2016 - Image-Religion2

Beyond Empiricism

It’s not surprising after several millennia of culturally enforced piety that many people believe in transcendence; contact with phenomena beyond the empirical world; and not just the faithful.
‘There must be something…’
…‘This can’t be all there is.’
People say things like this all the time, as if an assumption becomes a deductive truth. Conversely, some claim that limiting the world to naturalism reflects a form of faith itself, often labelled as scientism or dogma. This would imply a burden of proof on the naturalist to provide evidence (not faith) there is nothing beyond the natural world. Since this is demanding the impossible, it is an unreasonable demand. But is it equally unreasonable to reject the presumption of a non-empirical realm?

Cultural myths cast a shadow of otherworldliness upon our psyche. Even for non-believers it is natural to speculate on an afterlife. Offering an antidote for grief and a defeater to mortality, the cognitive bias that informs these beliefs seems watermarked into our consciousness. Wishful thinking is embedded in the phraseology of our language. Instead of dying we would much rather pass on or go to a better place in the next world, because death is not the end, but merely the beginning.

James Whitcomb Riley’s He is Not Dead:

I cannot say, and I will not say,
That he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land.
David Searls:
Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.
G.K. Chesterton
The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility… But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur.

Throughout history we witness the collaboration between assertion of the transcendent and an alibi for its absence. Unlike the sun at noonday which we can actually see, we can see no transcendence; not a blaze nor a blur, no shining or shapeless visage, no splendid confusion; only a crestfallen nothingness that leaves the assertion unfulfilled.

What if we accept the natural world is all; abandoning the afterlife and its promise of eternity? What sort of nihilism entails from this belief? Nietzsche articulates the insecurity entailed in his famous God is dead passage (from The Gay Science):

How could we drink up the sea?
Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from the sun?
Whither it is moving now? Whither are we moving?
Away from all suns?
Are we not plunging continually?
Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?
….Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?
Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?
…God is dead.
God remains dead.
We have killed him
To abandon faith is to slay humanities’ dearest illusions. Marx postulated real happiness depends on this excision:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Both Marx and Nietzsche understood implicitly the human need fulfilled by religion, and so they sought its replacement. Giving up the addiction to superstition and consolation was never going to be easy, and even now, after a century of gradual secularisation and a movement away from faith in many western countries, the supernatural still has its appeal. There is something in our nature that desperately clutches on to it, like a child to a parent.

The allegation of scientism, a word which has become a snarl word for excessive reductionism, is made against those who deny a mystical dimension. Since science cannot disprove a spiritual dimension, it must admit its possibility; and presumably its accessibility. Reza Aslan:

What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims–be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth–are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science
The argument rests on the unknowability of metaphysical claims; since they are beyond the purview of science they cannot be denied by science. Yet, how are they to be understood by any other fields of inquiry if they cannot be known? Rather than just supposing that there is something beyond the impenetrable boundary of the universe, shouldn’t we be considering whether there is or isn’t? It is of course quite a grand claim after all.

Cosmologists theorize that the universe is a closed system. The sum total of our existential knowledge is the observable universe, and what operates within that universe does so invariably according its nature. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p109:

It has likewise no impulse to self-preservation or impulses of any kind; neither does it know any laws. Let us beware of saying there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is no one to command, no one to obey, no one to transgress….
Nature is defined by the forces and entities that operate within it; it cannot observe laws, those laws are what we invent to describe its fundamental nature. Understanding the depth of Nietzsche’s point is appreciating that we should not expect miracles, or divine interventions; these are simply impossible. The natural order is impervious to prayer, worship, chance, and the wishful thinking of men.
If there is a supernatural or otherwise non-natural dimension outside the universe then it has stubbornly evaded detection. To presume its’ existence despite this, must surely entail an obligation to provide some evidence in support of it. We do not have to accept that people can communicate beyond the grave, or encode messages from deities, or are themselves reincarnated famous historical figures, or similar outlandish things.
If there is a path to knowledge beyond empirical inquiry then we should surely have some demonstrable effects of this knowledge. We should have solved some problems by non-natural means, and sought to harness its power. We should be able interrogate the veracity of supernatural claims. However, while attempts have been made, nothing has been proven. No-one has claimed James Randi’s prize.

If there is another type of reality beyond the universe we currently have no way of knowing anything about it. It is therefore impossible to know whether there is anything there, and if there is, what that thing or set of things might be. From a pure logic point of view it would be staggeringly unlikely that we should be able to guess what exists in another dimension or world without any relation to it.

And yet many people do predict what things might exist in an after-life, and the ways in which people might transcend the natural laws of this world. There is a wild assortment of transcendental beliefs; ghosts, gods, vampires, psychic abilities, magic, reincarnation, spirits, witches, goblins, fairies, werewolves, incubi and so on. How do we assess the validity of each of these claims based on having no knowledge or measurable relationship to them? Based on zero evidence, all we have to go on is the coherence of the claim. And perhaps this explains something. Those who describe the transcendent in contemporary literature seem to place high stock in wrapping the message in compelling, sometimes breathtaking language. Roger Scruton:

…the root of the human condition, points always towards the transcendental — the point on the edge of space and time, which is the subjectivity of the world.
sacred things are the ‘real presence’ of the supernatural, illuminated by a light that shines from the edge of the world.
Whilst they sound nice these statements are simply assertions without proof. This language carries over to the consideration of the transcendent as an activity in the observance religion and spiritualism. Through these meditations we can achieve greater insight into life, or enlightenment. The perceived value in religion is often expressed in phrases such as “pointing to the transcendent”, “its eternal, tranquil watchfulness,” or looking for the “sacred light of truth at the edge of the world.” Without question, there might be some introspective benefits to be obtained by these contemplations. But we should admit that they necessarily involve an effort of imagination and speculation to create an artificial experience. There is no real communication between this world and another one.
The search for genuine spirituality would assuredly be enhanced by a focus on achieving the individual experience rather than the fictional creation of other world-ness. Since we can have no knowledge, it is futile to accept faith in supernatural beings in a way that presumes precisely that somehow we do have knowledge; and that the supernatural being has an exacting and unambiguous plan which must all followed for our entire lives. Not only is it futile, it is counterproductive as we could be investing our time and intellects more wisely.
Kierkegaard’s paradox is essentially the human belief that we can know, what is by nature, unknowable, in relation to belief in God. We can somehow transcend our own rationality to perceive something without knowing how we perceive it. It is only a paradox if we choose to believe that there is something there that we cannot know about. Otherwise, it is not a paradox, it is a contradiction. One may object that if we perceive something without knowing how, we should be skeptical as to how we can know it. Other precedents for this type of knowledge include the hallucinations of those using illicit substances, and the delusions of the mentally ill. Even if we could argue that this knowledge is provided through some other means we are unconscious of, or only subliminally aware of, there is no way we can support the conclusion. Without accessible knowledge we have no way to verify or determine that this belief is justified. It is a license to claim the existence of any supernatural or natural entity. Greater care and diligence should be exercised before accepting of these type of beliefs, particularly considering that belief in God and observance of religion is to many people the most important and influential belief in their life. We cannot know what we cannot know. However we want to dress it up it is a case of special pleading, and we cannot rationalize our way to knowing what is unknowable. What is an existential mystery for Kierkegaard is also market opening for charlatans and cons.

