“Atheism On Trial” On Trial

By R.N. Carmona

Over at PhilosophyNow, which is a site I frequent for philosophy articles, Stephen Anderson, a philosophy teacher in Ontario, puts atheism on trial. Before I write my rebuttal, I must speak bluntly: his trial is egregious and makes obvious a gross misunderstanding of atheism and the various positions among atheists. I’ll make his misunderstandings clear. This rebuttal isn’t meant to open a debate between myself and Anderson, but I welcome it. I will, however, speak honestly once again: once my rebuttal is done, I doubt there will be a response, since Anderson’s mistakes are so elementary.

He begins with an introduction that attempts to skew the truth, i.e., he speaks of atheism as though it is a privileged position; he speaks as though there’s a such thing as atheist privilege rather than religious or more specifically, Christian privilege. This immediately shows Anderson’s disconnect from the truth. There is no atheist privilege in many countries. He says that atheists like to remind people that in the past, atheists were “hacked to pieces with a scimitar or boiled in oil…as if the follies of distant ancestors should make us blush.” The glaring issue here is that this isn’t merely the folly of distant ancestors, but rather, past follies resemble the follies committed by religious people in the modern day. Anderson never makes clear what his religious beliefs are though he seems to suggest in his conclusion that he’s Jewish; he simply refers to his deity as the “Supreme Being.” Given this neutral position, the crimes of religious people in the modern day are enough to refute his claim. The reason we’re fond of reminding people of such crimes is because they still happen. They happen, in particular, to atheists around the world. They also happen, in general, to people due to the radical religious beliefs of some practitioners. Therefore, such comments are made because they’re still relevant.

Earlier this year, American secularist Avijit Roy was hacked to death in Bangladesh.1 His wife was also attacked. As a result of the attack, her finger was amputated. He was one of three bloggers murdered in Bangladesh over the last four months and the fourth in the last two years. Two more have been attacked since 2004. After killing Roy, two of Roy’s followers were murdered: Ananta Bijoy Das and Washiqur Rahman.2 Such examples are not only instances of violence against atheists, but they’re indicative of what would happen if believers were given more power than they have in secular countries. It’s also a continuing trend: when a theocracy is in place, violence against nonbelievers and people holding other religious beliefs are the norm. In 13 Muslim countries, atheists could be legally executed.3 The article (which is cited below) also shares some striking examples of violence, discrimination, and prejudice against atheists. “This report shows that the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers although they have signed U.N agreements to treat all citizens equally,“ said IHEU President Sonja Eggerickx. Also, in India “humanists say police are often reluctant or unwilling to investigate murders of atheists carried out by religious fundamentalists.” “Across the world, the report said, “there are laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, revoke their citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prevent them working for the state.””

There are also crimes against people in general. The next example could be considered violence against atheists since some scholars and critics of Islam are atheists. Robert Spencer, a renowned critic of Islam states:

Some of the bold scholars who have investigated the history of early Islam have even received death threats. As a result, some publish under pseudonyms, including scholars of the first rank, such as those who go by the names Christoph Luxenberg and Ibn Warraq. Such intimidation is an impediment to scholarly research that even the most radical New Testament scholar never had to deal with.4

There’s also the fact that extremist Muslims pour acid on young girls and women who simply want an education.5 Before responding by saying that all of my examples have focused on Islam, I will add that Christians have murdered dozens of children during exorcisms.[6][7] Belief in so called faith healing has also led to many deaths, spanning decades. In this, there’s also an implicit discrimination against atheists. For instance, Jerry A. Coyne states:

If your faith mandates spiritual healing and your child dies because you offer prayer instead of insulin or antibiotics, your chances of being charged with a crime are slim. There are religious exemptions for child neglect and abuse, negligent homicide, involuntary manslaughter. Several states allow parents to use a religious defense against charges of murder of their child—and in some places they can’t be charged with murder at all. And even when parents are prosecuted, acquiescence to religious belief often leads to their being acquitted or given light sentences, including unsupervised parole. None of this, of course, applies to parents who refuse medical care on nonreligious grounds; those individuals get no immunity from prosecution.8

