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Apr 18 2007

False symmetry

In recent posts, I have been pointing out that while it is impossible to disprove god’s existence, that did not mean that it was rational to believe in god. The reason for those posts was to address a false symmetry that is sometimes posed between atheism and religious belief. That symmetry takes roughly the following form:

1. It cannot be proved that god does not exist
2. Therefore not believing in god’s existence is as much an act of faith as believing in it.

Some extend this line of reasoning even further, to argue that therefore atheism is also a religion and that thus keeping prayer and religious education out of schools is equivalent to promoting one particular ‘religion’ (atheism), and thus violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

This is a false symmetry. While atheists would accept the first statement, they would reject the second. The crucial difference is the role that evidence plays in shaping beliefs.

I said that because of the impossibility of proving a negative, the current state of absence of evidence for god and the afterlife was all the proof we were ever going to get. If people think that a more convincing proof is required for disbelief in god, then I am curious to learn what form it would take. So far, nothing has been offered, as far as I know.

Atheists take the following position:

1. We believe in those things that have sufficient and convincing evidentiary support.
2. We disbelieve those things for which there is insufficient evidentiary support.
3. The more evidence there is in favor of a belief, the more we are likely to believe and vice versa.

The crucial difference can be seen in response to my question as to what evidence it would take to make them disbelieve in god and the afterlife. The commenters in this blog (who are all people who have obviously given this question considerable thought) agreed that there was no conceivable evidence that would make them give up their beliefs. And yet, they do not believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, which have no evidentiary support either. So religious belief is decoupled from evidence. In fact, belief in god in the absence of evidence is taken as a virtue, a sign of the depth of one’s faith.

On the other hand, atheists take a position that is consistent with a scientific outlook. They believe in those things for which there is persuasive, objective, corroborative, and cumulative evidence, even if it cannot be proved beyond any doubt. They can also always conceive of some evidence that would persuade them to give up their most cherished theories. For example, if human fossils that are two billion years old were ever found, that would seriously undermine the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Similarly, atheists can conceive of all manner of things that would require them to accept the existence of god. As another example, suppose god were to suddenly appear on all TV stations, announcing his/her existence, the way that V appeared in the excellent film V for Vendetta. Of course, that by itself would not be convincing since people nowadays are skeptical of the power of technology. Some people are convinced that the Moon landings and the 9/11 attacks were hoaxes.

So to be really convincing, god would have to announce in that broadcast that he/she would stop the Earth’s rotation for 24 hours, starting at some specified time. Such an act would violate the laws of conservation of energy and angular momentum, which are foundations of physics. If that happened, I don’t see how anyone could doubt god’s existence.

Of course, god would have to take some precautions. Simply stopping the Earth’s rotation would, according to the laws of physics, at the very least unleash huge tsunamis and earthquakes that would wreak destruction on a massive scale. But since an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god can keep track of and do everything at once, I am sure that these negative consequences of stopping the Earth can be avoided. And this is not asking for too much evidence since the Bible says that god has done this in the past (Joshua 10:12-13). To be accurate, the Bible says that god stopped the Sun, not the Earth’s rotation, but we can grant some license for pre-Copernican thinking.

I am not saying that this is the only proof of god’s existence that would be acceptable to atheists. One can suggest a vast number of similar evidences. But it does suggest the nature of the evidence that would be required to be convincing.

So that is where things stand. Atheists, like scientists, can always articulate what evidence (or lack of it) makes them believe some things and disbelieve others. They can also specify what kind of evidence would make them call into question what they currently believe and convert them to belief about things they are currently skeptical of.

But religious believers have no choice but to say that there are some beliefs that they will never give up on, whatever the evidence. It is important to realize that there is nothing inherently wrong with taking this position. Kathy in her comments to previous posts quite rightly points out that faith is irrational and that logic and evidence have nothing to do with it. I agree with her.

What I am saying is that the atheist’s lack of belief in god and the afterlife are, like a scientist’s, based on logic and the absence of evidence while religious beliefs have to part company with evidence at some point. And this is where the symmetry breaks down.

POST SCRIPT: The secret doubts of believers

In a previous post, I suggested that it was strange that religious believers in their daily lives did not act in ways that were consistent with an all-knowing, all-powerful god and suggested that perhaps people were more atheistic than they were willing to let on. Of course, there is hardly any new idea under the sun. It turns out that long ago philosopher David Hume suspected the same thing, as he wrote in his The Natural History of Religion chapter XII (1757):

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

2 comments

  1. 1
    John

    Mano,I am probably a few days late with this comment, but the discussion of what might convince a believer that there is no god and no afterlife has led me to analyse how I was convinced of these things. It seems that for some of your readers, the clinching argument comes from experience, whether directly with God, or with the beauty of creation.I can remember as a child wanting desperatly to have a personal experience with God, but this never really happened. My faith was based primarily a desire for the religion that I was taught to be true, with a good measure of fear of a world with no divine purpose and no eternal life for the faithful. Given this, I was open to arguments against theism based on logic and reason, and they eventually won out.But how could one argue against personal experience? I think that this is where the Santa Claus analogy could be helpful. While missing my personal experiences with God, I did have personal experiences with Santa every year. I would leave milk and cookies, and in the morning, they would be gone, and there would be presents signed “Santa”! But this evidence from personal experience was worthless once I realized that it was my parents doing everything.Making the analogy to religion, what if a study were to show that all religious or transcendent experiences that participants (who happened to represent a variety of faiths) reported were the direct result of brain activity with clearly and completely physical casues? I am not suggesting that such a result ever will be (or even could be) shown, but only that if a non-theistic agent were shown to be responsible for the experience of God, this could be an answer to your original question.P.S.: I really enjoy reading this blog, and I appreciate the insightful, respectful discussion it invites from people with a wide variety of viewpoints.

  2. 2
    Mano Singham

    John,

    I agree that the brain is the next frontier, and I think that neurobiology (and biology in general) is going to be the science of the 21st century, just as physics was for the 20th century and chemistry was for the 19th, generalizing broadly!

    There has already been quite a bit of work on the physical workings of the brain and its relationship to religious experiences. But showing correlations and even cause and effect relationships between brain activity and religion may not convince believers, for reasons that I am looking at and will write about soon.

    I think we also need to look at what kinds of evolutionary pressures might have led to religion coming into being due to natural selection.

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