WHY I’M NOT AN ATHEIST, pt. 1

(a series on why I don’t think atheism solves the very philosophical problems with which it faults theism)

So, I’m trying out a new idea for this blog: a multi-post philosophical series. Over the next few weeks (maybe more, if discussion gets good) I plan on developing reasons as to why I do not believe in the non-existence of a deity. That’s clunky language, I know. But it pinpoints the purpose of this series. I want it to be known that I am not trying to prove theism (much less am I trying to prove Christian theism, though I will admit that my references to deities in this series are going to presuppose a Western view of a personal god rather than an Eastern “force” kind of theism). Rather, my purpose here is to show that atheism commits some of the same “errors” that it charges theism with. In other words, I’m trying to show that atheism doesn’t solve the philosophical problems that many atheists cite as reasons for disbelieving theism. This is a Schaefferian- type of thing to do in that it reflects what Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer called “taking the roof off” – a term that denotes showing someone the implications of his or her worldview. Inherent in my critique of atheism is going to be my blatant Christianity. I will try to rein this in when possible, as my goal is honestly not to offend. However, it is the presupposition with which I start, so it is a very difficult thing to hold in check. Anyway, with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s start.

It is difficult to figure out where to begin these sorts of arguments. After all, any of us who are currently alive and who desire to get in on the a/theism debate have to do so realizing that we’re jumping into the middle of a discussion that’s gone on since humankind has existed. That’s a lot of ground to cover. One good starting point might be epistemology (the study of how we know things), but I’m having a hard time starting there.  The reason for my difficulty is that most philosophers accept the Socratic view of knowledge as Justified True Belief – that is, we can be said to “know” something when that something is a belief that is an accurate reflection of reality (true) and which can be demonstrated through a system of “proofs.” I put the proofs in quotes because virtually nothing can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (see the discussion of the Munchhausen trilemma a few paragraphs down). It isn’t called Proven True Belief, but merely Justified True Belief. I cannot “prove” that we are not just brains in vats that are being manipulated a la The Matrix to pseudo-experience this world. Similarly, I cannot prove that we did not just spring up into existence mere seconds ago with our memories already implanted. I can’t prove or disprove these thought experiments because they require us to jump outside the methods of justification that we have available. As assertions of things outside our reality, they can’t be proven or disproven using things within our reality. So I’m not going to start with epistemology, and I’m going to just assume prima facie that our experiences are real and we’re as old as we think we are, etc.

Instead, and for the remainder of this part of the series, let’s talk about ontology. Ontology is the study of what is. When I talk about a person’s ontology, I am referring to his or her conception of what exists. For instance, a materialist would assert that only the material world exists and could therefore be said to have a materialistic ontology. Note that while I’m not going to explicitly discuss epistemology at this point, ontology is directly connected with epistemology. It is basically impossible to discuss one without the other, so there are going to be parts of this discussion that inevitably deal with how we know things – or at the very least how we justify our ontologies. W.V.O. Quine, one of America’s most influential and brilliant philosophers, was an advocate of having as sparse an ontology as possible – by which he meant that he wanted to allow for the least amount of necessary things existing in reality – and this is an idea that is very palatable to atheists, if I can make a generalization. One of the criticisms that many atheists have toward theism is that theism asserts the existence of a being that is not necessary to explain reality. Another way to put this is that theism is seen to have an overpopulated ontology.

In order to break down this criticism and show, hopefully, that atheism does not alleviate an “overpopulated” ontology, I am going to switch my talking from an overall ontology to what I will call “necessary brute facts.” These necessary brute facts are things which we merely have to assume are true in order to explain the world. The Munchhausen trilemma asserts that, basically, any proof of knowledge must ultimately rely on three equally unappealing (especially in today’s skeptic culture) options: a circular argument (in which the proof is used to prove the asserted knowledge, and the knowledge is used to prove the proof), a regressive argument (in which the proof then requires a further proof to prove it, which then requires a further proof to prove that proof, to infinity and beyond), or an axiomatic argument (in which the proof[s] are built upon some accepted fundamental precepts). Since the first two options are incredibly unappealing, I will assume the third. That is, I assume that everyone – even the skeptical atheist – rests his or her arguments on these fundamental precepts (i.e. my “necessary brute facts”). So, now that the terminology and, begrudgingly, a bit of epistemology have been set in place, let me get on with it.

