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Apr 25 2014

“Atheism Is An Assumption…”

My aggregator just pointed me at a fairly heavy-handed piece that claimed “atheism is an assumption, not a reasonable conclusion from the evidence“. And while atheism is very often a conclusion (including, frankly, most of the substance of the linked piece), I absolutely agree that there are times when atheism is an assumption. Thing is, it has to be. And anyone who is not blinded by their own ideology would agree:

Let’s assume God exists—for some value of “God”
Let’s assume this existence is more than façade—
There are many contenders—which one gets the nod?
Which God is assumed to be true?

We could start with Apollo, or Odin, or Thor,
Quetzalcoatl or Ra, perhaps Yahweh, or more,
Maybe one we’ve forgotten, though worshipped before,
But, just one. Or, it could be, a few.

If the Christians are right, but they don’t all agree,
Then which one of their thousands of sects could it be?
Is their God just one god, or divided in three?
To a father, a son, and a ghost?

Just consider the options—it’s really quite fun—
There are thousands of gods, so which god is the one?
And since each bears the burden of “why not, well… none?”
The assumption of God is now… toast.

The linked piece (here it is again, just in case) holds a highly skeptical standard over cosmic origins (“big bang”) and evolution (or, as it is called, “Darwinian, fully atheistic evolution”), but drops those standards precipitously to consider “evidence about the life of Christ” (hey, there’s evidence, and then there’s evidence!)

Ok, here’s the deal. The assumption of atheism is, frankly, a requirement. True Christian Believers should welcome it; only by assuming there is no god can they demonstrate that the no-god hypothesis is inadequate, and that theirs is right. If we start off by assuming the existence of god, we cannot conclude that this god exists, other than circularly.

So yeah, let’s start off with the assumption that there is no god. And work from there. And if there is evidence of a god (which one?), let us present that evidence, and require evidence for this god over that one.

What? No specific evidence for a particular god? We have to assume the existence of this god, and look for proof against?

Atheism is an assumption of naturalism. This is trivially true. But if you like, we can start out with any number of assumptions, and reach atheism as a conclusion. The linked article disingenuously conflates assumptions and conclusions… and frankly, it must. It can’t make an argument for its own religious views without making the same argument for tens of thousands of competing views. Atheists are wrong? Yay, Zeus!

Or… which god shall we assume exists?

21 comments

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  1. 1
    dukeofomnium

    This really goes back to “priviliging the hypothesis,” doesn’t it? There is NO good reason to infer christianity from the evidence (this includes the bible), so unless we assume christianity, we surely are not going to arrive there, are we?

  2. 2
    Menyambal

    Link sez:

    They choose to begin with unbelief.

    Yeah, I could live with that. Unbelief not being the same as believing there isn’t a god. But for me, I began with belief in God, as a trusting child, and gradually grew to shed my belief, to lose it. I now am an unbeliever.

    As for the rest, he spoke Greek.

  3. 3
    RJW

    As usual, the believer, either wilfully or unconsciously, assumes that the burden of proof is on the atheist, it isn’t.

    What evidence is there for the existence of any deity or the supernatural?

    I’m not sure that atheism is an ‘assumption’, it’s an hypothesis subject to refutation.

  4. 4
    Al Dente

    I read the linked post and the comments. The guy is pushing God of the Gaps as hard as he can and then trying to squeeze Christianity in preference to any other flavor of goddism. I’m not particularly impressed. I made a couple of comments to his post but they’re in moderation.

  5. 5
    hexidecima

    poor fellow chooses to assume that no other gods but his exists. Shucks, it’s always fun to watch assumptions flow with no problem from a TrueChristian.

  6. 6
    Kevin Kehres

    I’ve been arguing the null hypothesis for some years now. In fact, I’ve made the offer to convert to a religion as soon as they can disprove the null hypothesis.

    My first requirement is that they define what god “is”. Not what it does, like universe building and soul-sorting. Not its qualities, like omnibenevolence and the willingness to send unbelievers to eternal torment (oops, contradiction!).

    No. I want to know what it “is”. What is it made of? Who says so? How do they know? Who disagrees, and why? And if you’re going to claim some undefined property of “spirit” or “unembodied mind”, you’re going to have to define that, too. It needs to be granular. And if it’s “ground of all being” nonsense, how do you distinguish then its presence from its absence?

    God has an ontology problem. It’s been that way ever since Apollo stopped riding his golden chariot across the sky.

    Of course, I’ve also said I’ll convert to a religion just as soon as all religions everywhere agree on the status of the bacon cheeseburger. Maybe that’s simpler.

