So, Atheism is Just a Belief?

ELL, what did you think it was?  Let me guess.  You thought it was about not believing–and naturally not believing something is the opposite of belief.  And since the opposite of belief is fact, well there we are.

Of course atheism is just a belief.  One of my favourite websites says it best:

Strictly speaking, atheism is an indefensible position, just as theism is indefensible, for both are systems of belief and neither proposition has been (or is likely to be) proven anytime soon.

The rational position for the non-believer to take is to say that there is almost certainly no god, because no credible evidence exists to support the claim that god exists. This is a stronger position than agnosticism, which holds belief and non-belief on an equal footing.

So the debate between atheism is about the evidence and not about the status of propositions.  Oh, and what beliefs are in relation to personal identity.

Which question brings me to a recent post by Joshua Rosenau at his website— that often touches on some really interesting stuff.  This interesting stuff is directed against a not very interesting notion by Ophelia Benson that “beliefs are not really a part of identity and should not be treated as though they are. ”

Rosenau says that

 What’s especially odd about Benson’s claim is that New Atheism is all about belief. The defining difference between New Atheism and other sorts of atheism is that the gnus don’t just want to assert their own belief that there is no god (or their lack of belief that there is a god, depending). They want to assert a belief that other people’s belief in god(s) is dangerous ipso facto. When folks say that belief is only bad if it leads people to do bad things, they reply by emphasizing just how important belief is in shaping personal identity, and arguing that belief matters on its own.

Of course, this has to be true if you are going argue, for example, that bad beliefs cause people to do bad things, and the Gnus think that this correlation goes a long way in explaining why Muslims behave irrationally and why fundamentalist Christians are personally annoying and politically dangerous.

Atheists having their identity revoked in unbaptism: Fun!

Systematized bad beliefs, in the form of doctrine, are the worst because a fully constructed Catholic, or Muslim, will buy wholesale what his faith sells on the subject of sexual morality, suicide bombings, abortion, and who owns Palestine.  When someone says he’s a Catholic he’s making an identity claim, code for any number of agendas stock full of beliefs.  When someone says she’s a good Muslim, same thing.  There are no category errors here, unless you swallow the giddy notion that atheism is not a belief but a non-identity-imposing non-strait-jacketing opinion about belief.

I want to say that Rosenau’s point is elementary, in the sense that it’s fundamental to understanding that religion is identity-shaping.  Is the reason for this sly turn away from seeing belief as identity-forming purposeful among the Gnus?  Maybe it’s a slip of the keyboard: if so there is still time to back away from this preposterous claim.  But if it’s meant as a serious suggestion, somebody’s got some explaining to do.

Isn’t it true that Gnus have a catechism in the making and thus, you should pardon the expression, a fetal identity of their own?  Even though it may be short of the intellectual range of the Catholic Church or the Torah, at least their movement is beginning to resemble the bylaws of a local Masonic Temple. Every movement has to start somewhere.

More important for future development it has in common with these other systems the basic identity-shaping construct that all religions start with: We’re right. You’re wrong.

37 thoughts on “So, Atheism is Just a Belief?

  1. Very good post. Belief is central to religious and social identity as demonstrated by a large field of anthropological and sociological study. This field of research describes such things as Christian nominalism, where apparently non religious people self identify as ‘Christian’ for social reasons rather than religious belief. This field of research describes alot more interesting phenomena as well to do with belief and identity.

  2. One word: privative.

    The very notion that the godless argue among themselves about the definition of atheism, without splitting into recognized positively-defined groups (“splitters!”) is a big hint that, while atheism is a belief category, it is the privative “none of the above” category that remains once all the belief categories have been spoken for. (I know atheists who disagree with my insistence on the privative definition; fortunately, they help to illustrate my point.)

    I will agree wholeheartedly with the “We’re right. You’re wrong” observation, but of course while that may be necessary for religion, it is not sufficient. Sports fans know that their team is superior to all others, and while one may follow the Toledo Mudhens “religiously”, the metaphor is, well, a metaphor. PC vs Mac, Ford vs Chevy, Libertarianism vs reality, there are any number of “we’re right; you’re wrong” relationships that are not religious (although I would say they fill a great many of the functional properties of religion). Ingroup-outgroup bias is more basic than religion, although religion may have raised it to an art form.

