bookmark_borderGenuine Inquiry vs. Partisan Advocacy: Philosophy of Religion vs. Apologetics

Yesterday I blogged about a “recommended apologetics reading” list created by Western Michigan University philosopher Tim McGrew. After several cordial exchanges with Tim, I’ve decided that, despite my best attempts to be charitable, I failed. Contrary to what I had suggested, Tim stated, “I certainly would not recommend that anyone with a serious interest in the truth of Christianity restrict himself to reading only the works I have listed.” I take him at his word, and so I have decided to delete the entire blog post, rather than try to repair it, and replace it with this one.
I want to make a distinction between genuine inquiry, on the one hand, and partisan advocacy, on the other. Consider a central (but far from the only) topic in the philosophy of religion: the existence or nonexistence of God. Consider, for a moment, what it would mean to engage in genuine inquiry regarding God’s existence. If the word “inquiry” means anything at all, surely it means more than “read stuff which confirms the point of view you already hold.” It should include, at a minimum, reading opposing viewpoints, not with the goal of preparing pithy one-liners for debates, but with the goal of actually trying to learn something or consider new ways of looking at old topics. For professional philosophers, I would imagine that inquiry would also include trying to “steel man” your opposition, i.e., trying to strengthen the arguments for your opponent’s position. It might even include publishing arguments for a position you do not hold and even reject.
In contrast, partisan advocacy is, well, exactly what it sounds like it is. Much like an attorney hired to vigorously defend her client in court, a partisan advocate isn’t interested in genuine inquiry. To the extent a partisan advocate reads the “other side” at all, she does so in the same way presidential candidates try to find out the “truth” about their opponent under the guise of “opposition research.” So, for example, if a partisan advocate were to create a reading list about God’s existence, they would compile a list of recommended resources which either exclusively or overwhelmingly promoted a certain point of view and without even a hint that a balanced inquiry should be taken.
As suggested by the subtitle of this post, if we apply the genuine inquiry vs. partisan advocacy distinction to religion, I think we get the distinction between (an ideal) philosophy of religion vs. apologetics.
Now, this raises an interesting question.  At what point is a person, especially a professional philosopher, entitled to say this: “Genuine inquiry is nice and all, but viewpoint X is such obvious nonsense that the time for inquiry is over. After all, no geologist engages in ‘genuine inquiry’ about whether the earth is flat. So why should we treat theism (or atheism) any differently?”
I am not sure about the ‘full’ answer to that question, but I think at least part of the answer has to consider two points.
First, I think the current state of professional opinion is relevant. Surely part of the reason no one engages in genuine inquiry about the flat earth hypothesis is the fact that there are no competent geologists who endorse it. In contrast, among philosophers generally and philosophers of religion specifically, there are equally qualified authorities on both sides.
Second, I think the concept of intrinsic probabilities can play an important role here. I’m a naturalistic atheist, but I’m fully convinced by Paul Draper’s theory of intrinsic probability, which shows that naturalism and supernaturalism have equal intrinsic probabilities. While theism is a specific version of supernaturalism (and so is less intrinsically probable than naturalism), its intrinsic probability is not infinitesimal. Furthermore, not only does theism have a non-negligible intrinsic probability, there is evidence in its favor. It seems to me that if a theory (1) has a non-negligible intrinsic probability; (2) has evidence in its favor; and (3) is held by significant percentage of philosophers, not to mention the general population, then that theory is worthy of genuine inquiry. And notice that these same points apply to atheism or naturalism, which is why theists should also engage in genuine inquiry.

bookmark_borderDoes “Science” Make Theism Likelier than Atheism?

Victor Reppert recently linked to an article on the blog Saints and Sceptics (S&S), Why Science Makes Theism Likelier than Atheism.” In this blog post, I’m going to critically assess that article.
1. What is the Evidence to be Explained?
S&S begin their article as follows:

Should we view the order of the universe, and our ability to comprehend that order, as evidence of God?

This question suggests two related but independent items of evidence to be explained:

E1. The universe is orderly.
E2. The universe contains intelligent beings able to comprehend that order.

