A Response: “A Question For Atheists”

I depart from my typical regime of educational essays to respond to a post by flyinguineapig whose original post can be located here. I must first, however, pay thanks to Godless Cranium and his response as it directed me to the original question. One of the questions is epistemic in nature and the second is more social. I will delve into those after a brief preamble. As a warning, this essay is far more stream of consciousness than it is structured, so if the contents of this response are disorderly, I apologize. On the matter of my response, I will say now that my position is the result of an aggregation of my experience with theological arguments and with my study of religions. It is by no means complete or exhaustive and so, on that basis, I wish to make it clear that my position is not one that is definite or firm. Rather, I have come to it as evidence and reason have guided me, but should some evidence present itself that orients me toward a different position, I would gladly welcome it. My chief priority is knowledge, not esteem. With that said, I will address the first question:

“My first question is more general. I see this among atheists and my agnostic friends. People deny the possibility of any deity’s existence because of the lack of some kind of proof. It occurred to me that I have no idea what kind of proof you’re looking for. Furthermore, it seems to me that, in many cases, not just in the case of spirituality, what constitutes proof is at least somewhat subjective. I would love to get a few different perspectives, so my question is, what would prove to you that God exists?” (Flyinguineapig)

I cannot begin to answer this without first delineating my position on knowledge. I begin from a position of hard solipsism. That is, I note that we rely upon our perceptions in order to formulate our beliefs but, having no way to validate the accuracy of our perceptions, we cannot be certain that they are accurate. On this basis, absolute certainty is not attainable through the perceptions. I digress momentarily to specify that, by perception, I refer both to sensory experiences and to perception of thought and abstractions. The unreliability of sensory experiences is non-contentious. As for the perception of thought and abstractions, I am of the position that we cannot account for where our thoughts come from or how they arise. Furthermore, any exercise of thought is completely insular and so we have no way of validating those either. This will be more important later. For now, what remains most important is that I take perception to refer to the perception of both sensory data and to abstract data (e.g. thought). As knowledge that rests upon perception cannot be absolute, I direct my attention to what knowledge can be absolute. Namely, I have identified three things that must be the case for any perception to occur at all. First, there is something that is perceiving. Second, there is information to be perceived. Third, there is a source of information. It may be the case that what is perceiving is also creating information or it may also be the case that the source of information is also the information to be perceived, but these are irrelevant to the point. What matters is that these are the three components of existence which one can be absolutely certain of. This leaves me in a relatively agnostic position. Beyond that, we assume that our perceptions, at least to some degree, accurately report information back to us.

Now, once we have assumed our perceptions to be accurate to some degree, it is my position that some assumptions about reality are better than others. It is sometimes the position of individuals that, if we must assume our perceptions to be accurate, then all assumptions are equal. I do not consider this to be the case. Particularly, some assumptions will more reliably predict and model reality and others will not. Consider the case of the cause of forest fires. One individual may assert that forest fires are caused by the rising of nearby tides. Another individual may assert that forest fires are caused by lightning. For the first individual, it may occur out of chance that tides rise in coincidence with forest fires, but this will not always be the case. For the second individual, it may be seen that lightning will create fire where the lightning has struck the ground, or perhaps as an amendment, where there is also dry material to be found. The difference between the models is clear: one is able to more accurately predict the course of reality and one is less able to do this. There is an assumption here that reality behaves in a logical manner. That is, cause begets effect, and reality proceeds like that. This assumption is evidenced by the way that we find the aspects of reality (e.g. plate tectonics, forest fires, birth, etc.) proceeding according to these patterns of cause and effect. So, to bring this back to the point, I consider a more accurate understanding of reality to be reflected by a model that is able to accurately predict how reality will unfold. If cause begets effect, then having a model that accurately predicts both a cause and effect together indicates a greater understanding of, in a word, the mechanics of reality. The more accurate the prediction, the more accurate the model. It is according to this model of hypothesizing, predicting, and testing, that I formulate my beliefs upon. Now, I will not pretend to formulate my beliefs completely according to this scientific model–many of my beliefs are formulated by the use of heuristics–but I attempt to align my beliefs as closely in accordance with this as possible.