The atheist’s argument that theism has an unnecessarily overpopulated ontology can be reformulated to assert that theism has too many necessary brute facts. I disagree with this, as it seems to me that the only real necessary brute fact in (Christian) theism is the deity itself. In a western, personal-god form of theism, the only necessary brute fact that must be taken for granted is the existence of the deity. Everything else can be seen as contingent upon this deity’s decision to create in the manner in which it decided to create. There is less that needs to be philosophically explained in this system, to my eyes at least. (This is one of those areas in which I readily know I’m not convincing anyone, but let’s move on).

For the atheist, there is more “mere faith” that has to be assumed – more necessary brute facts that cannot be accounted for and cannot, by virtue of being brute facts, be explained through appeals to other facts. On the large scale, the atheist must assume that the Universe is the ultimate brute fact. The difference here is obviously that we can observe the universe, etc. But what this leads to is a cascade of necessary brute facts. Since most philosophers accept the idea of the naturalistic fallacy – the idea that what simply exists does not reflect what ought to exist – the atheist is then left to defend an ontology that includes things we can’t readily experience. At least, the atheist (which in our day and age usually equates to materialism, since many atheists’ problem with theism is that it asserts a non-scientific nonmaterial world) must paradoxically accept as necessary brute facts things like an ethical code embedded into the universe. Note that trying to prove that this ethical code rests on other things like the progress of society or the inherent worth of life does not solve this problem. Instead, it simply pushes the problem back from the ethical code to either society or life, respectively. So it seems to me that the atheist, paradoxically, must accept more necessary brute facts than the theist! The problem has not been solved by a simple move to atheism. Instead, the atheist has just moved from having one thing that he or she cannot prove and must simply accept to having  a multitude of things that he or she must accept.

So there it is. Obviously, this post is not in the least bit exhaustive.  Subsequent posts will deal with more specific grievances that atheists typically use to refute theism, but I thought a more general/abstract discussion was necessary to kick off the series. Many people who are more well-read and more knowledgeable than I have attempted to tackle this Ontology problem – both on the theistic and atheistic side. My point is simply to show that this issue, which many atheists hold to be a fault of theism (i.e. the “you have to have blind faith” sort of criticism) is not escaped by a simple move to atheism because both theism and atheism have at their cores “necessary brute facts” that must be accepted prima facie, without any proofs, and which are subsequently used to interpret all the other facts available to us. This post is supposed to encourage discussion on the matter, from both sides, and so I welcome comments. In fact I really desire that people talk about it! I’d love to hear refutations of this as well as agreements. However, my one rule is that if you feel inclined to comment on this, you must be respectful of other people. Attack ideas and not people. Any attempt to do the latter will get your comment removed – though disagreeing with me will not.

-END PART ONE-

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16 thoughts on “WHY I’M NOT AN ATHEIST, pt. 1

    • That’s cool. Talking about it is what I like to do. Also, I worried about it being too dense or too convoluted. It’s hard to write about this sort of general thing, since there’s so much that has to be defined.

  1. Ariel says:

    You certainly offer plenty to chew on, but I love the simplicity of the logic of your central point: theism requires fewer assumptions than atheism. Granted, the existence of God is quite a large assumption, taken from a purely philosophical point of view. But the moment we rule out God, issues such as right and wrong become hugely complicated.

    Many would argue that right and wrong are human constructs, and certainly we may disagree on the precise boundaries of moral behavior. But it is one thing to say, “Absolute wrong does not exist,” and quite another to say, “Therefore Hitler did nothing wrong.”

    I think one of the most misguided mistakes either (and any) side can make is to shrug off the debate as having a simple answer. At its core, Truth may be the simplest thing in the world. But it is a plain house on the far side of a tangled wood — it’s finding it that’s the hard thing.

    I look forward to the rest of this series.

    • Actually, I plan on having one of the posts deal with stuff in the moral realm. And the aim is to show the issues that atheism runs into by not assuming the existence of God. Personally, I am becoming more and more convinced that this whole debate is so difficult to navigate precisely because theism and atheism are both worldviews through which we interpret all the facts we come across. Thus, I can fit all the facts that I have available to me into my theism. And the atheist can do the same with his or her atheism. This isn’t a very academic thing to point out, but it seems correct to me.

