Religion

Irreligion Discussion

Since we are reading Irreligion by John Allen Paulos, a book that argues against the existence of God by tearing apart the arguments for the existence of God, I’ve been thinking about why people feel such a need to argue against something for which there is absolutely no evidence.

This topic recently came up in the Atheist & Agnostic Crafters forum on Ravelry, a kind of knitting MySpace site. Several people were claiming that to be an atheist requires just as much faith as to believe in God, because it is impossible to prove a negative.

Here’s what I said in response (with a few edits):

There is absolutely no reason to believe in god(s), even though it is possible that the existence of such beings can’t be disproved, technically (mostly because God is intentionally defined by religions as something that can’t be disproved; that’s part of the power of the meme). The existence of this alleged god-being is not something anyone could ever discover, and it is only believed because superstitious cave men couldn’t figure out where thunder and lightning (and life, and sunshine, etc.) came from, and then, eventually, political powers took advantage of the fears and superstitions of the people and made up formal religion.

Since there is no evidence, it does not take faith or belief to be an atheist. It is a lack of faith in something extraordinary for which believers have not provided extraordinary evidence. Sorry, but I know that a lot of atheists accept that crap about not being able to prove a negative and therefore it’s a belief, but that’s just not true. Someday I will be able to articulate this more clearly. Alas, today is not that day.

Being an atheist is exactly the same as being an a-unicornist or an a-fairyist, or an a-teapot-orbiting-Mars-ist for that matter. Santa is different because we went to the North Pole and, guess what?, he wasn’t there!

Unfortunately, when we discovered that heaven wasn’t up in the sky beyond the celestial spheres, basically disproving the existence of such a place, religion moved heaven outside the universe, making it impossible to disprove. Hell, as it turns out, is not in the center of the earth, either.

So, what do you think? It is worth the breath it takes to argue against the existence of God when the burden of proof lies with the believers? Are books like Paulos’s useful? Merely entertaining? Is the idea that “you can’t prove a negative” valid or worth considering? Does it require faith to not believe in unicorns?

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

Related Articles

46 Comments

  1. I think that nobody turned religious based on a purportedly rational theory that argues that God exists is totally beside the point. It follows that disproving such a theory won’t make anyone stop believing in God.
    I would say it’s much more interesting to try and figure what DOES make people believe in God. I think that cultural conformism plays its part, but I’m not so sure about the God-as-explanation idea. After all, as anti-creationists have pointed out, ‘God did it’ doesn’t offer any explanation that’s useful in any way.

  2. Hey, it’s my group. :)

    That whole discussion is rather beaten to death, isn’t it? I find it particularly puzzling as I definitely experience my own atheism as a lack. I remember what faith felt like and I feel nothing like that in regards to my lack of belief. Not believing comes as naturally as breathing while faith took effort and mental walls.

    But, I do see the value of having the discussion, if only to continue exposing others to why it is such a logical fallacy to declare atheism a faith-based belief.

  3. Amanda, are you the moderator of that group on Ravelry? Somehow I missed that! It’s a great group, but I just wanted to point out that sometimes unbelievers don’t even understand the nature of unbelief! (Usually it’s agnostics who are not ready to bite the bullet and call themselves athesits, IMO.)

    cronopio, we may not find God as an acceptable explanation of anything, but many believers certainly do! But my point was about the origins of god-belief (or originally, belief in simple invisible agents), not necessarily the reason the existence of God is believed by individuals today.

  4. I have to agree. I have this argument with my wife on occasion. I grew up without any particular religious training and the sentiment is definitely experienced as a lack.
    I think the issue is that people think that a true lack of believe should also imply a lack of interest or opinion. So if I say that some tenant of religion X seems pretty ridiculous then I am an anti-X zelot with a passionate belief in rationalism.

