Is Atheism Inherently Dishonest?

In one his speeches given in May 2012, Peter Boghossian defines atheists:

The overwhelming majority of atheists don’t claim there is no god. They just claim there is not sufficient evidence to warrant belief in God.

Atheists really need to come to grips with what this means. If it is true “they just claim there is not sufficient evidence to warrant belief in God,” then they need to be honest with themselves and others and acknowledge their atheism is a personal, subjective opinion.

Take evidence. While many mistakenly think evidence is equivalent to objective reality, it is not. Data, detected by our senses, represent objective reality. Once the data are sensed, they can then be transformed into evidence by the mind. It is the brain which interprets the data and assigns meaning to that data. And one form of meaning that can be assigned is to interpret the data as evidence. But the data does not become evidence without the input from the mind, which relies on other beliefs, experiences, memories, and assumptions to convert the data into evidence. So evidence is a brain-dependent phenomenon. And this is what nicely explains the empirical fact that evidence rarely generates consensus. Even among the atheists themselves, there is no consensus on what data would count as evidence for God. Those of us who have asked atheists what type of evidence they need know that the answer you get is dependent on the atheist. In other words, what is considered evidence is a matter of taste.

But Boghossian makes it worse.

He adds the qualification that this evidence must be “sufficient to warrant belief.” And just who gets to speak for the entire human race in telling us all what is and is not “sufficient?” Is there a sufficiency-o-meter that can be used to objectively detected “sufficiency?” Or do you need some type of [wink, wink] ‘special training’ that enables your brain to stop function as a brain and instead work like a computer? Clearly, what is sufficient is a matter of taste. If you are a closed-minded skeptic whose atheism is tied to a political agenda, subtle clues for God’s existence will be far from sufficient. You will demand, and need, some type of super-sensational demonstration of A Gap that cannot possibly be explained by natural causes. And that’s why so many atheists embrace God-of-the-gap reasoning. But who has ever demonstrated that the closed-minded atheist notion of “sufficiency” (= Need A GAP) is the One True Way of approaching reality?

Boghossian then continues his talk, making a claim that helps to confirm my point. He said:

For example, in Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion, he gives a 1-7 scale, with 1 being absolute belief and 7 being absolute disbelief. And Dawkins, who many consider to be the most strident of all, only puts himself at a 6.

Well….he did. But Dawkins has since changed his mind. According to Wikipedia:

In print, Dawkins self-identified as a ‘6’, though when interviewed by Bill Maher[3] and later by Anthony Kenny,[4] he suggested ‘6.9’ to be more accurate.

So how did Dawkins get from a 6 to a 6.9? Was there some new measurements taken between the publication of his book and 2012? If so, he has never mentioned it. In fact, Dawkins have never made any effort to explain his change in outlook. He simply changed his mind on the spur of the moment.One day he was a 6, the next day he is a 6.9. Kind of like being in the mood for pizza one day, then getting tired of pizza the next day.
That Dawkins can change his score so significantly without ever feeling the need to outline the data behind the change in score tells us clearly this is a subjective opinion.

Atheists don’t believe there is sufficient evidence to warrant belief in God. Fine. Whatever floats their boat. But they need to start being honest about their atheism. When speaking in public, they need to begin qualifying their beliefs by simply noting that it is their opinion that there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief in God. Of course, if someone is dishonestly trying to portray their subjective views as objective reality, they will resist such clarification. Leaving me to wonder if atheism is inherently dishonest.

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23 Responses to Is Atheism Inherently Dishonest?

  1. What else should it be than a personal opinion?

    And it’s ironic to make the fact that your god is defined in a non falsifiable way somehow a point against atheism. There cannot be a final proof for god because you never defined him in a away that could be proven. As soon as you start making any useful statements about him that could be tested, we can talk about how to prove him or disprove him.

    Of course, even if we talk about objectively perfect evidence (whatever that may be), we both know, that we are humans and humans are not perfect. They may reject good evidence in favor of their personal beliefs. Or they accept really bad evidence because it fits their beliefs. That’s how human minds work. So, there are two distinct points here:

    a) How can god be proven or disproven theoretically, on a purely logical basis?
    b) How can you convince an atheist that there is a god?