      • Ariel says:

        I think you’re right. I do not think my belief in God is illogical — or at any rate, no less logical than the competing worldview — but in the end, the deciding factor for me is not a matter of logic. It’s something deeper and more difficult to name: a heart sense of rightness or something equally corny. I am happy to speak of my faith and why I believe what I believe, but I don’t feel it’s my place to try to convince anyone else — because I myself would not be convinced if I had not had my own personal experiences with gut and spirit.

        I’m afraid that’s considerably less academic than what you just said.

      • I agree with you. As a Calvinist, I actually believe that the only reason I have faith in God is because I have been literally changed in order to believe it. In this series, I just wanted to show that I don’t think rejecting theism results in gaining any philosophical higher ground.

  2. I would like to start by commenting that I don’t think atheism is a worldview. My first conceptualization of atheism as a Christian (and even as one in the process of shedding my Christian faith) was that it is a worldview. I have come to deny this–at least on a personal level–since atheism is the mere denial of (or disbelief in) the existence of God. Personally, I don’t desire to build my worldview off a denial of someone else’s doctrine.

    This being the case, I think it makes it particularly difficult to attack atheism on metaphysical grounds since you first have to ask what the metaphysical (or ontological) position of the atheistic proponent actually is. I’m still working on mine, so I would be a terrible one to ask.

    However, and possibly following from my Christian heritage, I am open to metaphysical Realism; a not-necessarily-theistic philosophy that tends to multiply ontology. I guess what I am really trying to say–as an atheist, that is–is that a Christian’s ontology doesn’t bother me too much–quantitatively, at least (meaning I, of course, deny the ontological existence of the Judeo-Christian God).

    Now, a separate but related question may be that of the application of Occam’s razor: wherein the choice between two competing theories should be decided by appeal to the one that makes the least assumptions (i.e., is less ontologically profuse).

    • I really wanted to hear your comments on this, since I think your perspective is really interesting. I do consider atheism to be a worldview in some sense, or at the very least a significant enough component of a person’s worldview to warrant discussion. I do get your point, though. I wouldn’t want to be defined as a non-Buddhist or a non-Muslim just as you don’t wish to be considered a non-theist (as in, overall worldview). So, apologies for that. I think, ultimately, without trying to define atheism as a worldview per se, what I wanted to discuss in this series of posts are objections to theism that in my opinion are not solved by the denial of theism. Also, while I agree with the motive of Occam’s Razor, it is difficult to apply it to the God-question simply because a deity would necessarily exist at least in part outside of the system of our reality. And since part of Occam’s Razor is the all-things-being-equal clause, it’s difficult to apply that when “all the things” can’t really be quantified. My purpose here was merely to diffuse the idea that rejecting theism frees one from having a better, less cluttered ontology. If anything, I think rejecting theism leads to more unexplained brute facts that simply have to be accepted.

      One final thing: I admit that this is probably one of my weaker positions. The one that personally convinces me the most (or at least, the one in which I perceive a real need for a deity’s existence) is morality, which I will get to in a later post. Possibly the next post.

  3. In a chapter of his 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic, A. J. Ayer argued that one could not speak of God’s existence, or even the probability of God’s existence, since the concept itself was unverifiable and thus nonsensical. Ayer wrote that this ruled out atheism and agnosticism as well as theism because all three positions assume that the sentence “God exists” is meaningful. Given the meaninglessness of theistic claims, Ayer opined that there was “no logical ground for antagonism between religion and natural science”, as theism alone does not entail any propositions which the scientific method can falsify.

    • That’s really interesting, and it appears to be pretty consistent to me. It becomes a little tricky, because *if* a deity did exist (as in, a deity as conceived by western culture and thus existing outside the system of our reality), the only way in which we beings inside the system would have knowledge of it/him/her is through its direct revelation. Therefore, the theist of any religion can simply point to that religion’s sacred book as being the direct revelation of said deity that thereby gives the sentence “God exists” meaning. However, it then becomes a toss up between the viable candidates to see which, if any, is telling the truth.

      One way in which this could be done is through the falsifiable claims in the religions. For instance, do they deal with things that have been verified or falsified by science? Truth claims of that nature can be tested, it seems.

      I should read more Ayer. I’ve only read a couple of essays in philosophy classes, but I’d like to read more into this concept of the meaninglessness of theistic sentences.

  4. The one issue I have with Ayer (and the issue he later acknowledged) is that the very epistemological verificationism that he espoused cannot be verified by his own standards–in essence it is self-defeating.