  3. Pingback: So, Atheism is Just a Belief? « The New Oxonian |

  4. Ok, so it’s one of your favourite websites, but I have to say that my heart sank to my stylish yet affordable boots, sorry, channelling Buffy there, to my Nicole Farhi’s exceedingly stylish, but definitely expensive, boots when I read:

    ‘We seek out those who express views that are controversial’

    Them and a billion other websites, mutters my brain; people desperate for traffic hoping that controversy will find readers flocking.

    But it ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for, babe…

  5. Every atheist I’ve spoken to accepts that it is impossible to definitively prove there is no god (perhaps one or two nutjobs aside). However to claim that since atheism is a belief it is on an equal footing with theism is a deliberately logical misdirection.

    The default position in regards to any proposition is unbelief. c.f.Russel’s Cosmic Teapot. Thus in the absence of evidence atheism is the logical belief and theism the illogical one. The two are not equal.

    Furthermore as humans we believe all kinds of things. How central those beliefs are to our identities varies enormously. For some no doubt atheism is at the heart of their identity. For others it matters little.

    Categorizing, labeling and grouping things is a human practice that is not a reflection of the world around us and which, if not very carefully managed, serves us poorly.

    Finally, regarding good people and bad things you crossed the correlation/causation streams equating the two. As is so often stated, causation and correlation are not the same thing. To cross and mix them leads to a misrepresentation.

    • It is a logical analysis that claims theism and atheism are indefensible philosophical positions. Belief is central to religious, non religious and social identity. Anthropological and sociological research has shown that religious beliefs are far less salient than religious belonging. Religious identifications can be shown to complement other social and emotional experiences of ‘belongings’ in the same way that atheist identifications can be shown to complement social and emotional experiences of ‘belongings’. Atheism and theism are both beliefs to which identity is central and neither philosophical position is defensible, so beliefs and apologetic attempt to defend them, are often less prominent.

      • Yes, but do not beliefs come with different measures or estimates of probability? Surely the belief that “nature is subject to law” has a little more evidence going for it than the belief that either an anthropomorphic “Allah” or “Jehovah” or “Zeus” is behind the smoke and mirrors? Although the pantheistic or panentheistic or metaphorical god of the physicists, in Richard Dawkins’ phrasing, seems to be an entirely different kettle of fish.

        As Carl Sagan put it:

        The well-meaning contention that all ideas have equal merit seems to me little different from the disastrous contention that no ideas have any merit. [Broca’s Brain; pg xii]

        In addition and relative to the above, it seems to me that “belonging” should not be considered the sole criterion of value as otherwise all groups are on the same footing. Secular humanists no better than fascists? Why join or support one rather than the other?

      • Two questions.

        I’d like to read further on the logical indefensibility of atheism (specifically the proposition that it is not reasonable to believe in an entity for which there is no evidence). I’d also like to understand how both a proposition and its converse can be indefensible positions. If neither is defensible surely there must be a logical error.

        Secondly you say that “atheism and theism are both beliefs to which identity is central” could you provide your evidence of this? While I recognize that experience isn’t evidence this does not fit my experience so I’m interested to see the evidence.

      • Try Felicity McCutcheon, Religion within the Limits of Language Alone. I don’t know how much philosophy you know, but don’t be misled by the use of the word “indefensible.” It only applies in the strict sense to propositions, and all kinds of statements can be put into propositional form. “God does not exist” is not convertible with “There is no God.” “I believe that there is no God” is an evaluation; it can refer to someone’s assessment of an assertion, or of the evidence of the assertion or it may be a statement about the epistemological status of statements of belief (“I do not believe that God exists in spite of evidence that he does exist” and its contrary). A proposition is indefeasible (lit. cannot be defeated) when the evidence for or against it is inconclusive. Read Robert Audi’s superb discussion of indefeasible justification in his Epistemology. A classical theologian might argue that the existence of God is known a priori and thus a “truth of reason” that would trump all evidence to the contrary. But most philosophers would agree that there are no such a priori truths (not even “I exist”) and so “There is a God” (theism) and “There is no God” (atheism) have the same epistemological status and are indefeasible. That does not mean that they are not vulnerable to a variety of skeptical arguments, because even certain logical truths can be defeated by plausible skeptical arguments.