To consider how the self might die, and then continue on to another reality is at odds with our medical knowledge. Sentience is a product of our brain. Our mind works because of the physical workings of our brain, which can be measured and studied in the realm of neuroscience. When the human body dies, the electrical impulses in the brain cease. There is no more consciousness; there are no more thoughts; there is a point which we can medically detect that sentience and life is gone. It seems incongruous that the mind will somehow kick start again without the brain, to allow a continuance in some other reality. In the event that it could, it would seem to indicate that the physical operation of the brain throughout life was an unnecessary redundancy, or a ruse to deceive us. Likewise it is problematic to imagine consciousness transferring to some other controller, our soul for instance, and still remaining a product of the same self. In addition, the soul remains undiscovered. If it is residing somewhere within our bodies, it is undetectable by the instruments of modern medicine. So in postulating transcendence or an afterlife, we do not even have a reasonable hypothesis for how our own identity continues to exist, never mind a clear idea of where that identity goes.
It is not unreasonable or dogmatic to reject belief in a non-empirical realm. There is no evidence, and it is only guesswork to speculate about it. Those who disagree are free to provide their evidence, and their explanation of how they know. It is clear that we must neither assume the existence, nor non-existence of a non-empirical realm. Though we should feel no obligation to award warrant for those who claim to hold knowledge of things that they are patently unable to demonstrate through evidence

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The Burden of Proof  

(See also Debunking the Witness of the Holy Spirit)

 

In philosophical discussions the burden of proof or, Latin: onus probandi, is said to rest with the person making the claim.  It is invalid reasoning, an argument from ignorance or, Latin: argumentum ad ignorantium, to contend that because something cannot be proved false it is assumed to be true, or that because something cannot be proved true it is assumed to be false.   Shifting the burden of proof is a significant issue in debates relating to the existence of God.

The same standard applies in the legal fraternity where the burden of proof generally rests with the prosecution, who must prove the defendant guilty by providing sufficient evidence to achieve a positive verdict beyond reasonable doubt.   The obligation lies with the claim maker, as the Latin maxim attests: semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit, which translates as, “the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges.”

In science, a hypothesis is proposed and this is subject to systematic observation, measurement and testing.    The results are used to ascertain the success or failure of the proposition, where further investigation may proceed to attempt to replicate the same result, or use the result to provide predictions that would entail from its’ truth.   In all cases the default position is that the proposition is unproved prior to its consideration.

Atheists tend to claim that the theist bears the burden of proof to justify the existence of God, whereas the theist tends to claim that both parties have an equal burden of proof.  The Oxford dictionary defines atheism as follows:

 Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

This definition allows for the subtle, but important, distinction between positive and negative atheism.   Positive atheism is the belief that God does not exist, whereas negative atheism simply lacks belief in the existence of god or god.   Antony Flew, in The Presumption of Atheism[1], has argued that negative atheism does not bear a burden of proof as it is not making a knowledge claim.   Negative atheism is simply the lack belief in God, a subtle but important distinction from the knowledge claim that God does not exist.  Atheism can be wide or narrow – some may be positive atheists in respect to the Omni God of the major montheisms, but negative atheists in regards to other concepts of God.   A wide positive atheist would assert that no Gods exist, and a wide negative atheist that he lacks belief in all Gods.

William Lane Craig argues that atheists have an equal burden of proof because they are making an equal knowledge claim to the theist.   Despite the dictionary definitions of atheism which all include lack of belief, he claims that a negative atheist view is an attempt to redefine atheism.

“Such a re-definition trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition atheism ceases to be a view, and even infants could count as atheists.”[2]

Craig is attempting to belittle the atheist position of lacking belief in God due to lack of evidence.  This is clearly misguided, but it underlies a key vulnerability in his claim that atheists should bear an equal burden of proof.  Negative atheism is clearly an opposing view to all forms of theism, and can be distinguished from any religious belief in God or gods.   It should not be deprecated as an insignificant belief as it would be opposed to the observance and privileging of religious beliefs, which it would view as unjustified.   To be aware of holding this view tends to result in opposing unwanted religious impositions one’s own life, and on the lives of others.   It is an inconvenient view as it seems to avoid bearing any burden of proof.    When Craig mentions that even infants can count as atheists he also betrays an appreciation that, in his view, the default position would indeed be a presumption of atheism.

It is useful to note that whilst Christian apologists assert that atheists bear an equal burden of proof, they also have a tendency to argue that it is impossible to disprove the existence of God.

“It is important to realize something about being an atheist that even most atheists fail to acknowledge and that is that atheism requires omniscience (complete knowledge of everything).… An atheist is making a positive assertion that there is no God. The only way that anyone could make such an assertion would be to presume that he knew everything about everything.” [3]

The existence of God is described as a universal negative.   A universal negative would be the type of negative argument that is impossible to prove due to our limited knowledge of the universe.    A proponent may argue that just because there is no evidence for P, does not mean that P does not exist.   Black swans were assumed not to exist because everyone knew all swans are white by nature; in fact the term black swans became a by word for impossibility.   They were then promptly discovered in Australia.

To attempt to prove a universal negative is extraordinary difficult. It can only be achieved if the proposition is logically impossible or false by definition. Bertrand Russell once remarked that he would be at a loss to prove that the Gods of ancient Greece did not exist:

If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments.

If we consider leprechauns or Bigfoot, we could conceivably demonstrate that they do not exist on earth, but then we would have to expand our search to the entire universe. If it is possible that something exists, it seems that disproving it is either a task of Herculean proportions, or practically impossible.

Therefore, unless we can demonstrate that God is logically impossible, or incoherent as a concept, then it would appear to be very difficult to disprove him. Thus, from a theist’s point of view, the burden of proof cannot rest on atheism.

(Of course, many atheists, including myself, do think the concept of God as generally understood in the major religions, is logically impossible and incoherent. However, this would not be accepted by apologists, and the attributes seen as incoherent or impossible could easily be revised.)

If the theist demands the atheist shoulders a burden of proof, and he also asserts that it is impossible to disprove the existence of god, then he is effectively demanding that the atheist prove the unprovable.   It is clearly nonsensical for the burden of proof to be placed upon any proposition that is unprovable.  Therefore, if we cannot prove a universal negative, then atheism cannot be expected to bear a burden of proof on the existence of God.

So the apologist needs to make a choice.   Does he believe that it is possible to prove a universal negative, or will he grant the atheist no burden of proof?   The claim that you cannot prove a negative is a self defeater.  As Stephen Hales argues it is folk logic to make this unsustainable claim, and that in the sense that we can prove anything by deduction or induction, we can prove a negative.  Therefore, the positive atheist should not be complacent.   Since he believes there is no God, whether in the narrow or wide sense, he should bear a burden of proof proportional to his claim.

It should be unnecessary to point out that we do not have an obligation to disprove those things we lack belief in.  When a hypothesis fails, it is not necessarily disproven; it has failed to be proven.  The proven and verified hypotheses are the ones we move forward with.  There is no positive reason to act on a hypothesis whose only merit is that it cannot be disproved.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

This oft quoted aphorism makes the point that the absence of evidence for God does not indicate positive evidence that God does not exist.   This is of course assuming that the nature of the entity or hypothesis being tested would not have necessitated evidence.  William Lane Craig argues in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Theistic Critiques of Atheism, that it in order to demonstrate that the absence of evidence provides a strong argument for disbelief in God:

….it is incumbent on the atheist to prove that if God existed, He would provide more evidence of His existence than what we have.[4]  

In a stunning twist the perceived lack of evidence for God is used to reverse the burden of proof on to the atheist.  This is equivalent to demanding the defense counsel prove their client is innocent by demonstrating the real culprit would have left better clues.  William Lane Craig then goes on to claim that there are two reasons why this is an enormously heavy burden of proof for the atheist to bear:

On at least Christian theism the primary way in which we come to know God is not through evidence but through the inner work of His Holy Spirit, which is effectual in bringing persons into relation with God wholly apart from evidence.  (2)  On Christian theism God has provided the stupendous miracles of the creation of the universe from nothing and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, for which events there is good scientific and historical evidence….

This annuls his own argument as he introduces evidence in points 1 and 2 to show that there is no absence of evidence after all.  The incoherency is exposed as Craig appears to think that, given the absence of evidence of God, the burden of proof is shifted to the atheist to prove that this should mean that God does not exist, at which time he will announce that we actually do have plenty of evidence of God!  He has invalidated the notion that a lack of evidence is not evidence of absence, by seeking to provide evidence.  This seems to imply that he actually believes that the lack of evidence is indeed a significant barrier to reasonably holding belief in God, and may actually constitute evidence of absence.  Furthermore, it does seem reasonable to propose that if God exists there might have been some evidence by now.

