apologetics, atheism, Guest Posts

Guest Post: “The Presumption of Popular Atheism” by David Glass

David Glass is the author of Atheism’s New Clothes: Exploring and Exposing the Claims of the New Atheists published by IVP/Apollos. He writes for the apologetics website ‘Saints and Sceptics’ and has a particular interest in the relationship between science and Christianity and in how evidence should be used in debates about the existence of God. He works as a lecturer in the School of Computing and Mathematics at the University of Ulster where he does research on topics at the interface between computing and philosophy.

anc-glassIn the New Atheism and related forms of popular atheism belief in God is frequently ridiculed and dismissed without any serious consideration of the arguments. Underlying this mindset is the belief that there is a quick-and-easy argument against belief in God and that as a consequence there is no need to take theism seriously. The argument is this: in the absence of evidence for God’s existence it is much more rational to disbelieve in God than it is to believe or to adopt a neutral stance. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes this point by drawing on a story by Bertrand Russell. He asks us to consider how we would respond to someone who claimed that there is a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, but which is too small to be detected by any telescope. Just because there is no way of proving that it does not exist, it does not mean that we should adopt the view that there is a 50:50 chance that it does exist. Since there is no evidence for its existence, we should believe that it does not exist or, more strictly, that its existence is very improbable. By analogy, he claims that the same applies to God.

This is a version of the presumption of atheism, the idea that the burden of proof lies with the theist to show that God exists rather than with the atheist to show that he does not. It’s important to distinguish the presumption of atheism from the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of God. In popular atheism, the two notions tend to go together with the latter point often taken for granted, but it is entirely possible to be a theist and yet embrace the presumption of atheism. Such a theist would accept the burden of proof, but claim that the burden can be met as there is plenty of evidence for God. Interestingly, it seems that the late Antony Flew, who was probably the leading advocate of the presumption of atheism in the twentieth century, eventually gave up his atheism because of the evidence for the existence of God. He still maintained, however, that the presumption of atheism was the right starting point; it’s just that the evidence for God was too convincing to ignore.

So one problem with the New Atheist approach to the presumption of atheism – what we might call the presumption of popular atheism – is that it presupposes that there is no evidence for God just as there is none for Russell’s celestial teapot. No doubt the New Atheists would claim that they have considered all the purported evidence and arguments for the existence of God, but their discussions of these topics leave a lot to be desired and are generally considered to be the weakest part of their attack on religious belief. Furthermore, their approach to the presumption of atheism seems to distort their views on what would constitute evidence for God. To take one example, does the fine-tuning of physical constants and other features of the universe constitute evidence for God? Dawkins is not impressed with the anthropic principle response to fine-tuning, the idea that we shouldn’t be surprised by the fine-tuning because we wouldn’t be here to talk about it in the absence of fine-tuning. For Dawkins, an explanation is required and so he appeals to a multiverse, the idea that our universe is only one of many. He doesn’t seem overly impressed with multiverse explanations of fine-tuning either, but he finds them preferable to design. Why? Because God is so improbable that he cannot be considered as an explanation for fine-tuning.

Notice the logic of the argument. Dawkins believes he has a good reason for adopting the presumption of atheism and hence assigning a very low probability to God. (We’ll come back to his argument for this in a moment.) He then uses this same belief to justify ruling God out as an explanation for fine-tuning and so he rejects the idea that fine-tuning can provide evidence for God.[1] In other words, his views about the presumption of atheism have determined whether fine-tuning constitutes evidence for God.

Setting aside the problems with the New Atheists’ hasty dismissal of evidence for God, what about the presumption of atheism itself? Let’s take the analogy between God and the celestial teapot. Clearly, God is not like a teapot orbiting the sun! The teapot would be just another object in the universe, admittedly a very odd one, but it would not help us to make sense of anything else. By contrast, as the Creator of the universe, God would be the most important being to exist. God would provide the ultimate reason for the universe itself, for the order within it and for our existence. As Dawkins himself points out:

a universe with a supernaturally intelligent creator is a very different kind of universe from one without. The difference between the two hypothetical universes could hardly be more fundamental in principle, even if it is not easy to test in practice.[2]

The same could hardly be said for a teapot! For this reason, the hypothesis of theism cannot be dismissed in the same way as the hypothesis of the celestial teapot.

