Our doughty and affable atheist commenter Taggard has patiently endured and amiably responded to a lot of attention from Orthospherean theists over the last few days, in long, intense, and – to me, anyway – interesting conversations in the comments of two recent posts. I always learn a lot from participating in such discussions, and these were no exceptions. Taggard provided us with two interesting links, one to a graphic that plots the differences between gnostic atheists and theists on the one hand – who believe they know enough to positively assert the nonexistence or existence of God, respectively – and their agnostic interlocutors, who believe they do not know enough to positively assert anything about the existence of God.
The other was to a list of ten things atheists think theists should bear in mind when they are conversing. This post is a response to that list, which is reproduced below in full. If you plan on reading what follows, it will help first to peruse the graphic Taggard provided:
Makes sense, no? I had never seen it before.
Here then is the list that Taggard linked, with my responses:
1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Consequently, the burden of proof is on the theist rather than the atheist.
The atheist as Taggard construes him – the agnostic atheist – does not know enough yet to warrant either the claim of the theist that there is a God, or of the gnostic atheist that there is no God. From the agnostic atheist’s perspective, both claims are equally extraordinary, and require equally extraordinary evidence.
Strictly speaking the agnostic atheist has no evidence at all, one way or the other; nothing, at any rate, that he considers proper evidence. If he had any, he would not remain an atheist, but would instead commit himself either to gnostic atheism or to theism.
The agnostic atheist has nothing he is trying to prove. He is not making any claims at all about whether or not God exists. So not only does the burden of proof not fall on him, but he needn’t provide a single jot of evidence of any sort. He has no dog in this fight; has no substantive argument either with theists or gnostic atheists, but rather only isolated methodological disputes over the cogency of the items of evidence they propose.
Thus unless the agnostic atheist or the theist forget for a moment that the former doesn’t claim that there is no God, this point never pertains to their discussions.
It would be interesting to theists here whether agnostic atheists such as Taggard have ever sallied forth against the arguments and evidences proposed by gnostic atheists, or if they reserve their efforts to repudiating those of theists. What is the agnostic atheist methodological critique of the proposition that there is no God?
2. Science has radically altered how we understand the universe, so theism must grapple with the implications of science before offering prescientific beliefs as truth.
The notion that theism has not grappled with science is simply false. Theists have spent huge amounts of time and effort grappling with science. Why shouldn’t they? Science is a Christian invention, after all. I suppose it’s just that atheists haven’t read what theists have written on the subject.
In any case, theism is not vulnerable to challenge from science. That science should discover that the world works in one way rather than another has no bearing, and can have no bearing, on the question whether the world and the way that it works and the science thereof have their ultimate source in God. To think that the existence of God can be the proper subject of any empirical test is to commit a primitive category error.
Theism is not prescientific in the sense that it is ignorant of science, but rather in the sense that, as a doctrine in metaphysics, it is *prior* to science. Why do atheists so rarely seem to get this? It’s so basic, and so easy.
3. There is a gap between natural theology and revealed theology. Arguing for a prime mover is not the same thing as arguing for any faith tradition.
No kidding. An atheist who finds himself debating with an apologist for theism who thinks otherwise is dealing with a neophyte at the same sophomoric level as the apologist for atheism who thinks that theism is susceptible to empirical disproof.
Notwithstanding that, the falsity of theism would entail the falsity of all theistic creeds. So arguing for a prime mover is a logically indispensable first step in arguing for any particular creed. If you are a theist, you are not necessarily a Christian. But if you are a Christian, you are necessarily a theist; so that if you are not a theist, you are necessarily not a Christian.
4. An atheist is under no obligation to take your theology seriously. It’s your belief, you need to justify it in secular terms. Just as a Hindu or a Scientologist would.
Likewise. Any suggestion that the world can explain itself, or cause itself (these amount to the same thing in practical terms), must justify itself without recourse to any extramundane factors in order to be taken seriously by those who hew to a simpler and more logical doctrine. No handwaving or recourses to mystery allowed. No childlike faith in the eventual omniscience of a finite assemblage of finite human minds – it’s a charming, boyish fancy, but no sane, worldly man can afford to indulge in it. Gödel demonstrated the impossibility of success in this fantastic project – no consistent formal language can completely account for itself – so it’s a tough row the secularist has set himself to hoe.
5. The problem of miracles is a serious challenge that must be overcome for any testimony or private revelation of the divine to be taken as veridical.
This cuts both ways, doesn’t it? At least, that’s what a thoroughgoing, consistent agnostic atheist would have to insist. So long as science has failed to nail down an *absolutely exhaustive and complete* naturalistic explanation for *absolutely everything,* naturalism has some serious challenges to overcome before it can be taken as veridical.
