Atheism as Subjective Opinion

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.

Yet multiple atheists activists do indeed claim there is no god.  So it’s not clear if Boghossian is telling the truth or is simply expressing a common talking point.  Let’s be charitable and assume the former. This would mean such 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. In the end, 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 functioning as a brain and instead work like a computer? Clearly, what is deemed 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.

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24 Responses to Atheism as Subjective Opinion

  1. Ilíon says:

    The term ‘opinion’ implies a rational evaluation of the matter on which one holds an opinion. Precious few God-deniers have so much as even attempted a rational evaluation of the question of God’s reality.

    Perhaps a better title would be “Atheism as mere prejudice”

  2. Ilíon says:

    I’ve read this story about C S Lewis —

    When C S Lewis was four years old, and his father informed him that the family were going on holiday to France, he said to his father, “I have a prejudice against the French.

    His father asked him, “Why is that?

    And he replied, “If I knew why, it wouldn’t be a prejudice.

    =======
    Intellectually dishonest atheistic talking-point: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.

    The God-deniers who make this assertion cannot tell you *why* “there is not sufficient evidence to warrant belief in God”; they cannot tell you *what* such evidence would involve, what it would look like, what would count.

    Their God-denial is a mere irrational prejudice.

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  4. pennywit says:

    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.

    I’ve frequently heard from atheists who say they would need to have what amounts to a personal mystical experience to believe in a particular god, or else have something intensely concrete and verifiable occur.

    Hence my standard joke: “I’ll believe when the Cleveland Browns beat the Detroit Lions in the Super Bowl.”

  5. pennywit says:

    So how did Dawkins get from a 6 to a 6.9?

    6.9 is more kinky?

  6. pennywit says:

    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.

    How many theists do the same?

  7. Derek Ramsey says:

    “How many theists do the same?”

    Ask an audience full of atheists if they frequently doubt their belief that God doesn’t exist, and almost no one will raise their hands. Ask an audience full of Christians if they have doubts, and everyone will raise their hands. I believe it was John Lennox who demonstrated this in some of his talks.

    Christians are mocked by atheists precisely because they have faith/belief/trust in God rather than the fuzzy atheist conceptions of ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’. This mockery wouldn’t be rational if theists did the same as atheists.

  8. stcordova says:

    Boneheads lBoghassian thinks that just because he can decide for everyone else that God doesn’t exist based on his infinitesimal sample size of reality.

    If Paul really did sea God, and Bonehead Boghassian, didn’t, then it give Bonehead Boghassian no right to declare to people that have seen evidence of God that there is no God.

  9. It’s well known that atheists don’t apply anything like the same level of scepticisim to their own beliefs and assumptions. They must be aware of this, hence the desperation to avoid having to commit themselves to actually having any.

  10. Ilíon says:

    Not only do ‘atheists’ not hold their own beliefs and (especially their) assumptions to the same level of skepticism as they do those of Christians, but they also work frantically to avoid holding their beliefs and (especially their) assumptions up to rational scrutiny.

    I suspect that they take special classes in such avoidance technology.

  11. Dhay says:

    > 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. In the end, evidence is a brain-dependent phenomenon.

    PZ Myers seems to say pretty much the same (as almost an aside in a long post criticising Steven Pinker):

    Every scientist knows that data is only part of the story; interpretation shapes that data, but even more, methods and sources select what data you see, and no amount of data can describe the totality of the phenomenon you’re attempting to describe. We are all peeking at the universe through pinholes, and attempting to summarize its nature with theories and models.

    https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2019/12/17/santa-came-early-and-left-steve-pinker-a-lump-of-coal/

    “…and attempting to summarize its nature with theories and models.”

  12. pennywit says:

    Ask an audience full of atheists if they frequently doubt their belief that God doesn’t exist, and almost no one will raise their hands. Ask an audience full of Christians if they have doubts, and everyone will raise their hands. I believe it was John Lennox who demonstrated this in some of his talks.

    Can you recommend a link? I’d be interested in reading about this. I’ve met more than a few atheists who seem insecure about their beliefs. They won’t express that insecurity … but it comes out in how intensely they ridicule theists.

  13. M Hill says:

    We are certainly in agreement that not all atheists exercise epistemic humility. However your laser focus on atheists in this regard is puzzling. Having been raised in American evangelicalism, I can say first-hand that there is very little epistemic humility in that community, if there is any at all. Unfortunately I’m not aware of any polling on epistemic humility, so in lieu of that, I will say that if I were to walk into an evangelical church and ask the attendees if God’s existence is an object fact, I suspect I would obtain a unanimous or near-unanimous answer: yes. I suspect very few or none at all would say that it is just their subjective opinion that God exists.