Here, I will say a word about rationalism, which is the opposite of the empiricism I have just described. I consider rationalism to be insular and without verification. With the empirical model for knowledge, some sense of evidence and verification comes from the ability to predict and model reality. While we still ultimately assume our perceptions to be reliable, we at least can proceed to evidence our particular interpretations of those perceptions based on hypothesis, prediction, and testing. Under rationalism, no such verification exists. Even with the logical absolutes, these seem to be drawn from an inference about reality through experience. That is, it seems to me to be the case that the law of non-contradiction is derived from the lack of experience of contradiction and the complete experience of non-contradiction. If we were able to experience a thing that is both true and false at the same time in the same way, then this law of logic would be repealed. Now, admittedly, I have no idea what that would even look like and so it may be that my empiricism presupposes a kind of logic or rationality, but this is the most intelligible way I can think of to model reality. Take the difference between validity and truth. It is possible to propose explanations for sensory information and, while the explanations are valid, may nevertheless be false. Perhaps we remove sensory information from the equation entirely and focus only on the abstract. It is possible, as Plato did, to posit that all the qualities that characterize our abstract life (e.g. goodness, justice, etc.) are real, existent entities that our models, schemas, and so on take part in. It is also possible to conceive of qualities as being non-existent, being only superimposed onto our concepts, or perhaps being entirely meaningless absent sensory-world information which they apply to. Whatever one posits, it seems to me that there is little way to validate one’s conclusions. At this junction, I turn over to empiricism as having the greater capacity to accurately explain and model reality.

Now, we turn directly to address your question. So, you first state that many of your atheist and agnostic friends deny the possibility of a deity on the basis of a lack of proof. I digress for a moment to state that Atheism is, most broadly speaking, a position of null belief. That is, it is a lack of belief in a deity just as much as it is the lack of a belief in the absence of one. Practically, the absence of the positive is seen more readily than the negative, for atheists will not live their lives in worship or devotion as the positive theist would. I take a moment now to distinguish between soft and hard atheists. Soft atheists are of the null position, which is to lack belief, and hard atheists are of the negative position, which is to believe in the non-existence of a deity. Soft atheists lack the negative aspects of belief, which is to argue for the non-existence of a deity and any similarly accompanying actions. Hard atheists, believing in the non-existence of a deity, will argue that case. As for agnosticism, this is a position on knowledge, not on belief. Hard atheists believe in the non-existence of deities, soft atheists do not believe in either the non-existence or existence of deities, and theists believe in the existence of deities. Agnostics believe that absolute knowledge is not possible while Gnostics believe that absolute knowledge is possible. You can have agnostic atheists and theists just as much as you can have gnostic atheists and theists. I am an agnostic soft atheist. So, I am do not deny the possibility of a deity, but I do not actively believe in one. I also do not believe that it is possible to be absolutely certain of the existence or non-existence of deities (as a general category).

Following this, a distinction needs to be made between the belief in the non-existence of particular deities and the belief in the non-existence of all deities. I consider it incoherent to be a hard atheist with regard to all deities. There are a great many deities that have been articulated throughout history, many of which we know of and many of which we do not. Still, it is possible that there are deities which have not at all been articulated or experienced by humanity in the slightest. Depending on how you define “deity,” there is a greater or lesser number of things which would classify. Regardless of that, though, it seems impossible to me that an individual would have the ability to seriously consider all the claims that have ever been made or could be made about deities. Thus, if a person has not seriously considered the claims of at least all of the deities that have been articulated or could exist, it seems foolish to me to assert that a person is a hard atheist about all deities. For the most part, I think we are all soft atheists about most deities, hard atheists on a few, and the majority of us are theists about one or a few deities (depending on whether you’re from a monotheistic or polytheistic religion). I position myself as a soft atheist overall but as a hard atheist on a few select religions (particularly the three monotheisms, Hinduism, Buddhism, religious Daoism, and Chinese Popular Religion). My hard atheist positions vary in certainty and degree according to what claims and evidence I’ve reviewed.

It seems that I’ve only touched upon related matters to your question but not your question directly, so let me now engage it. You ask what would prove the existence “of God” to me. Given your singular notation, I assume it to be the case that you are referring to a deity from a monotheistic tradition. Given your later question about Christianity, I am inclined to believe that you speak of the Christian deity. I will speak first of proof. Nothing gained through my perceptions could ever count as proof insofar as it warranted absolute certainty. Being agnostic, I consider my perceptions flawed and any positions evidenced by my perceptions to be imperfect hypotheses and theories, judged more or less likely to be accurate based upon the evidence that supports them. As such, the question in my case would pertain to what evidence would convince me of the existence of the Christian deity. Here, I must make a few distinctions before continuing. First, subscribing to the existence of the Christian deity is not the same as subscribing to the qualities it supposedly has. Each claim is to be evidenced on its own. While I understand that the Christian deity has particular qualities attached to it, such as that it is the God of Moses, that it intervenes in human affairs, that it sent Jesus down as its son to redeem mankind, and so on, I consider each of these claims as requiring evidence. Coming to the conclusion that the Christian deity exists will not necessarily lead me to believe that it has all the qualities that others have ascribed to it. It is possible that, in believing in the existence of the Christian deity, I will come to view it in the way that Christopher Hitchens described it, which is as a totalitarian dictator. Each claim requires evidence and existence does not entail belief in each claim. How each claim is evidenced, including the claim of existence, will lead to a formulation of a belief in a deity that is more or less accurately described by Christian doctrines.