  5. I have thought long and hard on this point, which for my very short attention spans adds up to almost three minutes, and I do think it is worth while to debate the non-existence of an omniscient omnipotent deity to the “believers.” I love to look at it with the same historical viewpoint. There was a time that we believed everything had a spirit inside that we had to appease in one way or another – trees, rivers, animals, mountains, everything. Then we “wised” up and realized that something made those things, and since we didn’t know any better, the something became someone(s). Then we had to appease those someones, we’ll call them gods, for rain, sun, good weather, favorable crops, fertile land, etc. Over time we decided that several gods didn’t make sense, so there had to be one god, let’s call him God, that did and does it all. Now religious institutions, always ready for a new niche, found some serious toe-holds and commenced to making sure that those ideas were spread far and wide, and anyone saying different was made an offer they couldn’t refuse. It was, as we well know, a very effective way of keeping people in line – do exactly as I say or you will spend forever in Guantanamo Bay, er, Hell being tortured for eternity. I see atheism as another step in our spiritual evolution. I cannot imagine what comes next, but I don’t think I will have to worry about it. Religion isn’t about to give up it’s strangle hold on the power it currently wields, mores the pity for humanity.

    It boils down to a crutch for us simple minded monkeys: we don’t know how it works, so it must be something beyond understanding and hence, God.

    It requires a certain amount of faith to be an atheist, but faith in the science and our understanding of things. It is a faith in truth, not in ghosts. Rather than unicorns, use Sasquatch. Does it take faith to believe that there is no such thing? I think it does. You believe that there is no such thing, because the evidence to support it isn’t there. Is there a zero percent chance, statistically, of existence? No, there is a very finite chance, however small, that there is SOMETHING that we do not currently have evidence for. So our “faith” lies with the predominant evidence that there is nothing.

    I hope that made sense. It made perfect sense in my head.

  6. But they don’t believe in “A God”, they believe in a very specific type of god with very definite abilities as prescribed in a book.
    We have no problem taking apart that god and his book. We only have to put up with this “general” god because they moved the goalposts and won’t shut up about how “nya nya you can’t get my god now because he’s outside of time and space”.

  7. “Does it require faith to not believe in unicorns?”

    I think this, by itself, would have made a great reply to the person on the knitting site. Short, and neatly illustrates the fallacy. Then if the poster replied that yes, it does take faith to not believe in unicorns, reply by pointing out that they’re using a strange definition of “faith”, which actually means to believe in something in spite of conflicting evidence.

  8. I think it is a worthwhile discussion, regardless whether agreement or resolution is achieved.

    It at least gets people thinking about what they believe and why. And some of the points you made would unavoidably cause cognitive dissonance, which would motivate further thought.

    I understand that some feel such discussion is pointless and frustrating because, chances are, you will not convert anyone to agnosticism (at least not right away). Certainly, it’s difficult to fight emotion and tradition with logic, and may or may not make a difference down the line.

    I can say with certainty that I don’t at all agree with the statement that Christianity and Atheism require an equal leap of faith. Science says that it is reasonable not to believe something when there’s a lack of evidence for it. And so many have tried to prove the existence of God for so long, that one would think evidence would have surfaced if there were any. Atheism is a perfectly reasonable stance based on the utter lack of evidence.

  9. I suppose there are reasons to believe in god, it gives the same comfort some people have for having imaginary friends.

    It takes guts to admit being an Atheist in some communities. (Didn’t they say Atheist is the new gay?) But it only take the knowledge of a 3rd grader to recognize Atheism.

    About 95% of my friends were Atheist when I was in elementary school. Then they were possessed by religion, palmistry, horoscope and fortune-telling as we grew older when things don’t turn out as expected. It must be more comforting to think that “god has plans for everyone” instead of “I screwed up!”

    I’m still waiting for the book from the library. Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for the reviews!

  10. Is it worthwhile to have arguments like this? Well, I guess that depends… There’s a very small percentage of people who will be inspired to consider ay argument put forward by either side. Of those, there’s a small percentage who will be convinced and change their mind. There are millions, probably billions, of religious people making arguments like this againstt he air, and converting young minds to their way of belief (it’s a rare atheist who converts to religion, in my experience). The only way to stem the tide is to present logic and reason at every turn. I think it’s worth it, and the more people who think it’s worth it, the more momentum reason gains over superstition, and the closer we come being free from superstitious drivel altogether.

