Why on Earth argue against atheism? It’s a bit like arguing against feminism (except that I don’t want to argue against feminism). It’s like arguing against feminism because atheism has been brilliant, as a set of ideas, for civilisation. Expressing doubt in the existence of God was once punishable by death in Western society. Today flagrant disregard for any religious notion whatsoever is entirely acceptable – the norm, even. Children have the opportunity to grow up free of dogma that other generations have been trapped by their entire lives.
Western societies by and large unchained themselves from the sun, as Nietzsche would have us say, and fell away in all directions. The monolithic belief system that had ruled the minds of European citizens for centuries was finally undermined. All this of benefit for Christianity as well as an increasingly secular West: power structures and religious doctrine should never be allowed to become so closely intertwined, it is to the detriment of both. So all of this is to the good.
But atheism itself tends to the dogmatic, of late. To the monolithic. To intolerance. Atheism is dominant, even de rigeur in many circles of intellectual life in Western countries. People who do not subscribe to Orthodox Atheism are actually – seems dramatic even to say this, but it’s oddly accurate – people who do not subscribe are ridiculed, sneered at, belittled, as though anyone not disposed to atheism is actually deserving of immediate insult and correction. This is true in individual interactions and also in a general way: some atheists on Twitter happily deride in a general way any in the world who do not entirely agree with their position.
The inference here is that Atheists have the truth, and those who do not accede to this truth are in inescapable error. We live in a godless cosmos. End of. *
Does this seem right to you? Atheism seems as dogmatic as theism is charged to be. One obvious problem is that any system that simply forbids consideration of certain options is unable to be reflective or critical in certain ways. Some of those who are devoutly religious do constantly test themselves with the idea that there is no god at all: reading the novels of Graeme Greene alerts the reader to the existence of characters such as these.
This must seem a rigorous system even to the non-believer. It is not necessarily scientific. But what is best about science is clearly carried over into this approach to devotion. Constant doubt and scepticism of ones own conclusions is the best antidote to blind devotion to a false idea.
Again, I want to point out that this sceptical approach is an idea that is part of scientific method, not an idea from science. It is a cornerstone of the method of reason developed by the Ancient Greeks. It is a implicit in the methods of philosophical inquiry over millennia and across several civilisations. From the Ancient Greeks these same methods of dialectic inquiry, self-doubt, rigour of observation, acknowledgement of counter-argument have been applied in theological as well as scientific, mathematical, logical, and philosophical inquiry. These concepts permeate all of Academia and far beyond, and have been embraced by Moslem and Christian scholars as well as those of atheist inclination.
To someone who is genuinely interested, then, in retaining a sense of perspective about their own beliefs and understanding all varieties of Certainty about what is and is not are equally suspect. Atheism is to be regarded with the same critical, sceptical air as theism. The claim that there is no god is as fundamentalist a claim as the claim that god exists.
The claim that science is the only system of knowledge worth wrestling with is reasonable, as is the claim that science has produced no evidence for the existence of God. But science does not have every answer and a reasonable argument can be mounted that it never will. With this in mind, it stands to reason that in addition to things we know that have been deduced from science, there are things we speculate about, but do not know. As long as claims are not made with certainty about the sphere beyond our ken, we can be consistent with the best tradition of scepticism. Absolute assertions about the existence or non-existence of deities fall outside the sphere of knowledge, in almost any way we define it.
According to a reasoned, logical observer of the universe, then, some things are known, and others are not. Of those that are not we tend to speculate. Forbidding speculation in areas where we don’t have a lot of data is a call made by some, but it’s clearly not a useful one – without speculation on things we cannot perceive directly Einstein wouldn’t have been thinking about mirrors trains and light.)
But to be utterly rigorous we might agree that what is speculated upon and not observed cannot be known about in any certain way. A fair measure of something being the sort of thing we ‘know about’ are things like testimonials, accounts of observations, recorded measurements, pictures, video, audio data.. Some of this data is of a scientific sort. But science is not unique in wanting /producing rigorous empirical data: this demand is common in many areas in civilisations that consider themselves to be well-organised. (Forensics was originally a branch of rhetoric, as recorded by Aristotle) Nor is science uniquely able to take advantage of the benefits of Reasoned thought: philosophy and logic are other areas at least equally well equipped in this regard.
Is there anything not knowable by observation, by gathering data, by doing science or reasoning things out? Well, there are things not understood. Pre-big bang is an obvious example of a difficult observational site of inquiry. What is the experience of human beings after death? What is objective experience of the universe like? What would unfiltered experience of the immediate environment be like (if there is such a thing). What is time?
Given this space of things about which we have some knowledge – even very specific measurements – but very little understanding, what are we to do? We may form opinions. We may extrapolate from what we know. Without observational data, however, science might suggest we know absolutely nothing at all. The future, for example, has not been tested. We can follow Hume in anticipating there is a reasonable probability the sun will come up tomorrow, but no certainty.
With luck, at this point, the route suggested above seems reasonable when confronted with that we can’t test. We should not presume to be certain about that we cannot perceive or measure or map with sufficient clarity of vision. We should, however, continue to speculate why not? We are bound to extrapolate from what we do know of the cosmos, and map the laws we have found onto the parts of the universe we know nothing of. As long as we recall that in fact all of our knowledge beyond what we can test is uncertain, and much that is testable can be called into question as well.