One wonders if a statute of limitations could be placed on the absence of evidence for the existence of God; after all, theists contend that this absence will not last forever.   Absence of evidence does not indicate God does not exist, but it does absolutely nothing to encourage belief in the proposition that he does exist, and merely implies that it is more rational to withhold belief until provision of said evidence.

In the absence of evidence there is nothing to be implied about that proposition.   Perhaps the aphorism can be reformulated:

In the absence of evidence, absence prevails

In the absence of sufficient evidence we, perforce, default back to the position which existed prior to the hypothesis.    In assuming that the hypothesis that God exists has failed, we revert to the position that we can neither affirm, nor deny Gods existence.   The default position is that we cannot prove the proposition that God exists, and equally, we cannot prove the proposition that God does not exist.  We might recognize equally; that we have no reason to believe in the existence of God, and that we may not be able to disprove Gods existence.   Evidently, the default position is completely neutral to the question, so neither the positive or negative position is proved.

When we consider this in practical terms, the default position is epistemologically equivalent to the negative atheist position of a lack of belief in God or God(s).   Otherwise, we would not only need to demonstrate that it is rational to hold beliefs without any reason or evidence, but also that we can do so in the absence of a proposition, which is clearly absurd.   Axiomatically, the neutral position is effectively the same as lacking of belief in the positive assertion that God exists.

A common objection to the argument that the burden of proof lies on the claim maker, is that evidence does not necessarily determine our beliefs.  If we can argue that we hold justified beliefs without evidence, then we should not require evidence as a justification to hold beliefs.  Let’s consider some examples:

I know that other minds exist

There plenty of evidence that other minds exist, as seen through the effects they cause.    There is an important distinction between evidence and irrefutable proof.  We do not require irrefutable proof to rationally hold beliefs, so long as they are supported by sufficient evidence.  We may not easily be able to demonstrate that other minds exist, but nevertheless we know that they do; the question is how do we know, and whether it is by evidence.   We have an intuitive understanding of the workings of other minds due to their apparent similarity with ours, as we observe the effects of the minds’ workings in the actions of the subjects concerned.    When we have a conversation with another person we can often identify a thinking process, or a line of thought, that enables us to not only confirm that a mind similar to ours is at work, but also to predict the sort of argument that may be soon to follow.   We can also point to the extensive medical evidence of how the brain works, and how the different regions of the brain can be seen to be influenced by various phenomena.

We can use the past to predict the future

How do we know that the laws of physics will work tomorrow?  We might argue that we know this without evidence.  However, our evidence is contained in the past, in a series of periods of time where the laws of physics have remained unchanged.  We have an observable pattern of evidence that the physical laws of nature, such as the law of gravity, can be seen to be operating in a consistent and typical manner.    In fact, it is distinctly noticeable that throughout history there have been no verified suspensions of the natural order.

A friend tells me his sister has got a job working in town

This might be advanced to suggest that we would not question this proposition, even though it is not accompanied by evidence.  We could substitute this phrase with any number of equally unsurprising assertions, such as, ‘my mother had her hair cut,’ that we would encounter regularly, and would have no need of questioning.  The evidence in favor of accepting this proposition is our level of trust in our friend, combined with the unexceptional nature of the claim.  If we distrusted our friend, we might not accept this proposition.  If we trust our friend, and it is implied that we do, since he is our friend, we would tend to count that trust in favor of relying on his testimony, and this would therefore constitute evidence in favor of its truth.  This knowledge is most likely incidental to us – it may have no bearing on our immediate happiness – therefore we would not have an obvious incentive to demand its justification.  It is also a fairly mundane claim, the sort that would be easily demonstrated by evidence, if required, and the sort that we would not need to proportion a great deal of evidence to accept.   It’s very ordinariness, and our common prior experience of these sort of claims, and the context in which they are normally be made, leads us to deduce that there is usually little incentive to mislead, and this would also count as evidence in favor of its acceptance.  In addition, if we are not accepting this knowledge on evidence, one has to provide an alternative reason why we are accepting it.

When there is no evidence of something, it is more reasonable to assume that it does not exist, rather than it does exist.  We see that in all other realms of human thought.  Lack of evidence is taken as strong reason to form the view that that proposition is unproved, or that the thing does not exist.  When we have insufficient evidence we operate on the assumption that the hypothesis is denied, until that evidence is provided.  There is no reason whatsoever to allow a special pleading for the existence of God.

The default position is neutral on the position of God’s existence.  The burden of proof is on the claim maker to justify his claim by evidence.   At the least, negative atheism does not bear a burden of proof – simple lack of belief in God can only be altered by provision of evidence to the contrary.   As per previous, it is unsustainable for the theist to hold that the belief that God does not exist is a universal negative, unprovable by definition, and that atheism should bear a burden of proof.   This indicates we should be wary of the suggestion that proving a negative is impossible.  Sufficient evidence is the standard by which we measure rational belief.

If you do not agree then I offer the following challenge:

Name one proposition involving the existence of a tangible entity that is unrelated to religious belief that you believe in without ANY EVIDENCE.

(When I offer the caveat tangible entity I wish to exclude concepts or abstract ideas, such as ‘love’ or ‘justice’ that I anticipate might be offered as solutions.)

I welcome your ideas and comments

 

 

[1] Flew, Antony (1984) [The Presumption of Atheism, 1976], God, Freedom and Immortality: A Critical Analysis (reprint ed.)

[2] Craig, William, L., 2007, Theistic Critiques Of Atheism, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp.  69-85.  Ed.  M. Martin.   Cambridge Companions to Philosophy.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[3] McFarland, Alex, 2007, The 10 Most Common Objections to Christianity, US : Bethany House Publishers, pg 37-38.

[4] Craig, William, L., 2007, Theistic Critiques Of Atheism, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp.  69-85.  Ed.  M. Martin.   Cambridge Companions to Philosophy.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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ATHEISM: TERMS, DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS  

In discussing atheism various terms are often employed as if their meaning is known by all. Further, the meanings of various terms are often conflated or muddled to suit a particular worldview. The following outlines some of the key terms. It’s important to recognise the distinctions which exist between different positions, and not to fall in to the trap of assuming, as many people do, that one position infers another. Such as an atheist is necessarily a materialist. Or that a naturalist’s are never theists.

Atheism

An Atheist either lacks belief in or disbelieves in god(s). Refer- Oxford Dictionary. Within the atheist position are a number of sub-positions which follow.

Despite the wild claims of some, Atheism isn’t a religion. Since it simply involves the negation of Theism, it’s understandable that the adversaries of Atheism take the opportunity to straw man it into equivalence with religion. Though, the advocates of Atheism are often also advocates of other positions listed below.

Weak Atheism 

A weak atheist lacks belief in the existence of God(s). This is a metaphysically weaker position than making the knowledge claim no god(s) exist. Weak atheism is also known as Negative atheism.

Positive atheism 

  • The positive disbelief or denial of the existence of god(s). Positive atheism is also known as Strong Atheism.

Wide atheism 

  • The denial of the existence of all gods.

Narrow atheism 

  • The denial of a particular conception of god.  Most Theists are typically narrow atheists about other gods such as Zeus, Shiva, or Thor. The Abrahamic religions specifically deny the existence of other gods.

Anti-Theism

As its name suggests, Anti-theism involves active opposing Theism, usually on the basis of an Atheist metaphysical view, and the proposition that religion is on balance a harmful influence on the world. The New Atheists are also Anti-Theists. Anti-theists tend to be strong atheists, at least in reference to the major world religions.

Anti-theism seems to be becoming the new bogey word of the religious apologists. The conflation between atheists and anti-theists is evident in a reluctance of some atheists to embrace the term, even movement atheists, combined with the apologist’s tactic of using it as a rhetorical bat.

Agnosticism 

Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether or not God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable.

Gnostic

The opposite of agnostic, a gnostic believes we can have knowledge of whether metaphysical claims are knowable. The word must be distinguished from Gnosticism, the group of ancient religions which shun the material world. Gnostic derives from the Greek word gnosis, which means pertaining to knowledge.

