The reasonableness of atheism

Published: Sunday | October 13, 2013 Comments 0
A pro-atheism billboard at the SW corner of Sunrise Boulevard and 27th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in July 2009. -MCT
A pro-atheism billboard at the SW corner of Sunrise Boulevard and 27th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in July 2009. -MCT

Udo Schuklenk

Over the last two weeks, Ian Boyne decided to call a spade a spade as far as us annoying atheists are concerned. They were two overly long columns, saturated with names of people he likes and scorns. Their authority typically is celebrated by means of affiliation or Oxford University generally.

Boyne even manages to ascribe competencies to Christian writers he agrees with that they demonstrably do not have. Alistair McGrath, a Christian theologian trained in history whose qualifications even include a doctorate in molecular biology, is declared without further ado a philosopher by Mr Boyne.

While he says he is braced for ad hominem attacks by 'trite atheists', it strikes me that such generalised statements about a very diverse group of people are, well, ad hominem themselves, aren't they? Reading his columns, I tried to understand what his message to the reading public is other than walking away with the bragging rights of having read more books than those 'trite atheists'.

Well, I have only one column in which to respond to Mr Boyne. I am actually a trained philosopher, in fact a professor of philosophy, and I happen to be an atheist. I can truthfully say that I've read the works of most people he mentions in his columns. Some of these authors I happen to know well personally. Alas, that has not persuaded me of the reasonableness of theism, and that, surely, is what Mr Boyne is after.

I will not spend the next few paragraphs dropping names on you, or at least there will be very few. I will focus on arguments, not prestige, affiliation and whatnot. What I will do is to address - hidden under all those names and Oxford University Press volumes - what I take to be Mr Boyne's main bones of contention with philosophical atheists.

They seem to be these: As human beings, our capacity to understand things in the world is limited by our biological limitations. There could be realities that are beyond our scientific abilities to discover.

Among others, one of Mr Boyne's favourite Christian apologists, Alvin Plantinga, has developed this kind of argument. He claims that we would have no reason to assume that our cognitive faculties are reliable if they were just the product of evolutionary processes. So, he ends up proposing a form of evolution - many of Mr Boyne's fellow Christians will shudder in disbelief - that includes an element of divine guidance, as only that would give us reason to trust our faculties. After all, God wouldn't fool around with us, or would He/She/It? Well, most philosophical atheists happen to be philosophical naturalists. Guilty as charged, Mr Boyne.

We acknowledge our scientific limitations. To us, the fact that our intellectual capacities are limited by the state of our evolution is not evidence that there is something else to be discovered that is outside our senses and that we just cannot grasp.

BOYNE DESPERATE

Incidentally, talking in this context vaguely about 'non-scientific ways of knowing', as Mr Boyne does, sounds a tad bit desperate to me. Unless he, or his fellow Christian apologists, give us a bit more meat to play with, let me just say that I do think this theological emperor is pretty naked. It appears to me that naturalistic processes provide us with the necessary reliability in selecting true beliefs about the world around us.

How can we test that claim? One way would be to point to our never-ending and ever-accelerating scientific progress. We know more about the world and the universe than we ever did. Insisting that there could be something else around us that we just cannot grasp by means of scientific inquiry is, for all practical intent and purposes, just hand-waving by the religious.

Is it possible that there is something else in the universe that we cannot grasp because of how we have evolved? Sure, it's possible. Just as it is possible that our planet rests on a metaphysical teapot that our scientific methods have so far been unable to discover and that requires Boynian 'non-scientific ways of knowing' to understand it.

What I am trying to get at is that raising this exceedingly unlikely possibility is clutching at straws. It's a desperate attempt by theists to avoid drowning in an ever-increasing sea of scientific knowledge.

So, even if Professor Schellenberg has a philosophical point, nothing follows with regard to the reasonableness of theism. Perhaps that is the reason why he is an atheist. At the end of the day, you have to assign probabilities to these sorts of theoretical possibilities. And the probabilities are vanishingly low for the God proposition.

To support his views, Mr Boyne cites an atheistic philosopher, Thomas Nagel, at great length. The thing about Nagel is that his book on the subject matter (as well as an earlier article in a leading philosophy journal) was ripped to pieces by evolutionary biologists and philosophers specialising in the study of biology. Nagel does not appear to have a sound grasp of

evolutionary theory. Hence his tacit support for 'intelligent design' is not based on a sound understanding of the scientific matters at stake.

MISPLACED EXCITEMENT

Mr Boyne also gets excited about another poster boy of current-day Christian apologetics, William Lane Craig. Boyne claims that he has seen many an atheist debate Lane Craig, but he has not seen a single one floor him. Funnily enough, I have seen many of these debates, too, and it seems to me that Lane-Craig looks bad in pretty all of them, but so it goes, I guess. You'll always give more credence to those batting on your team.

Lane Craig's claim to fame has been his attempt to recycle medieval Christian and Islamic theologians' attempts at proving the existence of God by means of a cosmological argument.

Basically what's done in this argument is to use remarkable features of our natural world, particularly its origin in the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, and posit God as the best explanation. Of course, 'God' is really a place-holder indicating what we do not know today. If history is anything to go by, we are likely able to find out tomorrow.

However, even if we never found out, 'God' would still not constitute an explanation for things we do not understand in the world around us. And if we do find out, there would probably be some further mystery for which 'God' will be offered as an 'explanation'.

At the heart of this all, seemingly, is the need of religious believers to attain something approaching certainty about their various godly saviours. If they had simply decided to stick to believing that their God exists, everything would be hunky-dory. But no, they started fantasising about ways of 'knowing' about their invisible friend in the sky. They tried hard to develop logical proofs for the existence of their gods, and what not else. All that failed.

Even if one granted them everything they're saying about the limitations of scientific inquiry, nothing follows at all with regard to the existence of 'God'. Scientists would have no problems at all adapting their methods if they turned out to deliver new insights. Meanwhile, vague reference to 'non-scientific ways of knowing' won't do.

To give credit where credit is due, Mr Boyne seems to search seriously for answers to obvious doubts that he must have about his beliefs. Why else would he spend this much time engaging in debates with 'trite' atheists in the pages of this paper? After all, he could squander words beating up on homosexuals, as his fellow columnist Mr Espeut is wont to do.

It's a good thing that Mr Boyne, even if he cannot let go of his beliefs, is looking sincerely at the arguments. There is some empirical evidence to suggest many people might never be able to let go of their deeply held religious beliefs. It could well be biological and irreversible. No, I am not kidding here. In case you care about religiosity as a biological phenomenon, you might want to check out Andrew Newberg and Eugene D Aquili's book Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Udo Schuklenk is a professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, and with Russell Blackford co-author of '50 Great Myths About Atheism'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com. Schuklenk tweets @Schuklenk.






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