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Are Atheists Wrong?
The Problem With Atheism
Strong atheism may appear to be the only alternative to religious piety, but is it any more agreeable? While theists believe in the existence of deities, strong atheists believe in their non-existence. This polar opposition to religion could be seen as reactionary. For example, consider what the world would be like if no-one was religious. Then consider how that world would react to someone who professes the belief that the universe was not created by an intelligent being. The result would probably be a mixture of laughter and perplexity because the intelligent being hypothesis can only be discounted once there is evidence for its fallacy.
Theists assume God exists, and like any far-fetched claim, there will be a cynical counter-reaction positing the opposite claim. For example, Professor Brian Cox has responded to alien visitation claims by stating that aliens have definitely not visited the Earth (see video). Perhaps he meant to say there is a lack of evidence for alien visitation. Strong atheists should make the same distinction rather than espousing a belief, or perceived knowledge, of God's non-existence. Theism and strong atheism are two belief structures that are equal, opposite, and distinctly unscientific; but is there an alternative?
The Spectrum of Religious Orientation
The domain of religious belief is a maelstrom of philosophical jargon with each persuasion vying for scientific authority. However, there is a theological position that is compatible with science. Agnosticism was introduced by Thomas Huxley in 1860. Gnostic is the Greek word for knowledge, hence agnostic means without knowledge. One could be agnostic about anything or everything. When Socrates proclaimed that he knows nothing, he was advocating a universal agnosticism that included the question of God’s existence. When used in religious discussion, an agnostic is someone who does not know if God exists.
An absence of knowledge about God’s existence is not the same as an absence of belief, and atheists have used this distinction to merge agnosticism with atheism. For example, an atheist can believe that God doesn't exist, but needn't be certain the belief is true (without knowledge). We call this position agnostic atheism. Conversely, an agnostic theist is someone who believes in God but doesn’t know for sure if he exists. When an individual claims to know that God does or does not exist, they are respectively called theists or strong atheists.
In this way, agnosticism is dissolved into the combative dichotomy of religion and its antithesis. Indeed, as the atheist’s main claim to truth is their perceived attachment to science and rationality, they advocate the destruction of any middle-ground that makes their position look extreme. However, there is still ground for those who claim a lack of knowledge and a lack of belief regarding God’s existence. This can be called pure agnosticism, or scientific agnosticism.
What is your religious orientation?
Scientific Agnosticism - Web Definition
Scientific agnosticism is the absence of a belief concerning the existence or non-existence of God. Scientific agnostics believe that:
- Anyone who investigates the question of God’s existence with an objective predilection should not be swayed to form any kind of theistic or atheistic belief.
- The proposed evidence for or against God’s existence is inapplicable, and is attributable to other sources.
- The experimental tools do not exist that would allow the question of God’s existence to be investigated.
What is Scientific Agnosticism?
Most scientists admit there is no evidence that proves or disproves God. As an ethereal creator who is unburdened by the assumptions made about him by religion, God epitomizes the unknown and the unknowable. Our knowledge does not extend to a time before the Big Bang, and if such a time existed, any entity that presided may eclipse the human imagination.
A scientist might look upon an atheist as someone who has a theory about the non-existence of God. Theories are created when unexplainable phenomena are observed, or existing theories are seen as inadequate.
All beliefs require justification in the form of theories. Evolutionary theory, or a theory about the cultural irrelevance of religious texts, can lead to a belief in the non-existence of God. However, these theories are unrelated to the question of God's existence, and so can't be used to support a belief on the matter. For example, just because we drive around in cars, that doesn't mean the horse-and-cart doesn't exist as a viable means of transportation. Likewise, the irrelevance of God has no existential relevance. As for evolutionary theory, it could have been set in motion by an intelligent being. Charles Darwin was agnostic because he realized his theory left room for a `creator' God.
Furthermore, scientific theories must be falsifiable. This usually requires the performance of experiments to test the theory. A theory concerning ethereal beings cannot be tested because the scientific tools do not exist. Thus, many atheists fail to use a valid theory to justify a belief in God's non-existence.