Dawkins does not merely appeal to an analogy with the celestial teapot, but provides an argument based on organized complexity to support his contention that God’s existence is highly improbable. Unfortunately for Dawkins, this argument fails for multiple reasons, the most obvious of which is that there is no good reason to think that God would possess the kind of organized complexity required for Dawkins’ argument to work.[3]

So Dawkins and the other New Atheists have given us no good reason to embrace the presumption of atheism. And they can’t expect the rest of us to embrace it just because it is intuitively appealing to them. As atheists have generally recognized, there can be no presumption of the presumption of atheism. If it is to be embraced, a good reason is needed yet none has been provided.

In summary, the idea in popular atheism that there is an easy way to dismiss belief in God based on a presumption of atheism and the claim that there is no evidence for God does not stand up to scrutiny. If the case for God’s existence is to be evaluated seriously, presumptions and analogies with teapots are not much help.


[1] I’ll set aside the question of whether there are other good responses to fine-tuning. Here I’m only concerned with the logic of Dawkins’ argument. Interestingly, even in the context of biology, he makes use of this dubious argument.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), p. 58.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: “The Presumption of Popular Atheism” by David Glass

  1. Note the presumption Glass makes about this supposed agency called ‘God’ as if it were a single, discrete, knowable, commonly understood thing, that it is the same ‘God’ worshiped by muslims and christians and hindus and buddhists and jainists and scientologists. After assuming this agency is on one side of a debate and Dawkins’ criticism of equivalent belief in all them resides on the other, Glass then goes on to assume compelling evidence does exist for this single notion he calls ‘God’ because Antony Flew grew old and feeble-minded and became a theist based on the puddle analogy (as told by Douglas Adams, who wrote “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”), which goes by the more sophisticated name in theological circles as The Fine Tuning Argument. That’s not compelling evidence for any designing agency.

    Note also that Glass does not accept all different kinds of gods, either. In fact he pays no mind to the hundreds of thousands of gods he doesn’t believe in. He simply and effortlessly rejects them all for exactly the same reason atheists reject the one he does believe in. But according to his own reasoning, he forgets to include all theists in his criticism, that they too are also making a fatal mistake of non belief about all the gods they reject in the absence of compelling reasons!

    Really?

    And this is why his recycled argument trying to blame atheists for the non belief exercised by theists reveals how convoluted the rationalizations must be to allow wiggle room for an individual faith-based belief to magically be exempt. This argument Glass uses invariably twists the reasoning of theists into hypocritical knots. Dawkins simply points this out and thus becomes the target of vilification for daring to speak truth to power: no theist has any more compelling evidence from the reality we share for his or her preferred individual god over that of a theist who believes in another god.

    This raises the very legitimate general question Dawkins also expresses of asking theists for show a comprehensive answer independent of faith-based belief as to how anyone can know the difference between these contrary and incompatible beliefs in different gods that Glass ignores in his haste to replace and cover up and hide this central problem with a straw man argument he attributes to be Dawkins anti-theist argument. And more specifically, within the confines of each discrete religious tradition based on some kind of scripture, how can believers themselves determine which bits are to be understood to be literal and which bits are to be understood to be figurative or metaphorical? Again, the absence of a cohesive answer to this methodological problem reveals why there is no compelling evidence that sways theists to start believing in gods they don’t believe in any more than there is for the much vilified atheist!

    Posted by tildeb | August 19, 2013, 8:51 AM
    • You infer from one mention of Antony Flew in this review (you presumably have not read the book itself?) that Antony Flew’s “conversion” is the very basis for Glass’s belief that there is evidence for God, which simply does not follow. Your quotation of Douglas Adams’ remarks suggests a reliance upon snarky condescension rather than meaningful argumentation. It does not show any real familiarity with the rigorous formulations of the teleological argument from fine tuning advanced by such modern thinkers as William Lane Craig and Robin Collins.