Theism

  • The belief in the existence of god(s).

God

There are various definitions of God. Western conceptions of god include the omni properties of omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and all good. Richard Swinburne offers the following:

a person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things

Spiritual

This word can mean any number of things, often associated with the human spirit and the soul. Generally, it’s concerned with the aspiration to higher levels of awareness, fulfilment, or meaning within life, as opposed to material or physical things. Often invoked as a general term in relation to religious belief, it has also become a quasi-metaphysical position widely adopted by the non-religious, or by non-observant believers, to describe a state of belief in a spiritual realm or a source of meaning for humans.

Combining Terms*

In developing a position, particularly as a non-believer, we may wrestle with our level of certainty that certain things don’t exist, or with the epistemological justification for ruling them out altogether. As such, various combinations are used to clarify ones position.

*Agnostic Atheism

This position accepts both that we cannot have knowledge of whether gods exist and that we don’t believe they exist. An Agnostic Atheist will therefore tend to be a Weak Atheist.

*Gnostic Atheism

Lacking belief or disbelieving in the existence of Gods and believing we can have knowledge of such metaphysical items.

*Gnostic Theism

Theists are typically gnostic, believing they can have knowledge that god exists.

*Agnostic Theism

Believing that god exists and also believing that we cannot have knowledge of this.

Naturalism 

Naturalism is the belief that the universe can be explained exclusively by natural laws and forces. There are no supernatural, or non-natural entities or causes, or if there are, they will be understandable in scientific, natural terms.  (See Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Supernaturalism

Not all things that exist are natural. There are some entities, forces, or phenomena that exist beyond the spatial-temporal world that science investigates.

The distinction between naturalism has been problematic as it’s difficult to assign a “nature” to the unnatural speculation of supernaturalism. See The False DichotomyRichard Carrier has postulated that supernatural might be defined to only include mental processes which are unexplainable by natural forces.

Methodological Naturalism

According to this view the most effective way of acquiring knowledge is through the methods of science, not from logic, deduction or conceptual approaches. Using observation, hypothesis, and empirical disconfirmation is the best way to study the world, and obtain knowledge. Methodical Naturalism is concerned with the means to acquire knowledge—rather than a metaphysical view about the ultimate constituents of reality. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick) (Also, refer to Naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Materialism

Materialism is the view that all things are made of matter and nothing else. While materialism appears to overlap with naturalism, especially ontological naturalism, we should see it as an explicitly metaphysical thesis about the ultimatum constituents of reality, but not as much a view about what the best methods are for acquiring knowledge of that reality.  Some of the Greeks, for instance, arrived at the materialism conclusion through a priori or more conceptual reasoning.

Eliminative materialism

This view denies our intuitive understanding of the mind and proposes that some or all of the mental states we normally refer to don’t actually exist. The eliminative materialist believes that with the expansion of our scientific inquiries, there are often concepts such as “demonic spirits,” or “celestial spheres,” that cease to find a place within our theories.  Some terms, like “heat,” we keep, but only by radically revising what we think the ultimate physical constituents of heat are.  Other terms are too embedded in an old model of reality to be effectively salvaged.  The label applies primarily to a position about minds, but we can see the implications for God and many religious concepts. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick)

Reductionism

A reductionist believes complex systems and phenomena can be reduced and explained entirely in terms of their parts and their causal interactions.  Reductionism in philosophy of mind can be contrasted with emergentism, or epiphenomenalism.  According to these anti-reductionist views, mental states, qualia, consciousness or other phenomena are produced by physical processes, but they cannot be explained entirely in terms of them.  For a variety of reasons, theists are often anti-reductionists, but reductionism itself as a thesis about explaining objects in nature is distinct from atheism. (Courtesy, Proving the Negative – Matt McCormick)

Belief

Belief: the acceptance that something is true with or without evidence or proof.

Faith

Faith: the acceptance that something is true on trust with or without evidence or proof. See The Perils of Faith

Knowledge

In everyday usage, knowledge is understood to be sum of what is known, and comprises facts, information and skills.

In Philosophy, theories of knowledge have been propounded for centuries. The most well-known hypothesis is true, justified belief.

Secular

Not involved or requiring religious, supernatural or spiritual matters.

Secular doesn’t necessarily entail a denial of religious beliefs, or the demand that society or individuals should abandon religion. It’s important to appreciate this distinction. Secular is most often used in connection with the desirability of a separation of church and state. Many Secularists also subscribe to pluralism, and religious freedom, championing freedom to practise or hold one’s preferred metaphysical beliefs without coercion.

Epistemology

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge with regard to its methods, validity and scope, and distinguishing between justified belief and unjustified belief. See Oxford Dictionary.

Pluralism

Pluralism is a belief in allowing the co-existence of more than one belief system, political party, ideology or interest group. It’s a system whereby society isn’t governed by one overriding principle or ideology.

Religious Freedom

The principle, that individuals and groups in society should have the freedom to manifest their chosen religion. This freedom includes no religion, and to change religion or “apostasy.”

Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty might seem to be exactly the same thing as religious freedom, but it’s more focussed on protecting the right to observe and practise religious beliefs and traditions, in particular when they come in to conflict with secular law. It’s often invoked as if it’s a natural right, to help sway a debate towards allowing a religious group to privilege their own beliefs on the basis of conscience. For instance, in India polygamy is permitted within Islamic groups, on the basis of religious liberty. In other places in the world sharia law is used exclusively by the Muslim population, even given significant differences to secular law.

Model-Dependent Realism

  • A theory of knowledge posited by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design. Reality can be described by models, or several overlapping models, where the absolute “true reality” of everything is an impossible ideal. This model is applied to relativity, quantum mechanics and theories of everything.

 

AND FINALLY…

If there are any concepts you think I should be including here, or if you disagree with my definitions and comments I would be keen to hear from you.

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What Sort of Non-Believer Are You?  

Non-Believers are the fastest growing religious demographic. Pew Survey 2014: in the US the unaffiliated grew from 16% to 22% concurrent with an 8% decline in Christianity.  Around the globe the highest numbers of non-believers are in China 30%, Japan 31%, Ireland 44%, France 34%, Australia 48%, Czech Republic 48% and the Netherlands 42%, according to WIN-Gallop.

Only small % identify as atheists. How many Non-Believers do you think are Atheists?

Well…THEY ALL ARE. Atheists lack belief or disbelieve in the existence of god or gods, so by definition every single non-believer is also an atheist.

If this is a teeth-gnashing thought, let me assure you I have no intention of co-opting unwilling non-believers to the Atheist cause. But the point that anyone who simply lacks a positive belief in god or god’s, falls under the Atheist umbrella has some degree of utility.

For even amongst agnostics and non-believers there’s a fair degree of antipathy towards atheists, most particularly towards the New Atheists. The strident, evangelical types such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who, not only disbelieve, but mercilessly attack faith are also antitheists. Atheism is a much wider group than antitheism, incorporating all of those who lack belief in gods and who identify as such.

I am hopeful that, if you accept non-belief equals Atheism, if only in the definitional sense, it will soften negative views. Atheism needn’t be the horrible bogeyman it was once, when it was regarded synonymously with rapists and child abusers. Religion has peddled hard the theory that without belief, nothing compels us to behave morally. And that’s why atheists used to be killed as heretics and apostates, in fact, still are some parts of the world. If there’s any group who should understand the point that there is nothing immoral, untrustworthy or malevolent about Atheists, it’s that growing group of Non-believers of which Atheists are a subset.

For the record, refer Pew Survey, Atheists account for a mere 3.1% on the US non-believers, whilst the balance comprise, agnostic, 4.0%, and nothing in particular, 15.8%.

Worldwide, non-believers make up 23% of the population, with 13% Atheist (WIN-Gallup). A substantially higher proportion of people identify as Atheist in China and Secular Europe where the stigma associated with the word is not as prevalent.