As clearly stated, nonreligious parents receive no leniency when concerning child neglect, abuse, or wrongful deaths. Though there are no clear examples of religious favoritism between religions, e.g. Christianity favored over Buddhism, I’d argue that Buddhist parents who cite a religious exemption after the death of one of their children will be treated far less favorably than a Christian claiming the same. This is to set aside that atheists are legally prohibited from taking public office in seven states.9 Discrimination and prejudice against atheists are both subtle and obvious. Atheists around the world are still murdered for their non-belief. Today’s Muslims are yesterday’s Jews and Christians. Never mind that there are clear examples, in books shared by the Christian and Jewish canon, of violence against atheists and people subscribing to other religious beliefs. I will, however, digress since I think I’ve given this claim a thorough thrashing.

Atheists do not remind people of the past for sake of doing so, but because past treatment of atheists is relevant to present treatment of atheists. Given evolving standards of decency and the improvement of governments around the world, the murder of someone who doesn’t believe or believes differently is prohibited. That isn’t to say that there aren’t other ways of harming atheists and people subscribing to different beliefs. One can discriminate and commit acts of prejudice against such people, and as discussed, there are legal avenues that enable such discrimination and prejudice.

Anderson’s primary mistake–the mistake that is, in fact, at the root of his other errors–is his definition of atheism. His definition of atheism is purely etymological and ignores the changes in its definition over time. Anderson, for example, never considers the modern definition: the lack of belief in gods. He goes with the definition “no theism,” which he interprets to mean “no gods.” He, like many theists, conflates epistemic belief and epistemic knowledge.

Though related, these concepts are different. Epistemic belief is established by epistemic entitlement and also, warrant and justification, e.g., justified true belief. “Philosophers who acknowledge the existence of entitlements maintain that there are beliefs or judgments unsupported by evidence available to the subject, but which the subject nonetheless has the epistemic right to hold.”10 Knowledge, on the other hand, is established by these as well, but to believe in something and to know something aren’t one and the same. Warrant and justification are often conflated, but epistemologists differentiate between the transmission of one and the other.11 Given that knowledge and belief are often conflated and that, at least, one definition, i.e., Plato’s definition, defines knowledge as justified true belief, when concerning atheism, which is a position of belief and not one of knowledge, it is easy to see how someone can make the mistake Anderson makes. Atheism is the lack of belief in gods and is therefore, our position of belief when concerning gods. Theism is the belief in gods, whether one (mono) or more (poly), and is also a position of belief regarding gods. Neither is a claim of knowledge. A theist might believe in one god or many, but s/he isn’t obligated to know whether or not their god(s) exists. Likewise, atheists do not believe gods exist, but it is not incumbent on them to know or to be able to demonstrate that this is, in fact, the case.

Given this, Anderson also misuses the position of knowledge. He focuses on his meaning of agnostic, but his meaning imports the error implicit in his definition of atheism. Agnostic, etymologically speaking, means “no knowledge.” This is contrasted with the term gnostic, which is derived from the Greek gnosis, meaning knowledge. Theists and atheists can be either agnostic or gnostic, and it’s those terms that contain the position of knowledge. Most atheists are openly agnostic atheists, since gnostic atheists, as Anderson intuitively understands, have their work cut out for them. Anyone who claims specialized knowledge is also required to demonstrate how they know what they claim to know. Christians, for instance, claim to know rather than merely believe that their god exists. None of them can demonstrate how they came to know this. Many of them will cite revelation as though that’s sufficient, but ultimately, they fail to establish their knowledge. Atheists, on the other hand, have demonstrated that the Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist.

