Thursday, February 21, 2019

Atheism’s Answers

So … what if atheists took themselves seriously?

So seriously, as a matter of fact, that they actually tried to live out the rational implications of their own rejection of all possibility of God or gods? What then?

As I said in yesterday’s post, getting answers to this question turned out to be more difficult than it might initially appear.

Persuading atheists to speak about what follows from the rejection of God was very hard. Not only did they generally refuse to press forward logically, but they often reacted with bitter, visceral hatred at any prompting to do so, making further conversation difficult.

This was very odd, because the questions I tended to ask were not at all hostile. Rather, they were straightforward opportunities for the atheists to fill out my understanding of their own worldview. Had our roles been reversed, any thinking Christian would be happy to have such an opportunity. Indeed, in these conversations, the roles usually are: normally, the atheist positions himself as the pure cynic, and it is the Christian who is required to provide answers.

Atheism’s Burden

However, this shifting of the burden entirely to the theist would only be legitimate if three conditions were met: firstly, that atheism actually contains no positive knowledge claims; secondly, that its negative claim is not premised on evidence; and lastly, that the theists have no evidence at all of their own to present. Of course, atheists will sometimes grant you the first condition, and often (irrationally and counterfactually) insist upon the third; but they never want to grant you the second — that atheism is itself a belief without evidence, a bad sort of faith.

All three might indeed settle all the burden of proof on theism. But even then they would not actually justify atheism. The rational outcome of having no evidence cannot be more than a blank agnosticism. To move beyond blank agnosticism to any affirmative atheism would require a proof of some sort. One doesn’t get justification for anything simply by saying, “I know nothing at all.”

Is atheism that sort of positive knowledge claim? I’ve found it hard to tell. Sometimes, atheists talk like it is — as when they say, for example, that we all ought to know or are only rational to believe God does not exist. (“If so, how?” we might rightly ask.) At other times, they talk as if their atheism is no deeper than a default cynicism, a position they say frees them from any burden of proof at all. However, if this cynicism is assumed on the basis of no evidence, then obviously it isn’t much of a rational claim either. It just means, “I don’t happen to like the idea of God, and I don’t want you to like it either.”

If atheism has adequate evidence, then the claim that it’s a rational position can be justified; but then surely it is obligated to produce that adequate evidence. If it doesn’t need evidence, then it’s a non-evidence-having position. That would keep it safe from being criticized, but only at the cost of making it no more than a wish or whim on the part of the atheist himself.

The atheist has, to be sure, a lighter burden of proof. But not none. Not if, as atheists invariably maintain, their own worldview is rational, necessary, intelligent and more scientific than the alternatives.

Further Inquiries

In my investigation, I really wanted to drill down to the REAL atheism, the authentic one, the best one available, and see what it had to offer. So I persisted with my questions, even though they were invariably resented and in most cases were just refused without even the attempt to respond to them. At length I became convinced that there was a reason for this. The reason is that atheism is actually so weak as a position that it cannot survive even the most rudimentary questioning.

It’s all fine and dandy for the atheist when the finger is pointing straight at the theist; but let the finger for one moment point back at the atheist, and panic and anger ensue — not because any unkindness is being done, but because atheism itself is so horribly vulnerable to debunking that it actually cannot be examined in its own right without being instantly exposed as vacuous.

Backing the Case

That maybe sounds like a strong claim, and I’d better back it. So let me tell you how I discovered it.

The first thing I tried to do was to get a clear definition for “atheism” from the atheists themselves. It’s only fair that they should be allowed to frame it however they choose; and I was not going to force a definition on anyone.

Of course, it’s easy enough to use a dictionary: there you find out that the term is just a- (the Greek particle of negation) plus theos (the Greek word for “god”). If that were all there was to it, then every atheist would say, “There IS no God.” That’s a knowledge claim, a claim to have definitive reasons for asserting that the entity called “God” does not exist — and as a positive knowledge claim, it demands proof. Atheists don’t have such proof, and of course they can’t get such proof, since the claim would require them to go everywhere, at all times, and see all possible evidences in the universe — so atheism is dead before it starts if that’s all it says.

But if that’s the end of it, wouldn’t all atheists instantly see that and stop being atheists? Maybe they’d slide over to some kind of agnosticism, and from there to maybe some measure of rational openness to at least the possibility of God existing. But clearly they don’t.

So what do they do? I continued my search of their actual responses to find out. And what I discovered was this: they can’t even seem to agree upon is any kind of definition of what an “atheist” is. Some say it means, “Somebody who disbelieves in gods.” Others say, “No, we are people who believe in no gods.” Some say, “We’re only saying we regard it as highly probable there is no God.” Others, perhaps blending themselves with the agnostics, say, “We don’t actually have any belief of our own; we’re just saying we don’t know of any gods.” But almost none of them say, “We know something definitive about God — that he doesn’t exist.”

Further research didn’t clarify this problem much. One atheist organization claims there are 17 types of atheism. On the other hand, philosopher John Gray argues there are only seven. Some atheists want to include agnostics, and even pantheists and deists as subcategories of atheism, and others are adamant that total disbelief in any and all kinds of gods is required … it’s a real mess.