    Both question can have very different answers. a) for example, as I told you, has the answer “It cannot, because god is not defined falsifiable.”

  2. Syllabus says:

    There cannot be a final proof for god[sic] because you never defined him in a away that could be proven.

    For what values of ‘proven’?

    “It cannot, because god[sic] is not defined falsifiable.”

    If you’re speaking in a logical/philosophical sense, this is manifestly false. Multiple attempts to falsify the idea of God have been made over the years (see: logical problem of evil, etc.). So far, none of them has been effective.

    If you’re speaking in a Popperian, scientific hypothesis sense, then the fact that the existence of the deity is unfalsifiable is true, but trivial. The existence of God is not a scientific hypothesis in the first place, any more than is Plato’s theory of the Forms, the Riemann hypothesis, Eculid’s proof of infinite primes, the principle of utility, or any other myriad of things, and is therefore not subject to scientific falsification.

  3. Bilbo says:

    I’ve always thought that the difference between atheists and agnostics is that the former believe that God does not exist (or that the evidence makes it very unlikely that God exists), and the latter believe that there is insufficient evidence to decide whether or not God exists. Thus, I think Boghossian has defined agnosticism, not atheism.

  4. Crude says:

    One of the most telling things about modern Atheism is how it represents such a frantic, collective retreat FROM atheism.

  5. Lots of people believe lots of different things. Trying to stereotype the opinions/beliefs of atheists will get you about as far as trying to stereotype believers. I think it’s great that atheism is coming under some scrutiny if only so that more people will try to understand the differences between atheism and agnosticism, “strong” atheism and “weak” atheism, etc. I’m a strong atheist. I don’t don’t believe God exists. But not everyone agrees with me, that that’s fine. Like you said, everyone should go with what floats their boat. 🙂 Thanks for the opportunity

  6. Bilbo says:

    Hi Wendy,

    If you are a strong atheist, then it’s true that you believe that God does not exist, not just that you don’t believe that God exists, which would only make you an agnostic.

  7. Justin says:

    Crude, I’ve noticed that as well. It’s almost as if the Gnu Atheists are merely “strong agnostics”. They lack beliefs as well as arguments. Where did Nietzche go?

  8. Bilbo says:

    I think we should define “strong agnosticism” as the belief that we cannot know (or be justified or warranted in believing) that God exists. “Weak agnosticism” would be just the belief that we do not know (or are not justified or warranted in believing) that God exists. “Strong atheism” would be the belief that that there is some logical fallacy in or very compelling evidence against God’s existence. “Weak atheism” would be the belief that that it is improbable that God exists.

    I’m not sure what category most atheists would fall under.

  9. Crude says:

    Justin,

    I think what happens is the Cult of Gnu will make ‘God does not exist’ or ‘God probably does not exist’ claims – until you ask for their evidence for their claim, and don’t let yourself get sidetracked. Then, as if by a miracle, they become agnostics on the spot – people who merely lack belief in God’s existence.

    And, Bilbo, I don’t think agnosticism should take up claims of warrant or justification of belief. And your ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ atheism are impossible to tell apart – ‘compelling evidence’ would just be another statement of improbability.

  10. cl says:

    Just another periodic thumbs up from a sideline lover of the blog…

  11. TFBW says:

    Some good comments here.

    I think that Boghossian has identified a touchstone of Modern Atheism when he says, “they claim there is not sufficient evidence to warrant belief in God.” A Traditional Atheist would gladly assert belief in the non-existence of God, but a Modern Atheist avoids profession of any sort of “belief” like the plague, and asserts only a lack thereof. The Moderns seem to treat “belief” as a poor substitute for knowledge, rather than a necessary condition of it (as per the traditional “Justified True Belief” model of knowledge).

    A Traditional Atheist would summarily identify the Modern position as agnosticism, rather than atheism: lack of evidence necessarily leading to lack of knowledge. I’ve yet to discover a clear, unified position on what “agnosticism” is from a Modern perspective, but the discussions I’ve had include the suggestion that, “we are all (philosophically) agnostics about everything, having no pure certainty, only inference.” This seems to rest on the presupposition that agnosticism inheres in any belief that lacks certainty, which is rather distinct from its usual sense of lacking knowledge.