Within the category of non-believer there are various metaphysical positions. The deficit between the total non-believers, and the atheists/agnostics, poses an interesting question. If they are not atheists or agnostics how do these people identify? And what rationale do they use to develop their worldview?

To illustrate the possibilities I will outline my specific Atheist outlook.

Since I lack belief in god I identify as an atheist: but why? I used to say I was agnostic until I began reading widely on the subject.

The metaphysical question ultimately resides in my view of the likelihood of god creating the universe. Richard Swinburne defines God as follows:

a person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things

Firstly, I am agnostic on whether some Thing or Things created the universe. I think it’s probable that something has always existed, and “nothing” is not a real concept but a boundary condition. It seems there’s some, albeit inconclusive, evidence in the physics of the world that material things never reduce to nothing. Parmenides idea that “from nothing, nothing comes,” seems persuasive to me; not in suggesting some sort of invisible necessary being, rather, that nothing is an impossible state. Despite all this I can’t absolutely rule out a “creator.”

But if there’s a creator, it’s staggeringly unlikely to be an Omni-propertied, invisible person, satisfying the definition of the major world religions. In addition, I discount any likelihood the universe was created with humans as its special focus.

If a “creator” exists there’s no evidence to suggest what it is. The erroneous presumption of the traditional arguments for God, such as the Cosmological argument, is that a creator must be a personal being. But the “deduction” is flawed. It’s based on the same counterfactual argument as the Argument for Design: it appears as if an intelligent force must have created the universe because of the natural order of things. The argument for Design has been debunked by Evolution, a natural process, which only seems “intelligent” when viewed through the lens of anthropomorphic confirmation bias. So, just by dent of existing, we can hardly jump to the conclusion that the cause of existence has any knowable characteristics; that’s a non-sequitur of epic proportions.

The universe could have spawned by a larger universe, or the collapse of a previous universe; it could have arisen out of a “force” or a physical material within it as yet undiscovered. It’s even possible that whatever caused the universe no longer exists. Countless other examples might be listed. The point is that we just don’t know, and whilst I may personally hold a speculative belief that something always existed, I remain agnostic due to the lack of empirical evidence. Contemplating the history of human knowledge, as it stumbled from theories of animism to flat-earth to heliocentrism, we see again and again that it’s impossible to solve fundamental questions about the natural world by intuition or deduction alone. We have been spectacularly wrong in the past. Until 200 years ago most of what we thought we knew about the world was absolutely wrong.

To remain open minded on the existence of a creator is to be agnostic about deism, or adeist. This could easily translate to agnosticism; the belief we cannot know whether god(s) exist.

However, considering both the Abrahamic religions and Swinburne’s concept of God, I feel compelled to conclude that no such beings exist. Not only is there no proof, or reason, to think deities with such specific characteristics exist, I find it unreasonable to consider the possibility sufficiently likely to award it any epistemological status. In other words, I consider the existence of god(s) to be equivalent with the belief in other mythical, patently anthropomorphic, human concepts such as dragons, fairies and incubus, along with creatures of legend such as Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and xxxx.

Therefore, I would identify as a gnostic atheist. Noting and recognizing that this position is substantially stronger than agnostic atheism (not knowing and non-believing), or weak atheism (simply lacking belief in god(s)), I prefer to be just as unequivocal about god(s) existence as other mythical creations.

In addition to the absence of any evidence, the concept of god as practiced in the major world religions is patently borne out of the human desire to understand and explain the world, to provide a purpose to life, to provide consolation in death, appealing to the primal urge to survive. The “soul in a soulless world,” said Marx, the appeal of religion is obvious and transparent. Whenever we hear a bang on the roof, and upon inspection find a fallen tree limb, we notice our evolutionary wiring to ascribe agency (an intelligent will) to nature as an instrument of survival.

The concept of god is incoherent and contradictory. Reflecting on the Abrahamic concept of god, a singular being, self-created, self-sufficient, of no parents, and with no relationships to other equal or similar beings; and yet having familial feelings of love for one species of creatures he’s created, strikes me as absurd, and a manifestly human projection. The problem of evil stands in contrast to the purported Omni properties of god. And theologians who rationalize the necessity of the random deaths of thousands in tsunami’s and earthquakes, of the millennia of high infant mortality, the brutal and arbitrary nature of life in the universe, are faced with the idea of heaven; where no evil exists for eternity.

Similarly, the timeless nature of god seems incoherent. How did god think of his creation prior to creating it when there was no time? Recall, god apparently exists independent of time and space, and created the world from nothing. Under Christianity for example, god must have desired to create a universe with humans as his special focus of creation. The reasoning involved to create such a universe would be activities taking place outside of space and time? What was gods first thought then? How did one thought precede another without time? A personal being which plans and creates yet sits outside of time itself seems like a contradictory hypothesis.

As we have observed, personal beings such as humans are complex organisms which have evolved over millions and millions of years from less complex life forms. As Richard Dawkins points out in “The God Delusion,” the simple precedes the complex.

For these reasons I identify as a gnostic atheist. I am aware of others who hold similar views on the extent to which we can have knowledge of god(s) who identify as agnostic or weak atheist. One of the key reasons I reject agnosticism is that we are forced to make a choice between supporting religious belief or not. Simply agreeing we cannot know with absolute certainty would be fine if we were discussing a concept which had no bearing on our lives. But we have powerful religious lobbies, religious influence in government, tax free exemptions, the rise in religious cults, sectarian violence, religious wars, religious instruction in schools, school chaplains, denial of evolution and climate change, the religious influence on social policies such as same-sex marriage and abortion, and the infiltration of political parties and leaders by undisclosed religious ideologies. Again and again the hand of religion is out asking for assistance and support.

The agnosticism which proffer’s no opinion on the existence of god(s), but recognizes that we can have no knowledge of whether they exist or not, is bound to acquiesce to the demands of religious groups far too often. Agnostics sometimes erroneously claim that atheists and theists hold beliefs whereas they simply observe reality. Agnosticism is a belief also: the belief we can have no knowledge of whether god(s) exist. When it’s demanded that we observe some aspect of religious doctrine, such as requests for donations, or allowing clergy into schools, we either assent to the belief in god(s) influencing our life or not. A decision is required.

So, what type of non-believer you are largely depends on your level of certainty about the existence of god(s). Answering the following questions might help in establishing your position.

Do you lack belief in god(s)? Identify: Weak Atheist, Agnostic Atheist.

Do you positively disbelieve in the existence of god(s)? Identify: Strong Atheism, Gnostic Atheist.

Do you hold no beliefs in the existence of god(s) but still think it’s likely that some sort of spiritual realm exists? Identify: Agnostic, Spiritual.

Do you believe in the values of a particular religion and believe there must be some sort of god or deity, but that we cannot know what it is? Identify: Spiritual, Deist, Agnostic.

Do you think we cannot know that god(s) exist but still think it’s likely they do? Identify: Agnostic theist, Agnostic.

Do you have certain knowledge god(s) exist? Identify: Gnostic Theist, Theist.

What sort of non-believer are you?

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Defogging the Enchanted Glass

enchanted glass

 

 

For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.

 

            Sir Francis Bacon, 1640

 

In the murky depths of the human mind, faith and reason both participate in forming beliefs. But they don’t necessarily overlap or share the same epistemic value in forming knowledge. I’m inspired by Nick Trakakis thoughtful account of his struggle to reconcile his faith with philosophic inquiry in Why I Am Not Orthodox, ABC’s Religion & Ethics, 7 December 2015. Trakakis concludes that faith commitment to the main forms of organised religion is “incompatible with the pursuit of truth and wisdom”. The idea that faith contains epistemic value is the mirage of organised religion.

I want to challenge the understanding of faith presented in the responses to Trakakis article: Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Benjamin Myers, 9 December 2015, and Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Richard College, 22 December 2015: both from ABC’s Religion & Ethics.

Blaise Pascal paradoxically described faith as providing the “heart” with “reasons” which elude “reason”:

 

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.