        Second: All identity that is not organically (biologically) constructed is socially or psychologically constructed. Religion is a social construction–Freud and his immediate followers thought, an outcropping and projection of infantile need–that provides both individual and group identity. I do have to ask why you would want to suggest (imply) that religion and its expressions in behavior, thought, and social relationships is not a part of identity construction because the evidence seems overwhelming. I’d be much more interested in reading a convincing denial of this. The debatable point is whether the identity is positive pr negative at either individual or social levels. But you can hardly measure that or discuss it if you deny it its role.

      • Some of the papers on this website might be helpful
        There is a whole new interdisciplinary approach into the study of religious identity, belief and practise, and Kent, Sheffield and other universities are leading this field. Anthropologist Abby Day’s book Believing in Belonging, investigates belief and social identity in the modern world. It provides evidence that identity is central to religious belonging and religious doctrine and ritual pale in importance.

      • When it comes to philosophy I’m absolutely a layman and far too much of a pragmatist to be a philosopher though I’ve read a little. And I’ll be quite honest. If when you say “God” you mean things like “‘God’ cannot be understood as referring to a metaphysical being who may or may not exist” which from what I can gather is the point of the book (which at $100 is beyond my price range and looks like it will require a vast amount of pre-reading for me to fully appreciate), then your complaint with the new atheists becomes obvious.

        Such a definition of God in no way relates to what the overwhelming majority of people mean by God. The majority of people are endeavoring to come to a (partially) rational understanding of the world around them. When the deep analysis of language and philosophy indicates that one can not have any reasoned opinion on either the existence or non-existence of an important being that philosophy becomes useless to practical understanding. The “new Atheists” are about practical understanding. They’re for the layman. Of course their purposes and agenda will be meaningless/irrelevant to you because you’re not even talking about the same subject.

        For this conversation, in simple terms, I read Steph’s claim to be ~A && ~~A (NOT god exists AND NOT god does not exist). This is a logical error. From what you said it seems more that she was saying that we cannot defend the proposition that god exists and we also cannot defend the proposition that god does not exist. I take it therefore that we cannot reach any logical (or philosophical?) conclusion in regards to god’s existence. Therefore one must look for evidence and in the absence of evidence for something the default position is non-existence. This, in my admittedly simplistic view, makes atheism a logical and reasonable conclusion.

        Regarding identity I was not suggesting that theism/atheism was part of identity. That much is obvious. What I question is whether it is, for all people, central to identity as Steph has repeatedly asserted.

        If I may respond to Steph’s followup at the same time. Regarding identity being central to religious belonging and religious belief being central to identity. The two are not necessarily commutative. I’m asking, and you were speaking, about the latter not the former.

        Regarding identity I was not suggesting that theism/atheism was part of identity. That much is obvious. What I question is whether it is, for all people, central to identity as Steph has repeatedly asserted.

      • I’m a bit worried this is splitting hairs, but I haven’t repeatedly asserted that “theism/ahtiesm” is central to the identity of ‘all people’ and I apologise if you thought that was what I implied. It’s never been central to my identity and I can’t pin myself down from one day to the next. What I tried to say was that these interdisciplinary researchers I linked to, have shown that doctrine and ritual pale in importance beside identity and community, and that choices of religious or non religious identifications can be shown to complement other social and emotional belongings. Results vary geographically with different cultural, political and social environments. For example, Abby Day, concludes that “many people who self-identified as ‘Christian’ on the UK 2001 census – and will likely again in 2011 – may have been Christain nominalists” (p. 174). That is, in certain social contexts these people identified as Christian without faith in God, Jesus, or Christian doctrine, but being ‘Christian’ was central to their identity. (Believing in Belonging was published in 2011 but must have gone to press too early for the census results to be released)

        I don’t know what you mean by “~A && ~~A (NOT god exists AND NOT god does not exist).”

      • Perhaps I misunderstood your statements. I agree that social belonging is an important constituent to what and why we believe things. I took you to be stating it the other way around.

        Given your later statements my question about the logic of ~A && ~~A are irrelevant.

        In essence your latest clarifications entirely addressed my earlier questions/criticisms and I think we are very much in agreement.

