apologetics, atheism, epistemology, philosophy

The Myth of Atheism: Is it (epistemic) Neutral Ground?

Is there such a thing as epistemic neutral ground? The question deserves serious consideration, for if there is epistemic neutral ground, surely we should all stand upon it in order to evaluate worldviews. The reason for this is because the ability to strip away all bias and preconceptions and simply evaluate a worldview “as is” without any pretensions would be highly invaluable. I’ve run into atheists who seem to think that atheism somehow counts as this epistemic neutral ground. I think there is good reason to doubt that there is such a thing as epistemic neutral ground; and if there is, atheism is surely not it.

What reason do we have for thinking atheism is neutral ground? Those who argue that it is tend to say that it is neutral ground because they reject all religions a priori, which allows them to evaluate religious truth more fairly. This seems clearly misguided; rejecting all alternative worldviews hardly means that one is on neutral ground. In fact, it is more like dogmatics than neutrality.

But is atheism really a worldview, properly formulated? If it is not, can it serve as our elusive neutral ground? There is no doubt that those who are nontheists share little in common other than the simple attribution of “not believing in God” or “believing there is no God”. There are atheists who are buddhists; atheists who believe in ghosts; atheists who are staunch secular humanists. There doesn’t seem to be any shared connection. Does this mean it is not a worldview? I think the answer is yes and no. Atheism, construed as some kind of singular entity, is not a worldview. Rather, each atheists has his or her own worldview–part of which is atheism. Analyzed in this light, then, atheism is a piece of the fabric weaving together a worldview, not the worldview itself.

Does this, then, allow for atheism to be epistemic neutral ground? Again, I don’t see why it would. What reasons are there for favoring atheism as a research program (borrowing the phrase from Michael Rea) over theism? Again, it seems the only answer could be that it rejects all gods, so it somehow must allow for equal evaluation of other views. This still seems totally misguided. Why does rejecting all things make one neutral? If I am presented with some event, e, and possible explanations for e, A, B, and C, and then I reject A, B, and C, does this somehow make me neutral towards A-C? No! It means I reject them as explanations for e! Perhaps this is because I have my own explanation for e, or believe that e cannot be explained, but that doesn’t mean I am neutral towards the explanations which have been offered.

It therefore seems as though atheism cannot serve as epistemic neutral ground, either as a worldview itself, or as a method for research. Can alternative views suffice? It seems as though logic could serve as a research method which can be epistemically neutral. The immediate objection to this could be that there are those who reject logic and claim that there can be contradictions, impossibilities, and the like. My answer to this is that even those who reject logic can only claim to do so for logical reasons. In other words, they formulate logical arguments in order to argue that logic is false. It seems as though if someone has to assume the truth of some proposition (in this case that logic is true) in order to argue against that same proposition, then their arguments can in no way undermine the truth of that proposition.

I’m happy to follow logic where it leads. It seems to me that it leads straight towards the existence of God. Why? I’ve discussed this elsewhere: the Liebnizian Cosmological Argument, the Ontological Argument, Purposively Available Evidence, and the Teleological Argument. I’ve written on this same subject here.

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Image: Copyright CalistaZ. Accessed http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lavaux_Alpes_et_Lac_l%C3%A9man.jpg


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


12 thoughts on “The Myth of Atheism: Is it (epistemic) Neutral Ground?

  1. >Why does rejecting all things make one neutral?

    My version of atheism doesn’t do this. I stop short of rejecting all gods. Rather than saying “I believe that no god of any type exists” I say “I am unconvinced that any god I have heard of exists”.

    Withholding judgment is very different from rejecting all things. I think it is very close to a neutral position.

    Having said that, there are many gods we can rule out, just as many Christians have ruled out the Hindu and Norse gods. For example, we can say that a Loving, Omnipotent god doesn’t fit the facts. I know, this is a can of worms. But I’ve opened that can before, as I know you have, and I have reached this conclusion. It’s not a slam dunk and many thoughtful people still think Yahweh can stand by while kids are tortured, yet remain Good and Loving. But I don’t.