  7. 7
    Taggard

    I wrote this very long, point-by-point, response to the linked article…but I doubt it will end up posted there…awaiting moderation. Just remember that the “you” below is the author of the linked article, not Cuttlefish.

    *****************************************************************************************************

    I would like to reply to this article point by point, for the most part, but before I do, I need to lay down some definitions, a basic assumption, and a few statements:

    Definitions: Atheist – one who lacks belief in all gods. Agnostic – one who does not know for sure if gods exist. Evolution – the process by which living organisms have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth. Abiogenesis – the origin of life.

    Assumption: you are looking for a real dialog with an honest, intelligent, truth seeking atheist/skeptic with an open mind and a true willingness to be brought to Jesus/God.

    Statement: I am such an atheist.

    Statement: Every self-described atheist I have ever met, read or listened to (including Richard Dawkins) allow that God is possible. They also allow that unicorns, dragons, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are possible. I too allow that God is possible, but I see no compelling evidence to believe that it exists.

    To the article:

    Part I: The Origin of the Universe

    Summary: You present the Kalam Cosmological Argument, with all of its flaws.

    You say:

    There is overwhelming scientific and philosophical evidence that the physical cosmos (hereafter “cosmos”) has not existed eternally. Therefore there was a time (or perhaps we should speak more generally and say “a domain”) in which there was no cosmos: no matter, energy, space or even time.

    Saying there is “overwhelming” evidence does not make it so. See B-theory of time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-theory_of_time). It is quite possible the cosmos has always been here.

    You say:

    Since the cosmos obviously does exist now, it seems obvious that some entity other than the cosmos must have caused it to come into existence. The only alternative is that sheer nothingness somehow “caused” the cosmos, an obvious impossibility.

    Whenever you use the word “obvious” it makes me ask “obvious to whom?”. If we take for granted that we do exist, it certainly doesn’t seem obvious to me that “some entity” caused it to come into existence. And I can think of a number of alternatives to your “sheer nothingness”, but none of them matter, for there is no evidence to suggest them, so they are just as logical as saying God did it. And since it is possible that the cosmos has always existed, it doesn’t need an alternative.

    You say:

    The typical atheist responds to all this by asserting that we do not know what caused the cosmos, therefore atheism (or at least agnosticism) is the preferred position.

    Agnosticism (as defined above as simply not knowing anything for certain) is the default position of humanity. We can never know anything for sure. Atheism is the default position for belief when it comes to gods. The default position is not believing and a skeptic takes the default position on all questions of belief. If you ask me if there is life on Mars, I would have to take the default position, which is to doubt the existence of everything until there is sufficient evidence to believe in it. I don’t just assume there is no life on Mars, I assume there is no life anywhere except the places for which I have sufficient evidence to believe it exists. In fact, I assume that nothing exists, and only believe in anything when there is sufficient evidence. This is the essence of skepticism.

    You say:

    Here’s the basic problem with that: If someone really doesn’t know what caused the cosmos, then the cause could be anything. That’s what “I don’t know” means. Therefore if the skeptic is serious in his claim, he cannot rule out the possibility of God. If the cause is unknown, it could have been God. After all, the cause would have to exist outside of matter, energy, space and time, and would have be unimaginably powerful if not omnipotent, and either unimaginably lucky or else unimaginably wise. It would have to have these attributes. And these are some of the primary attributes of the God of the Bible, the one true and living God.

    I have never met an atheist who ruled out the possibility of God. I have heard they exist, but, by and large, they are a straw man created by Christian apologists to talk about in articles such as this. I am not sure why “the cause” (if indeed one was needed) would have to be unimaginably powerful (the final straw isn’t particularly heavy, but it breaks the camel’s back), nor do I see why it would need to be either lucky or wise (and the God of the Bible seems to be neither of those, creating a people he needed to wipe out, and then sacrifice himself to himself in order to forgive).

    You say:

    Therefore the honest skeptic would have to say, “Yes, it could be God, but I prefer not to believe that.”

    This is close. The honest skeptic says, “Yes, it could be God, but there is no evidence to suggest it was.” The burden of proof is on you to prove it was God. Until you do, it makes no sense for me to believe it was. It could have been God, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the final straw, or nothing at all. I lack belief in all of it until there is evidence.

    Part II: Evolution

    Summary: You confuse Evolution with Abiogenesis, and make some logically questionable statements.

    You say:

    Atheistic scientists and their fans claim that Darwinian, fully atheistic evolution (or, as they call it, “evolution”) is an established fact. But they also admit that science has not established the exact processes and sequence of events by which this atheistic evolution occurred.

