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Just how brave and courageous and free thinking is atheism?

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.]

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    • Samuel Skinner on January 28, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    It isn’t a brave position… unless you are a muslim (death) or you lived in the 19th century (blasphemy was punishable by death in France in the 1830s).

    I’m not aware of any alternative to naturalism. And you may think naturalism is an assumption, but it has worked for everything else, what is so special about your position. I don’t see how a person can look at the same evidence I do and see God- they are just enganging in willful blindness.

    I am moved by evidence. However there happen to be multiple religions, each with their own “evidence”. Not to mention the historical proof of Jesus’s divinity suck. I mean you think people would notice a man rise from the dead and empty the graveyards? Apparently not- there is no other records that recount such instances except the gospels, written at least 30 years later.

    You use Pascal arguement in your post. Bad move.

    • Anthony on January 28, 2008 at 1:58 pm
      Author

    Hello, Sam.

    “I’m not aware of any alternative to naturalism.”

    The question is how you would know if naturalism was wrong.

    “And you may think naturalism is an assumption, but it has worked for everything else,”

    So, you agree that it is an assumption.

    It’s hardly a formidable position if you assume naturalism and consequently conclude naturalism. It isn’t like you could have ever done anything different. 😉

    “I am moved by evidence.”

    It sounds like you’re moved first by your assumption.

    “Apparently not- there is no other records that recount such instances except the gospels, written at least 30 years later.”

    See my comments about the historicity of the resurrection. If we pursued this further we’d discover that the historical evidences are irrelevant. Your naturalism requires a naturalistic answer and your distrust for the historical method is such that it doesn’t matter if the evidence was completely perfect in your eyes.

    “You use Pascal arguement in your post.”

    No I didn’t.

    • Samuel Skinner on January 29, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Naturalism is a theory,(It is falsible and makes predictions) just like any other. If you provided sufficient evidence I would change my mind. You provide no such evidence to prove said theory is false.

    So you automatically assume that I can’t see what you see because I first look for the simplist explanation. In that case it appears I can never convince you that your car is run by hamsters- who transform into machinery whenever your looking.

    Yes it possible to convince me-divine intervention would work. Since God is all powerful it would work. Direct relevation wouldn’t because it is obviously what prophets through out history have been receiving. Not to mention that people who believe god is talking to them are mentally ill.

    You fracking did use Pascal’s arguement! You said your immortal soul is on the line.

    • Anthony on January 29, 2008 at 2:04 pm
      Author

    “Naturalism is a theory,(It is falsible and makes predictions) just like any other.”

    Ok, how is it falsifiable?

    “because I first look for the simplist explanation.”

    Which you presume to be a naturalistic one. I prefer to look for the best explanation. There is a difference.

    “Yes it possible to convince me-divine intervention would work. Since God is all powerful it would work. Direct relevation wouldn’t because it is obviously what prophets through out history have been receiving. Not to mention that people who believe god is talking to them are mentally ill.”

    Well, there you go. Divine intervention would work you say, but actually it wouldn’t. If God did this you’d just chalk it up to being mentally ill. This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

    “You fracking did use Pascal’s arguement! You said your immortal soul is on the line.”

    Even if I did, that wouldn’t be Pascal’s argument. However, at this point I would settle for you quoting where I said ‘your immortal soul is on the line.’

    • Samuel Skinner on January 29, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    It is the same premise as Pascal’s arguement- If false lose nothing, if true lose everything.

    Naturalism is falsible by divine intervention. For divine intervention I mean something that only god could do, that would affect everyone on earth in such a way so that we all experienced it (ruling out insanity). The simplest one would replace the Sun with an equivalent size disco ball, or something else obviously not possible under naturalism.

    The reason we go with the simplest answer is that there are an infinite number of possible answers. For example “why do bad things happen to good people and vice versa” could be

    past lives
    chi
    karma
    intercession of the Choas gods
    office politics in heaven
    temporal manipulation by intelligent space toilets
    rabbids
    the jews!
    the gentiles
    peoples who name starts with G (they are evil!)
    EAC
    CEA
    ACE
    CAE
    ECA
    AEC
    testing by god
    aliens
    etc

    all of these are theories. However the simplest one (and hence the one I accept) is- because morality does not affect fortune. Ususally (there are exceptions if you are eggregiously good or evil, resulting in awards or your neighbors killing you).

    • Anthony on January 29, 2008 at 6:10 pm
      Author

    “It is the same premise as Pascal’s arguement- If false lose nothing, if true lose everything.”

    Got it. No, you can’t quote me as saying anything about one’s immortal soul being on the line. The only thing that I can think of is that you saw the word ‘risk’ and you leapt to a conclusion. It also occurs to me that English might be your second language.

    “Naturalism is falsible by divine intervention.”

    Right. But you just said that if anything like that happened you could call it a mental illness on the part of the witness(es).

    “For divine intervention I mean something that only god could do, that would affect everyone on earth in such a way so that we all experienced it (ruling out insanity).”

    Well of course you couldn’t rule out insanity, could you?

    “The reason we go with the simplest answer is that there are an infinite number of possible answers.”

    Nonsense. Not all possible answers are of equal quality. You choose the simplest answer only when faced with competing theories that equally cover the data and one of those theories requires more assumptions than another. This of course is Ockham’s Razor, and it is after all only a guide, not a rule.

    The razor does not apply where there is positive evidence to justify the positing of the more ‘complicated’ theory or when the addition of the assumption leads to an explanation of more of the data points then the ‘simpler’ theory.

    But go ahead and stake your ground on the ‘simplest’ explanation being preferred if you like. I’ll continue to pursue the best explanations available, and the only people who will protest are the atheists. Time will tell which approach people find more appropriate.

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