June 23, 2014

Bastion of Rationalism:
Is atheism rational?

There are many thoughts on why people become atheists, especially among the religious. Among some that I could find on Google, you have assertions that a bad relationship with one's father is common among atheists. You have the idea that non-theistic evolution encourages it, and the idea that atheists want to be free from "moral restraint", so that it is a moral issue.

Others espouse the ideas that atheists have had bad spiritual experiences. Others argue that it is rebellion against childhood upbringing. Some even go so far as to say that atheism is a particular deception by the Devil himself.

For me, Atheism was a logical outcome of my own rational journey.


When I run across columns discussing the rationality of atheism, they are particularly intriguing to me. Today was no exception.

Today, I ran across a rather rambling refutation of the idea that atheism can be rational. The piece itself was so incoherent that I don't find it particularly troubling. But it did spark an interest.

What arguments are there for inherent rationalism versus irrationalism in atheism?

Let's take a look, shall we?



Rarely do I reproduce an entity in is entirety, but I will quote (and link) the original piece that inspired this line of questioning here:
Atheism in its essence, pertains to a system wherein belief in deities is non-existential belief. This implies that atheism completely rejects the worship of any form of religious idol or religious entity. So coming now to the question- are atheists rational? Is atheism rational? Is it irrational?  
At this point, a very important facet of this discussion- what is atheism in the philosophical dimension ? A recent study revealed that a staggering 65 percent of all philosophers are atheists. Now there has to be some logical rationale behind this. Philosophy in the current age has overtaken religion in terms of envisioning a society that would work towards absolute human happiness. So if most philosophers are atheists, doesn't it imply that atheism is actually a logical belief system? 
To answer this very question, let us address a very important aspect. While atheists claim that there is a lack of evidence in validating theism, they do not support their views with evidence. So basically, there isn't plausible coherence in what atheists declare or state. 
To elaborate the previous point, if an atheist asserts that the number of stars in the milky way is an odd number, then he needs convincing evidence to espouse his claim. But, quite unfortunately, it is in the nature of atheists to discard claims of others on the one ludicrous claim that there doesn't exist any evidence. 
So if an atheist is rational, then what would he believe in? Theism? Then that wouldn't make him an atheist, would it? And if he is irrational, does he continue to be an atheist?  
It is hard to address the question gratifyingly, for to answer the question "are atheists irrational", you might end up, after getting entangled in a web of intricate thoughts, that theism can be irrational in many a way too. 
I will say, this piece, despite its brevity, left an impression. I personally commit to watching excess verbiage in all future posts.

The author's basic premise seems to be that atheists are irrational because they offer no proof that God does not exist, and that since they would expect to offer proof if they asserted that something existed, they are therefore not rational. But religion isn't rational either, so...there we are.

What is atheism?


First, it's important to understand atheism, which is a belief in no God. This often manifests as a rejection of the Abrahamic god of Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, but not necessarily. The reason we encounter the refutation of those religions in particular, I would wager, is because of their strength of presence throughout the modern world.

In the past, however, both Buddhism and Jainism arose as atheistic alternatives to Hindu beliefs, while Confucianism arose as a secular-focused morality-based belief system in contrast with traditional religions throughout China. So atheism is not limited to the sphere of Western belief. It appears, rather, to be a part of human nature.

We question, we seek answers to those questions, and sometimes those answers lead us away from belief.

It is a natural progression.

Why is atheism irrational?


The best philosophical argument for why atheism is irrational is that a lack of evidence for something does not necessarily mean that it doesn't exist. 

Alvin Platinga explains it like this (which sheds a little light on our poster above, I think):

"No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusions would be agnosticism."

Platinga argues that both theism and atheism require strong evidence. Both the idea that there is a god and that there is not one require the adherent to support that position.

For instance, he says, the idea of a "teapot in space" is often used. If I say, "There is a tea pot orbiting Mars", I would be the one expected to support that position. This idea supports the idea that those who affirm belief, rather than those that refute it, are required to support their position.

However, as Platinga points out, we do have strong arguments to support the idea that there is not a teapot in space. For one, we would know if a nation decided to shoot something into space. It's also unlikely that a nation would do so frivolously, because of the expense and other factors involved. In that case, there's strong evidence AGAINST the teapot.