Regarding E1, S&S don’t clarify or explain what they mean by phrases like “the order of the universe” or, elsewhere, “the high degree of order” of the universe. In order to be charitable, I’m going to “steel man” their argument by assuming they are appealing to something similar to what Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne calls the “arguments from spatial and temporal order” in his book, The Existence of God.  The argument from temporal order appeals to the fact that “there are regular successions of events, codified in laws of nature.”[1] The phrase “regular succession of events” is key; this is why, I suppose, Swinburne calls it the argument from temporal order. In contrast, the argument from spatial order appeals to the fact that, given our universe conforms to simple, formulable, scientific natural laws, “our bodies are suitable vehicles to provide us with an enormous amount of knowledge of the world and to execute an enormous variety of purposes in it.”[2] This “steel man” interpretation seems highly charitable, since E1 seems to correspond with Swinburne’s argument from temporal order, whereas E2 is very similar to Swinburne’s argument from spatial order.[3]
Accordingly, we may clarify E1 as follows.

E1′. The universe conforms to simple, formulable, scientific laws.

With the evidence to be explained sufficiently clarified, let’s unpack their argument.
2. What, Precisely, Is the Argument?
Before I can turn to the logical structure of S&S’s argument, let’s first review some notations which will make it easier to summarize the argument in a concise form.

Pr(x): the epistemic probability of any proposition x
Pr(x | y): the epistemic probability of any proposition x conditional upon y
“>!”: “is much more probable than”
“>!!”: “is much, much more probable than”
T: theism
A: atheism. A is logically equivalent to ~T.

The first premise of the argument is a simple statement of E1′:

(1) E1′ is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E1′) is close to 1.

Let’s now return to S&S:

Let’s start with atheism. From an atheistic perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any explanation for the order in the universe; it would just be a brute fact or a ‘happy accident’ as Polkinghorne puts it.
But that doesn’t seem good enough. In the absence of an explanation, we would have no reason to expect the high degree of order that we find. But does theism fare any better? To many it seems very likely that if the universe is the product of an intelligent mind, it would exhibit order.  …

So the second premise of the argument seems to be:

(2) An orderly universe is antecedently much more probable on the assumption that theism is true than on the assumption that atheism is true, i.e., Pr(E1′ | T) > Pr(E1′ | A).

The third premise is a simple statement of the evidence E2.

(3) E2 is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E2) is close to 1.

Returning to S&S:

But does theism make an intelligible universe – especially one which is governed by comprehensible laws and which can described by mathematics – any more likely? …
If our minds are the result of design we could rely on them to discover the truth. Rational rulers used laws to govern – and God was the ruler of the universe. And it would not be surprising to discover that mathematics could describe the universe if the divine mind and human minds were analogous in at least some respects. Finally if the universe is created by a good God, he would not systematically deceive us. In light of these considerations, Kepler and his fellow scientists were surely right to think that there is much more reason to expect an intelligible universe if there is a God than if there is not.

So the next premise seems to be:

(4) An intelligible universe is antecedently much more probable on the assumption that theism is true and an orderly exists than on the assumption that atheism is true and an orderly universe exists, i.e., Pr(E2 | T & E1′) > Pr(E2 | A & E1′).

Finally, S&S concludes:

So it is obvious that any complex, valuable, beautiful and intelligible state of affairs – including our universe – is much, much more likely given theism than chance.

And so the conclusion of their argument is:

(5) Therefore, theism is a much, much more likely explanation for the order and intelligibility of the universe than chance, i.e., Pr(T | E1′ & E2)  >!! Pr(chance | E1′ & E2).

We are now in a position to concisely state the argument in its logical form.

(1) Pr(E1′) is close to 1.
(2) Pr(E1′ | T) > Pr(E1′ | A).
(3) Pr(E2) is close to 1.
(4) Pr(E2 | T & E1′) > Pr(E2 | A & E1′).
(C) Therefore, Pr(T | E1′ & E2)  >!! Pr(chance | E1′ & E2).