  11. I consider myself agnostic, and the biggest reason I still use the label is because of issues with burden of proof. I’ve always thought of religion and belief as a personal choice, and that it’s up to me to decide what I think is real or not. Because of that, I feel like the burden of proof is on me when deciding whether god(s) exist, which is why the ‘no proof for a negative’ becomes an important issue.

  12. I think this is an issue of semantics. It’s useful to understand the difference ‘agnosticism’ vs ‘atheism.’ Agnosticism was a term coined relatively recently in 1870 to denote a state of the inherently unknown. To borrow from the previous example, it would be an agnostic position to admit to not knowing if (or if not) the teapot exists. Atheism, on the other hand, is agnosticism applied to God.

    This interpretation of these terms means that they are not mutually exclusive. Thus, I’d call myself both an Atheist and an Agnostic. Of course, the popular definition of Agnosticism as a person of undecided faith often causes me to avoid the term except when arguing about disproof.

  13. This interpretation of these terms means that they are not mutually exclusive.

    I agree that the terms are not mutually exclusive. I actually find it hard to define myself as either agnostic or atheist, and often use the phrase “philosophically agnostic, practicing atheist”, because although I believe atheism is a reasonable stance, I’m always open to new information.

    In mixed company, I generally identify myself as agnostic, because I feel it’s more polite. I realize many would find that wishy-washy (I always feel a pang of guilt due to things Dawkins has said.)

  14. I would say that the mere fact people are so ill-informed about basic concepts like evidence and burden of proof and the scientific method is reason enough to have a culture-wide discussion. Which books and which techniques will best advance that discussion — ah, now that’s something we’ll have to find out by experiment.

  15. Does it take faith to breathe? Why, I don’t even think of my own atheism every morning when I wake up.

    “Atheism is a religion/requires faith” is gross ad hominem whose only purpose is to drag me into their same pool of shit.

  16. You _can_ prove a negative if the opposite positive includes a claim of being all-pervasive. It would indeed be hard to disprove a god who is only sometimes present, sometimes omnipotent, and sometimes moral. But if the god is claimed to be _always and everywhere_ present, omnipotent, and moral, now it’s logically possible to prove the negative with a single contradictory instance. For example, Darfur is inconsistent with a perfect moral agent being present and able to intervene.

  17. I think the debate between agnosticism and atheism is largely semantic, but it does underscore an important philosophical idea.

    People who claim that atheism requires just as much faith as a religion are clearly in error, for many of the reasons already mentioned. But saying “you can’t prove a negative” does have some meaning.

    The difference between atheism and agnosticism is that atheism says “There are no supernatural beings,” while agnosticism says “The question of the existence of supernatural beings is by definition not scientific and therefore unknowable.”

    The atheist statement is a claim about the ultimate structure of the universe, while the agnostic statement focuses on the limitations of our knowledge. More philosophically, atheism is part of an ontology (naturalism), while agnosticism is part of an epistemology (science).

    Suppose we were embedded in a supernatural universe. Atheism would be in error, but agnosticism would still be correct. Whether or not we actually are in a supernatural universe does not make it scientifically knowable.

  18. Just to be clear, agnosticism (at least as it was formulated by T.H. Huxley) does not say, “well, maybe one day we’ll get some evidence of a god.” That is a misunderstanding perpetuated by others who feel uncomfortable with atheism. Agnosticism says that it is impossible for us to obtain knowledge about the supernatural.

  19. Bleah. Yet more people who don’t know what the word “faith” means.

    Still, what a great follow-up discussion. Does strong atheism require “faith” (in the incorrect sense) in a way that weak atheism does not?

    One important point is that “New Atheism”, to the extent that it’s got any coherent position on anything, does posit some positive claims, such as Hitchens’ “religion spoils everything”. The burden of proof on those specific claims does lie with those making the claim.

