The guys at The Think Atheist Show interviewed me a couple of weeks ago. We talked about the case for atheism in philosophy of religion, my book, and proving the negative. The podcast is here.
Analyses of God beliefs, atheism, religion, faith, miracles, evidence for religious claims, evil and God, arguments for and against God, atheism, agnosticism, the role of religion in society, and related issues.
There are 1.2 billion Chinese who have no predominant religion, and 1 billion people in India who are predominantly Hindu. And 65% of Japan's 127 million people claim to be non-believers. It is laughable to suggest that none of these billions of people are leading meaningful lives.
Numerous studies have now shown that remote, blind, inter-cessionary prayer has no effect whatsoever of the health or well-being of subject's health, psychological states, or longevity. Furthermore, we have no evidence to support the view that people who wish fervently in their heads for things that they want get those things at any higher rate than people who do not.
There are hundreds of millions of non-believers on the planet living normal, decent, moral lives. They love their children, care about others, obey laws, and try to keep from doing harm to others just like everyone else. In fact, in predominately non-believing countries such as in northern Europe, measures of societal health such as life expectancy at birth, adult literacy, per capita income, education, homicide, suicide, gender equality, and political coercion are better than they are in believing societies.
In the past, every supernatural or paranormal explanation of phenomena that humans believed turned out to be mistaken; science has always found a physical explanation that revealed that the supernatural view was a myth. Modern organisms evolved from lower life forms, they weren't created 6,000 years ago in the finished state. Fever is not caused by demon possession. Bad weather is not the wrath of angry gods. Miracle claims have turned out to be mistakes, frauds, or deceptions. So we have every reason to conclude that science will continue to undermine the superstitious worldview of religion.
We have mountains of evidence that makes it clear that our consciousness, our beliefs, our desires, our thoughts all depend upon the proper functioning of our brains our nervous systems to exist. So when the brain dies, all of these things that we identify with the soul also cease to exist. Despite the fact that billions of people have lived and died on this planet, we do not have a single credible case of someone's soul, or consciousness, or personality continuing to exist despite the demise of their bodies. Allegations of spirit chandlers, psychics, ghost stories, and communications with the dead have all turned out to be frauds, deceptions, mistakes, and lies.
Consider the billions of people in China, India, and Japan above. If this claim was true, none of them would be decent moral people. So Ghandi, the Buddha, and Confucius, to name only a few were not moral people on this view, not to mention these other famous atheists: Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Elizabeth Cady-Stanton, John Stuart Mill, Galileo, George Bernard Shaw, Gloria Steinam, James Madison, John Adams, and so on.
The counter examples of cases where it was someone's belief in God that was the direct justification for their perpetrated horrendous evils on humankind are too numerous to mention.
All of the questions that allegedly plague non-God attempts to explain our origins--why are we here, where are we going, what is the point of it all, why is the universe here--still apply to the faux explanation of God. The suggestion that God created everything does not make it any clearer to us where it all came from, how he created it, why he created it, where it is
all going. In fact, it raises even more difficult mysteries: how did God, operating outside the confines of space, time, and natural law "create" or "build" a universe that has physical laws? We have no precedent and maybe no hope of answering or understanding such a possibility. What does it mean to say that some disembodied, spiritual being who knows everything and has all power, "loves" us, or has thoughts, or goals, or plans? How could such a being have any sort of personal relationship with beings like us?
People's religious views inform their voting, how they raise their children, what they think is moral and immoral, what laws and legislation they pass, who they are friends and enemies with, what companies they invest in, where they donate to charities, who they approve and disapprove of, who they are willing to kill or tolerate, what crimes they are willing to commit, and which wars they are willing to fight. How could any reasonable person think that religious beliefs are insignificant.
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. 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.