    Posted by Don Severs | November 5, 2010, 11:12 AM
  2. Suspending judgement? You might be waiting a while. I’m in favor of making a choice, and testing it to see how it stands. Even if you take no position on the matter, eventually you will have to choose values in life that have their roots in things you haven’t consciously chosen yet. Therefore, a choice will be made for you.

    Posted by Daniel | November 5, 2010, 11:55 AM
  3. I think ‘atheism’ is a slippery term to deal with because it’s negative by definition. Not all atheists will agree on what they mean by ‘atheism’, and it’s possible that not all theists will agree on what they mean by ‘atheism’ either.

    Even the apparently core concept of ‘rejecting God or gods’ is open to different interpretations. For example there are: ‘not having a good reason for thinking there is a God’; ‘believing that on balance there probably isn’t a God’; ‘rejecting the concept of God as having no positive value’; ‘rejecting the concept of God as having no positive value but possibly negative value’; …and so on.

    But there is something which all these positions seem to share, and which could be relevant to the topic discussed here. They all seem to be conclusions or consequences rather than axioms or initial positions. For that reason they may not qualify as ‘epistemic neutral ground’ because they are not the sort of thing that ‘epistemic neutral ground’ needs to be (if I understand the expression).

    I think what I’m suggesting is that someone could sincerely claim to be arguing from ‘epistemic neutral ground’ (and be either convincing or unconvincing in that claim), and could also sincerely claim to be a variety of ‘atheist’. It seems more likely that someone’s ‘atheism’ might be a result of their attempt to occupy ‘epistemic neutral ground’, than that their occupation of ‘epistemic neutral ground’ would be a result of their ‘atheism’.

    Posted by Chris Lawrence | November 5, 2010, 2:54 PM
  4. >It seems more likely that someone’s ‘atheism’ might be a result of their attempt to occupy ‘epistemic neutral ground’, than that their occupation of ‘epistemic neutral ground’ would be a result of their ‘atheism’.

    Agreed. Epistemic neutrality is attractive because it is a conservative position, making a minimum of claims and opening itself to a minimum of counterarguments.

    But remaining in neutral ground isn’t our aim, is it? We’d like to make some claims that are defensible. The problem with Christian apologetics is that any idea that is at odds with Christianity can not be accepted. Apologists are like intellectuals who live in North Korea. They can think, but only along prescribed lines. The conclusions are set.

    Now, lest I commit a fallacy of ‘irrelevant bias’ or whatever, let me make it clear: Just because a person is a Christian apologist does not mean he’s wrong. He could be biased because he’s right. Or he could be biased and just happen to be right. Or he could be right and just happen to be biased. His bias is irrelevant to the truth of his claims. But it is not irrelevant to his treatment of other claims.

    So, my comments about the bias of apologists aren’t an argument on the topic at hand. They just mean that we can make some predictions about what will and won’t be acceptable to them, regardless of the strength of our arguments. I think this means they don’t engage in dialectic; they don’t argue in good faith. They care more about who is right than about what is right.

    It isn’t who is right, but what is right, that is important. – Thomas Huxley

    Posted by Don Severs | November 6, 2010, 4:10 PM
    • “But remaining in neutral ground isn’t our aim, is it? We’d like to make some claims that are defensible. The problem with Christian apologetics is that any idea that is at odds with Christianity can not be accepted.”

      I’m confused by these ideas in conjunction. The Christian apologist is simply making claims that are defensible, and defending them. Why do you seem to think this is a bad thing? You defend your supposedly more neutral view, yet in doing so, you are also making claims, and finding others unacceptable.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 10, 2010, 4:05 PM
  5. You might find this very interesting. Give it a look when you have a chance.


    Posted by Daniel | December 16, 2010, 9:33 PM


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