Open for Debate

I am an atheist

I am an atheist.  That is, I believe that God does not exist.  I don’t make a point of telling people this (except when I’m writing a philosophical piece like this), but when I do tell people this, I get strong, often accusing reactions.  People challenge my moral character (“So you don’t believe in right or wrong?”), my amiability (“I hope you’re not one of those militant atheists?”), and my motives (“Are you trying to undermine my faith?”).  Such reactions are irritating, and occasionally disturbing (why would I want to undermine your faith?), but in some ways they bother me less than the challenges that focus on my reasonableness:

  • “How could you possibly know? You can’t prove a negative, you know.”
  • “Don’t you mean you’re an agnostic? That’s what I
  • “You probably think that only idiots believe.”

Comments like these are evoked (or provoked) by the topic of atheism, but the challenges they raise involve epistemological issues that are quite general.  Outside of the context of religion, I don’t think that many people would endorse the epistemological positions that these remarks presuppose.

Consider the “truism” that you can’t prove a negative.  In non-religious contexts, no one believes this.  Adults deny the existence of Santa Claus all the time, and generally without censure. (Exception: if you tell your kids the truth about the man in red, you’ll be called a bad parent.)  Now it might be argued that because Santa Claus is an impossible being, one can prove that he doesn’t exist.  But to do so, you need to assume some general empirical facts about the world, facts about distances and maximum speeds and the poor aerodynamics of reindeer.  The fact is that genuine proofs – conclusions validly drawn from self-evident premises – don’t exist outside the realm of logic and mathematics.  What we expect in the way of backing for knowledge claims in ordinary life is justification – reasons to believe.  To the extent that these reasons involve sensory experience – that is, things we’ve seen, heard, felt, touched, smelled or tasted – they provide something less than certainty.  But that doesn’t prevent us from claiming to know things like where we live, who the president of the United States is, what color we’ve painted the dining room and so forth.

Once we recognize that proof is an impossible standard, we can see that there’s no in-principle difference between the justification of negative and positive existence claims.  Both require evidence if we claim to know them, and both must be evaluated in the context other of our other rational beliefs.  Consider the matter of whether King Arthur really existed.  According to Jason Urbanus, writing in the January/February issue of Archaeology, this is a “contentious question [that] has divided both scholars and enthusiasts for centuries.”

But Urbanus himself thinks that the Arthur of legend is mythical.  He explains that there is only one historical text – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain — that even mentions a British monarch named “Arthur.”  But that text says nothing about Camelot, a Round Table, or knights thereof, and the book itself was deemed unreliable by Geoffrey’s own contemporaries.  There is, moreover, no archaeological evidence that such a person as Arthur ever existed, even at his reputed birth place, Tintagel Castle.

Now this brings up the notorious question whether “absence of evidence” constitutes “evidence of absence.”  The answer to the question is “sometimes.”   Here again, everything depends on the hypothesis under consideration and the assumptions that form the background of inquiry.  The fact that I cannot see one is excellent evidence, in Massachusetts, that there is no elephant around.  If the animal in question were a fox, or if I lived in Kenya, it would be a different story.  I cannot be sure that there is no elephant, but I can be extremely well justified in believing there isn’t.

But let’s turn to the second challenge.  Why am I so determined to say that God doesn’t exist; why don’t I say instead that God might not exist, or that I don’t know whether God exists?  Why do I insist on being an atheist, rather than an agnostic?  Well, it’s because the question whether God exists has been settled to my satisfaction.  (And why is my satisfaction all that’s necessary?  Because I am the one who is deciding what to believe.)  I claim to know that God doesn’t exist because I have excellent reasons and arguments against his existence, and because none of the arguments that are put forward in favor of his existence are any good.  To say that I’m an agnostic would be to say that I’m undecided, and I’m not.  There are plenty of things that I am agnostic about: whether string theory is true, whether the Game of Thrones spin-offs will be any good, and whether you burn more fat if you exercise before breakfast.  I have no idea about the first thing, a somewhat warranted opinion about the second, and a bit of evidence (courtesy of the New York Times) about the third.  But the existence of God is different.  I am completely confident about that.