Of course, this is an Agnostic’s trap. With respect to the origins of the universe, to what is in the universe, and what constitutes it, I want to say, we should not forbid speculation, but hold ourselves open to perpetual doubt. Anything else, as I shall argue further, is contrary to both science and reason.
As determined earlier, for the purposes of this exercise, ‘scientific truths’ are limited to those that are observable – testable. Being stringent about this, it is only possible to say that things are true in a scientific way in places that they can be measured. It is not strictly scientifically accurate to say that because something is the case at one locale (gravity working a particular way, for example) it will also be the case at a different location. This sort of extrapolation takes us beyond the realm of strictly observable objects and therefore empirical science.
I Want to say, then, that there are three kinds of thing: 1.) those that are scientifically and philosophically and mathematically true, 2.) those that are believed to be true, but fall beyond 1.) and 3.) things tat are considered unknown.
For the purposes of this argument – trying to be fair – the term ‘knowledge’ will be reserved for the first category. It’s a vague category. We ‘know’ certain things when the idea in someone’s mind accords with the observable fact. But perhaps derivable truths might be acknowledged as well, in order to avoid argument. Or perhaps it would provoke more. If we say that the only good truths grounded in good science are those that can be tested against empirical data, it clearly distinguishes these from ideas about what things are like in the rest of the cosmos. Many atheists, agnostics, and theists can agree broadly on a body of scientific truths of this nature. Scientific truths fit together with a body of truths from other disciplines derived from the same tradition of rigorous inquiry. Together these comprise a corpus of knowledge. To test what qualifies for this corpus ask whether something is generally uncontested. 1+1=2 is a good example. If you have one apple you have one thing. Observable objects impact on other objects with force under certain circumstances.
The term ‘belief’ may be a sensitive one to raise at this point, because atheists will often say they do not believe, they know. But I want to give it a specific, neutral purpose, aving reserved knowledge for a subset of belief. Belief is often taken as a religious term, which for atheists often means ‘unfounded’ or ‘wrong’ knowledge. I want, for reasons that will become clear, to use the word ‘faith’ for a kind of belief in something that we do not have data or ‘proof’ for.
Belief should be used to mean something else: the epistemic position an individual has on something. It may be fair to say for some reason that a particular piece of knowledge is knowledge, not belief or opinion, because it is known to be true. But looked at epistemically, this knowledge is distinct as it exists in the human mind from its existence as a relation between the human mind and a state of affairs. If a person and their thoughts are taken as being individual, separate from an environment, then beliefs are what a person ‘knows to be true’. How they came by that truth and how accurate the truth is is not the point. So I will talk of what people ‘believe to be true’, intending that this term be equally applicable to belief that it is true there is a god and to atheism – belief that it is true that there is no god.
Again this is an Agnostic trap, because the position presented here as the most scientific is that of the agnostic: determined to go on doubting everything that is not clearly true, and then doubt the things that are. As may be clear by now, there is a kind of dogmatism at the heart of this position, too, and certainly self-righteousness: to the Agnostic it appears as though the only proper position is uncertainty. There may be no god, but this is difficult to demonstrate in a concrete way. There may be a god, but again, this is difficult to demonstrate. Agnosticism seems a reasonable position to take with respect to any deities that do exist: from humility we do not presume to comprehend or be certain of the nature of the gods, if any exist. In fact, though, the central dogma of Agnosticism – uncertainty – confers a sense of certitude superiority on its acolytes as powerful as anything experienced by a Zealot of any other extreme.
I’ve been careful to define particular terms in certain ways because I want them to mean certain things in order that I can make a specific argument clear. I’ve gone out of my way to do this because certain meanings have been corralled in debate about atheism. Before proceeding I want to point out that in the ordinary course of things the meanings that are likely to be attributed to certain words forbids their use for making certain kinds of arguments at all.
In particular the term ‘faith’and ‘belief’ are the terms I’ve taken most care to define, and ‘knowledge’ has been defined as distinct from each of these. ‘Faith’ in particular is often seen as somehow dichotomously opposed to ‘Rational thought’ or ‘Logic’ or ‘Reason’ or even ‘Sanity’. This is not helpful, since it absolutely prevents any discourse on the topic with those who see faith as good grounds for belief. So I want to take pains again in defining faith as distinct from either knowledge or belief, but distinct again from the cheap definition often afforded the term by Atheists, some of whom apparently despise the notion.
To recap, knowledge, for the purposes of this argument, has a very constrained definition: it is belief in something that is proven by observation, empirically true, as far as we have grasp of context. This definition gives a certain ontological grant to the idea of knowledge – it admits that certain things can be ‘known’ in an objective way. But given a large body of commonly agreed knowledge proven in exactly this way, this concession has been made. And the body of knowledge is almost unreasonably constrained.
In any case, knowledge as defined here is distinct from belief. Knowledge constitutes an idea about what is true that correlates with observable reality. Belief is any idea about what is true whatever. This is, remember, for the purposes of this argument: indulge me with these definitions briefly and then go back to your own in a moment.