      • … or rather social belonging and identity are more important for many people than believing, religious doctrine and ritual. And ‘performative’ ritual is a consequence of identity and social belonging when belief is not present, or agnostic.

      • Steph,

        Since you seem to be belaboring somewhat the issue of “social belonging and identity” and have not responded to my questions and comments on the topic, I hope you’ll forgive, and Dr. Hoffmann excuse, my further observations. Specifically, the following is from Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim, the Foreword to which was written, as you probably know, by Dr. Hoffman who gave a strong commendation to the book and, presumably, to the scholarship that it was based on:

        The pragmatic suggestion, that we had better teach the Christian religion whether it is true or not, because people will be less criminal if they believe it, is disgusting and degrading … and it is a natural consequence of the fundamental religious attitude that comfort and security must always prevail over rational inquiry. [Robinson; pg 161]

        Really think that we are totally lost – as individuals and as societies – if we go very far down the path of putting such “comfort and security” – aka “social belonging and identity” ahead of “rational inquiry”; one might reasonably argue that whatever we have of the former is very much a direct consequence of the latter.

        Also, along the same line, Warraq quotes T.H. Huxley as follows:

        The truth is that the pretension to infallibility, by whomsoever made, has done endless mischief; with impartial malignity it has proved a curse, alike to those who have made and those who have accepted it; and its most baneful shape is book infallibility. …. Wherever bibliolatry has prevailed, bigotry and cruelty have accompanied it. It lies at the root of the deep-seated, sometimes disguised, but never absent, antagonism of all the varieties of ecclesiasticism to the freedom of thought and to the spirit of scientific investigation. For those who look upon ignorance as one of the chief sources of evil; and hold veracity, not merely in act, but in thought, to be the one condition of true progress, whether moral or intellectual, it is clear that the biblical idol must go the way of all other idols. Of infallibility, in all shapes, lay or clerical, it its needful to iterate with more than Catonic pertinacity, Delenda est. [pg 104]

      • I did not put social belonging and identity ahead of rational inquiry. They’re two quite different discussions. I didn’t address the latter specifically. I was addressing anthropological research of contemporary religious identification, not the historical critical study of religions and ideas. In fact it is with the critical spirit of rational inquiry that these anthropological studies are undertaken. I did not suggest social belonging and identity was either good or bad. However when identity is more important than doctrine and ritual, it’s far from saying anything like ‘religion is true’. And as both atheism and theism are indefensible philosophical ideas, rational inquiry will never prove either position.

        Apologies for belabouring. Was endeavouring to clarify.

      • I’m sorry for being laborious. I was just trying to clarify my original comment for dwomble. I did not put social belonging and identity ahead of rational inquiry. I didn’t address the latter specifically. I was addressing anthropological research of contemporary religious identification, which is not about teaching religion as true. In fact it is with the critical spirit of rational inquiry that these anthropological studies are undertaken. I did not suggest social belonging and identity was either good or bad. However when identity is more important than doctrine and ritual, it’s moved a long way beyond teaching anything like ‘religion is true’. The historical critical study of religions and ideas, and their evolution, should most definitely be included in public education. I have always advocated that. Rational inquiry may not prove or disprove two indefensible philosophical ideas, atheism and theism, but the critical historical study of religions will enable people to understand the historical and social contexts behind religious traditions, the inspirations for storytelling and ancient quests for meaning with the evolution of doctrines and beliefs, such as the biblical God figure, creation myths and so on. The historical critical study of religions will help future generations understand anachronisms of religious beliefs and make new advances in knowledge through critical rational inquiry.

      • oops sorry Steerman. My response to you: I’ve posted two comments accidentally. The first didn’t show up on my notebook so I rewrote it later at my laptop… now I really have belaboured. Never mind. All in celebration of the splitting of hairs.🙂

      • Steph,

        No problemo – but sorry myself; didn’t mean to give you a hard time over the focus of several of your comments. 🙂

        Just that it seemed that Dr. Hoffmann’s own focus was a question of the consequences of various “bad beliefs” and their relation to “identity claims”, a focus that I think should be sharpened and intensified:

        Systematized bad beliefs, in the form of doctrine, are the worst because a fully constructed Catholic, or Muslim, will buy wholesale what his faith sells on the subject of sexual morality, suicide bombings, abortion, and who owns Palestine. When someone says he’s a Catholic he’s making an identity claim, code for any number of agendas stock full of beliefs.