This brings us to the third challenge (already broached): who the hell do I think I am?  Better minds than mine have concluded that God does exist – what makes me think my evidence and arguments are better than theirs?  This challenge is a version of what is being called, in the epistemology literature, the problem of peer disagreement.  It goes like this: suppose that you find yourself in a disagreement with another person (an “epistemic peer”)  who is a) just as smart as you are and b) acquainted with all the same evidence and arguments that you are acquainted with.  What should you do if you discover that the two of you disagree about something?  Flying in the face of thousands of pages worth of philosophical disputation, I think the answer to this question is easy.  The answer is: it depends.  (The alert reader will have seen this coming.)  That is, I contend that there is no general answer to this question.  There are certainly cases where the discovery that I disagree with someone who has roughly the same smarts as me and the same evidence that I do ought to make me reconsider my position – those are cases where the best explanation for our disagreement is that one of us has made a mistake, but where there’s no evidence that it’s one of us rather than the other.  But there are other cases where I ought to stand my ground: if, by my calculations, the tip at the restaurant ought to be $12.50, while my colleague (just as smart as me, just as knowledgeable about arithmetic) comes up with the amount of $768.40, I have excellent reason to think that they are the one who is wrong.  It is always, or ought to be, data that someone disagrees with me, but it should also be an open question what explains the data.  Maybe, despite our having roughly the same information, there are a few crucial facts that I have that you don’t.  And then there’s the fact that “intelligence” is pretty context-dependent.  People can be very intelligent and very well-informed, yet still have their blind spots.  For that matter, people can be very intelligent in one domain and total idiots in another.

But I don’t have to think that anyone who disagrees with me in the matter of religion is a total idiot, or even a partial one.  In general, I don’t have ready explanations for the disagreements I have with my theist friends – in one or two cases, I have a hypothesis — but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong to think that I’m right and they’re wrong.  And of course, they think they’re right, and I’m wrong.  So it goes.

In closing, let me just note that, while it’s true that there are lots of people smarter than me who believe in God, it’s also true, probably, that there are lots of people smarter than you who don’t.

 

Picture Graffitied Atheism Advert by David Emery on Flickr. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author

Comments

  • Autumn Sonnata

    Dear Ma’m,

    So,you are satisfied with arguments disproving existence of God, Really?Maybe western notion of God,but what about Eastern notion of God?
    Since you are one of the foremost experts in this,I would like know if you have contemplated existence of something greater than this materialistic world?You must have had read and analysed a lot about concept of God and which must have shaped your views regarding God,but what have you also felt something mystical something your rationale or logic would find incomprehensible?
    or Maybe you have been looking in wrong direction.Fortunately,there is still one home of ancient wisdom left which is,INDIA.What if I tell you that an experience awaits you,An experience which may destroy your faith in conventional logic and rational wisdom,when a completely illetrate 80 years old woman can tell all your past history without needing you to speak a single word.Or when a person can tell all about you even deeply personal habits/vices/fear which you yourself did not know using mere 3 details :date/time/place of birth!

    Answer lies in east.

  • ARTHUR HILL

    Let the discussion begin. Reading your outline, on your conclusion, that God does not exist. I see that your foundation, is, I have concluded that the evidence presented is not tangible, and therefore cannot be tested concludes that there cannot be a God. Also your conclusion is based on the philosophical platform that the spiritual, or religious text has not the power to convince. So let’s throw religious text out of the equation, and let’s use other sources. I would rather this subject using messenger video chat. Is this a format that is useful to you also?

  • Usma

    Try to Recongnize God with breakage of your intentions and plans.

  • Jim Humphreys

    Consider the “truism” that you can’t prove a negative.  In non-religious contexts, no one believes this.”