Scientists recognize these faults and often declare theism and strong atheism to be unscientific. Without relevant evidence, a scientist has no reason to form a belief about God. The difference between scientific agnostics and all other religious orientations is an unwillingness to believe in incomplete or unsupported theories. Scientific agnostics (or pure agnostics) believe that anyone who rigorously investigates the question with an objective predilection should not be swayed to form any kind of theistic or atheistic belief.
Bertrand Russell's Teapot
Atheists often criticize scientific agnosticism by bringing up Bertrand Russell’s teapot or the myriad absurdity that exudes from the human imagination. If God may exist, then so may an invisible teapot flying through the space between Mars and the Earth. The problem with this criticism is it relies on context to make a philosophical point. The teapot is bizarre because we are familiar with teapots as Earthly objects that are not invisible, but replace the word teapot with “fundamental particle” and the context changes. The claim is no longer jocular, but the philosophical ramifications are unchanged. Whether it is a fundamental particle or an invisible teapot, the evidence for its existence is the same. Even Russell admitted that while the teapot-problem would make him claim to be an atheist when conversing with people in the street, he would always claim to be an agnostic when speaking to an audience of philosophers.
However unpleasant it is to be uncertain about the existence of bizarre, irrelevant or ridiculous objects, or however many people have remarked about an object's non-existence, these are not reasons to dispute the existence of any object. Nevertheless, when the object is God, atheists have a disposition to alter this application of logic. One way to demonstrate is by changing the object; consider:
“If there is no evidence that the Chinese want to take over the world, is this any reason to believe that they don't want to take over the world?”
Some atheists will say we should be agnostic about Chinese intentions, but when it comes to God, they'll say he doesn’t exist. This inconsistency demonstrates the scientific absurdity of atheism.
The Psychology of Atheism
This absurdity can be understood by considering the motivational psychology of atheists. Most people like to think of themselves as intelligent people because of the pleasant emotions they experience when they demonstrate that intelligence and receive respect. There are many ways to demonstrate intelligence, some of which do not involve being intelligent. The easiest and most common way is to align with the opinions of intelligent individuals. For example, to look knowledgeable, sports fans regurgitate the opinions of sports pundits when they are in the pub with their friends. Likewise, atheists cough up the opinions of Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins because these people are seen as intelligent models for imitation. Evolutionary psychologists have long since demonstrated that cultural learning occurs through the imitation of prestigious individuals, and atheists may be a prime example of this phenomenon.
Given the similar philosophical standing of strong atheism and theism, followers may be similarly attracted. The core feature of both orientations is a belief in an answer to an unanswered question. Thus, both of these beliefs may provide a sense of control in the face of uncertainty. To know how one’s environment was created is to have important information about how to control the threats produced by it. Atheists claim there isn’t a God, removing one potential cause of threatening conditions. Cognitive scientists have found that uncertain and threatening conditions cause anxiety, and experiments have shown that in order to alleviate this anxiety, we irrationally strive to find order in the chaos.
For the question of God’s existence, the burden of proof is not on the believer, it’s on whoever claims to have an answer. As the philosopher Paul Chamberlain remarked in his book:
“All truth claims bear a burden of proof, and it is logically erroneous to assert that positive truth claims bear this burden while negative truth claims do not.”
Atheists are not exempt from backing up their assumptions. With theists, many share the opinion that their claims don't require support. In doing so, some atheists have mobilized the fight against organized religion by setting up an organized religion of their own.
So are atheists wrong? A better question is: if there is no evidence to prove something's existence, is this any reason to believe it doesn't exist? The lack of a reason for or against belief in God leads to scientific agnosticism, which is a complete absence of belief in either position. Bertrand Russell’s teapot is a problem with agnosticism that can be overcome by considering the contextual relevance of the object for the philosophical question at hand. God may not exist, but strong atheists have no scientific justification for believing God does not exist. In this way, many atheists are wrong.