rex, that there exists no such thing. But that broader conclusion will arise from inadequate evidence for the existence combined with theoretical principles about standards of epistemic justification.

An argument or arguments for the conclusion that God does not exist, if successful, will provide the positive atheist with justification. And such an argument could be coupled with conclusions that the reasons given for the existence of God are faulty. Or an argument for God’s non-existence could be compelling grounds that all arguments alleged to prove the existence of God must be based upon fallacious reasoning or false premises.