    The main proponents of the claim that “you cannot prove a negative”, from on my experience, are atheists. Very often these atheists define atheism as “a lack of belief in gods”. They seem to think that defining atheism in this way (not the way most academic atheist philosophers would define it) absolves them of any need to make a positive case for atheism and, furthermore, that as one “cannot prove a negative” it is unsurprising that if cannot disprove the existence of God. My position is that this is simply flat-out wrong. It’s easy to prove a negative: A v-B, -A :. -B is such an (elementary) proof. Furthermore, so far as God is concerned one could, in principle, show that He doesn’t exist by showing that He entails contradictory properties.

    “…The fact that I cannot see one is excellent evidence, in Massachusetts, that there is no elephant around.  If the animal in question were a fox, or if I lived in Kenya, it would be a different story.  I cannot be sure that there is no elephant, but I can be extremely well justified in believing there isn’t.”

    I think that there is an implicit category error here, since God is not said to be a physical object like a fox or an elephant which one could discover (or not discover) by conducting an exhaustive physical search.

    Finally, you refer to arguments and evidence which you think shows God does not exist, but do not present any such arguments. What, one wonders, is this evidence (or arguments) that God does not exist?

  • Barati

    Dear madam!
    We are a group of university professors.We like ho have debate with you through webinars .Is it possible?
    Please answer me on this adress: barati36@yahoo.com

  • Etienne van Heerden

    Hi Louise

    If you believe like you claim, in mathematics, witnessing and probabilities, I will prove to you that God exists.
    For this to happen we need common ground and i would like to know whether you believe in the existence of historical figures like Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte,Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ (all of them well documented ).
    Jesus is so well documented that He became the center point of time when referring to historical events ie .before or after Christ.
    It will be even easier to prove the existence of God if you believe that a human being posses a soul or spirit.

    I look forward to receiving communication from you

  • Chris Andrews

    Hi Louise,

    Thanks for sharing your views and insight. I am a believer in both God and in the divinity of Jesus. I am not offended
    or threatened in the least by your views and I hope you are not offended by mine. It’s true. I grew up in a God believing
    home (although my parents were very down to earth and accepting and loving toward all people and taught us to be as well)
    and I attended a Christian school. I do believe that this upbringing still influences me today. However, I’m in my 50’s and there
    came a time when it wasn’t enough to just take their word, I had to do a lot of deep thinking. It is my belief that it is futile to
    try to prove the existance of God. I also believe that it is futile to disprove his/her existence. There are too many questions that I believe science will probably never be able to answer for us no matter how far we probe. Where is the edge of space? What is space contained in? What is nothingness? How can we quantify nothingness without something to compare it to? If there was a Big Bang, what were the materials or matter that caused this to happen? Where did they come from? Did we evolve? Evolve from what? What did original living matter or beings evolve from? Where is the mind? Not the brain, the mind. How can the mind if it is simply an evolved machine
    of sorts express and recognize human emotion? How do we even quantify emotion? I can go on and on. No, I can’t explain why
    a loving God would allow horrific and cruel things to happen all the time. I’ll never be able to explain it. Nor will I be able to explain
    many things such as this. But I cannot deny that throughout my life there have been situations and outcomes and answers that
    I have received that I believe to have come from God. If I called them coincidences I would be a fool. I would also be a fool if
    I sometimes (especially when I allow it in) am awash and embraced with a feeling of love and peace that to me seems to surpass even
    the purest and most powerful love that I’ve received from people. Do I believe Atheists can be happy, fulfilled and kind people ?
    Of course! I also know that Christians and believers of God can be evil, cruel and ugly people. I’ve been all of those things before at certain times. I do my best to keep my mind focused on the lessons taught and more importantly the actions displayed by Jesus.
    I often fail but sometimes I don’t. I suppose I might ask “what have I lost by believing ? Clarity? ” I don’t believe that anyone alive will have true clarity while we are here. I do however believe that I have the hope of life beyond this one where there is no more death or ugliness and that there is indeed a loving and caring creator helping us along this journey. Actually, I just had a conversation with a
    satanist. I was intrigued by his thoughts and had many questions for him. He was a very pleasant guy and I didn’t feel the least
    bit threatened by his beliefs. He seemed like a good and decent man and I believe you to be a lovely and very thoughtful person
    who I would very much enjoy exchanging ideas with. I am always up for learning from someone and possibly offering something to someone else if I have an answer or idea they may not have considered. I wish you all good things and again, thank you for sharing yourself with us.