Why the confusion, though? How can it be so hard to say exactly what they’re claiming? After all, isn’t one of the postures they wish to adopt that of the calm reasoner, the person of logic or science, somebody who only looks at the facts? But if so, how can they assert a disbelief that, by their own admission, they are not sponsoring by means of evidence, logical consistency or the guarantees of science — a belief so confused that none of them can actually simply state what it is?

Why can’t they just say what they mean?

Atheism’s Incoherence

At great length, I’ve come to think that the answer to this is fairly simple: their own position is just not coherent. It can’t be made to make sense, even by the best explanations they might offer: hence, they are at pains to avoid making all such explanations. And this is why they want the finger always to point at the believer, never at themselves. They don’t want to have to justify themselves rationally, because they simply can’t.

I’ve found two questions in particular are helpful in surfacing the basic absurdity of atheist claims. I try not to use them unkindly. I think they can be offered with suitable Christian gentleness because they’re not insults or even challenges: they’re just fair requests for further information.

Here are the two questions:

Question 1: Is your atheism an “I” or a “We” claim?

“Do you want to speak only for yourself,” I would ask, “or do you propose to speak on behalf of us all?” Are you trying to say, “I personally don’t know any reasons / evidence / experience that supports belief in God,” or are you saying, “Nobody can possibly believe / have reasons / possess evidence / have an experience that supports belief in God?” Are you speaking for yourself, or for all rational others as well?

Which one is it? Because obviously it can only be one or the other.

Question 2: Is your atheism a claim to knowledge, or a claim to a wish?

Are you saying “I know there is no God,” or “I wish / hope / prefer / don’t see / haven’t experienced God?”

It doesn’t really matter which of the latter terms the atheist selects: they all signal mere emotion or some kind of experience that is merely specific to one person, not necessarily to be had by others. Any terms that signal subjectivity — emotion, desire, personal experience, seeming, and so on, rather than solid, factual knowledge — have the same implications here. The same problems will follow, regardless of the subjective word chosen.

Processing the Questions

Now, as gently as one might offer these questions, I’ve found that the reaction is often quite angry. Invariably, the atheist to whom one is talking senses a trap closing, and wriggles like anything to get out of it. This makes for anger.

But it’s really not your fault. You’ve just asked questions. You’ve really been rather nice: you’ve given the atheist space to explain his or her particular views. That this cannot be done coherently is not a problem caused by you, the believer.

So what’s the cause of his frustration?

Well, in regard to the first question, the atheist would wish to say he speaks for all rational others. Why? Because if he’s only speaking for himself, then nobody else has to feel any force from his argument. He doesn’t get believed. The rest of the world can fully grant him that he personally has no experience of God, or knows of no reasons for belief in God, or has not seen sufficient evidence to convince him of the existence of God … but so what? He’s just one person. People have different experiences, come to know of different reasons, and have differentiated access to evidence.

To illustrate, the fact that one person does not know the capital of Eritrea does not imply that nobody does. (In fact, apparently “Asmara” is the right answer.) The fact that one person does not know the atomic weight of lead does not mean that nobody does — far less that lead has no atomic weight. (It’s about 207, by the way.) So what is the value of knowing that one person, all by himself, doesn’t happen to have any knowledge of good reasons or evidence for God? It’s just an honest confession that all that is outside his own personal experience.

Even if such a claim is 100% true, it simply has no implications for anyone else. Nobody needs to care.

Speaking for Whom?

So the atheist has to say, “I’m speaking on behalf of everyone — at least, of everybody rational.” Only in that way can he imagine we ought to pay attention to anything he asks of us or acknowledge a rational obligation to join him in disbelief.

But he’s not going to want to do that, because the problem is obvious, even to him: He’s going to have to produce evidence sufficient to warrant this unconditional claim. We will ask how he can know that every last manifestation of any religion from the dawn of the history of time is no more than a delusion. We’re going to ask him if he really saying — even in theory — that nowhere, in the entire history of the universe, is there a person who could possibly have an experience that validated the existence of God. We’re going to ask him how he achieved a quantum of evidence that justifies the claim that there is and never could be a Supreme Being who accounts for the order in the universe. We’re going to test his powers of mathematical deduction by pointing out the unavoidability of an uncaused Cause at the start of the causal chain of science … and so on. And for each line of examination, we’re going to justifiably ask why he and his fellow atheists are confident to believe they have such certainty.

How would the atheist ever come into such knowledge? There is no way, really. But if he’s truly logical, scientific and rational at all, then he would surely owe us — and be able to provide us — a showing of his reasons. He can’t let us take him to that point.

Getting Worse

The problem gets way worse for the atheist when he gets to the second question. If what he is trying to convey by calling himself an atheist is that he merely wishes / hopes / supposes / prefers that there is no God, then that is also an incredibly limited claim. Anybody who hopes, supposes, prefers, and so on, that there IS a God is his equal in that. Moreover, if the atheist needs (as we have seen he needs above) to claim that rational others are obliged to agree with him and to become atheists, or that they ought to believe his arguments at all, then he must offer them a knowledge claim. He must say, “There is a way of knowing that there is no God, and I have taken it, and you should too.”

