Monday, November 14, 2005

I, atheist   posted by Razib @ 11/14/2005 08:36:00 PM

I received this email from a reader:

First, I find your blog interesting at the very least.

You seem to know your stuff, and I need a question answered regarding atheism, a quasi-religion (in my mind) that I am assuming you subscribe to follow. It is as follows:

How can an atheist reject religion based on the fact that it has no scientific backing? Doesn't the belief that there is, in fact, no God subscribe to the same non-science dogma. I would think a scientist would welcome any possible hypothesis for, say, the beginning of life...even design.

Please explain.


My atheism is a given that suffuses my perspective on this weblog. I don't talk about in much detail, but below is the transcript of my response to this individual's questions.

1) Atheism as a religion depends on how you define religion.

2) Also, Jains and some forms of Hinduism are explicitly atheistic. If you didn't know that, well, you should do some more research. I certainly am not a Jain or a Hindu, but am an atheist. In short, atheism is simply a contention relating to a specific hypothesis, the theist God, nothing more, nothing less.

4) Atheists can reject a specific God hypothesis on scientific grounds. i.e., some Hindus believe that Sai Baba is God. Atheists can stipulate that God meets definitions a, b, c...and see if Sai Baba meets those conditions. If he does not, you reject the Sai Baba God hypothesis (the emperor Domitian also declared he was a living God, I believe he was incorrect, I am an atheist in regards to the Domitian God hypothesis).

5) Atheists can reject God on philosophical grounds. i.e., that the definition of God is incoherent. For example, the old standard that a theist God is omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent and the problem of evil. If evil exists, such a God can not by definition exist, and so on (if he is good and has power to generate good at will, then he should abolish evil, because he can). My understanding is that some theologians get around this issue by contending that evil in this world is not due to God, because of free will, or that evil is the lack of good (a negation rather than a positive trait), so God did not create evil. In my opinion this is word-play or sophistry (free will has been a dispute within Christianity since St. Augustine, with no real resolution that I can see).
I find philosophical dodges of this sort unconvincing, nort do I find the "proofs" in Summa Theologia, or by latter day thinkers like Norman Malcolm or Richard Swinburne, plausible.

6) There is a long dispute in online atheist circles about distinctions within atheism, negative atheism (lack of belief in God) vs. positive atheism (belief that God does not exist). Ultimately, they are word games to the first approximation. I would say that:

a) on a subset of God hypotheses are I am an atheist for scientific reasons. Rambling God-men seem not to be any sort of God that I can understand, they are outside the parameters of my God definition, i.e., I am a positive atheist in regards to them.

b) on a subset of God hypotheses I am an atheist for philosophical reasons. There are logical incoherencies in the traditional monotheistic God concept which must be resolved by "faith" or "mystery." Viewed in the context of logic supplemented by empirical observation ( i.e., Jesus did not return with the passing of the generation) I conclude the probability value of this God existing is trivial, and likely impossible assuming some premises. On the other hand, anything is possible if faith and mystery are on the table, but that is a different issue.

c) on some Gods I am a negative atheist, in that I do not reject their existence, but I presume they do not exist because I see no reason for their existence. This is the "invisible pink unicorn" idea, there are no logical or scientific grounds where I can really falsify this construct, but I really don't believe in it without further evidence. Some of the ideas of God promoted by liberal theologians are certainly in this ball park, I have a difficult time trying to understand what sort of God Marcus Borg is talking about, so it is really difficult to conclude if I am an atheist toward his panentheism (that is not a typo, I do not mean pantheism, panentheism is really different, trust me, or trust Borg).

d) some Gods I do believe in due to semantic issues. Some have told me that God is love. Well, I believe in love.

If you have further questions, I refer to you to the Atheism Web:

This isn't rocket science :)

One thing I will add, which isn't in the email, is that the implication of what I have said above is that depending how you define atheism, it is somewhat orthogonal to beliefs about Intelligent Design. After all, the Designer doesn't have to be God! (*wink*) Also, some atheists are naked as babies when it comes to Christian apologetics or familiarity with the scriptures and theology of that religion. I am not one of those atheists, regular readers can glean that, my lack of belief is not likely due to ignorance of the major world religions. I only add that because some have asked on this blog whether I have even considered the possibility that God might exist, I would ask that people who pose this question go read Summa, Norman Malcolm and Richard Swinburne, before implying that I might not have explored the possibilities of the Way of Reason.

Finally, it seems to me that the primary reason people believe in God is not because of reason, though they will often give teleological or cosmological explanations (i.e., "believe there are trees and birds, they must have been designed"). I think there are particular cognitive biases that humans have that predispose us to acceptance of the reality of supernatural agents. I suspect that a wide range of variables canalize the development of the human mind so that in social groups a modal acceptance of supernatural agents is nearly universal, that is, all human cultures seem to believe in God-beings. This contention is wholly separate from disputes around the theistic God of the philosophers. I do not believe that the God that people have in their minds is the Ultimate Ground of Being of Tillich or the Brahma of Hinduism or the Trinitarian entity of traditional Christianity, rather, they are more prosaic supernatural agents which are individuals, persons, with traits and characters that render them above humanity (a mix of conventionality with counterintuitive powers). In terms of why I am an atheist in regards to the broad sense of supernatural agents, I suspect that the primary reason is frankly innate. Not that I don't have a God module, I don't think that there is such a thing, I suspect I do not exhibit the conformation of traits and characteristics which result in a biase toward God belief. In other words, if you have a normal distribution of "God belief," with a few hypermystics and fanatics, with a majority of mild believers, you will also always have those who are simpy not predisposed to believing in supernatural agents. There are some people who reject God for deeply personal or philosophical reasons (Dan Barker comes to mind), but I think these are a minority whose prominence is assured only by their participation in atheist organizations. Similarly, there are people who believe in God simply because of social, cultural and personal reasons, though if they reflected upon it they would likely acknowledge that their own belief was a tepid and rote affair in comparison to most people in the pews.