        While I will certainly agree with you that “anthropological and sociological research” has an important role to play, as will the “critical historical study of religions” – for example Why I Am Not a Muslim, and as will a greater understanding of mythology in general – it is truly remarkable how quickly the religious will fold their tents and steal off in to the night whenever one suggests some similarities with their current beliefs and ancient ones from other religions, it still seems that the larger encompassing and socially problematic issue is summarized by this from Mark Twain:

        It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

        The problem, the trouble, caused by those beliefs and the identity claims they underwrite is that they can frequently turn out to be decidedly pathological, although that tends to be something we’re all susceptible to – part of the human if not biological condition, a case of “my ‘ism’, right or wrong”. My point has generally been that such “isms” are not intrinsically wrong, only that they frequently become so when they become synonymous with group-think; when they lose sight of the fact that the underlying premises are, to varying extents, contingent and hypothetical; when people “buy the beliefs wholesale” without at least kicking the tires and checking under the hood.

        And unfortunately there seems to be no shortage of problematic consequences of those pathologies – some recent examples described here, here and here, the last seeming to shade almost into apostasy and which may even necessitate Dr. Coyne rescinding Dr. Hoffmann’s “Accommodationist of the Year” award. But in any case, it seems we should be focusing on those actual or potential consequences and taking steps to attenuate or forestall them – political action certainly informed by academic studies but not academic studies in isolation – as that wicket is likely to get a lot stickier before the game is over.

    • dwomble,

      Thus in the absence of evidence atheism is the logical belief and theism the illogical one. The two are not equal.

      Certainly agree that they are not equal, although it seems more appropriate to argue that atheism is the more logical and theism the less logical belief – at least on the basis of probabilistic reasoning which I note the Wikipedia article describes as a kind of “non-demonstrative reasoning” and akin to “defeasible reasoning.”

      But while I don’t claim to have a particularly good handle on either of those in a formal sense it seems to me that the former is relatively straightforward in its broad outlines. And in the case of atheism versus theism the facts of the matter – or at least some salient ones – on which the probabilistic reasoning can proceed are, in words from one of Dr. Hoffmann’s favorite websites, that:

      Throughout history human beings have believed in gods—thousands of them. And just as past cultures—many great and lasting civilizations—have all but slipped from our memory, so have the gods they worshiped.

      And given the facts that those literally thousands of other anthropomorphic gods have bitten the dust, and that many of those have shown a great many similarities with the current crop of the same type, it seems entirely logical to infer that it is much more probable that the latter derive from the same sources as the former, i.e. the human psyche, rather than from some independent existence in some supernatural realm. Although, of course, that still leaves open, does not address, the quite reasonable possibility, among several, that such gods provide some entirely useful and profound metaphors to understand that psyche.

    • Steersman, I’ve lost you. I think it’s important to distinguish between different social and geographical contexts when identity claims are made, and recognise how they are differently held and even understood by others in these contexts. It’s also relevant that in some contexts for example, a person may identify with some religious faith, but as it doesn’t affect his daily life, it’s an entirely personal and private matter, declared only on a census form. And there is also a correspondence between biblical literacy, education and moderate religious views and affiliations. I don’t think that people should be robbed of the freedom to hold religious identities when it does not infringe upon the freedoms of others. Harris wrote in that ‘end of’ book “The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism”. He’s wrong. Religious ‘moderates’, who are educated and biblically literate, are better equipped than most atheists, and have just as much if not more, incentive to critique fundamentalisms and biblical literalism. And they do, in the media, in education, on facebook and blogs… That’s why improved education on a global scale is so fundamentally important to the future. Fundamentalisms would be educated out of existence and we’d be left with critical minds and ideas.

  6. I thought TimTebow just showed, irrefutably, God exists, well at least listens, by averaging 31.6./throw. John 3;16 he paints in his eyelids(?)(not sure).The Broncos also lost 31-6.

  7. I think that more needs to be said about the nature of the debate. Sometimes I think that the “new” atheists are the bastard stepchildren of Bertrand Russell, though instead of using science and philosophy to correct the implied metaphysics of our language, the “new” atheists want to use science and philosophy to coerce or cajole people into believing what’s politically acceptable to them.