    Evolution is established fact. DNA, fossils, and experimental science have proven conclusively that life evolved. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is the best (and only) peer-reviewed scientific theory to explain just how (and why) life has evolved the way it has. What science has not established is how life began from non-living material.

    You say:

    [The word “evolution” has a wide range of meanings. We focus on the meaning used by apologists for atheism: That life developed by completely naturalistic processes.]

    I have never heard any apologist for atheism use this definition of evolution. What you have defined, I suppose, is the atheist’s (or just plain scientist’s) Theory of Abiogenesis. Darwin certainly has nothing to do with the origins of life.

    You say:

    Question: If you don’t know how it occurred, how do you know that it occurred? The obvious answer: You don’t.

    Really? I honestly think if you re-read this and think about it for a bit you will realize that this just doesn’t make any sense. If leave my house and find a piece of paper on my doorstep, I may not know how it got there, but I know it got there. You, yourself, use this logic in Part I of your article. The cosmos exists, therefore, you say, it must have come to exist. You don’t know how that happened, but you know it happened.

    Much like the origins of the cosmos, the origins of life are still a mystery. Yet, there is still no evidence of anything outside of nature causing either. Until there is some evidence that God (or FSM or Santa) did it, a skeptic will not believe it.

    You say:

    The atheistic scientists and their fans are assuming (not proving) that God could not have had anything to do with the development of life. This being so, something like atheistic Darwinian evolution is the only possibility: With no God to intervene, the only possible scenario is a vast series of tiny random changes leading, luckily, to ourselves.

    Here you demonstrate a basic misunderstanding of both atheism and science. Scientists don’t just assume that God could not have anything to do with evolution, they assume that EVERYTHING could not have anything to do with evolution. They assume that Natural Selection could not have anything to do with evolution and proceed to develop experiments to provide evidence that it does. When they find a repeatable experiment that provides evidence, they share that experiment and results with other scientists and others perform the same experiments and share the results. When enough scientists agree that the evidence produced is conclusive, a model (or theory) is developed and then, and only then, do people stop assuming. God (and FSM and Santa) are just part of the things that are assumed to have no effect on anything. If you want skeptics to believe that they did, you will need to do some peer-reviewed science.

    You say:

    Therefore the concept of Darwinian atheistic evolution has literally zero force as evidence against God. It is nothing more than the only possibility that survives the assumption of no God.

    Darwinian atheistic evolution, and every peer-reviewed scientific theory, has literally zero force as evidence against God. Science is not interested in evidence against the existence of anything. You can’t (with science) prove something doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t try. I am not sure where you got the idea that Darwin (or any evolutionary biologist) wanted to disprove God.

    What more can you have than the only possibility that survives the default position (which is the assumption of no God, no FSM, no Natural Selection, no Santa, no anything)? Science is what is left after you have proven things exist when you start off assuming they don’t.

    Part III: Evidence about the Life of Christ

    Summary: You shift the burden of evidence.

    You say:

    The Bible, and a few other ancient books, gives testimony about Jesus. Atheists respond that these are just stories invented by the authors in order to spread a doctrine. Christians respond by pointing out various ways to argue that the biblical testimony is trustworthy.

    I am not a historicity of Jesus expert, but I have read a number of webpages. What I have found is that there is exactly one historically trustworthy non-scripture mention of Jesus, in Josephus, and it is this: “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”. That’s it. And even this was written 30 years after the supposed crucifixion.

    Nothing about riding into Jerusalem, nothing about the crucifixion and resurrection. Nothing.

    You say:

    Question: How do the atheists know that the biblical accounts are not accurate? Do they have independent evidence from the First Century which proves that Jesus of Nazareth was just a man, or even nonexistent? No, they do not. There are a few ancient sources claiming that Jesus was just a man, but these are hardly decisive.

    Atheists know that the biblical accounts are contradictory (see http://www.errancy.com/on-how-many-donkeys-did-jesus-ride-into-jerusalem/ and http://i.imgur.com/CBTiKeh.png), so therefore are at least unreliable.

    What kind of evidence would prove that Jesus did not exist? Lack of evidence is the best and only evidence of nonexistence. There are exactly zero contemporary mentions of Jesus. Not even mentions of him as “just a man”. Nothing.

    You say:

    All the atheists have is the assumption that Jesus as described in the Bible could never have existed. Under this assumption, they feel justified in rejecting all the arguments supporting the accuracy of the biblical accounts. Assuming atheism at the start, they arrive at the conclusion that the Jesus of Christianity is a myth. But that’s circular reasoning.