Let us now turn to evaluating the strength of this argument. While I have many objections to this argument, let me present just four.
3. First Objection: The Argument Ignores Intrinsic Probabilities
This argument is a deductive argument about inductive probabilities. As stated, however, the argument is incomplete. It does not contain any premises regarding the prior probabilities of theism and atheism. But Bayes’ Theorem shows that posterior or final probabilities are a function of two things: prior probability and explanatory power. S&S write much about the latter, whereas they are completely silent about the former. This invalidates their argument. It’s possible that (1) – (4) could all be true and yet the conclusion, (C), still might not follow if the prior probability is extremely low.
In order to repair the argument, S&S would need to add a premise to their argument which explicitly addresses the prior probabilities of theism and atheism. Now, applying the concept of a “prior probability” to a metaphysical hypothesis like theism is tricky. It isn’t clear from S&S’s article which propositions they would include in their background information for the purpose of assessing a prior probability, and I do not know of a non-controversial way to choose such propositions. Fortunately we don’t have to solve that problem; another option is to replace “prior probability” with “intrinsic probability.” As the name implies, an intrinsic probability is the probability of a hypothesis based solely on intrinsic factors relating to its content (i.e., what it says); it has nothing to do with extrinsic factors, such as the relationship between a hypothesis and the evidence to be explained.
In an attempt to “steel man” S&S’s argument, I propose that we adopt Paul Draper’s theory of intrinsic probability, which says that the intrinsic probability of a hypothesis is determined by its scope, its modesty, and nothing else. Draper explains modesty and scope as follows.

a. Modesty: The modesty of a hypothesis is inversely proportional to its “content”—to how much it says. Hypotheses that say less—for example, because they make fewer claims or less specific claims or claims that are narrower in scope—are, other things being equal, more likely to be true than hypotheses that say more.
b. Coherence: The coherence of a hypothesis depends on how well its components fit together.
c. If we abstract from all factors extrinsic to a hypothesis, then the only thing that could affect the epistemic probability of that hypothesis is how much it says and how well what it says fits together. No other factors affecting probability could be intrinsic to the hypothesis.

Using these criteria, we’re now in a position to compare the intrinsic probabilities of theism and atheism. Before we do that, however, we need to start with the intrinsic probabilities of naturalism and supernaturalism. Here’s Draper:

4. The intrinsic probabilities of naturalism and supernaturalism
a. Naturalism is the statement that the physical world existed prior to any mental world and caused any mental world to come into existence.
b. Supernaturalism is the statement that the mental world existed prior to any physical world and caused any physical world to come into existence.
c. Otherism is the statement that both naturalism and supernaturalism are false.
d. Naturalism and supernaturalism are equally probable intrinsically because they are equally modest and coherent. Since the intrinsic epistemic probability of otherism is greater than zero, naturalism and supernaturalism are each less probable intrinsically than their denials. (So both naturalists and supernaturalists bear a burden of proof and that burden is equal.)
5. The intrinsic probabilities of theism and atheism
a. Theism is a very specific version of supernaturalism and so is many times (i.e. at least 10 times) less probable intrinsically than supernaturalism.
b. Naturalism is a specific version of atheism and so is many times less probable than atheism.
c. Thus, since naturalism and supernaturalism are equally probable intrinsically, it follows that atheism is many times more probable intrinsically than theism, which entails that atheism has a high intrinsic probability (certainly higher than .9) while theism has a very low intrinsic probability (certainly lower than .1)….

Let me introduce a bit more notation:

Pr(|x|): the intrinsic probability of any proposition x

Using that notation, we are now in a position to add the missing premise to S&S’s argument:

(5) Atheism is many times more probable intrinsically than theism, i.e., Pr(|A|) > .9 >!! Pr(|T|) < .1.