In order to demonstrate this, religious knowledge is not required, as some would claim. All that’s required is to take x or y religious claim as the null hypothesis.* The alternative hypothesis, in this case being the atheist’s hypothesis, is the inverse of the null, i.e., the direct contradiction of the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis is that Yahweh created the universe, the earth, and all of life, and that he assumed a human body on Earth through Jesus Christ, died for our sins, resurrected, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and left with believers his Holy Spirit, which bears witness to Jesus. The alternative hypothesis is that none of that is true, and this can be demonstrated by independent domains of knowledge: anthropology, history, science, philosophy, etc. I will not undertake the task here, but this is something that I’ve done in the past, as I’ll link below. Given the near universal belief in the Trinity, all that’s required is evidence against either the Father or the Son. Suffice to say that there’s no conclusive evidence for the Jesus depicted in the Gospels, and this is, in fact, the consensus position among Jesus scholars despite the overwhelming bias toward maximal historicity; even theists will make the minimal claims that Jesus was baptized and was crucified, and that he was an itinerant preacher. This is to set aside intra-contradictions (inconsistencies within a Gospel) and inter-contradictions (inconsistencies between the Gospels). Whoever Jesus might have been, it’s enough to say that the Gospel version is at best embellished and at worst mythologized. As stated, this can be shown given objective, independent methods that have nothing to do with dubious revelations of any sort.

Atheists can therefore claim to be gnostic atheists when concerning Christianity. In fact, they can go through similar motions to show that there’s evidence against Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism and thus, make the same declaration when concerning those religions. Atheism is therefore less black and white and instead, more like a spectrum. Given the claims of holy books, especially claims regarding this or that god, it is possible to debase such claims to such a degree that even a fervent believer can come to be convinced that such claims are false. In the absence of such claims and in the presence of ingenuity, e.g. Spinoza and less admirably, Deepak Chopra, it is harder to demonstrate that there’s no evidence for a given god. Chopra, for instance, does not claim that his deity created the Earth in six literal days, as some Christians do. Spinoza doesn’t claim to have four hagiographies depicting the life of his Savior. Einstein didn’t claim that he had dozens of Hadiths depicting the life of the prophet of his god. There is thus less reliable ways of establishing non-belief in such gods.

On the subject of agnosticism, Anderson makes use of a false analogy. To make this clear, I’ll quote him generously:

Let me illustrate. I have never been to Denmark. Call me, if you will, a ‘Denmark-agnostic.’ I have seen brochures that show a pretty country; but we all know about Photoshop fakery, so I remain doubtful. I’ve eaten some nice cheese that purported to be from Denmark, but I don’t know how far one can trust the word of cheese. My friends claim to have visited Denmark, and they report having a lot of fun. I have even been told that my ancient ancestors may well have hailed from thence. Still, I have no first-hand evidence that any of this is true.

Should I declare against the existence of Denmark until further notice? Of course that is silly. The fact that I have not personally been to Denmark doesn’t count in the question of its existence. Whether it’s actually there is one question; whether or not I have certainty about it personally is another. There is simply no reason to jump to the conclusion that because I don’t know a thing, no one else does either. That’s not sound philosophy. Furthermore, is not my skepticism willfully stupid? Suppose my friends really are reliable, or the cheese really is telling the truth. Suppose I have a personal opportunity to find better evidence, or even to visit Denmark – and I refuse, because I can’t be absolutely sure beforehand that it’s there: how silly would that be?

Similarly, the person who declares herself agnostic has only said something about her personal certainty, not about the existence of God. And that lack of certainty is met with a satisfactory rejoinder if someone else can honestly claim to have some real personal knowledge of God, or can describe a way she could obtain better information. But the agnostic has no logical reason at all to insist that no one else can possibly have such knowledge.

These examples are, in fact, dissimilar. No one, not even the most radical believer, can establish that their “brochure” is the true word of their god. They cannot claim to have seen their deity or claim that others saw him/her as well. Group hallucinations and mass hysteria do happen and for various reasons, but these are not indicative of truth, especially when considering that such hallucinations bolster the claims of different and contradictory religions.12 Religions are, for the most part, mutual exclusive: if one is true, that excludes the possibility of another being true. Therefore, group hallucinations or mass hysteria cannot indicate that two or more religions are true since they openly exclude the possibility of another religion being true.