    A skeptic starts off not believing. You call this lack of belief the “assumption that Jesus as described in the Bible could never have existed”. Again, this assumption is the same assumption that Santa Claus does not exist, the assumption that there is no life on Mars, and the general assumption that things for which there is no evidence of existence do not exist.

    This is not circular reasoning, it is skepticism. Assume nothing exists. Collect evidence. Assume all things for which there is no evidence of existence do not exist, believe in the things for which there is convincing evidence.

    Part IV: *

    Summary: More shifting of the burden of evidence.

    You say:

    If you assume no God, or that knowledge of God is impossible, you get a system in which there is no God. A system in which you can discount all the evidence for Christianity. But it’s all based on a negative assumption. And there is no reason to assume the negative.

    The problem with this thesis is that all skeptics would adjust their system to include God if there was evidence for God. Evidence for Christianity is discounted because it does not meet scientific rigor, not because of some fallacious assumptions. There is no negative assumption, other than the assumption that things for which there is no evidence of existence do not exist. There is every reason to assume that, as assuming that things exist for which there is no evidence is, at the very least, non-scientific.

    You say:

    Most atheists won’t acknowledge that they are reasoning in a circle. They try to cover it up with various distractions. They will say that they actually do look to the evidence, but find it to be invalid. But they judge it to be invalid because they are assuming that God is impossible, and if he is impossible then any evidence that seems to point to him would have to be invalid.

    God is not impossible. I would love for there to be a God. Give me your evidence! Let us put it to peer-review!

    You say:

    When the sophisticated-sounding excuses are removed, it really is that simple. They choose to begin with unbelief.

    Of course they do. What else would make sense? Is the belief in God the only thing they should start with? Should they start with a belief in the FSM, Santa, and life on Mars as well? If God is the only thing, why?

    You say:

    But man is not omniscient. He cannot assume “no” as his answer. He must look to the evidence, not try to deny its fundamental validity.

    Man, far from being omniscient, knows nothing for certain. The only thing we can do is assume “no” and then collect the evidence for “yes”. The evidence leads us to what exists. No evidence, no belief.

  8. 8
    Trebuchet

    I worship at The Church of the Flying Pumpkin. I’ve got proof they can do it. Seen it with my own eyes. There’s even video. They just need encouragement.

    So I offer this:

    The Gourd’s Prayer

    Our Pumpkin, which art in the heavens,
    Halloweened be thy name;
    Thy flingdom come;
    Thy splat be done,
    In Washington as it is in Delaware
    Give us this day our daily hurl.
    And forgive us our misfires,
    As we forgive them that misfire in our direction.
    And lead us not into pnuematics;
    But deliver us from air cannons.
    For thine is the hurl
    the flight, and the splashdown,
    for ever and ever. Or at least a few seconds.
    Fire in the Hole!

    Brother Robert, Monk of the Burlington Priory of the CotFP

  9. 9
    Kevin Kehres

    @7: Nice job. Mine response is a bit shorter.

    “You can’t prove it wasn’t aliens.”

    That’s it. Prove it wasn’t aliens (universe-building, life-creating aliens), and then we can begin to have a discussion.

    Until then: have a nice life.

  10. 10
    Rauss

    When people treat atheism as a conclusion, or presume it is “the rational position,” I find they usually know very little about what atheism or theism entails.

    At most they will be able to quote Dawkins or recite the problem of evil.

    If that’s enough to come to a “conclusion,” then so is “Answers in Genesis.”

    So no, I don’t think it’s really a conclusion.

  11. 11
    Cuttlefish

    Of course, Rauss, the same thing can be said for the majority of religious believers. They have embraced their own religion, and rejected others, without nearly sufficient “rational reason”, or much of any reason at all.

    Of course, the more one knows about biology, psychology, and the history of religion, the easier by far it is to reach atheism as a conclusion.

  12. 12
    Rauss

    You’re just tu quoqueing the problem, Cuttlefish. This doesn’t help represent atheism as any better an alternative than theism. If atheists are just as irrational as most theists, then why should theists deconvert? This approach is profoundly counterproductive.

    Atheist evangelicalism of the sort FTB wants to cultivate must necessarily include motivations for people to deconvert. Maybe starting with some substantive rational and scientific work that supports atheism.

    For instance, maybe something like “Here’s what’s in biology that supports atheism.”

    I’d love to see something like that.

  13. 13
    Cuttlefish

    No, I’m simply recognizing that a privative (go ahead, search the site, there’s plenty here) is different from a positively defined category.