Let us begin with what is arguably the most prominent aspect of the Christian deity, which is the aspect of being a creator. I tend to consider this ability of creation to be the most preeminent quality of the Christian deity. So, what would it take to evidence this to me? It seems to me that a creator deity, in creating the universe as it is, would have the powers to completely modify and affect the universe. Assuming that this deity has not perished or lost its abilities, it would still be able to completely modify and affect the universe. So, I suppose there are a handful of things that, from this standpoint, would serve as strong evidence for the creator-nature of a particular deity. For one, if this deity were to come down to Earth before my eyes in particular, and then also before the eyes of many others who could corroborate what I was witnessing, I would at least be able to recognized that this thing, whatever it was, existed. For our purposes, I am not speaking of the purported record of this occurring through Jesus in the New Testament, as there are many records like this. Laozi transcended into the heavens to live out as an immortal sage according to religious Daoism. In Hinduism, Vishnu manifests himself in a variety of human forms (avataras) and helps to sustain the world when it becomes disordered. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, is believed to have lived many lives before the one his did as Siddhartha. It is in no way unique for religious scriptures to purport that deities have descended from the heavens or to have come from a similarly transcendental place. Most of these documents, mind you, mutually exclude other religious traditions. Anyway, this brings me to my current point, which is that I am referring to an instance in which the Christian deity literally appeared before me and before many others so that his form could be documented, especially through video and perhaps even through scientific testing. To demonstrate the nature of this deity as a creator deity, it would seem sufficient to me if this deity were to create and expose the inhabitants of the earth to an entirely different dimension, as distinct from time and space as time and space are from one another. It would also serve as evidence for this deity to, momentarily, suspend the laws of gravity, of electromagnetism, or of the nuclear forces. To a much lesser extent, completely altering one’s form instantaneously, creating something from nothing, and other similar “miracles” would evidence the existence of a powerful being that might well be called a deity. Especially, mind you, if these miracles could be subjected to rigorous scientific testing. If these could be presented and subject to scientific scrutiny, it would help to demonstrate the existence of a powerful being. Now, I say “powerful being” without quite admitting omnipotence because, even if great power were demonstrated, it does not necessarily mean that a being has total power. That is, it could very well be that this “deity” is a life form from another galaxy with incredibly advanced technology, such that it would, to us, appear godly. For all intents and purposes, it may be worthwhile to describe this being as a god. The extent to which these abilities are demonstrated leads one more or less to the conclusion that it is sufficiently powerful to create a universe. For example, the power of resurrecting the dead may be a cantrip of a particular lesser deity when compared with the awesome power of the creation and destruction of dimensions of a greater deity. The greater the abilities could be demonstrated and the greater that these could be subject to scientific testing, the more it would serve to evidence the power of this being. The degree of the power evidenced would support, to a greater or lesser degree, that this deity has the capacity to create the universe. Then, it may be a question of whether the capacity to create the universe is enough to conclude that it did, in fact, create the universe. Many of us have the capacity to murder someone, but having the ability to do something and actually doing something are two different things. It would then need be demonstrated that this being did, in fact, create our universe. I would, however, concede that this is most likely the case if the deity flat-out claimed to have done it, for I would be aware of no other deities at that point in time that had comparable abilities. That is, on its face, evidence that would convince me of an immensely powerful and possibly omnipotent being.

People often point to the argument from contingency as demonstrating the omnipotence of a creator deity and the need for one to account for existence, but I’m not thoroughly convinced by that argument. I recognize that all existence that we know is contingent. All things seem to be the result of a prior cause and thus all things are contingent upon prior things. This leads to an infinite regress or it ends at an uncaused cause. It is at this point that, based upon the incoherency of an infinite regress, people posit a creator deity. I am not altogether certain why the universe cannot be its own uncaused cause. It is argued, if I am correct, that the universe cannot be this because its nature is already changing, and yet I do not see why this is incompatible with the proposition. People argue that it must have been a deity that existed outside of the universe and who created it, but my response to this is that, if that is the case, then at one point that deity had to do something different (i.e. change) to create the universe. Thus, by the logic that first asserted the deity, this deity must also have a creator, and that creator another creator, and so on ad infinitum. I do not see, then, why it is incompatible for the universe to be its own uncaused cause. Perhaps, however, it is actually an infinite regress. As Matt Dillahunty once said–and I paraphrase–there is no need for reality to make sense to us. It may very well be the case that the universe exists in and endless cycle where one thing (perhaps another universe) begets this universe and this universe begets another, and so on it goes. Perhaps it is in fact an endless chain of deities too. What this leads me to conclude, however, is that there is not sufficient evidence to believe in any one of these conclusions. Is it a chain of deities? Is it a chain of endless universes? Is it that the universe is an uncaused cause? As it stands, my incredibly tentative answer is that the universe as an uncaused cause requires less assumptions than the rest and so, by merit of Occam’s razor, it is the most certain position (but not necessarily correct). From the argument of contingency, I end up at that position.