      You are begging the question, assuming that Glass, and all other theists, that is, people who believe in one transcendent Creator God, do not have any compelling reasons for believing in such an entity, or for disbelieving in entities posited by other worldviews. You, like so many intellectually unsophisticated atheists, simply assume that all worldviews which affirm the existence of some reality beyond the physical universe are on an epistemic par, but make no serious attempt to demonstrate this.

      I might add that affirming the existence of the transcendent God of classical theism does not commit one to denying the existence of all entities which polytheists worships as “gods.” For example, the Romans worshipped Caesar as a god, and no serious-minded Christian of the early church would have denied the existence of Caesar! Rather, the classic arguments for the existence of the God of theism, if they are sound, imply also that whatever other entities which exist are creatures whose existence is contingent upon the will of the Creator God, and thus they are not proper recipients of worship.

      The remainder of your post mainly recycles your assertion that theists have no evidence or arguments for their beliefs, while showing no familiarity (beyond a very superficial acquaintance) with any of the evidences or arguments that have been offered for such beliefs. I would be interested to see you attempt to seriously engage, for example, the various versions of the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the transcendental argument, the noological argument, the moral argument, and the evidences for miracles, including and especially for the resurrection of Jesus.

      One more point on your remark about adherents to a particular religious tradition being unable to discern which elements of their sacred text are to be taken as literal or metaphorical – similar interpretive questions bear on ALL forms of verbal communication, especially works of ancient history.

      Posted by Dave | August 19, 2013, 10:33 PM
      • Dave, hat’s off to you for your ability to utilize sophisticated theological reasoning to obfuscate the obvious and misrepresent my telling points in order to offer the appearance of refutation. Of course, you’ve offered none directly because you have included additional conclusions of your own to act as additions I’ve never made. For example, I would be a dullard of the first magnitude to assume that “Antony Flew’s “conversion” (is) the very basis for Glass’s belief that there is evidence for God,” which is hardly a compliment to Flew, Glass, or me. Of course I don’t think Flew’s ‘conversion’ plays any such role. The hint you missed is that I used the words ‘old’ and ‘feeble-minded’ to describe the basis for Flew’s conversion. You seemed to have intentionally misinterpreted that to serve your ends rather than to understand my point, which is that one man’s conversion (even a renowned atheist whose previous works continue to stand on their own merit) is NOT evidence for an interactive, interventionist god that has designed the universe to fit us. The second clue is that I used the puddle analogy to show the remarkable scope of arrogance needed to assume that it must be our dust mote of existence that is the raison d’etre for the entire universe. My point here is that being feeble-minded aids in overlooking and excusing the scope of such colossal arrogance in action.

        I suspect that if you could use reality to support your creationist claims, you would do so without hesitation. That you can’t produce something arbitrated by reality to do so is also a clue that no matter how unsophisticated reality may be in your esteemed opinion (and the rest of us who respect its adjudication of claims made about it), it still speaks louder than anything I or you can say, and certainly far more than all the mutterings of all the sophisticated arguments you want me to address to your satisfaction. (Why do I think that no matter what I say, you will find it wanting? Perhaps strong evidence for the mysterious power of Second Sight, no doubt) And I also suspect that you will find whatever I say wanting, no doubt, because I insist that claims anyone makes about reality – atheist or theist or deist or alien or mineral or what have you – requires the claim to be supported by reality… or they have no justified business presenting such unsupported claims to be anything other than fanciful imaginings (bordering on delusion unless acted upon).

        You may be surprised to find that your words are not an equivalent substitute for reality no matter how fervently, how convincingly, how earnestly, you wish to make them so. And you can shut me and other ‘unsophisticated’ atheists up by producing from an independent reality compelling evidence to support your beliefs about it! That’s the whole refutation! Until then, all you have is these theologically obtuse words laced with convoluted, metaphysical, supernatural, other-dimensional but equally imaginary ‘realities’ to operate in place of evidence from the reality these beliefs try and fail to describe! And then you have the gumption to declare the equivalent prevarications of the meanings inherent in sophisticated theology’s words (that give the appearance of describing what an examination of reality fails to produce) are as true as with all words that have a one-to-one representation in reality that can be demonstrated!

