If you spend as much time reading the writings of atheists as I do, you see many chest thumping descriptions of atheism as being brave, bold, and the logical position of any rational person. One of the clearest and most sustained presentation of atheism in that sense is in Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” where he spends a fair bit of time ranting that Newton and other great men would have been atheists if only their society had allowed it. Antony Flew’s change of mind is put off as being a mark of old age. Dawkins has to take this approach because Newton was undeniably rational and Flew’s credentials as an atheist were impeccable.
But is it really the case that atheism is the brave position? Is it really the case that the atheists exhibit ‘free thought’?
Now, I am not here denying that there have been atheists who have had to stand up to their families or even possibly their co-workers. It may be the case that this tends to be more of a problem for atheists than theists just because there are more theists, but risking family disapproval because of one’s views is not unique to atheism, theism, or religious matters.
What I want to spend a little time on is the structure of the atheistic argument as we see it in our time. Of late, atheists have dogmatically asserted that their position makes no positive claims and so they have no burden of demonstration. Atheism is not, they insist, the belief that there is no God, but rather a simple lack of belief that there is a god or are gods.
When you start boiling down the atheistic arguments, they very often reduce to the assertion that methodological naturalism must be the default approach to the world. This is how they escape the counter-claim that they do in fact have their own set of propositions to defend: MN is a default approach, it is not itself a ‘positive’ assertion. You can decide for yourself how rational you think that is. What I want to ask is simply this: is this really an approach that is the mark of free thought? I place a value on ‘methodological naturalism’ but I am free to consider a whole different set of explanations then the one who makes this argument. The atheist taking this view is bound to interpret everything in naturalistic terms. I can entertain naturalistic explanations and also non-naturalistic, depending on the situation. Whose world view has the most freedom? Who is more freely willing to examine options? Why, the atheist has taken a whole class of explanation off the table!
Now, about bravery. Because modern atheists have characterized their view as merely a ‘lack of belief’ that means that many debates reduce not to evidence, but whether or not the evidence will be given any weight. For example, in one recent exchange I had, I suggested that the historical evidence for the resurrection was compelling. The reply was surprising only in its honesty: it doesn’t matter if it is compelling, historical evidence is never enough to justify belief in God or miracles, or anything supernatural. The person who said this did not portray himself as more brave than me. I use his comments to illustrate the unwillingness to consider the evidence persuasive.
That’s the thing. The atheist has only to sit back and declare the evidence weak or non-existent and the arguments unsound or contrived. This is not brave, courageous, or difficult. It is easy to insist that the evidence doesn’t add up. A creative and imaginative person (I won’t argue that atheists aren’t creative and imaginative! 😉 ) can come up with endless reasons for why something isn’t true or real. One could never rule them all out. The real risky move is to move on the evidence and settle on an actual substantive position.
Another example might do. The Christian looks at the evidence, cosmological and historical and otherwise, and infers that the best explanation for it all is that there is a God. The atheist looks at the evidence and points out that it might be explained ‘just as well’ by invoking the multiverse (a current scientific point of view that says that our universe is just one out of a nearly infinite pool of universes… any difficulty of our universe, such as the problem of consciousness, can be resolved by positing that we just happened to be in the universe that created conscious entity. After all, with an unlimited pool of universes, it was bound to happen!).
So long as some other conceivable explanation may be construed as possible (and it is naturalistic), the atheist can just take pot shots at the explanations they don’t like. This is really a pretty safe spot to be in.
In terms of bravery, it is like sitting on a jury and deciding from the evidence that a person might be guilty and should receive the death penalty. The standard is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ But just how is ‘reasonable doubt’ measured? The individual soul who has to make that determination knows that the life of another human is on the line. What requires more courage? Drawing a conclusion from the evidence or remaining undecided pending the exclusion of an unlimited amount of other possibilities?
The atheist is like the person who remains perpetually unmoved by the evidence offered. Fine, but don’t tell me that that is the brave position. If I rest my Christianity on the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, I could conceivably be shown to be wrong- eg, the discovery of a body that was undeniably his. Just what could conceivably show the atheist that he is wrong?
[For as many atheists that I have heard say that if God revealed himself directly that would convince them I have heard just as many (and sometimes the same ones) say that this would not persuade them as they might conceivably be hallucinating.]