I will give brief mention here to the argument from complexity. It is purported that the complexity of life suggests an intelligent creator. One analogy often drawn is that of the watch and the watchmaker. If we were to find a watch laying about some beach, we would assume it to have been created by a watchmaker due to its complexity, wouldn’t we? Why, then, do we not treat life the same way? I am not at all persuaded by this argument, on two charges. The first is in the nature of our world and universe itself, which is that it is revealed to be a state of complexity that arises from simplicity. The field of biology indicates that life has arisen from simpler forms of life, with the simplest being eukaryotes (if I’m not mistaken, though don’t hold me to that–it’s been awhile since I’ve studied biology). In any case, through evolution we find that life becomes increasingly more complex and varied as offspring are “selected for” by the environmental conditions which make certain traits favorable and other traits unfavorable. Taking astronomy into account, the vast array of elements that we find today were created within stars as protons fused together within them to beget new properties to their molecules (which, according to the protons and their subsequent properties, we distinguish as elements). The natural state of the universe seems to be maximal disorder, as it was at the very beginning, but universal expansion has created a kind of pocket in which negative entropy (i.e. order) has been permitted, as it were. Thus, it seems that as the ability of particles to spread out evenly is offset by universal expansion and dictated, as it were, by the laws of nature, that we find some sections of the universe becoming increasingly ordered. Whether it be in the way that differences in mass pulled disordered atoms together according to gravity into stars, or how later various elements were created through their fusion with more protons within stars, or how complex life arises out of environmental pressure, and so on, it seems to me that life is actually getting more complex and arising from simplicity, not the opposite way around. Even in the analogy of the watch and the watchmaker, it seems to me that technology is more complex than life. In a sense, we have added a layer of complexity that exceeds us. The simple seems to beget the complex here too. My second charge is that life is not ordered perfectly. Eyes receive images that are reversed and upside-down that must be re-interpreted and flipped around by our brains. If I recall correctly, one of the arteries in a giraffe moves from its brain far past its heart, then loops up and connects to its heart. It seems to me, then, that life, in all its complexity, has operated according to a principle of coincidental function (as the theory of evolution suggests) rather than maximal efficiency (as intelligent design suggests). I must admit, here, that I am not well-versed in biology, astronomy, or much in the way of natural sciences for that matter. My interpretation, in this case, is that of a layman. Still, so far as I am able to reason, this runs contrary to the argument of a creator on the basis of complexity.

On the property of benevolence, benevolence would be demonstrated to be insofar as I could recognize that a being was making an effort to contribute to what I consider to be moral. The degree to which I find a being benevolent falls in accordance with how great their effort is within their power, ranging from very little to completely. I consider morality to pertain to the well-being and suffering of sentient creatures. That which is moral either increases well-being or reduces suffering. That which is immoral does the opposite. I derive this notion of morality from a recognition of my own experience of sensations as either pleasurable or painful and the inference that other beings, to greater or lesser degrees, experience them same sensations in accordance with the presence of a central nervous system. As such, I care little for arguments that wish to redefine morality as anything that is accordance with the will of a deity, for that no more justifies the actions of that deity than does the same argument justify the actions of a tyrant or serial killer when applied to them. On that basis, I recognize morality as purely pertaining to the aforementioned qualities. The Christian deity is considered to be perfectly moral and simultaneously perfectly powerful. If this were true, I would expect to see a universe absent of pain and existing in perfect well-being. To find a universe in that state would convince me, if such a being could be demonstrated to exist (in the way I mentioned earlier), that it is perfectly good. As there is great suffering in the world, I am left to conclude that a deity which permits it is either not sufficiently powerful enough to stop it or not sufficiently moral enough to want to.