  20. If it’s impossible to know, then who cares? :-)
    I agree. My thoughts are that there isn’t a compelling reason to believe in a particular supernatural being, nor can there ever be. Any supernatural belief is arbitrary and unnecessary.

  21. “Agnosticism says that it is impossible for us to obtain knowledge about the supernatural.”

    The trouble I have with agnosticism then, is that it has to acknowledge that the supernatural can exist and we just can’t measure it. Living in a natural world where every mystery has been eventually explained by science, I choose atheism because it’s apparent that we’ll find the answers eventually. To then go one step further and say that there is this unmeasurable “stuff” out there means nothing to me because if it’s unmeasurable, then how can I ever know about it in my lifetime? If the supernatural is unmeasurable, then by definition it would also have to have no impact on my, or anyone else’s life, or else I *would* be able to measure it. So if I can’t measure it, see it, or ever know anything about it, is it really “out there” and do I care? Not even a little bit.

  22. “If the supernatural is unmeasurable, then by definition it would also have to have no impact on my, or anyone else’s life, or else I *would* be able to measure it. So if I can’t measure it, see it, or ever know anything about it, is it really “out there” and do I care? Not even a little bit.”

    A few words for you: love, and courage.

    They’re very real. Part of the natural world. And yet you can’t “measure” them. Science can’t explain them.

    If you’re a hardcore atheist/agnostic, love is no more than a few chemical reactions, than will be explained away some day. This is a very reductionist stance. For most people, there has to be more than that. Calling them irrational and superstitious won’t help change their minds.

  23. “If you’re a hardcore atheist/agnostic, love is no more than a few chemical reactions, than will be explained away some day. This is a very reductionist stance.”

    But why does love being a matter of chemicals make it less important or amazing?

    I still feel wonder and appreciation for having found someone who sets off that chemical reaction in me.

  24. So if I can’t measure it, see it, or ever know anything about it, is it really “out there” and do I care? Not even a little bit.

    I agree. That’s my position exactly. There is no way to distinguish among an infinite number of unfalsifiable hypotheses, some of which are supernatural. So they’re worthless.

    Science does not pretend that it can measure what’s “really” out there; we can’t achieve metaphysical certitude. That being said, there is no need to make any claims about what’s “really” out there.

    Just as it’s unnecessary to hypothesize supernatural beings, it’s unnecessary to claim that they don’t exist either. It’s irrelevant to science and how science works.

    The entire concept “supernatural” is a fallacy. By its very definition it cannot exist.

    That’s not true. What is true is that by definition, we cannot get information about its existence. Supernatural means outside the natural universe.

    Instead of saying that the supernatural can’t exist, I would talk about what we mean by “exist”. Because we can only know about things in the universe, then the existence of something is only meaningful to us if it’s in the universe and hence, natural.

  25. Sorry, but that’s just philosophical semantics bullshit if you ask me.

    If you’ll note, I already prefaced my first comment with the disclaimer that the difference between atheism and agnosticism is semantic.

    The point is, practically speaking, I would be considered by most to be an atheist. But not to care about the real philosophical implications of your beliefs is like the people I tutor caring only about getting the right answer, and not caring about the underlying concept.

    Again, saying “[the supernatural] cannot exist” is essentially a tautology. You’re saying that the only things that exist are the natural, therefore the natural are the only things that exist.

  26. I wish I could edit posts.

    Again, saying “by definition [the supernatural] cannot exist” is essentially a tautology. You’re saying that the only things that exist are the natural, therefore the natural are the only things that exist.

  27. Sometimes things are tautologies because that’s just the way it is.

    That’s what I think about the supernatural, and (off topic) it’s what I think about the anthropic principle as well.

    They are meaningless ideas that people try to make sound important.