 

By definition, faith and reason are mutually exclusive. Faith is defined various ways, but always entails a lack of evidence. Faith always walks hand in hand with doubt. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines faith generally as “trust”, and notes religious faith has several models: “affective”, “cognitive” or “volitional”.

Affective faith is a state of confidence and trust.

Cognitive faith refers to certain knowledge of God provided directly through revelation. Cognitive faith arms itself with Reformed Epistemology, an alternative epistemology where claiming direct knowledge of God is a legitimate form of evidence. The cognitive faith of reformed epistemology is excluded from this discussion because it attempts to fundamentally alter the generally accepted rules of evidence and verification. It even endows humans with a cognitive faculty for detecting God, the sensus divinitatis, of which no evidence exists. Unless there’s some reason or evidence to regard reformed epistemology as a legitimate arm of knowledge, then it remains an article of faith itself.

Volitional Faith is the choice to believe sometimes characterised as intellectual assent.  Faith can be either a type of act or a type of assent. So both affective faith and volitional faith involve trust and confidence in a proposition.

Philosopher Matt McCormick defines faith as:

 

 Faith: Belief without sufficient evidential justification.

 

Faith is offered in defence of believing in what we have insufficient legitimate reasons to believe. Faith should not be used as a substitute for evidence. To use it as justification for belief is a category mistake which assumes the existence of a faith-based category of knowledge which is unavailable.

The Oxford Dictionary defines evidence as:

 

Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.

 

If faith could actually contribute something tangible towards accepting a belief, it would constitute evidence. Since faith, by definition, is belief in the absence of sufficient evidence, the concept that it’s an actual reason for belief is self-negating and self-referential. It’s breaking the rules of epistemology to insert faith on the evidential scale as if somehow bridges the gap between incomplete evidence and knowledge.

Faith is an attitude towards evidence, rather than a form of evidence in itself. Faith does not provide “fullness to reasoning”, it simply pumps up the tyres of belief beyond what is epistemically justifiable. Faith has no epistemic content to apply to the proposition.

Failure to understand this leaves us imprisoned in an epistemology where the unknown and the unverifiable share the same status as verified knowledge. We lament the results of this failure over and over in debates about evolution, climate science and other areas where pre-existing beliefs and mythology clash with science.

Once we liberate knowledge from its foggy prison we can consider the merit of applying the same discipline to religion. What happens to religion without the supernatural? Can we reconsider religion without its myths? Is there a non-theistic future for religion?

The “Faith” of the Gaps

The God of the Gaps argument uses gaps in scientific knowledge as evidence for God’s existence. A parallel can be drawn in the use of faith to plug the gaps in theories of knowledge. To Benjamin Myers, faith and reason are indelibly connected. Further, Myers claims faith is foundational to reason. But his claim that we “cannot get started without faith” is flawed. The reality is that we cannot get started without evidence.

Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s argument that we should accept Christianity on faith alone. (I note Clements self-defeating claim to have dozens of cogent arguments in reserve). But we simply cannot consider Christianity without processing a substantial sum of information describing the beliefs and doctrines of the religion. These make certain claims about the creation of the world, the life of Jesus, human nature, and our purpose in the world. One cannot fail to consider how credible these claims are. One cannot switch off inbuilt mechanisms for applying our critical faculties to the story, and contrasting it to knowledge of history, cosmology, anthropology and so on. It’s true that we might choose to adopt belief in the absence of sufficient evidence. But that’s not the same as starting with faith alone. The proposition contains basic information which constitutes evidence. So we’re not starting with faith, but evidence. It’s more accurate to say that we’d be starting with insufficient evidence and heaping faith on top of it, like coals onto a fire.

To start with faith Myers argues we need to adopt a change of disposition to one of “basic trust”. Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s comparison of faith to getting drunk at a party.

 

You might have some doubt about whether it’s right for a person to get drunk. But it’s your practice to get drunk before considering the question….Only when divine things are in question do you first inquire…

 

Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that most people don’t just get drunk without thinking about it anymore. Drink driving laws have put paid to that. And even prior to modern sensibilities about alcohol consumption, it’s quite silly and untrue to say we only apply reason to questions of the divine. But the insistence on applying a “disposition” of trust helps us acknowledge that this is what “faith” is: an attitude, a belief – not a form of evidence.

Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring the problem of propositional knowledge Myer’s outlines. The assertion that there are things which first must be accepted without proof is based on the philosophical problem of defining knowledge. But alas, it doesn’t provide a compelling argument in favour of faith. Myer’s point is valid only to the extent that philosophical theories of knowledge are inadequate. Theories of knowledge fail to provide an agreed evidential foundation for what we regard as knowledge.

If I take my knowledge of a thing A, based on the evidence for it B, I should also logically require evidence for B. But now I am stuck in an infinite regress unless I can prove some item of knowledge which is foundational. A foundational type of knowledge might be considered our first direct perception, or an article of faith. Thus, so the argument goes, we must start by assuming something is true.

But equally, we acknowledge the substantial progress made in science, technology and other areas of knowledge without an apparent foundation. Our expectation that knowledge must have a foundation may be unrealistic, especially considering the traditional definition knowledge – as justified, true, belief. Gettier problems demonstrate the expectation of perfect knowledge is unrealistic given they rely on our own imperfect perception. Things that seemed justified and true have long turned out to be false on closer inquiry. Virtually nothing is known with absolute certainty.

When, for instance, we view a red car, our perception and knowledge is often incomplete. We recognise the image and the attributes of a motor vehicle, but we don’t appreciate the object in its totality. We don’t know what brand of oil is used. We mightn’t know all of the parts of the car. Many things inside are hidden from view. We wouldn’t perceive all of the molecules and atoms which make it up. In addition, we may be deceived by an illusion, or by mental illness, or a failure of eyesight.

But, in practical terms, we can use the red car to go to and from work, to pick up our kids from school, and to go shopping. It’s not an article of faith that our red car will reliably assist our lives – it’s based on reasonable evidence. Yet our knowledge of it is far from perfect. But even so, there’s no reason whatsoever to place “faith” as the foundation of our red-car knowledge. And though we’re satisfied by our practical knowledge, we cannot justify how our knowledge of the red car is founded.

The “Faith” of the Gaps is the unjustified insertion of faith as the foundation of knowledge. This theory not only suffers from a lack of any substantive argument, but must overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle that faith is not an article of evidence but an attitude towards it.

The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours

sunlightstainedglass

Crucially, the limits of knowledge don’t dictate that we must take things on faith. The nominated candidates for faith are almost always an extremely narrow set of metaphysical, religious beliefs for which no verifiable proof or disproof exists. It’s hardly coincidental that the advocates for elevating faith are the same people who advocate the unverifiable beliefs.

Myers quotes Augustine from The Advantage of Believing:

 

If it’s wrong to believe something we do not know, I’d like to know how children can obey their parents and return their love and respect without believing they are their parents. There’s no way this could be known by reason. We have a belief about our father based on the word of our mother…

 

It’s not the case that children rely on faith to determine who their parents are. Children have many good reasons to conclude that their parents are their real parents. Their mother has cared for them ever since they can remember. Their parents might share physical similarities. Their parents claim to be their parents. And their siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents all agree. The foundation is not trust, but reasonable evidence. They could even get a paternity test if necessary!

Augustine continued:

 

… But we do believe, without any hesitation, things that we admit we can’t really know … We could give lots of examples to show that nothing in human society would be stable if we decided not to believe anything except the things that can be held with absolute certainty.

 

From the premise that we believe many things which cannot be known with “absolute certainty” it does not follow that we must therefore rely on faith. As Sigmund Freud said in The Future of an Illusion, “The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours.” The human cognitive bias towards absolutism tricks the mind into imagining the problem as a false dichotomy: Faith or reason. But that’s a false choice. We base our beliefs and knowledge on a varying scale of reason: a scale varying between no evidence, some evidence and an irrefutable amount of evidence.

Do we, for instance, know anything with absolute certainty based solely on faith? And tellingly, how would we test any claim that we do? By using evidence? How do we choose which beliefs to have faith in without evidence? Why not choose Poseidon, Mithras, Apollo or any other God to place our faith in?