I would similarly expect of such a powerful deity that if they truly wanted to be known or enter into a relationship with humanity, they would make it far easier to have evidence of their existence (like the kind I mentioned before). This is not the case, however. What’s unique about Judaism and its religious offshoots (Christianity and Islam) is that it was monotheistic. To my knowledge, it was the first monotheism. Admittedly, it was originally a kind of pantheism–and by pantheism, I mean that El Elyon was understood as being deity of the Hebrew clan but not the supreme deity of the universe. In any case though, uniqueness does not warrant belief. Hinduism, starting with the Vedas, is one of the oldest religions in the world, dating back to about 2,000 B.C.E. as far as their writing goes. There are many, many mutually exclusive religious scriptures in the world. How is one to decide between them? To accept the Christian god is to exclude the Jewish and Islamic god. To accept any monotheistic god is to exclude the deities of Hinduism or Buddhism. To accept polytheistic gods is to exclude monotheistic ones. Each of these religions has its own religious scriptural legacy with its assortment of prophets and scholars. It is believed that Jesus was the incarnate form of God, having the dual nature of god and man within him. Before Jesus, it was believed that Krishna was the human form of Vishnu. Over in China, it is believed that Laozi ascended to the position of godhood. What of prophesy though? The Hindu Vedas (including the Vedas, Brahmanas, and Upanishads) are believed to be eternal truths about reality that have been heard by the wise sages of old. Siddhartha Gautama believed he recovered memories of his past lives and this helped him to articulate the original doctrines of Buddhism. Moses believed he spoke to God prior to liberating the Jewish people from Egypt and afterward on Mount Sinai. Muhammad believed that God spoke to him in the cave in Mount Hira. This is speaking only of the individuals who have founded major religions in the world. There are millions more who supposedly experience divine revelation who are not as successful as this. What of deep, religious experiences, where the presence of a deity is felt within oneself? Well, the human brain is complex and results in many experiences (in fact, all experiences result from the physical properties of the brain). The highs of love, the perils of existential depression, the monotony of routine, and so on, all result from the brain. We know that it is possible for the brain to produce hallucinations as well, seriously affecting our sensory perceptions–and, before you think that I’m calling anybody who has had a “religious experience” psychotic, I’m not. What I’m demonstrating though is that a wide range of very intense emotional and sensory experiences are possible and they can be caused by many things. This brings me to the topic of religious experiences. The Eucharist in Christianity can be a very intense experience for Christians where the belief of Christ’s renewal within the self is accompanied by feelings of intense relief and peace. Similarly, I know many who have described baptism as being accompanied originally by fear, but then an intense release where they could feel themselves being embraced by Christ. Rosh Hashanah within Judaism is also accompanied by intense experiences, where the Jewish people are called to war against sin and have the following ten days to repent until Yom Kippur. On the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, they open with the Kol Nidre prayer, which is a haunting prayer that emphasizes one’s longing for god, also of which is a very intense experience. In Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Hajj,where Muslims retrace the steps of Abraham, Ishmael, Hagar, and Muhammad, is intensely spiritual and serves as a kind of spiritual renewal. Within Hindu devotional movements, one of their ceremonies is called prasad, which is where they consume food offered to their deity so that they may experience the grace of their deity within them. Darshana, which also accompanies the same ceremonies, is the attempt to be seen by their deity and to also see their deity. This experience is, as well, deeply spiritual and moving. In religious Daoism, monks perform the Jiao, which is an extremely elaborate and spiritual ceremony which helps to renew the energy of the cosmos, particularly by summoning their respective deities into their temple. Suffice it to say that there are many mutually exclusive religions that are accompanied by rituals and ceremonies that are every bit as spiritual and emotionally intense as all of the other ones. If there were a sufficiently powerful deity who wanted to be known and have a relationship with humanity, I wouldn’t at all expect there to be this many religions, all with their own prophets, scriptures, religious experiences, and so on. It makes it incredibly difficult to discern which one is true, if any. I do not think a deity of this sort would permit such confusion, especially when something as important as salvation hinges upon knowing him.

Then, what would also support the qualities of a particular deity is evidence of their actions. For many religions, God created humans. If this is true, I would not expect the overwhelming body of evidence to support the theory of evolution. If Noah collected all of the world’s lifeforms into an ark to save them from the wrath of God, I would not expect there to be the diversity that exists today on Earth or the unequal distribution of animals. If political leadership really does follow from a Mandate of Heaven, either God is deeply immoral or I would not expect Hitler to have risen to power. If God really does reward and punish the Jewish people for their ability to keep the covenant, I would not expect the Holocaust to have occurred. If God really did want to forgive humanity of their sins, I would have expected him to simply forgive humanity rather than torturing and killing himself in the form of Jesus. Maybe some of these positions are contentious, and maybe others are not so contentious. There are certainly circumstance in life which do align with some proposed features of certain deities. For example, it is expected in Islam that we use our rationality in order to discover that the doctrines of Islam are true. It seems consistent here that God would grant his creation the ability to understand his existence, his nature, his resulting religious following, and so forth. The presence of health and illness is consistent with the nature of Shiva as he is the god of duality. For that which is consistent, I then refer back to the position on evidencing the existence of a particular deity. The important thing to note here is that I consider the evidence on each particular claim, such that believing in the existence of a deity or group of deities does not lead me to necessarily believe all the claims about them.