Going back to Anderson’s false analogy, it suggests that we can know a god in the same way we know a place. It would be silly to be agnostic when concerning Denmark simply because I haven’t been there or haven’t had experiences there. Others have been to Denmark. Others live there and have experiences there. Aside from that, Denmark is marked on maps and globes. One can get a visa to go there. There are flight tickets from New York to Denmark, from DC to Denmark, from [insert almost any place in the world] to Denmark. If one were silly enough to be agnostic when regarding Denmark, there are myriad, independent ways to affirm Denmark’s existence. The same cannot be said of god.

A religious experience is not enough to establish a god’s existence because unlike the experience of traveling to and being at a certain place, one can be mistaken about religious experience. One can speak in tongues and attribute this to their Christian beliefs, but one might be mistaken in doing so, especially given that believers of other religions also speak in tongues.13 This is ignoring the fact that other Christians are cessationists and therefore believe that the so called gifts of the spirit are no longer operable, i.e., they do not believe that modern Christians can actually speak in tongues. Revelation, which I glossed over above, cannot establish the existence of a god either. Kai Nielsen makes this clear:

Similar things should be said for an appeal to Revelation or Scripture. Even without philosophical analysis, a cursory study of anthropology or the history of religions should disabuse us of that. Putative revelations and holy books or holy legends are many and conflicting. There is no way by an appeal to any putative Revelation or Scripture to establish or to know which, if any is, or even could be, “the genuine Revelation”—The Truth and The Way—and to return to natural theology, philosophy, or historical inquiry to establish which one is the genuine one is to abandon the appeal to Revelation or Scripture as our ultimate court of appeal and to appeal to something else instead to ascertain genuine Revelation from counterfeit. If we try to say “Well, they are all genuine!” then we are just left with a conflicting mess of different appeals—sometimes with radically different and conflicting or perhaps upon occasion incommensurable conceptions.14

Anderson’s biggest error, which is again based on his initial error, namely his definition of atheism, is that atheists cannot have adequate evidence for denying the existence of a god. He states that the God hypothesis is too high for atheism. He, however, makes use of a covert God of the Gaps Argument, i.e., an argument from ignorance. By adequate, he actually means all of the evidence regardless of whether we have access to it or not. He states that “one would need to rule out every reasonable possibility of positive evidence for his existence.” He adds:

How is that to be done? Can we go everywhere, at all times, and see everything? And if we could, must such an entity necessarily present Himself upon the whim of the experimenter, to be crammed into a beaker or pinched in calipers, so to speak? (Some theists have argued that, having a sovereign will, God disdains to do parlour tricks to entertain skeptics – but that is another matter.)

Aside from the fact that these questions conceal a God of the Gaps Argument, this set of questions is unfortunately a proverbial shot in the foot. For a theist to affirm the existence of his/her god, s/he would have to go everywhere, at all times, and see everything and then, on a whim, this god, apparently against its nature, would have to do a parlor trick to reveal itself. The standard of evidence is too high for either side! If this is the kind of evidence required to affirm or deny belief in a god, then it would be unattainable by believer or non-believer.

Thankfully, scientific and historical methodology disabuse us of having to have such a standard. Inductive, abductive, and deductive forms of reasoning can help either side to, at the very least, attempt to establish their belief or non-belief. History has not been kind to theists, despite what apologists might claim. Despite supposed ironclad arguments for god, none have proved convincing to atheists nor conclusive overall. Hume and Kant and then Mackie, Watson, Flew, Russell, Nielsen, and others have settled that score; apologetic arguments, which are usually deductive, are not sufficient evidence for god. I must also stress that a god that refuses to do parlor tricks is as good as nonexistent. William Provine said it best:

A widespread theological view now exists saying that God started off the world, props it up and works through laws of nature, very subtly, so subtly that its action is undetectable. But that kind of God is effectively no different to my mind than atheism.15

Therefore, if deductive arguments aren’t enough and your god refuses to do parlor tricks, what sort of evidence can a theist claim to have? If the null hypothesis cannot be established in some way, then it is incumbent on any rational person to reject it and therefore, accept the alternative hypothesis. In the jargon Anderson prefers, the positive claim is that a god exists whilst the negative claim is that a god doesn’t. This is akin to talk of statistical null and alternative hypotheses. The null is the positive whilst the alternative is the negative. In good fallibilist and Bayesian fashion, since we can’t be 100% certain of these sorts of claims, we’re left with the probability of one of our hypotheses being true. In this case, the null or positive hypothesis, i.e., the God hypothesis, must be rejected. We therefore accept the alternative hypothesis, which is essentially to establish the negative.