    Of course one can find notable exceptions among Christianity at large, including inside evangelicalism. Just off the top of my head, Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, has shown an admirable level of epistemic humility.

    It would seem more appropriate to lament the general lack of epistemic humility. By focusing upon a particular community to the exclusion of others undercuts the problem and turns what could have been a hard-hitting piece into a partisan screed.

  14. Michael says:

    It would seem more appropriate to lament the general lack of epistemic humility. By focusing upon a particular community to the exclusion of others undercuts the problem and turns what could have been a hard-hitting piece into a partisan screed.

    Except that the two communities are not symmetrical. Atheism is viewed as something you conclude after using reason and evidence. Evangelicalism is, as you say, something you are “raised in.” What’s more, the major opinion-shapers of our culture, academia and the media, clearly favor atheism over evangelicalism. Thus, my focusing upon a particular community to the exclusion of the other is an example of “punching up.” If you’d like to “punch down,” focus on the evangelicals.

  15. Kevin says:

    The atheists Michael blogs about go around defining themselves by how they use reason and evidence to form all their beliefs, and they define their opponents with adjectives such as “irrational”, “deluded”, etc. They refer to themselves as “people of reason”.

    Evangelicals do not define themselves with claims of using reason and evidence to form all their beliefs. They do not treat reason as a virtue.

    Which of these groups would it be more problematic to find a lack of epistemic humility, when only one defines itself by its alleged epistemic prowess?

  16. Featherfoot says:

    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.

    Yet multiple atheists activists do indeed claim there is no god. So it’s not clear if Boghossian is telling the truth or is simply expressing a common talking point.

    Actually, I don’t see any contradiction between these statements. Most of the atheists I have met in real life simply don’t care that other people are religious, and don’t really make strong claims about other’s beliefs, or even their own. Now, atheists who write on the internet tend to be fairly anti-theist, and any of the “activists” are going to be very strongly anti-theist. As usually happens, the loudest voices are the least reasonable ones. And since they’re so much louder, they make themselves seem more widespread than they really are. This happens the other way, too. The most famous church in America might be the Westboro Baptist Church. I don’t agree when people think that’s what American Christianity is like, just because they’ve found a way to be louder than others.

  17. Derek Ramsey says:

    “The most famous church in America might be the Westboro Baptist Church. I don’t agree when people think that’s what American Christianity is like, just because they’ve found a way to be louder than others.”

    How is that for irony? The media that hates Christianity chooses to make the WBC a face of Christianity. In a rational world we would call that a strawman. They didn’t find a way to be louder. Just like Greta Thunberg, they are useful political tools.

    WBC has a minuscule 11k followers on Twitter compared to 2.9M for Richard Dawkins, 1.3M for Sam Harris, 280k for Daniel Dennett, 71k for Boghossian, and 69k for Hemant Mehta. WBC is only slightly more popular than Richard Carrier. The very popular Christian Tim Keller has 406k followers. For reference scale, President Trump has 68M followers.

    So, the atheists mentioned above have significantly greater cultural influence. Thus we care quite a bit more with how they define atheism, because they speak for many. The WBC is statistically insignificant and not worth our attention.

  18. Ilion says:

    Evangelicals do not define themselves with claims of using reason and evidence to form all their beliefs. They do not treat reason as a virtue.

    Excuse me, but do you actually *know* any evangelicals, or, for that matter, fundamentalists?

  19. M Hill says:

    “We find that anti-atheist sentiment is strong, persistent, and driven in part by moral concerns about atheists and in part by agreement with cultural values that affirm religiosity as a constitutive moral grounding of citizenship and national identity.” (Edgell, P., Hartmann, D., Stewart, E. and Gerteis, J., 2016. Atheists and other cultural outsiders: Moral boundaries and the non-religious in the United States. Social Forces, 95(2), pp.607-638.) [pdf]

    “Americans still feel coolest toward Muslims and atheists” (Martínez, J.H., 2017. Americans express increasingly warm feelings towards religious groups. Pew Research Center, February, 15.)

    “One way in which state constitutions have placed Catholics, Jews and non-believers apart at various times in our national history has been through religious tests for public office. Typically these tests were straightforward. For example, the Mississippi constitution of 1890 provided: ‘No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state.’ Eight states retain these provisions in their current constitutions.” (Vestal, A.W., 2015. The Lingering Bigotry of State Constitution Religious Tests. U. Md. LJ Race, Religion, Gender & Class, 15, p.55.)