So, there you have it. That is essentially where I’m coming from on the matter of evidence, of what evidence would demonstrate existence, and what evidence would demonstrate certain qualities of a deity or deities. I will now proceed to address your second question and other parts of your post.

“My second question is a little more personal, but less complicated. I’ve noticed that when atheists write posts or comments, here and in other places, they most frequently attack Christianity in particular. I assume this is partly because Christianity is one of the most prominent religions, if not the most prominent religion in the U.S. and in the West overall. My question here is, do you have an actual problem with Christianity specifically, or do you argue against it the most simply because of its prominence?” (flyinguineapig)

So, as you may be able to tell by now, I don’t fall into the category of having considered just Christianity. The three monotheistic religions and philosophical Daoism are the religions I am perhaps most familiar with, but I do not pay exclusive attention to those. I’m very interested in religion and I make an effort to expand my knowledge on all of the significant and prominent traditions that have shaped our world. In any case though, I will answer why I think this is the case.

I think it is the case that Western atheists are predominantly more focused on Christianity for the same reason that most people in the West are Christians. That is, what we believe or don’t believe is largely a result of exposure and we deal with those cultures that we are most familiar with. This is the case for everything, religion being no exception. Religions are tied to geographical regions and cultural regions, so you’ll have Christianity in the West, Hinduism around India and neighboring states, Buddhism around southern and eastern Asia, Daoism and Confucianism within China, Islam in Middle East, Judaism within Jerusalem and spread throughout the Western world, and so forth. People are raised by religious parents and often, presumably due to the significant exposure to that religion, adopt it. Their acceptance of that religious tradition often becomes stronger as their enter adolescence and early adulthood where they begin to critically think about their religious tradition. Alternatively, they become atheists of that particular religion based on the same kind of critical thinking, just in a different direction. We work with what we know. For example, have you ever given significant thought to why you don’t accept Shiva as your deity? Have you given significant thought to whether the Australian government should be investing more money in employment opportunities for Australians? Have you given any thought to who should be the prime minister of France in the next election? My point here is that we work with what we know. We are exposed to a very particular sets of ideas, values, and beliefs, based on our geographic and cultural region. Regardless of whether you are for or against something, such as Christianity, the topic itself depends upon your exposure to it. Your exposure to it depends largely upon where you live. Then, later in life, if you deem it important enough, you will conduct research and invest energy into learning more about those topics which fall outside of your immediate exposure. Still, though, you will likely be most familiar with what you were first exposed to because it often is so prevalent where you were from and you likely have had more experience with it. So, I’d argue that both Christians and Western atheists confront the same topic of Christianity because of its Western prominence in our culture. The same goes for anything. Christians and atheists alike, who are sufficiently interested in religion or matters pertaining to it, will begin to branch out and study other religions over the course of their life. At that point, it falls down to a matter of how much time a person is able to invest and what degree they are able to understand other religions.

“Admittedly, I do get tired of people only attacking my faith. However, it seems to me that your arguments would be stronger if you could make a case against multiple religions, and not just the one you know best or dislike the most. I would also like to add that many arguments against Christianity are, in fact, against bad behavior based on wrong interpretations of Jesus’ teaching. These are, in my opinion, justifiable, but misdirected. Like I said, I’m not trying to pick a fight. I really just want to understand.” (flyinguineapig)

There are many atheists who dispute other religions, but they happen to be clustered more within the regions in which those religions are prominent. Both the case for Christianity and the case against the existence of all deities are made stronger by taking into account other religious claims. The former is made stronger because it would demonstrate that the Christian case is not special pleading. The general strong atheist position is made stronger because it takes into account more cases which one is purportedly a strong atheist about. Those who are only strong atheists about Christianity, however, need only to worry about the particulars of Christianity. It is only in strong atheism or theism that the burden of proof is upon that person, but not in the case of soft atheism.

Also, I agree with you that to reject a religion as true merely because one dislikes the behavior of some of its adherents is illogical. Furthermore, the behavior of the religious adherents have no bearing on the truth-value of the religion anyway. If a religion promoted violence in the name of their deity, merely disliking this aspect of the religion is not at all relevant to whether that deity exists. In any case though, I totally agree with you on that point.

I think that covers just about everything. Pardon the length, but there’s a lot to say on this matter. I think, though, that your questions should be sufficiently answered (at least on my part). I apologize for any grammatical mistakes which may be present in the writing. My chief concern here was not in writing a concise essay but instead to respond with my thoughts on your questions. This writing was almost completely stream of consciousness. As such, it is bound to be somewhat verbose and perhaps other parts of it are superfluous. Grammatical mistakes are bound to be present as well. It should also be mentioned that, in my reference to or presentation of arguments, not all of the arguments are complete or presented in their most concise form. This is because I was not writing with the intent on making a particular case but merely explaining, roughly, my thinking on the matter and how I’ve approximately come to the position I have. In that vein, I’m always open to new evidence and arguments and, in part of the time life affords me, learning more so that I may take more into account when forming my positions. I think that should sufficiently do it for the conclusion. I hope this response has been informative to you in my own position as an atheist and perhaps in the positions of others. Thank you for reading.