        And that’s why you have done an outstanding job of showing us sophisticated theology at work… producing nothing of knowledge value but deriding those of us who take note of and respect what reality tells us about itself. Sophisticated theology is a means to an end, and that end is to promote ignorance in the name of piety for power, a way for the arrogant to be accepted by the foolish as the purveyors of another kind of knowledge that by some atheistic conspiracy just so happens to be empty of reflective value about the world we inhabit.

        Posted by tildeb | August 20, 2013, 6:49 PM
    • Outstanding comment.

      It should also be noted, and I think this fits the general gist of your comments well, that Flew became a generic deist at the end of his life. This was covered in an interview later transcribed and posted on Biola University’s website:

      “HABERMAS: Once you mentioned to me that your view might be called Deism. Do you think that would be a fair designation?

      FLEW: Yes, absolutely right. What Deists, such as the Mr. Jefferson who drafted the American Declaration of Independence, believed was that, while reason, mainly in the form of arguments to design, assures us that there is a God, there is no room either for any supernatural revelation of that God or for any transactions between that God and individual human beings.”

      http://www.biola.edu/antonyflew/

      I think the outsider’s test for faith is among the most powerful arguments not against the existence of god, but against the futility of faith in the face of competing theism.

      They can’t all be right, can they? (At least not within the context of the mutually exclusive truth claims each “discipline” makes.)

      Posted by Andrew Marburger (@AndrewMarburger) | August 20, 2013, 9:07 AM
    • I wanted to follow my comment with a finer point of my own personal beliefs, for what they’re worth:

      It’s not that I think there is no god. Or that there is. It’s that I think the question is wholly irrelevant to my life. So I carry on.

      Posted by Andrew Marburger (@AndrewMarburger) | August 20, 2013, 9:09 AM
      • Thank you for the compliment, AM.

        And now I will injure the intention you had with a quibble to what you then say!

        The fact that more Americans believe in angels and demons (active in the world as causal agents) than do those who understand why evolution is true is a pretty strong indication that religious beliefs about god (for there is a clear cause and effect linking creationism to belief in a creator god) do have a broad effect that impacts on everyone whether they believe similarly or not. Where religious belief is widespread, so too do we find higher rates of all kinds of anti-social behaviours that also cause effect on all citizens.

        You may choose to believe that the question whether or not there is a god to be irrelevant to your life, but the effects from this belief in a creator god being exercised does have an effect – a net negative cumulative effect. And this is why New Atheists continue to hammer home the point that what we empower with our faith-based beliefs (not just religious but all kinds of woo) in the public domain (rather than withheld solely to the private and personal) do matter… because they have effect. And this effect needs to be exposed so that the next generation will do a better job suspending their faith-based belief from the public domain to avoid causing this negative effect.

        Posted by tildeb | August 20, 2013, 7:17 PM
  2. If Glass is right, Christians should not presume that Vishnu and Baal don’t exist. Every god concept ever proposed would have to be duly considered and disposed of. And of course, all the variations on Yahweh must be considered, such as the Yahweh who celebrates homosexuality and Obamacare.

    Dawkins is an agnostic (6.9 on a scale of 7). The key is ‘what counts as evidence’? Dawkins uses one standard, a scientific one. Religious believers must use two standards. One for medicine, aviation, driving a car and everything besides religion, plus another to justify their religious beliefs.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability

    Posted by donsevers | August 19, 2013, 8:59 AM
  3. Hello, I think this presumption of atheism relies mostly on a misuse of Ockham’s razor I’ve exposed here.

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/deconstructing-the-popular-use-of-occams-razor/

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    Posted by Lothars Sohn | August 20, 2013, 12:29 PM
  4. Reblogged this on Defy The Narrative.

    Posted by JA | August 31, 2013, 9:55 PM

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