Another argument, this one from Hanegraff, says:
Atheism positively affirms that there is no God. But can the atheist be certain of this claim? You see, to know that a transcendent God does not exist would require a perfect knowledge of all things (omniscience). To attain this knowledge you would have to have simultaneous access to all parts of the universe (omnipresence). Therefore, as an atheist, to be certain of this claim you would have to possess Godlike characteristics. Obviously, mankind's limited nature precludes these special abilities. The atheist's dogmatic claim is therefore clearly unjustifiable. The atheist is attempting to prove a universal negative. In terms of logic this is called a logical fallacy.

Why is atheism rational?


However, many believe atheism is totally rational. Why? Well, not because philosophers do. Believing because others believe seems...silly, honestly.

Take the claims above. It is possible to refuse them on a variety of bases.

For one, Platinga claims that atheists positively affirm that there is no god, and that they should have strong arguments to back them up. One could say that the arguments for atheism are weaker than the arguments for theism.

For example, if I argue that I am atheistic because a benevolent force does not exist in the universe, and I cite the examples of poverty, illness, famine and war that have decimated our planet, that's as strong an argument, in my opinion, as a theist that asserts that a good and benevolent being exists because we were all allowed to wake up this morning. The difference is, of course, that the weight of scientific thought tends to come down on the side of supporting atheism--or at least, making it easier to be atheistic.

There's also the fact that few people would assert that there is no god. Atheism is the belief in no god or gods. There's a distinct difference between those two phrases--one is a positive affirmation, one is a belief. A positive affirmation requires significant proof, yes, but a belief requires only rational thought to back it (at least, in the case of those of us that place an emphasis on it). I cannot assert that there is no god, that there has never been a god, and that there will never be a god. It's entirely possible that there has been, is or will be. What I can say is that based on the evidence that I have, and my personal experiences, I believe that there is no god. That is in and of itself rational thought progression.

The same goes for Hasengraaff's first point. Mark Vuletic said:

The point is that rational justification is not equivalent to certainty. In asking whether a belief is rational, one must not ask whether or not one can be certain of the claim - one must ask, rather, whether or not there are good reasons to believe the claim is true. Many, if not most, atheists hold that although one cannot be certain that God does not exist, there are very good reasons to believe that God does not exist - reasons good enough to justify acceptance of the proposition that "God does not exist."

Vuletic is arguing that Hasengraaff's first logical mistake is assuming that rationality requires certainty. It doesn't. Much like I point out above, certainty isn't a prerequisite for rational thought processes. For example, Vuletic points out that while he can't be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, he can be "rationally justified" in believing it.

Essentially, Vuletic says that Hasengraaff's argument is flawed at two points:

1. One can prove with certainty that an entity does not exist if (a) the concept of that entity is incoherent, or (b) the existence of that entity is logically incompatible with obviously present states of affairs.  
2. One can be rationally justified in claiming that an entity does not exist without being certain that it does not exist. This justification comes from (a) the improbability that that entity exists given various states of affairs, and/or (b) the principle of parsimony coupled with a lack of evidence for the existence of that entity.
This provides a basis for the idea that atheism is rational.

Historically, people have reached atheism time and again through rationalism.


Recently, I've been reading Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson by Jennifer Michael Hecht. As I read more, I am struck by the sheer number of people throughout history that have come to atheism as the result of entirely rational thoughts processes. These were not people proving their atheism through rationalism--these were people *discovering* it.

In ancient Greece, the birthplace of philosophy, doubt thrived along three lines--people began discussing how the universe actually worked, people started questioning the reasonableness of the gods' biographies, and people began exploring a new realm of meaning that did not rely on the gods in any important way. Basically, people began exploring how to live without gods--how to be moral, how to deal with loss, how to face mortality, all without religious interference.

I tend to agree with Protogoras. Although I identify as an atheist, I find the only surviving quote from his Concerning the Gods very relatable:
About the gods I cannot say either that they are or that they are not, nor how they are constituted in shape; for there is much which prevents knowledge, the unclarity of the subject and the shortness of life.
Later, Democritus would argue that people created the gods because they both feared and admired natural phenomena--which explains many of the properties of deities that manifest both beauty and terrible wrath.

In the Hellenistic Age, we found Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics. All of these were secular "religions" that dealt with the possibility of there being no god. These religions found ways to survive and thrive in a world that wasn't controlled by gods.

We see doubt among the ancient Jews, in Asia, in the Middle East. Our Greek friends were not historically isolated in the slightest.

 So is atheism rational?


Is atheism rational? It's a loaded question to say the least. I think the best answer is also an evasion.

It can be.

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