Getting into inductive and abductive methods of establishing non-belief would serve as an unnecessary tangent. For argument’s sake, I would like to point Anderson and people who disagree with my rebuttal to my Arguments for Atheism and my analysis of Philosophical Atheism. Assertions are only allowed if the toil of supporting them has already been done. I can make the kinds of assertions I’ve made, e.g., that the Judeo-Christian god is demonstrably nonexistent, because I’ve labored to establish such claims.

At any rate, despite the rampant scientism of the so called new atheists, to say that science has destroyed god isn’t exactly a controversial statement given that one understands what is meant by it. The statement is not claiming that science, as though it were an entity, literally stood toe to toe with god and destroyed him. The statement is claiming that scientific advancements have led to the retreat of religious and paranormal explanations and thus, the refutation of religious claims both past and present. Given immutable fundamental laws of physics, it cannot be argued that Jesus walked on water. Given the philosophical investigation of causation, it cannot be argued that an immaterial god created a material universe. In my response to Edward Feser, I discussed an example.

Quentin Smith alludes to a similar concept–namely Hector-Neri Castaneda, Galen Strawson, David Fair, Jerrold Aronson and others’ Transference definition of a cause. He cites Castaneda as stating that “the heart of production, or causation, seems, thus, to be transfer or transmission.“ Smith also states the following:

Castaneda’s full theory implies a definition that includes the nomological condition: c is a cause of e if and only if (i) there is a transfer of causity from an object O1 to an object O2 in a circumstance x, with the event c being O1’s transmission of causity and the event e being O2’s acquisition of causity; (ii) every event of the same category as c that is in a circumstance of the same category as x is conjoined with an event of the same category as e.

In the same vein as normative dispositions, if god is immaterial, how can he transfer causity to material objects. Castanda’s (ii) meets Hume’s nomological condition and my more fundamental material condition. To get around this issue, the theist would have to introduce a brand, so to speak, of causation that makes discussions like this unintelligible. To put it bluntly, it would be the invocation of nonsense to preserve nonsense. The same objection applies to how a timeless deity can operate within time. That, however, is a discussion for another time.

In the section Anderson titled “The Negation Problem,” Anderson makes use of the same error to continue his discussion. He uses another horrid analogy, but more importantly, he again claims that we have to be more or less omniscient to be a rational, logical atheist. As far as proving a negative is concerned, I updated his choice of words to show that negatives are proven at an astonishingly high rate. Every time we reject a null hypothesis, we accept the alternative and therefore, prove a negative. Furthermore, whenever a positive claim cannot be substantiated, it is reasonable to conclude that its negative is, at best, implied. This terrain is to be carefully treaded because, as Aristotle showed, some claims do not imply their negative. If we cannot establish that all swans are white, this does not imply that none are white, but rather, that some are not white. If, however, we make a particular claim rather than a plural or general claim, such as the claim, “this specific god exists,” if it cannot be demonstrated that that particularly god exists, then the implication is that that specific god doesn’t exist. The failure of apologists, especially evidentialists, to provide evidence for the existence of their god(s) implies that their respective deities do not exist. This is still a long way from the claim “no gods exist,” but as we’ve already discussed, an atheist need not adopt that claim though I would argue, on the basis of consistency, that this claim is eventually made by seasoned atheists. It’s, in fact, a claim I have no trouble making since as aforementioned, I’ve gone through the painstaking process of developing arguments, refuting arguments for god, fielding rebuttals, and assessing the available evidence. As a Bayesian, I don’t need near omniscient insight into the universe and all of the evidence at all places and times. As mentioned, that standard is unattainable and unrealistic, and though Anderson finds it feasible, he’s being dishonest in attempting to pigeonhole atheists whilst ignoring that he shoots himself in the foot.