  • Raquel

    I’ve wanted to ask an atheist this question for a long time. If you believe that we are here due to a process of biological evolution that has occurred through the mechanism of natural selection, then (considering that you have some knowledge in natural sciences) … How can natural selection favor the development of an organ or member in a species if at present these characteristics (which lead to the development of said member or organ) do not suppose any evolutionary advantage?

    I guess you wonder what I mean exactly. The truth is that according to evolutionary theory this must have happened all the time and many times.

    I’ll give you an example and put it in context:
    This example does not talk about how reptiles became birds, but about how non-flying reptiles became flying (based on the version proposed by the evolutionary theory that flying reptiles became birds). Well, before these reptiles were flying, they should be non-flying. Let’s specify a little more: before the wings of these reptiles were flying (functional) they were non-flying (non-functional) and probably the advantages provided to the species were different. As for example, (if their wings had feathers), they promoted the conservation of body heat.

    As we know, natural selection favors characteristics that are advantageous in the present. Natural selection does not favor characteristics that will suppose a future advantage because this (natural selection) is not an entity with intention, nor does it know the future, but a natural mechanism.

    And here is something in this thought that does not take this into account. It is assumed without more, than natural selection in the case of reptiles transformed a limb (or organ) whose present utility was the preservation of body heat, into another whose utility was an activity as complex as flying. Note: wings are not the only characteristics that make this activity possible, there are other things that must be considered; as body mass and morphology.

    It is possible that you still cannot see what I am saying, it is one of the traps of this apparently intuitive thought. But it is still some kind of logical fallacy. I will try to be a little more specific:

    If this member currently provides benefits that consist of improving the preservation of body heat, according to the customs and current way of life of the species, it is these characteristics that will be favored in the species to each generation. Why? Due to the limited number of activities carried out by this species, not all the characteristics with potential can be “tested” to find any advantage in them. And here would be those that lead to their wings in the future being capable of supporting flight. These characteristics mentioned in the present do not suppose any advantage because they do not even allow the realization of the flight activity. Natural selection in this case could lead the species to develop “warmer” wings, which translates into a specialization according to the advantages found in the present for the species and dependent on its activities and habits.

    One way to put this: These reptiles don’t need to fly. Natural selection will find other avenues of specialization with far greater instant advantages. This is so according to the definition of natural selection and the observed facts, such as the case of the color change of moths during the industrial revolution in Great Britain. But assuming that a limb or organ has been addressed in a direction completely contrary to the current way of life of the species, is at least capricious and cannot be caused by the mechanism of natural selection.

    I like to think of this example when highlighting the first question asked. But other examples can be given: the passage from aquatic creatures to terrestrial creatures (What advantage does a respiratory system bring to an aquatic creature that does not allow it to breathe outside the sea, but which addressed in this direction? How does this transition take place if the intermediate steps still do not contribute anything?), the passage from oviparous to mammals, etc … They are the “more striking” things I can think of, but I’m sure you can find more subtle things.

    Natural selection is not capable of walking blindly for thousands of years while these small changes occur, until finally the organ is formed and finds some use that represents an advantage. They are added as facts, changes that would suppose too great a leap for natural selection, and impossible from a logical point of view based on the definition of natural selection.

    I admit that I am not an expert on the subject, but I know enough that it is possible for me to ask these questions.

    Sincerely, I would like to know your opinion on this subject, assuming that you have understood the approach. I also invite anyone with a background in evolutionary science to answer this question.

    Best regards

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