Faith is not a category of evidence

awillioam jameswill to believeIn William James famous lecture given in 1896, The Will to Believe, he argues in “defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.”

James is influenced by the human need for necessary knowledge:

 

…the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessing of real knowledge.

 

He argues absolutism is a requirement of knowledge because humans need it.

But simply because humans want or need it, does not make it so.

The underlying a priori assumption that because humans need certain things, the world and its objective reality must necessarily comply, is clearly a product of religious belief itself. One only assumes such a thing if we consider humans pivotal to creation itself.

His most persuasive point is that evidence regarding a beliefs truth or falsity is sometimes only accessible to believers. Pointing to St Augustine’s oft quoted “Unless you believe, you will not understand” James contends that we must first use faith to welcome in the object of our faith, and only then can we achieve further knowledge.

If this is true then it stands to reason that it applies beyond religious belief. But the testing of a hypothesis or holding a provisional belief in one, isn’t the same as intellectual assent. Do the scientists investigating “string theory” actually believe in it? From reading about them recently it seems they do make an investment in belief to some extent. To be precise, they hold a provisional belief. Provisional means subject to testing and verification, sitting somewhat short of accepted knowledge. Scientific history is full of surprising discoveries made whilst trying to prove something else. By no means is it demonstrated that any particular knowledge relies on holding a belief in it prior to discovery or verification. And wondering if something is true is hardly the same as believing it.

And how can we ignore the internal contradiction of arguments made for faith on the basis of evidence and reason? We’re asked us to accept an attitude of “basic trust” to propositions such as the existence of God or Christianity, without sufficient reason and evidence, by accepting the offered reason and evidence. On what epistemic basis do we consider such arguments? If they are lacking in evidence do we just insert an attitude of faith? And if so, how can we ignore the obvious circularity in using faith to justify faith, and the internal contradiction of using evidence to justify faith?

Distinguishing Faith and Reason

faith-and-reason

Richard College, Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nik Trakakis, ABC Religion & Ethics, 22 December 2015, provides an interesting discussion of the “the epistemology of disagreement”.

The founding premises of our beliefs are informed by “gut intuitions”. These intuitions are influenced by such things as our genes, early life experiences and traumatic events, socio-cultural influences, the structure of one’s language, geographic and political context, and religious instruction. Experimental psychologists have scientifically identified these tribal influences as producing cognitive biases.

Referencing William James The Will to Believe, College contends that “underlying pre-rational passions and volitions” inform which “truth-claims are more or less on the table”.

College’s “gut intuitions” are the human fogginess in the enchanted glass. There’s no doubt that human beliefs are informed by reasoning which is unduly influenced by non-evidential factors. But it doesn’t follow that abstract concepts such as reason and faith are artificially conjoined by human folly.

College contends:

 

Faith and reason are not hermetically sealed rival domains – the so-called disjunction of Athens and Jerusalem – requiring us to either suppress one and champion the other (hence the alternatives of hyper-rationalism or fideism), or try to find a way of breaching the abyss between them through some kind of uneasy balance.

 

College’s argument mirrors James argument that because humans use faith to form beliefs, then faith must be indelibly bound to reason. ie. because humans practise it, it must be so. But acknowledging the human propensity to prematurely form beliefs by using cognitive biases, such as wishful thinking, does nothing to suggest that those biases contribute to the epistemological status of the hypothesis. What humans believe has no bearing on reality. The scientist’s test is not made more likely of success because he has a hunch it might be true. Just because humans are prone to make these mistakes, doesn’t imbue them with virtue. Humans are inclined to apply faith to hypotheses with insufficient evidence. Acknowledging this unremarkable fact should not compel us to enjoin the magisterium of faith and reason. To the contrary, it should stiffen our resolve not to conflate them.

Since the world exists independently and objectively, then reason ought to be the most efficient and effective way of ascertaining knowledge of the world. Perhaps reflecting centuries of near universal religiosity, philosophers attempting to define “reason” often presume it only applies to humans. Despite this, we see other animals in nature displaying the use of reason, albeit at a more primitive level. Reason is a variable faculty in humans, as it is in nature. We easily envisage the possibility of alien life forms using reason much better than we do. We expect man-made technology to assume and even outperform the human capacity for reason some time in the future. Reason is an abstract concept which needn’t be limited by humans.

We ought to use the concept of reason to find the best path to knowledge. We must distinguish reason and human reason. To accept reason as subject to the passions of humans is to limit the human project. And to succumb to the rationalisation that evidence plus a dash of faith constitutes reason, is gaming the system to achieve a preordained result.

The faith claims of religion aren’t susceptible to reason’s weighing of evidence because they contain none. Artificially moving the concentric circles of the two domains over one another may provide hope for holders of unverifiable beliefs, but that hope is a mirage.

As Trakakis argues, the problem with religious faith is assuming we know the truth to start with. We’re not open to honest enquiry if we assume to know the truth on faith, as if faith constitutes an article of evidence in itself.

Can we imagine religion without God?

skylanterns

Having separated faith and reason let’s now attempt to reunite them again. There’s nothing wrong with faith per se: my argument merely notes faith is an attitude of trust not an article of evidence. If we cannot have faith in God, what then do we put our trust in?

In western societies the supernatural claims of Christianity are waning. In the post information-explosion world, faith is no longer enough to perpetuate extraordinary claims which continue to elude proof. The question becomes whether religion can survive and in what form. The diverse and changeable history of Christianity suggests that it may live on.

The beliefs of Christianity have changed continuously from the 1st and 2nd century until now. The original belief in a heaven on earth was reinvented to a supernatural one when the “imminent” second coming failed to arrive. From Judaism to Gentile Christianity to Medieval Christendom, from Protestantism to Enlightenment secularism, to the myriad modern Christian sects – the doctrines of Christianity have been debated, revised and reinterpreted. Christianity is nothing if not resilient.

That’s why it’s possible to envisage the religion which will replace Christianity is Christianity itself: a new form which reimagines theology by placing faith entirely within the realm of reason. Consider how much stronger faith would be when unshackled from fancies and clamped-on-hard to the real world.

Rather than providing “fullness to reasoning”, faith can become an attitude of trust to reason. Not, mind you, the elevation of human reason to exalted status, or the reification of reason to the point where it’s harmful, but simply a trust in using evidence to form knowledge whilst acknowledging the limits of knowledge. In a religious sense, trust can extend to using reason to seek wisdom – the wisdom necessary to properly define and fulfil the mortal human project.

By following reason rather than faith, the metaphysical claims of a deconstructed Christianity would become natural rather than supernatural. The Sermon on the Mount loses none of its force if we accept a non-divine view of Jesus. The tale of the Good Samaritan may or may not be based on a real event. In terms of its use as a parable in the modern age, it’s truth is neither here nor there. Also, regarding Jesus as a mortal teacher and a moral compass allows the sort of mutability envisioned by Sigmund Freud. The existing teachings and values of Christianity can change according to their utility and relevance.

The power of mythology is not its perceived truth, but the power to unify. Myths have defined societies from prehistory to the present day. Today, we witness the myths of religion replaced with conspiracy theories and a fragmented set of social networks. Modern humans participate in a wide array of disparate preoccupations including social networking, meditation, reality television, online gaming, personal development, political causes, literary pursuits, sporting and social clubs, weight loss schemes, personal fitness and so on. Replacing the sense of community of religion with their own narrow values and aspiration these are pseudo-religions. No doubt modern society would benefit from the rituals and healing of organised religion under an umbrella of shared values. But in modern pluralist society, unity cannot be achieved by exclusionary religious groups practising a narrow set of beliefs. Whereas once unity was achieved by universal conformity and punishment of dissent, nowadays, it could only be achieved by a broad and inclusive philosophy.

Reprising the earlier discussion of provisional beliefs, there might be a way for Christians to maintain some theistic beliefs without offending reason. It’s not unreasonable to admit the mystery of existence whilst entertaining a notion of a creator-God. Provisional beliefs in cherished aspects of Christianity could survive, whilst acknowledging alternative theories and competing views occupy equal status. Embracing uncertainty, and admitting the limits of knowledge, will become tools to regulate beliefs.