  8. I usually say that Atheism is not a belief system. That is, there is no positive claim within atheism which could lend to any particular system of belief.

    However, atheists need to be careful, especially those who say atheism is not a *belief (singular). In the past I too made the mistake of claiming atheism is not a “belief” in an of itself, but I have come to see that this reasoning is wrong.

    Atheism appears to be a belief in the non-existence of a God (and or gods), the rejection of theism, and the proposition that God and or gods do not exist.

    Atheism is, in fact, the Formal belief that there are no gods.

    • Atheism appears to be a belief in the non-existence of a God (and or gods), the rejection of theism, and the proposition that God and or gods do not exist.

      Definitely some problematic nuances there in the various definitions in play and used by various groups of people; tends to cause everyone to ride off madly in all directions – not too productive. But the central and most relevant one for believe seems to be this:

      v.intr. 1. To have firm faith, especially religious faith.

      And, in turn, faith is defined as:

      Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

      And that issue of logical proof seems to be precisely what Dr. Hoffmann is getting at with his discussion of indefeasible. And, at least to the extent that some atheists insist that there is no god, that really seems to put such atheists and religious fundamentalists in the same boat – dogmatism also makes for strange bedfellows. And espousing their own idiosyncratic religions, although in the case of atheists that would be based on the somewhat metaphorical definition of religion as:

      A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

      Which tends, I think, to cause the more reflective “atheists” – including, somewhat surprisingly, Richard Dawkins – to hedge their bets somewhat and couch their statements in terms of probability – an apparently far more defeasible, and tenable, position. Although the sticky part of that wicket seems to be that the concept and use of probability is based on multiple previous trials – as in the “calculation” of probabilities for the roll of dice. Which of course is not feasible with the universe and any priors which may or may not include a “god” of one sort or another. Seems that the most that the concept of probability can do is, based on the historical record, to deprecate or reduce the possibility of an anthropomorphic god. But for metaphorical or panentheistic interpretations or concepts I think that all bets are off.

      • at least to the extent that some atheists insist that there is no god, that really seems to put such atheists and religious fundamentalists in the same boat

        The reality is that few atheists are absolute in their lack of belief in god. Rather their lack of belief is contingent on there being no evidence of god’s existence. For many, given how much and for how long people have searched for such evidence its lack at this point constitutes an effective (though not absolute) certitude that there is no god.

        In normal conversation many atheists will state simply that there is no god without every time making the disclaimer of the subtlety of their position. Conflating the effective certainty of atheists with the absolute certainty of many religious people due to lack of such disclaimers is a mistake.

      • dwomble said,

        Conflating the effective certainty of atheists with the absolute certainty of many religious people due to lack of such disclaimers is a mistake.

        Yes, I’ll certainly agree that that conflation is a mistake, although I don’t see that I was making it as I noted the existence of some “reflective atheists” who were less than certain in their assertions.

        However, I have also run across more than a few (some) atheists – mostly of the “gnu” variety – who were and are just as dogmatic as religious fundamentalists in asserting the non-existence of all and every conceivable and inconceivable variety of god. Which leads a good many of them to be rather obstinate – to say the least – in rejecting anything that smacks of “accommodationism”, anything that gives the least hint of seeing value in metaphorical interpretations or anything suggestive of the “pantheistic god of the physicists”. Which really looks to me like not being terribly conducive to the necessary dialog with the more rational theists and deists; generally bad karma I think and something to be deprecated at every opportunity.

      • I think you may be mis-implying the question being answered by the assertion that there is no god. Quite commonly when atheists make such a statement it is not in response to a direct question but rather as part of a narrative or dialogue and the details of such matter a lot.

        For example I see it as reasonable to state quite categorically that the evangelical christian god does not exist. That god is a contradiction that logically cannot exist.

        Similarly the answer to the question “Are you sure god doesn’t exist?” is often “Yes” rather than “No however I consider the likelihood that god exists to be so vanishingly small as to be not worth considering”.

        Could you explain to me what this necessary dialogue is? I was not aware there was a necessary dialogue.

      • dwomble,

        That god is a contradiction that logically cannot exist.

        While I would agree that that is probably true for the “evangelical Christian god”, in general – for all gods – it really seems to depend crucially on the premises and rules of one’s system of logic.