 

Edit on 19/11/2016: I would like to notate here for future reference that my thoughts on this matter have altered to some degree and so this entry is does not accurately depict my current position. Particularly, my position on empiricism as a means to understand the nature of reality has undergone some revision, such as the fact that I now tend to side with the notion that some things in life are irrefutably self-evident. Though this edit will not elaborate upon such views, I wish only to make it known that this entry is no longer an accurate depiction of my views. Thank you.

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18 thoughts on “A Response: “A Question For Atheists”

  1. I’m an atheist as well, so I agree with your main claim, but I disagree with a lot of your epistemology.

    In my view, the main issue is that you attempt to treat the existence of an external world and the law of identity (“reality behaves in a logical manner”) as claims that have to be proven. I don’t think it is possible to prove either of these claims, since they are self evident and axiomatic. Every proof assumes that there is an objective fact of the matter and that logic applies to reality. If you didn’t start with those as axioms, you would never be able to prove anything or even arrive at the concept of proof.

    You can’t prove that reality is logical, because you don’t have to. The only alternative is gibberish.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to respond. So, it is the case that I take external reality and the law of identity as claims, particularly in the sense that we cannot absolutely know them to be true without assuming this from the beginning. I do, however, still end up at your conclusion, which is that these claims cannot be proven. Ultimately, we assume them to be the case for practical purposes (as the alternative is gibberish) and work within that framework to assess other claims. Essentially, I consider it the case that we, by default, know nothing, and we are forced (as it were) to assume the laws of logic for things to be intelligible to us. In a word, this may be described as axiomatic, but I lay the emphasis particularly on the lack of our ability to prove those things to be true (for the reasons you’ve stated, including how circular it would be to attempt to prove a thing which validates proof). I hope that clarifies my position a bit. Thanks again for your thoughts.

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      1. Your position is actually the opposite of mine, although it is verbally identical in some ways (“we can’t prove the axioms”).

        The difference is that I take the axioms to be objectively valid, like Aristotle, whereas you take them to be merely assumptions “for practical purposes.” Your position is, in fact, a denial of the existence of objectivity, since on your view the axioms are not objectively valid, and everything we know depends on the axioms (as you put it, we “work within that framework to assess other claims”).

        By contrast, I would say that the axioms are certain and that they are objectively true. We accept them because we can see that they are true in reality. They are self evident truths, not assumptions for practical purposes. The reason we cannot prove them is that they are self evident, so there is nothing more certain to prove them from.

        Do you see the difference between my position and yours now?

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  2. I don’t understand your question. What does it mean for something to rely on one’s perceptions, and why would that disqualify an axiom from being self evident?

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    1. Well, first of all, by your definition, what qualifies something as being self-evident? It seems to me that we cannot be absolutely certain that our perceptions, both sensory and of thoughts, to be correct as there is no mechanism with which to validate them. I thus take it to be the case that any belief which rests upon our perceptions rely upon the assumption of our perceptions not to be wholly deceitful.

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      1. “It seems to me that we cannot be absolutely certain that our perceptions, both sensory and of thoughts, to be correct as there is no mechanism with which to validate them.”

        Can you validate *that*?

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  3. Right, the claim is self refuting. If it is true, then you have no reason to believe it.

    There is another, related issue with the claim that we have no mechanism to validate our beliefs. The claim depends on a number of concepts that the skeptic had to form to assert it, including “mechanism,” “validate,” “our,” and “beliefs.” These concepts presuppose the axioms of existence and identity which the claim is being used to attack. If nothing exists, there are no mechanisms, nothing to validate, no “us,” and no beliefs. And if nothing has a firm identity, then likewise none of these distinctions are meaningful.

    Attempts to refute the axioms will always run into a bunch of contradictions like this, because they are the starting point. Even arguments that the axioms are invalid presuppose that they are valid.

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    1. Wonderful. Yes, it appears to me that you’re correct on that. One cannot actually assert the claim that I do, or rather, have, without defeating it by the same logic. I’d like to ask your thoughts on something though. Does presupposing their validity mean that they are valid? I have the thought in my head that we may be left in a null state of belief. Perhaps it is such that, as deities (general) cannot be proven false, nor can these axioms. At the same time, does our required presupposition make these axioms true, or is it merely that we’re left without the ability to prove either the positive or negative modes?