Belief is here not related to lack of empirical evidence for something – as will be seen we have that idea pinned down separately. Belief is any idea at all in a mind about what is true. The socks are red is believed to be true. God is benevolent is believed to be true. Under this scheme ‘knowledge’ is a subset of the range of ‘beliefs’ about the world.
From here a definition of faith can be developed that liberates the concept from its derogatory use by atheists before putting it to work developing an argument in favour of agnosticism. Faith, like ‘knowledge’, is a subset of belief. The set of beliefs that can be ascribed to faith is precisely the set excluded from the body of knowledge already defined. Faith is a belief about what is true that does not have foundation in observable data.
To avoid taking anything on faith, then, appears as simple as sticking purely with empirical truth – taking what is observably and testably true as the limits of certain understanding. In a sense, this is the position the argument has been constructed in support of. The agnostic makes a faith of uncertainty, and comes close to this scientific ideal. But Agnosticism, as has probably been noted by now, has its own dogma in certainty about uncertainty.
In fact many people claim they do know what is happening in parts of the universe entirely beyond the scope of humanity’s current and possibly future understanding.
Some, for example, claim that there is an Apocalypse pending, a Day of Judgement. Others have it that millions of years ago the souls now attached to humans were deposited in some sort of chamber in a mountain in a transaction that involved giant space gods. These ideas are religious ideas. To those who do not hold one or another set of beliefs in a monotheistic deity or a pantheon of gods, the belief in particular in complex specific narratives associated with gods and their followers seems suspect: so much seems to be taken as true in so much detail. So much of history, meanwhile, is so uncertain.
In this case a different set of questions arise: how can we God’s/the gods’ nature/character/likeness so well? How can we hope to apprehend such a being if it really has omniscient vision, omnipotent power? Again it seems sage to start with the idea that it isn’t good to be too specific – that we can’t understand, really, what God is/gods are.
These are obviously silly questions to those who do have faith in God’s existence. My guess is a person of such conviction might tell an unfortunate like myself that my luck might change if God chooses to reveal Herself to me. Figurative veils may be lifted, I’m not sure.
Here the term faith as earlier defined can legitimately be applied: an individual with faith in God has a belief about what is true without observable evidence – lying beyond the corpus of agreed observed phenomena (although this corpus seems a more problematic beast every time I have to raise it in argument).
Atheism, from this perspective, is another kind of dogma, when applied to the whole universe. According to the Atheist view it can be stated with certainty that there is/are no god/gods anywhere in the cosmos. As with those who maintain the existence of a deity of some kind, the claim is made although its proponents lack the observational power to provide data.
More contentiously, I now want to say that this, too, is an article of faith. As defined for the purposes of this argument, as neutrally as possible. Deliberately, a very stringent criterion has been set here to make a belief about the world a bit of ‘knowledge’ rather than a belief based on faith: it must be observable – empirically proven. A lot of what we believe to be the case is technically beyond the bounds of knowledge. Either the truth is rejected, or it is taken on faith.
If there is a set of things we do not know about, should we then not speculate at all? In this way we could avoid the problem of extrapolating from our knowledge of the cosmos to the parts of it we know nothing of. As it is, it’s difficult NOT to extrapolate from what we know, for example, about a few hundred ‘rocky’ planets like Earth, to what we don’t know about the frequency of such planets overall throughout the galaxy. We do the same thing when we think about time: we tend in general to assume that time works more or less the same across enough of the universe that it represents a good measure for things that happen very very far away (in some sense or senses).
If something is believed to be absolutely true, to exist or not exist – absolutely – then it is true everywhere (and when). But the observable limits of our universe prevent us from claiming very much at all about what is absolutely true, everywhere, for all time. Or at least, we can make the claim, but should acknowledge it is based on faith, rather than on knowledge, in the strictest sense.
This holds for claims about the existence of God. Many of those who believe in God or gods will agree that this belief is based in part on faith, as defined for this argument. Many others believe that the entire cosmos is godless. They are probably less likely to accept that this belief is grounded in faith rather than in knowledge.
From the point of view of an agnostic – not sure by definition – the idea of certainty on questions about the existence of gods is as preposterous as the idea to the believer that the Atheist might be right. It is unknown.
These are the grounds in which the agnostic viewpoint I want to outline here as a counter-argument to atheism has its roots. Although certain terms have been redefined for the convenience of my argument, it is hoped that their meanings have not been further dragged through the dirt by the exercise, but rather elevated somewhat from the grubby regard in which they’ve formerly been held. The broadening of the definition of ‘faith’ is not meant as an affront to atheists, but to make a point about the easy way we step from direct knowledge to unsubstantiated belief in making assertions about the world.
* (The argument against the claim that this is dogmatic seems to be grounded in the idea that the truth is a negation, but it does not have to be stated as an ordinary negation. In any case, it can also be said fairly that a more troublesome dogmatism lies at the heart of Agnosticism, as will be indicated properly.)
First Addendum: The argument from Doubt about Disbelief
Second Addendum: The argument from Reconcilable Concepts