  28. “We have no problem taking apart that god and his book. We only have to put up with this “general” god because they moved the goalposts and won’t shut up about how “nya nya you can’t get my god now because he’s outside of time and space”. – eiskrystal

    Doesn’t the pursuit of science also “move the goalpost”?
    ________________________________

    “If it’s impossible to know, then who cares?” – writerdd

    It seems to me that with that approach, we would not have gone very far with science either. From what I understand, most scientific discoveries started with just a theory – often times extremely misguided (e.g., turning lead to gold) – and without a metaphorical jumping into the abyss of the unknown, defying what is considered impossible, we would not have many of the things science has provided that we take for granted today.
    ________________________________

    “Living in a natural world where every mystery has been eventually explained by science, I choose atheism because it’s apparent that we’ll find the answers eventually. ” – Kimbo

    Hmm … Has every mystery been explained by science? … WILL every mystery be explained by science? … About two years ago, I had a discussion with a molecular biologist and an astrophysicist and both were of the opinion that the evolution of science over the last 200 years has resulted in many more questions than answers … Does “science” or the “natural world” really provide THAT level of certainty?

    – Agnostic (as in, one who believes that the world is not just logically divided between atheists and theists)

  29. Doesn’t the pursuit of science also “move the goalpost”?

    No. Not unless you call reaching the goalpost, then setting new ones, “moving goalposts.”

    From what I understand, most scientific discoveries started with just a theory…

    Your understanding is incorrect. Most scientific discoveries start with anomalous observations; attempts to explain those lead to new theories.

    I’d be curious what you have in mind when you talk of science coming from “defying what is considered impossible.” It sounds suspiciously like empty rhetoric.

  30. splurge says:

    Things either exist or they do not.

    You’re missing the point. Whether or not the supernatural exists is the question. A question that cannot be answered, even in principle.

    writerdd says:

    Sometimes things are tautologies because that’s just the way it is.

    Umm… no. Things are tautologies because of the way you construct your arguments. And the argument by assertion (“that’s just the way it is”) isn’t valid either.

    These semantic discussions can be important, because often they reflect the underlying thought processes.

    You cannot prove that you’re not in the Matrix, or that the universe wasn’t magicked into being 3 seconds ago. Rather than saying, “they just aren’t so,” it is better to realize that there are an infinite number of things that you cannot disprove. Admitting that doesn’t suddenly make those unfalsifiable ideas useful or relevant, it just acknowledges the ultimate limits of what is knowable.

  31. Davis-

    First off, I think that the observation that science is involved in “reaching the goalpost, then setting new ones” is not necessarily (or perhaps, even often) true … In MANY cases, scientists do not “reach the goalpost” that they thought was there … As I mentioned before, consider how many discoveries came from attempts to turn lead to gold, but did they REACH the “goalpost” or did they just move it out? … Indeed, I would say that they tore the goalpost down and built a soccor net instead.

    I find your second response and the rhetorical statement in your accompanying question to be contradictory – you conclude that most scientific discoveries start with anomolous observations that lead to new theories (definition of “anomolous”: deviating from or inconsistent with the common order, form, or rule), and then you take me to task for my observation that scientific discovery often defies what is considered impossible … Isn’t a PERCEPTION of impossibility and PERCEPTION of inconsistency merely a question of degree? … Assuming that science does not consist of simply waiting around for the apple to fall on someone’s head and then writing about it, if a scientist is willing to spend a great deal of time in pursuit of a theory that disproves the rule (often times, with the rule being so entrenched as to be thought of as “impossible” to disprove), then how is he/she not acting in defiance of what is considered impossible? … Are you suggesting that the concept of “impossible” is NOT relative?

    As for scientific discovery defying what is considered “impossible”…

    “General relativity may be the biggest leap of the scientific imagination in history. Unlike many previous scientific breakthroughs, such as the principle of natural selection, or the discovery of the physical existence of atoms, general relativity had little foundation upon the theories or experiments of the time. No one except Einstein was thinking of gravity as equivalent to acceleration, as a geometrical phenomenon, as a bending of time and space.” – Alan Rightman, Relativity and the Cosmos

    Or how about …

    “In the 1960s, Caltech paleoecologist Heinz Lowenstam startled biologists and geologists alike with the discovery that many animals do what conventional science had considered impossible: they manufacture substances such as the iron-containing mineral magnetite within their bodies. Out of Lowenstam’s work came the more recent finding that many migratory animals, including birds, bees, and whales, generate magnetite within their bodies and may owe their uncanny homing instincts to the presence of this “internal compass” that allows them to navigate by means of Earth’s magnetic field.”

