Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, an ..ist or a ..tic?

I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.

                                                   Richard Dawkins

Introduction

In a previous post, I explained why I am reluctant to call myself an atheist; it is both an ambiguous word and one that prompts a lot of assumptions. As an example, the journalist Peter Hitchens has particular views on what atheists believe and what motivates them. Whilst it is not possible to say that Mr Hitchens is ‘wrong’, I can try to explain why I don’t accept that he accurately describes me or my views as a ‘non-believer’.

Mr Hitchens’ Low Opinion of Me

Mr Hitchens’ own words can be read here and here (follow the threads both above and below the tweets). This debate also provides a good outline of his views (from about 2.36 mins).  In summary, his view is:

There can be no knowledge about the existence or otherwise of a god, therefore agnosticism is the only honest position. In the absence of knowledge, one must choose whether to believe in a creator nor not. Mr Hitchens has chosen his belief. He is a theist because, for him, theism has explanatory power (it potentially answers the question of how something came from nothing) and provides a potential source of objective morality. Since atheists can’t disprove the existence of god(s), they also choose their belief (to deny the possibility of a god) on faith. They do this because they want to live in a Universe without purpose, where there is no objective morality, no justice, where death is the final end and there is no point to life. Their actions unconstrained by morality or accountability, atheists worship only the self. Atheists won’t admit to these reasons but, having formerly been an atheist himself, Mr Hitchens knows them to be true.

So apparently, because I lack belief in god(s), I am an amoral narcissist with death-cult fetishes and a lust for irresponsibility who wilfully rejects the possibility of a deity just so I can revel in my own selfishness. Well then, am I?

No Knowledge of No Gods?

Is it possible to have knowledge about the existence and nature of god(s)? Is agnosticism the only honest position?  I don’t think so, I think it is possible in theory to obtain such knowledge.

The Swan, the Teapot, and the God

I don’t claim to know that gods don’t exist and I can’t prove the non-existence of god(s) (because one can never fully prove the non-existence of anything by falsification, whether it be a talking swan, Russell’s celestial teapot or a god). Humans don’t have total knowledge and experience of the Universe and so cannot completely discount the possibility of the swan, the teapot or the god being found in some dark corner of it. However, the harder/longer we look for something and fail to find proof of it, the less likely it is to exist. Further, the inability to disprove a thing tells us nothing about the chances of that thing actually existing; I can instantaneously think of many things I cannot disprove but that are totally implausible in reality.

Even without disproving a thing, one can still reasonably assess the likely-hood of it existing. Not only have neither Russell’s teapot nor a talking swan ever been observed, neither is compatible with our current knowledge of the Universe and so is unlikely ever to be observed. Similarly, it is not possible to disprove that a puppet-master-god is pulling the strings of the universe. However, the evidence in support of theism (briefly discussed below) is poor, and there are (to me) more convincing, alternative explanations. The ever increasing ability of humans to explain and predict the Universe without relying on theism eats away at theism’s viability.

At some point, one could conclude that the possibility of a god existing is no more likely than the teapot or the swan, and is so remote as to be not worth considering.

God Could Do a Thing

It may not be possible to falsify the proposition that god(s) exist, but it is possible to confirm it. A god could always prove its existence. If a Christ-like figure revealed itself and started tossing out miracles under laboratory conditions, rising from the dead, monkeying with time and performing other such interventions in the natural order of the Universe, that would be pretty powerful evidence in favour of his or her claim to be a god.

Agnosticism Takes Us Nowhere

So, I cannot agree that agnosticism is the only honest position as Mr Hitchens asserts; it seems to me to be more of a byproduct arising from the lack of proof of god(s). No god has revealed itself, which is the only reason why agnosticism is in any way a viable position; in a god-revealed Universe, agnosticism would be unsustainable.

Nor do I agree that the option is simply between being agnostic and then choosing either: (a) to believe in god(s); or (b), not to believe in god(s). Other combinations are possible.

  1. A gnostic atheist: believes it is possible to know if god(s) exist, does not believe in god(s);
  2. An agnostic atheist: does not believe it is possible to know if god(s) exist, does not believe that god(s) exist;
  3. A gnostic theist: believes it is possible to know if god(s) exist, believes in god(s);
  4. An agnostic theist; believes it is not possible to know if god(s) exist, believes in god(s);

I would put myself (for the purposes of this post) as a 1 and Mr Hitchens as a 4. He is happy to say that he has chosen to believe. Is he correct to say that I also chose a belief? If so, what is it and why did I?

Faith There Are No God(s), or No Faith In God(s)?

What do I ‘believe’?  My position is that I lack belief in god(s). I would also agree that I don’t believe in god(s), provided it is clear what I mean by ‘believe’.

Basis for Believing (or Not)

I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, but this is not a faith-based belief. It is based on my own experience, the experience of recorded history and my limited knowledge of how the Earth spins on its axis. I have evidence to support my belief. Cleverer folk than me can accurately predict the time the sun will rise in a certain part of the world on a given date. And this belief in a rising sun is falsifiable. If the sun fails to rise as predicted, then the belief is disproven and the laws used to make the prediction are probably wrong and need revising. This is the standard of belief I invoke when I say I lack belief or that I don’t believe,  in god(s).

This is a different type of belief to the blind faith that theists require in order to buy into the existence of a creator who intervenes in the Universe. Unlike the rising sun, there is no good evidence on which to believe in such a creator and the proposition that one exists cannot be tested, used to make predictions or falsified. I have no more reason to believe in an intervening creator than I do to believe that the sun shall someday rise in the form of a purple, pipe-smoking monkey.