    I think I am really interested in your claims to morality, since when I was a Christian I put very little weight into the matter. As far as the ontological question of multiplying entities is concerned, I know of many atheists who probably would have a strong objection to your claims. I don’t really, however. In fact, I am more prone to a multiplied ontology, anyhow.

    Then again, I may be; but might not notice it until our discussion of morality ensues. For example, if I think non-theistic morality better explains the data, then this may lead me to conclude that your ontology is to thick.

    • I agree with you as far as verificationism being self-defeating. As for morality, you already know that I adhere to a Divine Command Theory view. We can talk about it more once I post the next blog posts, I guess. Basically, the arbitrariness of morality in that scheme doesn’t bother me. What would bother me would be arbitrary praise (i.e. praising God for being God, since that is essentially a meaningless praise). However, I think that a modified DCT of morality solves this, as praise then becomes an issue of extolling God for acting toward you with one of his attributes (say, mercy or grace) instead of another of his attributes (say, justice).

      For the record, the arbitrariness of the DCT’s morality doesn’t bother me precisely because I think that no matter what one’s concept of morality is, it ends up being arbitrary (but more on this later).

  5. I almost never feel like I’m going to say anything that Cody, or Mike can’t say better, or possibly already have said and I’ve missed. However, My atheism is decidedly less philosophical. It arose out of simple logical contradictions that become increasingly apparent when you are forced to study them for years. The big one was that the Bible is clearly not a perfect book, and thus it’s content is subject to human error, and thus why would you believe such outrageous (and once you’ve accepted the fallibility of the Bible) self serving claims. Of course this revelation was simply what detached me from specifically Christian theism.
    When it comes to a broader question of, “does any deity exist” I think the question becomes valueless. Intelligent theists, and intelligent atheists, both acknowledge the incredible complexity of the sensory world. Western theists use this sophistication to justify a creator, and eastern thinking is so preoccupied with what is real makes it it’s primary goal to detach from the illusion. Similarly atheists simply admire what they see as the random complexity of predictable scientific happenings.
    My personal feeling is that when the argument reaches the ontological and epistemological level, you are no longer working towards the creation of a functioning body of knowledge.
    If nothing can be known definitively, than what is the point in determining what can’t be known either. It CAN be proven that a deposed Roman tyrant appealed to the political strength of a loose group of radical occultists and called it Catholicism, and used to increase his power over a largely uneducated early 2nd century population. It can also be proven that most practitioners of eastern theology, recognize that their “deities” were hardly conceived as such, but were designed to make highly abstract concepts much easier to explain to a wider audience. I would argue that it can also be demonstrated that the human mind looks for fantastical explanations of relatively simple phenomena due to the simple fact that the human mind functions on a largely primal level, logic serving as a relatively recent cognitive development, and one still rarely used. It’s also significant to point out that the schismatic nature of human perception has given rise to a whole school of thought dedicated to determining if we can know anything.
    Now this is front porch rocking chair kind of thinking I’m about to get into, but bear with me, If the argument comes down to whether the universe is complicated due to infinitely complex mathematical structure, or due to the will of an inconceivably powerful infinite being(s), does it really matter? I think the practical effects of telling someone they were made by a being as inconsistent, manipulative, and childish, as the Biblical God, are objectively detrimental. I think telling someone to figure out how to find happiness, and “look how rad everything is, see what you think about it” creates far more productive, and satisfied people.
    This is probably a horribly constructed argument, but it comes down to this, if God is unknowable in this terrestrial sphere, why bother? I know his book is a fabrication, and I know that my brain releases dopamine when I do the things that this book forbids, and that is as much of a clue as I need.

    • All good points. Personally, as a Calvinist, I think that the only reason I believe in the God of the Bible as being real is that I have been made to believe it. I fully recognize, however, that this is not an academically sound position to most people. Also, my goal was not to say that things cannot be known in an at least useful sense. Merely, my point is that I think one interprets all of reality based upon presuppositions that one starts with. My starting presupposition is that God exists and that the story of God as set forth in the bible is accurate – which is why I disagree with your opinions on the Bible, and why my perception of that deity is much different than yours. And the above post’s real intent was to show that even the atheist starts out with a presupposition that is equally as unnecessitated as mine. I just think that’s how our brains work. I would love to have this conversation in person at some point, since I think it’s easier to go off on tangents and really discuss issues that way. Are you going to be back toward me at any point in the foreseeable future?

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