And as Gödel has shown, naturalism cannot overcome those challenges, because there can be no complete and consistently formalized Theory of Everything.
6. Faith is not [a sound] epistemology, and the retreat to faith is a concession of the failure of the belief to be defended on rational grounds.
This is true only if “faith” is taken to mean “belief in a proposition that cannot be defended rationally.” If that is what “faith” means, then:
- It is true tautologically, by definition, and trivially.
- Everyone has faith, including the atheist. There is no other way to think, because in order to get started with reasoning, we must perforce presuppose some axiom or other which we cannot but intuit to be true, even though we may not be quite sure why they are true; as for example the Law of Noncontradiction, or the Identity of Indiscernibles, or “cogito.”
But this is not in fact what “faith” means. Faith is the willing assent of the intellect to a proposition whose truth the intellect does not immediately see to be either intuitively obvious (such as the Law of Noncontradiction) or demonstrably true (such as that 2 + 2 = 4, or that there can be no more than one necessary being). We all have faith in thousands of propositions. E.g., when someone believes that Julius Caesar existed on the basis of the testimony of others, he has faith. Likewise, when someone believes that the Earth orbits the Sun without having made the necessary observations and worked out the math for himself, he has faith. Faith is not – thanks be to God – an unreasonable thing to do. If it was, we’d all be nuts.
7. The link between theism and morality has been conceptually (Euthyphro dilemma), empirically (evolutionary ethics), and culturally (morality existing without theism) discredited. Thus coupling God with the notion of Good is not only misleading, but trying to own a fundamental aspect of the human condition.
Begs the very question at issue. Stipulating to this, the theist would stipulate to atheism.
The link between theism and morality is not discredited.
- The Euthyphro dilemma has force only on a definition of God that has always been rejected by theists as inapt, including Plato. Asking whether God or the Good came first is like asking whether God or the Prime Mover came first; it’s like asking whether 1 or 12 came first. If God is himself necessarily coterminous with the Good, it being incoherent to think otherwise, the Euthyphro dilemma does not arise.
- The evolution of ethics is just what we would expect to find had happened to a stochastic procedure operating in a context where ethics for creatures were established ab initio by their creator, whether or not they cognized him as such. If anything, the evolution of ethics should be taken as a strong indication that God is the source of morality. Morality seems to be built into the math of the universe: as Whitehead says, “the instability of evil is the morality of the universe.”
- Morality existing in the absence of an explicit and conscious avowal of theism is just what we would expect to find had happened to a stochastic procedure operating in a context where ethics for creatures were established ab initio by their creator, whether or not they cognized him as such.
If moral order really is moral – is, i.e., really and truly binding on us in an absolute sense, whether we like it or not – and is really order, then its source cannot be either immoral or disorderly, as the falsity of theism would entail that it is.
Identifying God with the Good is the only coherent way to think about him. A god who is evil would not be worthy of worship, and would not therefore qualify as God; for he would fail to meet the definition of God, who as the perfect being possesses all perfections perfectly, including the perfection of Goodness. If you aren’t thinking of God as identical with the Good, you aren’t thinking about God at all. Even the silly old Gnostics knew this. Honestly, this is so basic; it’s been common knowledge for 4,000 years.
8. Atheism is not materialism. Materialism is a scientific doctrine, while atheism is a stance on the position of gods. Arguing against materialism is not going to make the case for theism.
“Materialism is a scientific doctrine” is a basic category error. Materialism is a metaphysical doctrine (in ontology), like theism, and like theism or any other metaphysical doctrine is not itself susceptible to scientific falsification.
If materialism is true, there are no gods. Arguing against materialism is not arguing for theism, true; but if successful it is going to disprove a doctrine that rules out theism. If materialism is false, then theism might be true. If not, it can’t be.
9. Atheism is a conclusion, not a worldview. Atheism is not an answer to life, the universe, and everything – just the conclusion that theism isn’t.
Agnostic atheism isn’t a conclusion that theism is not the answer to life the universe, etc., but rather that the agnostic atheist himself doesn’t know that theism is or is not that answer. Taggard has no opinion about whether or not theism is or is not that answer. He is in the dark.
Thus agnostic atheism is not a conclusion at all. It is rather a radical openness to persuasion on the question of theism.
10. Attack the arguments for what is said, not what isn’t. Though this should apply to everyone – not just theists. Arguing against interpretations not in the text is setting up a caricature, as is arguing against uncharitable interpretations of what is said.
Amen. E.g., arguments against the Flying Spaghetti Monster are tilting at windmills. The FSM has nothing to do with the theist proposal.