Further, and unlike theism, not believing in god(s) is not itself a belief system. My lack of belief makes no claims, asserts no truths, nor posits any knowledge or wisdom. Mr Hitchens’ assertion that my lack of faith is in itself akin to religious faith is, in my opinion, very silly indeed: what is it my lack of belief implies that I believe exactly, what is my ‘religion’?  Well, Mr Hitchens does answer these questions as can be seen in the above summary of his views, but he depends very much on a particular definition of atheism in order to do so.

A Believer’s Beliefs about the Beliefs of Non-Believers

Mr Hitchens’ preferred definition of an atheist is ‘someone who believes that there is no god’ and he is dismissive of atheists who claim they lack belief or that they are not persuaded of the existence of god(s).

Since ‘atheism’ has multiple definitions, one can find support both for Mr Hitchens’ preferred version of it and my ‘lack of belief’ position. Neither is right or wrong, but the difference matters.

Under Mr Hitchens’ preferred construction, atheism is indeed a blind-faith type of belief that makes a truth claim (that there is no god). This definition is the foundation upon which he builds his wider argument that atheists actively choose to believe in something for which they can have no proof (that there is no god) and have actively chosen to reject the possibility of an intervening god (for selfish reasons). He could not advance his argument using the ‘lack of belief’ definition.

There May Be More Things Horatio….

I have no doubt that there are people who identify as atheists who do believe that there is no god, but that is not a belief I hold. I don’t believe in god(s), but I don’t believe that there is/are no god/s. Quite simply, I don’t have sufficient evidence on which to base such a belief. However unlikely I think it may be, it is possible that there is a god who has yet to reveal its existence or that I (and other non-believers) simply fail to recognise existing evidence of a deity.

If either the evidence or my evaluation of it changed, then my beliefs would have to change also because (whether Mr Hitchens believes me or not) my lack of belief is led by evidence, not blind faith or choices based on my preferences.

Did I Choose Not to Believe?

No, as all of the above implies, I just couldn’t sustain belief without reasonable evidence. Mr Hitchens may choose to believe in something of which there is no proof and only poor evidence, but I can’t. I did not choose to disbelieve in the Christian god any more than I chose not to believe in Zeus or Hanuman the monkey god. I simply have no basis on which to believe in any of them. The only difference with the Christian god was that I grew up in theistic environments where it was presented to me as a truth much like Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy were, so it was naturally a god I had to specifically grapple with; had I been born into Hindu environment, this might have been true of Hanuman rather than the Abrahamic god/Jesus. Just as  I learned to question the existence of Father Christmas, I began to evaluate the evidence and arguments in favour of god(s), found them wanting, and my belief fell away (although the process took much longer for god(s)). This was not a choice, but the consequence of honest, sceptical enquiry.

Finally, the motivations Mr Hitchens ascribes to me (such as wanting there to be no afterlife, worshipping the self, not wishing there to be meaning or morality etc) were never a consideration. In fact, fear of death and hope that there may be life after death actually kept me clinging to faith. Nor did I choose to ignore the supposed evidence in favour of theism (see below).

I find Mr Hitchens’ argument strange. If there were any convincing evidence of an intervening creator, I could not (and would not) dismiss it or ignore it. What would be the point? Does he honestly believe that non-believers are so stupid, vain and selfish as to think they can bend reality to their will and wish god(s) out of existence just because (for selfish and wicked reasons) they don’t want god(s) to exist?

What is Good and What is Real?

Specific questions of morality and evidence are too large for this post, but since Mr Hitchens brings them up, here are a couple of observations.

A Smörgåsbord of Objective Moralities

Mr Hitchens asserts that theism provides a source of objective morality. But since theism is simply the belief in an intervening creator and agnosticism claims that knowledge of such a creator is not possible, an agnostic theist (as Mr Hitchens is) can make no knowledge claims about what the morality of such a creator actually is. Theism itself provides no moral code; such moral teachings derive from particular pantheisms or monotheisms (in Mr Hitchens’ case, Anglican Christianity). Since different religions teach different moral codes, how does one choose which ‘absolute’ objective morality to choose from? All one monotheist could say about another monotheism is that it is not the true faith and its adherents have chosen incorrectly.

Considering that many people don’t choose their religion but inherit it (and their religiously derived morality) from their social environment, is it really rational to  believe that the ‘objective’ morality one inherits (via an accident of the time and place into which one happens to be born) is the one true, absolute, objective morality?

Earth + Life = God?

Mr Hitchens states that atheists choose their belief and then conveniently ignore the evidence in support of theism. All I can say for myself is that (so far as I am able to be my own judge) this is not true; I have sought out and attempted to understand the arguments of people such as William Lane Craig. One example of the evidence Mr Hitchens sometimes points to is the ‘fine-tuning’ argument (that the universe is tuned to fine tolerances, implying that an organizing intelligence is responsible). Anyone interested can find both an explanation and a criticism of the fine tuning argument here. Also worth watching is this video, which touches on the fine tuning argument and the general incompatibility of theism with the universe, in contrast to naturalism (from 49.10 mins). I am far more persuaded by the naturalistic arguments than theistic ones.

I have looked at the evidence and arguments in favour of theism (such as fine-tuning) and am genuinely not convinced by them. But I will continue to seek them out with an open mind.

Final Thoughts

I have no illusions that I could convince Mr Hitchens of either the truth or the sincerity of any of the things I say about my lack of belief, but it has been good to challenge myself with his arguments. I have had to refine my thoughts and confront some lazy thinking. Writing this post was more difficult than I had expected, but the result is my own position is clearer to me and my lack of faith remains unshaken.

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