The dogma will go. Consider how few of the 613 Mosaic Commandments of the Old Testament – including edicts such as “Break the neck of a calf by the river valley following an unsolved murder” – remain relevant today. Add to this the disproven stories, such as Genesis, Noah’s Ark, and the Exodus, and it’s not hard to imagine postmodern Christians taking a more agnostic attitude to the metaphysical and doctrinal claims derived from The Book.

A new Christianity may become a melting pot of Christian humanism, secular humanism and a philosophy. Christian humanism has a long tradition dating back to Justin the Martyr and other 2nd century writers. Using the teachings of Jesus and selectively using other parables from the Bible, might form the basis of a non-theistic Christian ethics.

This is not to say that Christianity will simply become secular humanism. Humanism is a broad and loosely defined movement derived from both Christian and secular influences. As an ethical philosophy focussed on humans eschewing the supernatural or transcendent, humanism isn’t as broad in scope or ambition as Christianity. But the rituals and institutions of Christianity could transform humanism into a theological project. One can readily imagine the commingling of the rituals, philosophies and ideas of both resulting in a new type of religion.

Rather than a set of fixed beliefs and creeds, the “religion” becomes a collection of ideas aimed at remodelling and convalescing humankind. The religion would more realistically produce ideas on how to improve the human condition – ethically, spiritually and philosophically. The consensus of human knowledge would form a basis for human betterment.

Capturing the essence of what is human and how to describe human nature would inaugurate such a project. An unsentimental, naturalistic picture of humans and our natures is by no means a finished project. Since our scientific understanding of human nature is incomplete, our philosophic meditations on human nature will necessarily be provisional. The study of human nature cuts across many fields. Any progress made in solving the “hard problem of consciousness”, in understanding the origins of life, and describing the elements within the universe, will all contribute to a deeper understanding of the human condition and our place within the universe.

Our knowledge is still in its infancy. We are no wiser on the best of way to live than were our ancestors in Aristotle’s time. We aren’t even much wiser than the humans who blew their handprints in red ochre on cave walls 25 thousand years ago. We’ve had thousands of years of erroneously assuming we are the centre and pinnacle of creation, the lone species for whom a divine purpose has been set out: preparing ourselves for a mythical life after death. We need to unlearn all that.

Lloyd Geerings Christianity Without God describes a pathway for Christians to reconcile and combine the cultural heritage of their religion with humanism. Geering argues humanism is a product of Christian thought, and describes the continually changing nature of Christianity. Daniel McGuire’s 2014 book of the same name argues for a “moratorium on god-talk so that together we could explore alternatives to earth’s current social, political, economic, and ecological distress”.

We’ve seen emergent Christian movements such as Peter Rollins, Ikon assemblies, offering a religion without religion using transformative art. One of the most admired Christians of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a series of letters from prison speaking of a “Religionless Christianity”. Though Bonhoeffer demurs from religion, not from faith, his focus on the provisional nature of belief has been taken up later post-modern Christian offshoots such as Jesuism, Christian atheism, and Paul van Buren’s Death of God movement.

 

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur (as if God is not given). And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.

 

In the Netherlands, 42% of Protestants don’t believe in God, and 1 in 6 pastors are agnostic or atheist. One of its ministers, Klaas Hendrikse describes God not as a deity but as an expression of human experience. In his book, Believing in a God who does not exist: manifesto of an atheist pastor, Hendrikse argues that God is a word for what connects people: “Someone says to you, for example, ‘I will not abandon you’, and then makes those words come true. It would be perfectly alright to call that God”.

The existential mystery is central to the religious urge. To echo the Tasos Leivaditis poem, Violets for a Season (quoted by Trakakis), we stretch out our hands toward the infinite like lost children. The handshake with the infinite never happens. But the hope of finally grasping hold of the keys to our existence is nevertheless exhilarating. Many modern non-theists foresee a day when religion will no longer exist. Personally, I doubt it.

I recently watched a moving documentary about the devastation caused by the Chinese Sichuan school collapse. Many parents lost their children in the disaster.

In one moving scene we see a mother at dusk, on the 5th anniversary of her daughter’s death. She lights a sky lantern. Rising slowly, its red glow gradually animates an expression of inconsolable despair on the mother’s face. She clasps her hands in prayer. Family members cling to each other all looking upwards.

 

My beautiful daughter. I have to believe that you are happy in your life in heaven. When I look to the sky you are the brightest star.

 

Other than with religion, how else could the mother reconcile the immensity of her loss? The mother cannot cease being a mother. If there are better ways of soothing human despair than this, and there must be, then we have so far failed to find them. Acknowledging the obvious self-delusion does nothing to invalidate the urge to ancestor worship and false consolation embedded within our psyche. If we intuitively practise religion in certain situations, then we must at least acknowledge the deep human need for worship.

In his influential Kenyon college commencement speech, What is Water, David Foster Wallace asserts that “there’s no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship”. A good reason for religious or spiritual worship is that anything else will “eat you alive”. Worship money and you’ll always be poor. Worship appearances and you’ll always be ugly. Worship power, and you’ll be weak. Worship the intellect and you’ll never be smart enough. Wallace’s message acknowledges the human need for meaning, communion with others, and to exercise control over our mind. His overall message is that the most obvious and important realities are often the most difficult to see.

Humans have long tried to exercise dominion over the Earth. But the organ we need to subdue is the one inside our own craniums. The mind of man remains an enchanted glass. We can only attempt to tame its lavish appetites by continually refilling it with evidence. And once the glass is clear and the beams of light travel straight and true, what we see might seem so obvious we’ll wonder how we never noticed it before. The deus ex machina of religion, the phoenix arising from the ashes of dogma, is doubt and uncertainty. Reason and evidence are the best hope of revitalising the religious project.

 

 

 

 

Religious Candles and Cross --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Nothing, Something, but mostly Nothing

James Wood’s article in ABC’s Religion & Ethics,  Everything, Something, Nothing: The Modern Novel and the Departure of God , offers some tantalizing references to modern fiction and how it encounters God and seeks to understand meaning in our lives, but only skims the surface. It’s certainly worth a read but one would have liked to have seen the references fleshed out and discussed in greater depth. Rather, the author is more concerned with demonstrating his own prodigious literary knowledge. Well, phooey for him.
I certainly agree the modern novel has plenty to say about the human condition, and much of it derives from our religious traditions. But he could have mentioned the existential attitude in the authors he mentions, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Camus, exploring the search for meaning within their own person in a seemingly absurd world. What of the repeated use of Ecclesiastes throughout modern literature? One thinks of Hemingway’s, Fiesta:The Sun Also Rises, reading it as an analogy for that biblical tome of existential despair .  “The earth abideth forever” was, according to Hemingway himself, the central concern of his exposition of the post Great War Lost Generation. Ecclesiastes 1:
What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them

Wood lounges in the smugness of his preexisting biases against the New Atheists of whom he has read only a finite amount, despite his claim of near infinite patience. The author cannot have read Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” or he would understand the “agency” and other explanations of religious belief are not just something Dennett thought up one day, but rather, based on rigorous research by Boyer, Atran, Dunbar, Faber, Hauser and others. They deserve more than a flippant dismissal without evidence.The stale critique that new atheists are only concerned with celestial teapots, flying spaghetti monsters and refuting the literal interpretation of Scripture is just plain false. Has Wood noticed books by Sam Harris such as Free Will, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up – the last which explores ways of attaining spirituality without recourse to superstition?This road has been traveled endless times by apologist’s and humanities professors, and its usually notable that they appear totally unaware of writers such as Stephen Pinker, Michael Martin, Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, and A.C. Grayling. All of whom have many interesting things about making sense of the world without God.And I note the author’s comments are simply repeated from his own 2009 article God in the Quad. Like so many critiques of New atheists, the author is guilty of the charges he makes against them.