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      1. Again, suspending judgment about the axioms is self refuting, because you’re assuming that they are true when you suspend judgment about them.

        The thought process when you suspend judgment about a claim is, implicitly: “There is an objective reality, and that reality has a specific identity, because A is A. That means I can be wrong about what’s going on in the real world, so I’d better suspend judgment until I can be sure I’m right.” Obviously, this doesn’t make any sense when the thing you’re suspending judgment about is the existence of an objective reality and the fact that A is A. Your conclusion contradicts your premises.

        What I have done here and in my last couple of posts is point out a fallacy in your arguments for skepticism. The fact that an argument for a claim is fallacious does not mean that the claim is false, necessarily. However, it does mean that the argument has to be rejected, because it relies on an erroneous pattern of reasoning.

        What establishes the axioms is that they are self evident, which is why they are the starting point for all of our thought.

        Don’t you agree? A is A. There can be no rational doubt.

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      2. Interesting. I appreciate you taking the time to spell your thoughts out on the matter. Yes, I do agree with your argumentation. I will have to amend my thoughts on this topic. I should say though, that while I have been persuaded to the position that the laws of logic are self-evident, I am not persuaded to the position that external reality is self-evident. If I recall correctly, you claimed that as self-evident. If this is indeed your position, would you delineate your thoughts on the matter for me?

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  4. The axiom of existence asserts that there is an objective reality. This axiom is self evident because it is contained in every perception we have. For example, I can perceive that I am sitting in a chair right now, and that this chair exists independently of my mind.

    It is strange that you accept the law of identity as self evident, but doubt the axiom that there is an external world, since the axiom of existence is a precondition of the law of identity. If nothing exists objectively, then the law of identity would be invalid, since nothing would exist to have an identity. The law of identity is accepted as self evident because we can see that it is true in reality, but this assumes that we can perceive reality in the first place, which is the axiom of existence. You can’t say “everything that exists has a specific identity – but maybe nothing exists!”

    To repeat a familiar theme, even your doubt about the axiom of existence presupposes it. Doubting that there is an objective reality amounts to saying: “there is a fact of the matter about whether there is an objective reality, but I don’t know whether there is or isn’t.” But when you assert that there is a fact of the matter, you are implicitly accepting the existence of an objective reality.

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    1. Actually, it is not that I doubt the existence of an objective reality at all, for as you say, existence is presupposed by identity. Rather, it is our perception of it that I doubt. So, by external, I refer particularly to the one of our senses. Take this to be the old case of solipsism. Are we in a matrix kind of machine or can we be sure that we are not? I fall toward the latter, but I was interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter. To re-iterate, it is not that I doubt an objective reality, but rather that I doubt that we necessarily perceive it.

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      1. “Are we in a matrix kind of machine or can we be sure that we are not?”

        Let’s reconstruct the reasoning that led to this question: There are computers, and we have physical brains that we can imagine being plugged into these computers and made to experience a simulated reality. Therefore, it is possible that we are, in fact, in this simulated reality, as was suggested in the movie The Matrix.

        The main problem with this argument is that its conclusion contradicts its premise. When you say that there are computers and that we have brains, you are depending on knowledge that you have acquired from perception. You can’t start with premises that you derived from perception when perception is the very thing you are trying to undermine.

        Secondly, the question depends on an invalid concept of possibility. The fact that we can imagine something just means that we can form a mental image of it, not that it is objectively “possible.” Possibility claims require that a hypothesis be supported by some facts, although not necessarily enough facts to render them probable or certain. You can’t just suggest any arbitrary claim as a “possibility” requiring serious consideration.

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      2. Actually, that is not the reasoning behind the argument. Rather, it is this: our perceptions are contradictory at times. Take optical illusions as an example. There are moments when we seem to perceive one thing but then, later, we perceive something that contradicts that perception. It is the internal consistency (or, more accurately, the lack thereof) which leads to the questioning of whether any of our perceptions can be guaranteed to be reflective of objective reality. They cannot.

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  5. The senses do not make judgments about what they perceive, only the mind can do that. The senses are inanimate physical objects, so any information they provide us with is necessarily valid in the sense that it is exactly the effect that physical objects like these produce under circumstances like these.

    It is true that, when the mind forms a judgment about what it is perceiving, these judgments can be false or contradictory. However, perceptual errors like this are rare, and we quickly learn to compensate for them.

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    1. Interesting. As it stands, this has become out of my depth and I would need to do more thinking and reading on the matter. I must say, though, that you present persuasive arguments and I have returned to a state of being undecided on the matter. Current time restraints prevent me from doing the appropriate research now or carrying the conversation forward, but I will revisit this matter again with you when time allows it. Overall, thank you for detailing out your position. It’s the first time I’ve read a counter-argument of this strength.

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