        For example, the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity together essentially entail a contradiction, though not a totally crippling one, which is a consequence of our limited understanding, not of reality itself – presumably. Similarly, I will quite readily agree that there is a whole raft of contradictions associated with anthropomorphic gods, but that hardly means that every conception of god must of necessity exhibit the same flaws.

        … often “Yes” rather than “No however I consider the likelihood that god exists to be so vanishingly small as to be not worth considering”.

        “Aye, there’s the rub”: “likelihood”. Even though the answer is technically the first one, it is the second one which is in play which tends to be problematic as it closes out any other possibilities. Again, as per my previous statements, given the historical evidence, anthropomorphic gods seem pretty much of a long shot of “vanishingly small” odds. But unreasonable, I think, to conclude on that basis that all conceptions must be and are handicapped by the same improbabilities.

        Could you explain to me what this necessary dialogue is?

        Not exactly my idea about the dialog. You may have seen an article sometime back about the philosopher of religion Keith Parsons who called it quits arguing in the process that the “case for theism” is a fraud, and on which there was a letter which argued that:

        The question is whether or not god-talk is a useful — or even tolerable — way of framing what Tillich called our “ultimate concerns.” Tillich’s end-run definition was really a Trojan Horse. Once “God” has been defined as our ultimate concerns, the game is over.

        Which I think is an eminently sensible perspective as I expect that all of our “ultimate concerns” are pretty much the same, except framed in different and quite idiosyncratic terms. While a complete definition of those is and should be open to debate, it seems that many of the salient features are easily identifiable. For example, most of the religious seem to grab onto – frequently with an unseemly desperation, although one can sympathize – the wan hope or promise of immortality. But even many of the secular seem to have similar hopes, although the horses they’re betting on are the less ethereal biophysics or quantum computers – the technological singularity.

        Utopias – really, our “ultimate concerns”, I think – have certainly had their bad press and they have some problematic devils in their implementation details. But unless the dialog on them can be extended and developed the prognosis for humanity does not appear especially promising.

  9. I love splitting-hairs, it’s what makes Philosophy fun, if it can ever be fun.
    It is also the best way to make what one call call progress, but not without some dangers.

    • And yet, when you put it that way, I’m suddenly struck by a similarity of the process to Zeno’s Paradox, where the path of the tortoise is divided into smaller and smaller halves, providing the illusion that the tortoise never reaches its destination. The hair splitting sometimes seems to serve the same purpose–to prevent us from ever reaching a conclusion, or at least of providing the illusion that you cannot reach a conclusion.

      But the answer to Zeno’s paradox was calculus; the tortoise still moves, and it still reaches its destination. The God of the ancient Hebrews was not the God of Jesus, who was not the God of the early church, who was not the God of Luther, who was not the God of the Deists, who was not the God of Fundamentalist Christians, and so on and on and on. All the while, God because thinner and weaker, less necessary and more remote. All of these definitions of God are different, they all end up in the trash, and what I wonder is why we keep using the same word for so many different things when there seem to be as many Gods as believers.

      Yet the tortoise still moves, and it still reaches its destination. And I think we all know where that destination lies.

  10. Hmmm. There’s a need for tight definitions when one starts discussing beliefs, as we can easily end up with word salad. There is a difference between belief as subscribing to notions around factual observations, and belief as creedence in a proposition independently/regardless of its falsifiability.

    The default position, as already pointed out, is ignorance. Reliable knowledge takes the form of pragmatic beliefs based on experiential confirmation with peer input: essentially the scientific method. Since no information is forthcoming at all, and no observations can be made, belief in a god or anything really lying outside the material universe, simply cannot be justified. In this sense, atheism is a default state requiring no identification with anything other than a method that, at core, mimicks the cause-and-effect universe we observe.

    New atheists, however, make significant claims beyond what science can show. Much ado was made about a recent series of conferences given by Sean Carroll, in which he declared that quantum field theory excludes any possibility of an afterlife. In effect, he was claiming complete knowledge, or seemed to, and thus the warranted furor. Whether or not this was Carroll’s intent or an artifact of the limitations of speaking on science to a lay audience, in general new atheism does tend to exhibit a militancy that has no proper foundation.

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