    Beyond that, you’ll have to look to the positive definitions of the various religions to disqualify them from being coherently compatible with, say, biology. And yes, I’ve done that in verse as well. Your comment #10, though, does lead me to think you haven’t done a lot of reading here at the site, though, so feel free to look around.

  14. 14
    Anri

    Rauss @ 10:

    For instance, maybe something like “Here’s what’s in biology that supports atheism.”

    Here’s what’s in biology that supports atheism: It doesn’t require god to work.
    (In place of biology, see also: everything else.)

  15. 15
    Kevin Kehres

    Rauss @ 10 —

    Here’s what’s in physics that supports atheism: It doesn’t require god to work. And, in fact, the only possible demonstration of a god’s existence is a violation of the laws of physics (aka, ‘miracles’).

    Nor chemistry (a subset of physics to be sure, but nevertheless); nor biochemistry; nor biology, nor snowflakes.

    The problem with theism is that there is an ever-shrinking place for it to exist. When the universe was small — just the flat earth at the center and a dome of heaven above — then the proposition that this was “made” for us was tenable.

    Not anymore. Not since Copernicus and Galileo. And then came Lemaitre and BANG! The game was over. The bigger the universe, the less likely we’re the “reason” for its existence. And the universe is enormous.

    Of course, “sophisticated” theologians will argue about a god that is suffused in everything — “ground of all being”. But there’s no evidence in support of that contention; and no way to distinguish that god from no-god. And since physics and biology and everything else work just fine without it — we can easily dispense with the notion entirely and save ourselves some time.

  16. 16
    Rauss

    Anri, is your argument something like

    “Biological explanations, therefore God doesn’t exist”?

    How does that follow?

  17. 17
    John Morales

    Rauss @16, consider “Parental explanations, therefore the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist”.

    How does that follow?

    (All I did there is to substitute two terms; the form is the same)

  18. 18
    Anri

    Rauss @ 16:

    Anri, is your argument something like

    “Biological explanations, therefore God doesn’t exist”?

    No.
    It’s not my argument at all, just the answer to your question.

    How does that follow?

    Theists are always stating that god caused this and god made that… but when we actually begin to investigate how stuff happens, it’s never god. Never, not even once. Turns out that the more we know, the less god does.
    God used to be responsible for the flight of birds, and the beauty of the lilies, and the colors of the rainbow. God apparently doesn’t do that any more…. in fact, he never did. Every time anything is shown to have a naturalistic explanation, that’s one less thing that god has to do, one less thing to put at his feet, one less thing to thank or worship or believe in him for.

    Science may not be able to demonstrate that god doesn’t exist, but it sure demonstrates he must be living off of unemployment benefits.

    So, that’s my pitch.
    Your turn.
    Tell us what your god actually does.
    And – more to the point – tell us why, when all those learned religious people before you got what god does so terribly, disastrously wrong – why we should think you’ve really got it right this time.

  19. 19
    hoary puccoon

    Rauss–

    We all agree that some entity that has the ability to perform miracles might exist. But I, and most of the other posters here, have seen no evidence for such an entity. Therefore, we have decided to ignore this possible entity until such time as this amazing, miracle-performing entity shows up and puts on a demonstration.

    There are many other things I know for a fact are real, which I also ignore. I ignore the rules of cricket. I ignore dressage competitions. I ignore virtually everything ever said by Donald Trump. I ignore the Mandarin Chinese writing system. (I used to ignore the Greek writing system until I moved to Greece and had to read the street signs.)

    When life is far too short to pay attention to more than a miniscule percentage of the things that actually exist, why should I waste any time paying attention to some entity who has shown no evidence of existing at all?

  20. 20
    Matt G

    Taggard @7. I’m not so sure about the idea that god canexist. Can one come up with a definition or description of god which does not contain contradictions? For example, are divine omniscience and the existence of creatures with free will inherently contradictory?

  21. 21
    Anri

    Matt G @ 20:

    One could always argue that our understanding is limited, and therefore any contradictions are simply misunderstanding on our part, which has no bearing on the existence of god(s).* But, of course, no good evidence for the existence of whatever god(s) that have been posited ever gets presented…. for some mysterious reason.

    *This argument runs into trouble immediately by simply asking why our understanding of ‘love’ ‘kindness’ and ‘justice’ align with god’s, if our understanding of their other aspects fall so uncomprehendingly short. In other words, if someone is simultaneously arguing that we cannot begin to hope to comprehend the mind of god and that god loves us all, they should not expect to be taken seriously.

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