    Another peculiar aspect of Modern Atheism, which dovetails with the above observations, is that they seem to focus on one’s (lack of) belief in the proposition “there is a God”, without also considering one’s belief in the negation of that proposition. This technique allows them to profess their lack of belief, while being entirely tacit about their belief as regards the traditional subject of atheism: that God does not exist. But it beggars rational analysis to focus on one’s disposition towards a proposition without also considering one’s disposition towards its negation.

    Crude said that they switch from atheism to agnosticism as the state of the argument demands. I think it’s actually significantly worse than this. In my (increasingly frustrated) correspondence with a PR agent of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (part of which I quoted earlier), I eventually poked the hornet’s nest with the following comment.

    If you are atheist on the same basis that you are a-teapotist, then you insinuate that you know enough about what god is and how the universe works to say that god is at least unlikely in the same way that an orbiting teapot is unlikely. If, on the other hand, you say that “god” is a meaningless concept, then that’s rather different, because “teapot” is not a meaningless concept. To which, if either, of these positions do you subscribe? Or do you hold to a form of “quantum atheism”, which is a superposition of both until measured by specific questions?

    Modern Atheism is Quantum Anti-theism. Exactly what they profess varies with the exact question being asked at the time. They readily adopt any anti-theistic concept, no matter how incompatible it is with any other anti-theistic concept they may already hold, and fire back whichever one best suits the theistic argument with which they are presented at the time. Do not seek to understand Modern Atheism as a coherent whole in the usual way, because it does not even value coherence. It values expedience. Although it dresses in the garb of dialectic, it is an exercise in rhetoric.

  12. cl says:

    TFBW

    A Traditional Atheist would gladly assert belief in the non-existence of God, but a Modern Atheist avoids profession of any sort of “belief” like the plague, and asserts only a lack thereof.

    In five years of blogging I’ve noticed that, too. I honestly think it’s because they’re all either consciously or subconsciously aware of the paucity of their own position. It doesn’t take jack squat intellectually to sit around and “deny” anything. In my experience atheists are terrified of the burden of proof, and usually too smug to realize it falls to them as well: the second they assert “naturalism” or some other such thing, they are making a positive claim about the world — but challenge them on it, and they revert to, “Oh, I’m not making any claims, I’m just denying one.”

    That’s why the whole dialog is so dang boring.

  13. Bilbo says:

    I would think the issue of whether one is an atheist should be fairly easy to determine. Consider the following statement:

    (1) God does not exist.

    Do you believe or agree with (1)? Then you are an atheist. If not, then you are not an atheist.

  14. TFBW says:

    The Modern Atheist can supply a surprisingly long and detailed non-answer to that question, Bilbo.

  15. TFBW says:

    Oh, and I should have mentioned that the Modern Atheist will also accuse you of tendentiously redefining atheism, since it is not belief in or agreement with the assertion “God does not exist,” but the absence of belief in God, or the claim that there is not sufficient evidence to warrant belief in God, or whatever other quantum fluctuation applies at the time. Note that the word “tendentious” will be hurled at you without a hint of irony or insincerity.

  16. Crude says:

    I agree, TFBW. On all counts really. Well written, well thought out.

  17. The original Mr. X says:

    TFBW:

    “Modern Atheism is Quantum Anti-theism. Exactly what they profess varies with the exact question being asked at the time. They readily adopt any anti-theistic concept, no matter how incompatible it is with any other anti-theistic concept they may already hold, and fire back whichever one best suits the theistic argument with which they are presented at the time. Do not seek to understand Modern Atheism as a coherent whole in the usual way, because it does not even value coherence. It values expedience. Although it dresses in the garb of dialectic, it is an exercise in rhetoric.”

    I think you’ve pretty much nailed it here. Most gnu atheists don’t seem to give a tinker’s cuss about consistency. I even came across one once who when called out on his scientism dismissed the law of non-contradiction as “a philosophical word-game”. It’s like they’re literally impervious to reason of any kind.

  18. Bilbo says:

    Hi TFBW,
    You’ve got me curious as to what the surprisingly long and detailed answer to my question would be.