But of course any sensible atheist is going to avoid that like the plague. He’s going to avoid saying, “I know” because the obvious rejoinders “What do you know?” and “How do you know it?” are going to kill him. In effect, he wants to make a compulsory claim, one that binds all rational others, but avoid at all costs the expedient of having to prove it. For while it’s possible to voice doubts and concerns about the nature and existence of God, it’s simply more than any human being has ever done, or ever could do, to prove that God does not exist. Any thinking person can recognize that easily enough.

God is said to be transcendent. That means that he is bigger than one person’s experience, and beyond even human science itself. You can’t get God into a beaker, or pinch him in calipers, or stand him up to a ruler, or make him dance on your experimental table. Not only that, but it is said that God is bigger than time and space themselves, being their creator. What sort of evidence, then, could an atheist muster to show that such a being could not even possibly exist?

The atheist would have to know everything himself, at all times, in all places, throughout the universe and beyond it. Only a test of that size would show the non-existence of God. No wonder he doesn’t want that implication of his affected certainty to become clear.

Slip-Sliding Away

The trap is ironclad. And the atheist senses this. He desperately wants to avoid this. So he twists, he turns, he dives and he moves. He speaks at one moment like a knowing fellow and at the next moment as a complete blank about spiritual matters — whichever posture makes it most unlikely you can pin him down to a straightforward answer. Never mind that his one answer contradicts his next, or that he’s taken himself out of the game of knowing anything altogether — the point is to get the finger off him, and as quickly as possible, to reverse the focus against the theist.

So what is the atheist solution to all this?

As I have argued with them, I have found that they just refuse to be pinned down. Rather than committing to one position or the other, they want to arrange things so as to leave them free to say one thing when attacking their opponents, and a completely different thing when questioned on the basis for their certainties.

Or let’s put this another way. In attack, the atheist presents a thick front, and takes the profile of someone who knows something for certain. He can scoff, deride, dismiss and denigrate belief in God, and act as someone who’s a knowing fellow. His opponents, he can say, are all cretins: superstitious, irrational and unscientific. They know nothing; he is the one who knows.

But in defense, the atheist suddenly goes all slender. “No, no,” he says, “you’ve got me wrong. I’m not saying I know anything. I’m just doubting. I have no particular beliefs or knowledge claims of my own; I simply do not believe in gods of any kind — so I have nothing I have to prove or defend. It’s all on you.”

So when on the offensive, the atheist talks from the “we” perspective and implies he “knows” things about the non-existence of God. But when on the defensive — when interrogated — he will immediately retreat into the “I” and “wish” perspective of the agnostic. He will say things like, “Well, my atheism isn’t a claim to know there’s no God, but rather a claim to have no evidence for God.”

To the Point

Again, the right questions are the big two I’ve listed above. We need him to tell us, does he mean, “I KNOW OF no evidence” or “There IS no evidence”? And does he mean “I don’t know” or “YOU don’t know”?

The point here is not to produce a flash of anger, though it almost certainly will, at least temporarily. The point is to offer the atheist a chance to look at himself in the mirror. If he does, he may see that his own position, even on its own terms, has none of the rationality, accuracy, evidence or logic to which it so often pretends. Any answers he gives are bound to result in insurmountable problems. If he makes knowledge claims, he has to defend them with sufficient arguments, proofs and evidence; but if he’s not claiming knowledge, then he’s claiming nothing but a personal wish or feeling. If he speaks only for himself, it’s inconsequential; if he speaks for everybody, then it’s arrogant and unjustifiable.

Conclusion

The conclusion is actually fairly obvious by now. There isn’t a rational version of atheism — at least, not one that is both “thick” enough to give atheists all they want to say against belief in God, and yet remains “thin” enough that it can’t be rationally destroyed with a couple of simple questions.

And hey, if I’m wrong, my ears are still open. Let’s hear a version of atheism that answers those two questions coherently, if there’s one out there.

1 comment :

  1. There is if course mainly one problem with all that in that most atheists are probably of the garden variety who are not the least bit interested in following (your or any) difficult arguments but are only interested in living the way they prefer. That simply means shrugging off any of these types of arguments that require some self awareness, analytical effort and probably greater obligations. You may have an audience in like-minded individuals with an analytical bend but not with the majority mainly interested in the latest football game or soap opera. Their attention could only be gotten by the TV screen suddenly showing an ancient man with a long beard stating that he now wanted greater attention as their creator. The question remains, how many people in Sodom and Gomorrah really knew or believed that they were being punished by God or they simply thought that a volcano blew up? It simply seems that God in his kindness is simply handing out too much good bread and not enough snakes to allow for a clear cut correlation in people's lives. But we know that he does not really want recognition via a coercive correlation but mainly wants volunteers. But this is simply all irrelevant to the atheists where mostly the next basketball score counts (or where the closest and best Italian restaurant is located).

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