    Today it is unimaginable that eight states would bar Catholics or Jews from public office or from providing testimony in court. Yet it is the present reality that atheists are so barred. “Lingering bigotry” indeed.

    In the past I would have expected such laws, if challenged, to be struck down by the Supreme Court. But given the newfound conservative majority on the Court, that is now unclear. The new Supreme Court judges are but one reflection of the enormous power evangelicals wield in the United States, without whom Trump could not have been elected. 94% of white evangelicals supported Trump over Clinton in 2016. (Smith, G.A., 2016. Churchgoing Republicans, Once Skeptical of Trump, Now Support Him. Pew Research Center.)

    It is not true that atheists have power and evangelicals do not. It is not true that atheists are “up” and evangelicals are “down” with regard to punching directions. Quite the opposite.

    In any case, this “up” and “down” stuff nowise justifies the double standard you have embraced. Not only are the “up” and “down” positions reversed, but they were reversed in a misguided attempt to justify the double standard, which appears to be more of the same lingering bigotry. You might as well have said, “THEY are to be derided when THEY do it, but not when WE do it.”

  20. M Hill says:

    “Evangelicals do not define themselves with claims of using reason and evidence to form all their beliefs. They do not treat reason as a virtue.”

    I second the motion of calling bullshit on this.

  21. Michael says:

    As I said before, political power is a lagging sign of power. I focus on academia and the media because these are the opinion shapers of the future. That is, power in academia and media eventually become political power. We’re seeing this type of incremental transition with the transgender movement.

    It is not true that atheists have power and evangelicals do not. It is not true that atheists are “up” and evangelicals are “down” with regard to punching directions. Quite the opposite.

    You’re wrong. Focus on the media and academia. Evangelicals have no real power there. As for atheists, what you’ll find are atheistic philosophies being empowered – postmodernism, hedonism, scientism, skepticism of religion (primarily Christianity), etc.

    In any case, this “up” and “down” stuff nowise justifies the double standard you have embraced. Not only are the “up” and “down” positions reversed, but they were reversed in a misguided attempt to justify the double standard, which appears to be more of the same lingering bigotry. You might as well have said, “THEY are to be derided when THEY do it, but not when WE do it.”

    At this point, your credibility is collapsing. You accuse me of bigotry and deriding atheists for what? For pointing out that atheism is a subjective opinion. That’s not bigotry or deriding someone. Examples of such things would be when atheists accuse Christians of being mentally ill and child abusers.

  22. Kevin says:

    Excuse me, but do you actually *know* any evangelicals, or, for that matter, fundamentalists?

    Yes. And they (we, since I am one) define themselves by belief in, and worship of, Jesus Christ. Odd that you seem to think Reason and Evidence, as preached by anti-theists, are more important and central to Christianity.

    Those things are important, and the foundation of apologetics, but they are not the foundation by which Christians are Christians. That would be Christ and faith in him. The central message of Christianity is not Reason and Evidence, and that people who do not sufficiently use Reason and Evidence are morally flawed.

    I second the motion of calling bullshit on this.

    Then you second the motion of being wrong.

    Reading comprehension would not lead anyone to believe that I said reasoning and using evidence are not important parts of Christianity. But take your typical sermon from a typical pastor, and take a typical speech or article by your typical Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens-esque anti-theist, and only one of those groups will be preaching on Reason and Evidence. Christians use them with apologetics and otherwise, but apologetics is not the core of Christianity. Jesus Christ is.

    Those atheists, on the other hand, define themselves with Reason and Evidence yet fail to use them. That’s like someone who preaches that it’s important to not eat meat and tries to restrict the diets of others getting caught enjoying himself a nice steak.

  23. Featherfoot says:

    Reading comprehension would not lead anyone to believe that I said reasoning and using evidence are not important parts of Christianity.

    Then do you not consider Evangelicals to be Christians? Because you wrote this:

    [Evangelicals] do not treat reason as a virtue.

    You seem to think that they’re just responding to your statement about reason not being defining, but both places where you’re quoted, they also quote the part about reason not even being a virtue.

  24. Bilbo says:

    Randal Rauser just wrote an interesting post, that is not wholly irrelevant:
    https://randalrauser.com/2020/01/why-weak-atheism-is-nonsense/

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