  19. TFBW says:

    Well, I said it would be a long and detailed non-answer, so don’t get too excited. The details vary case by case, as should be expected by now, but the usual thrust would be to deny that definition of atheism one way or another. If I have the time to spare later, I’ll take a hunt through my archives and see if I can find a good concrete example, but I’m sure there are examples aplenty, even on this very blog.

    On that point, I find that one of Michael’s outstanding qualities as a blogger is his tenacity and refusal to be distracted by red herrings until he has an answer to the question actually asked. Modern Atheism, being what it is, likes to change the subject a lot. Any position which is looking remotely under threat is abandoned in favour of some other position which appears stronger. I am frequently impressed by Michael’s ability to shrug off those misdirections and non-answers. Such focus is an important skill for dealing with Modern Atheism, and it’s probably one of the reasons for the high drop-out rate among the Gnus that participate here, as opposed to some other places where they can blather interminably, redirecting the conversation as needs be.

  20. Justin says:

    “Theists have the burden of proof” is one of the more common non-answers I’ve received, usually coupled with the shirking of any form of defense for their position with the response “atheism is just the lack of belief in God”.

  21. cl says:

    @Justin,

    Exactly. The way to work that properly, though, it to remind the GNU that they, too, bear a burden of proof, the second they endorse something like “naturalism.” Then watch ’em squirm, or hurl insults..

  22. Matt Hamende says:

    I stumbled on this years after the thread wrapped up, but I hope everyone here has since realized how petty they sound, it’s like a bunch of adolescents philosophically masturbating in the mirror.

    What label a person chooses to define him or herself as ultimately means very little more than marketing. Believers certainly know a thing or two about ill defined labels, (God, Christian, Faith) all have been twisted when it suited the argument to make a position appear more tenable.

    Ultimately it comes down to the arguments a person makes and the evidence they can present. Obviously asking someone to define a negative is a fools errand, the same way in which asking someone to define their god in a set of premises can equally be a trap leading to negation of premises but likely not departure from said belief. I have no problem saying that some people that call themselves Atheists don’t know their arguments or have the skills to epistemologically dismantle a theological argument, the same that some believers make what I would consider better stronger arguments than others.

    Personally I think Agnosticism is independent of Theism/Atheism

    the Theistic position tends to relate specifically to questions of the existence of divinity and deities.

    Whereas the Gnostic/Agnostic position, I would agree relates to knowledge, but more importantly “certainty” that is informed by available knowledge.

    I’ll outline the 4 generic positions that come from this by making an example Statement, and I find most people fall into one of the 4, at least in the narrowest of terms.

    Gnostic Theist : “I Know there is a God”

    Agnostic Theist : “I Think there is a God, but I don’t know”

    Agnostic (Weak) Atheist : “I don’t think there is a God, but I don’t know”

    Gnostic (Strong) Atheist : “There is no God”

    Now everyone may not agree because I often hear agnosticism presented as a position independent of theism or lack thereof. But to my understanding agnosticism is void without context, I could be Agnostic about whether I think my favorite sports team would win. Or software is often designed as “Platform Agnostic” to indicate that it’s compatibility is not dependent on a particular Operating System to function.

    So if we were to make the claim that Atheists make a retreat from “Atheism” by resorting to Agnosticism due to uncertainty and a preference for rationality over unfalsifiable assertions, it seems the Theistic viewpoint would be equally assailable in the case of the Theist who makes an argument that the inability to demonstrably “prove” their God make their existence just as probable.

    We know in both cases both arguments are operating from a likely higher than 50/50 probability to truth of their arguments based on available knowledge and it’s interpretation, though to avoid making a logic error it would be reasonable for either argument to error, the only difference is where the Atheist fills the gap with uncertainty the theist fills the gap with Faith, which to be perfectly honest is nearly synonymous with uncertainty with a positive spin. Either way both sides if they’re attempting to remain logical they won’t try to prove unfalsifiables and won’t assert negatives.

    Additionally we could focus on our ability to dismantle arguments rather so much what label people call themselves by.

  23. Kevin says:

    I don’t get your initial point Matt. I for one detest professional sports, but you don’t see me going to sports sites and mocking the people that do for whatever reason like to watch and discuss them.

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