Bertrand Russell

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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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