In his section titled “Atheists Dodging the Bullet,” he makes use of the initial error: that atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive. I will therefore say nothing about that section. There’s also the fact that much has been said about Dawkin’s agnosticism. I honestly find it ridiculous since he openly discusses his spectrum in The God Delusion. He clearly acknowledges that on a scale of seven, he falls under six. For people claiming to be familiar with so called new atheist literature, they fail to demonstrate this familiarity.

Overall, though he claims to be “charitable” toward atheism, he is dishonest in making that claim. He was not charitable in the least. He was deceptive and dishonest. He demonstrated every characteristic one would come to expect of a religious apologist. Unfortunately, I’ve presented Anderson with a barrage of bullets he will be unable to dodge. My objections are indeed penetrating. But if Anderson is like the common apologist, I’d expect him to put his obduracy on display, repeat his vacuous claims, and claim a victory he didn’t earn. Given his egregious errors, he forfeited the game before it was played.

*I am well aware that some think it’s accurate to describe atheism as the null hypothesis and I agree. I am, however, working from Anderson’s flawed theistic framework, which would instead characterize theism as the null hypothesis. If that were actually the case, we would have to reject it and accept the alternative hypothesis, atheism.

Works Cited

1 France-Presse, Agence. “American atheist blogger hacked to death in Bangladesh”. The Guardian. 27 Feb 2015. Web. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/27/american-atheist-blogger-hacked-to-death-in-bangladesh>

2 Al-Mahmood, Syed Zain. “Third Atheist Blogger Hacked to Death in Bangladesh”. Wall Street Journal. 12 May 2015. Web. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/third-atheist-blogger-hacked-to-death-in-bangladesh-1431439393>

3 Evans, Robert. “Atheists Face Death Penalty In 13 Countries, Discrimination Around The World According To Freethought Report”. Huffington Post. 25 Jan 2015. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/10/atheists-death-penalty-_n_4417994.html?1386682143>

4 Spencer, Robert. Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012. 13-14. Print

5 Khan, Shaan. “Pakistani Taliban target female students with acid attack”. CNN. 3 Nov 2012. Web. <http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/03/world/asia/pakistan-acid-attack/>

6 Karimi, Faith and Sutton, Joe. “Police: Maryland mom kills 2 of her children during attempted exorcism”. CNN. 19 Jan 2014. Web. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/19/justice/maryland-exorcism-deaths/>

7 Collins, Dan. “Autistic Boy Dies During Exorcism”. CBS. 25 Aug 2003. Web. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/autistic-boy-dies-during-exorcism/>

8 Coyne, Jerry A. “Faith Healing Kills Children”. Slate. 21 May 2015. Web. <http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2015/05/religious_exemptions_from_medical_care_faith_healing_kills_children.html>

9 Goodstein, Laurie. “In Seven States, Atheists Push to End Largely Forgotten Ban”. The New York Times. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/us/in-seven-states-atheists-push-to-end-largely-forgotten-ban-.html?_r=0>

10 Altschul, Jon. “Epistemic Entitlement”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/ep-en/>

11 Moretti, Luca. “Transmission of Justification and Warrant”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 19 Nov 2013. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/transmission-justification-warrant/>

12 McGirk, Tim. “Hindu world divided by 24-hour wonder”. The Independent. 23 Sept 1995. Web. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/hindu-world-divided-by-a-24hour-wonder-1602382.html>

13 Koic, Elvira, et. al. “Glossolalia”. Antropol. 29 (2005) 1: 307–313 UDC 616.89-008.434 Review. Web. <http://www.psihijatrija.com/bibliografija/radovi/Koic%20E%20GLOSSOLALIA%20COLLEGIUM.pdf>

14 Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 399-400. Print.

15 Quoted in Strobel, Lee. The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points toward God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004. 26. Print.

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