    Do you want some more examples?

    Or do you actually support the contention that “every mystery has been eventually explained” by science? … Or that it is “apparent” that science will find the answers to all the mysteries? … Because that WAS the substance of my post.

  32. Two things: 1) I understand what’s been said about tautologies, but I disagree.

    2) People who believe in the supernatural do not believe in some mysterious, undefinable thing that we cannot prove. They believe in forces or agents that interact with this universe. Some examples: human spirits continue to exist outside the body as ghosts, God “saves” and (sometimes) heals people, people can talk to God and he answers, God wrote a book, demons cause people to do evil or to become ill, some people can see the future, some people can communicate with the dead, and so forth.

  33. As I mentioned before, consider how many discoveries came from attempts to turn lead to gold, but did they REACH the “goalpost” or did they just move it out?

    Alchemy was not science, but that’s beside the point. The point is that “moving the goalposts” has a specific meaning as a logical fallacy; it’s not just a term used to describe the process of aiming for a different goal than what you originally had in mind.

    As for scientific discovery defying what is considered “impossible”…

    Your Einstein example doesn’t support this contention. Regardless, I’m not going to claim that no scientific discovery was thought impossible beforehand (though scientists don’t make such strong negative assertions), but your claims about where most science comes from are ahistorical.

    Or do you actually support the contention that “every mystery has been eventually explained” by science? … Or that it is “apparent” that science will find the answers to all the mysteries? … Because that WAS the substance of my post.

    Qualify the statements slightly, and I do. I would support the contention that most mysteries will eventually be solved by science, barring the collapse of civilization. The qualification is there because there are likely natural limits restricting our observations, such as the speed of light giving an upper bound on how fast we can travel to visit distant worlds.

  34. Davis-

    I accept what you are saying.

    What do you think of the contention that we all take voluntary actions (perhaps on a daily basis) based upon beliefs that we cannot verify with any reliable evidence, but which seem (at least to us) to be true (or we just assume them to be true)?

    I don’t intend to present this example as any sort of comparable logical parallel to believing/not believing/being unsure about the existence of a higher power or to critique whatever answer you give, but I am just curious as to your own degree of skepticism outside this context …

    You sit on a jury who has to choose whether to convict a murderer who allegedly stabbed the victim in an alley based on one piece of evidence – the testimony of one single eyewitness (which as you probably know, studies show to be quite unreliable for a variety of reasons) – and the witness has 20-40 vision and was standing 20 feet away in the dark, but swears up and down that the defendant is the perpetrator … There is no second-party shoeprins, fingerprints, blood, or DNA to match, and there is no murder weapon offered into evidence … There is no evidence offered by the defendant as an affirmative defense and the defendant does not testify … The defendant had no prior criminal record, no apparent motive (although he was a co-worker and friend of the victim), but also offered no alibi … All you’ve got is the witness, and based on viewing the witness testifying and the cross-examination, you cannot honestly form an opinion either way as to her veracity … Would you convict?

  35. BTW, that was a real case (from 10+ years ago) , and the jury arrived at a guilty verdict and eventually sentenced the defendant to death … All that I told you was a complete account of the transcript and what was conveyed to me by the jury foreman (who was justifying the verdict in my interview with him) … There was nothing else …

    Wait a sec, actually, there is some other relevant information: (1) according to the juror, the defendant wasn’t even wearing a tie; (2) the defendant’s lawyer (a real estate lawyer) was assigned by the court (there is no public defender system in Texas); and (3) the trial lasted one day and the jury deliberated for 70 minutes.

Leave a Reply

You May Also Enjoy

Close
Close