Unfortunately for S&S, however, it is far from obvious that the evidence to be explained, E1′ and E2, outweigh the very low intrinsic probability of theism. Accordingly, it’s far from obvious that the conclusion, (C), follows from premises (1)-(5).
4. Second Objection: Pr(E1′ | A) May Be Inscrutable
My second objection to S&S’s argument is that Pr(E1′ | A) may be inscrutable. If it’s inscrutable, then they can’t compare Pr(E1′ | T) to Pr(E1′ | A). Accordingly, the truth of (2) would be unknown. While I’m open to the possibility that (2) is true, I cannot figure out a way to defend it.
Why think Pr(E1′ | A) is inscrutable? In the context of E1′, A is a catch-all hypothesis. A is logically equivalent to A conjoined with all possible explanations for temporal order in the universe apart from theism.[4] For example:

A1: A is true, and the explanation for temporal order in the universe is naturalistic explanation #1.
A2: A is true, and the explanation for temporal order in the universe is naturalistic explanation #2.

An: A is true, and the explanation for temporal order in the universe is naturalistic explanation #n.

That’s a lot of potential explanations. Accordingly, this constitutes a prima facie reason to be skeptical of the claim that Pr(E1′ | A) can be known well enough to support a comparative claim such as (2). The only way to reject this prima facie reason would be to identify some intrinsic feature of A which either ruled out a naturalistic explanation for E1′ or which made such an explanation antecedently less likely than it would be on T. Is there such a reason?
Let’s reconsider part of what S&S write in support of (2):

From an atheistic perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any explanation for the order in the universe; it would just be a brute fact or a ‘happy accident’ as Polkinghorne puts it.

By “brute fact,” I assume that S&S mean “a fact which has no explanation.” By “happy accident,” I assume that Polkinghorne means due to chance. But “brute fact” and “happy accident” hardly constitute an exhaustive set of the possibilities. Let me add just one more to the list: factual necessity. Metaphysical naturalism (as defined in the Draper quote, above) is antecedently very probable on the assumption that atheism is true. If metaphysical naturalism is true, then it seems highly plausible that physical reality — whether that consists of just our universe or a multiverse — is factually necessary.  If physical reality is factually necessary, it seems highly plausible that temporal order could also be factually necessary. But if temporal order is factually necessary, then it is just factually necessary and there is nothing for atheism to explain.
Admittedly, the hypothesis, “our universe and its laws are factually necessary,” is highly speculative and not known to be true. But, to paraphrase a point once made by CalTech physicist Sean Carroll, theists like S&S are the ones proposing bizarre thought experiments involving the fundamental laws of nature. So we have to consider such speculative possibilities due to the very nature of the topic and the argument. In any case, this much is clear: S&S give no evidence of having even considered, much less addressed, such a possibility.
5. Third Objection: The Conclusion Confuses Atheism with Chance
My third objection is closely related to my point about factual necessity.

So it is obvious that any complex, valuable, beautiful and intelligible state of affairs – including our universe – is much, much more likely given theism than chance.

The conclusion of the argument does not follow from the premises because the conclusion compares theism to chance, not theism to atheism. But, as we’ve just seen, atheism functions as a catch-all hypothesis. Atheism is compatible with the proposition, “The universe and its temporal order are factually necessary.” N.B. That proposition denies that the order of the universe is due to chance. And S&S provide no reason to think that chance is antecedently much more probable on atheism than factual necessity.
6. Fourth Objection: The Argument Commits the Fallacy of Understated Evidence
As is the case with E1′, I’m open to the possibility that E2, either by itself or when conjoined with E1′, is evidence favoring theism over atheism.[5] In other words, I’m open to the idea that (4) is true. I don’t think S&S have successfully shown this, however. Rather than pursue that objection here, however, I’ll leave that as an exercise for interested readers. Instead, I want to pursue a different objection: even if (4) were true, it would commit the fallacy of understated evidence.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the intelligibility of the universe really is evidence favoring theism over atheism. Given that the universe is intelligible, the fact that so much of it is intelligible without appealing to supernatural agency is much more probable on naturalism than on theism. (I’ve defended this argument at length elsewhere, so I will refer interested readers to that defense.) Since naturalism entails atheism, it follows that this evidence favoring atheism over theism.
The upshot is this: even if the intelligibility of the universe is evidence favoring theism, there is other, more specific evidence relating to its intelligibility which favors naturalism (and hence atheism) over theism. It’s far from obvious that the former outweighs the latter.
7. Conclusion
As we’ve seen, there are four good objections to S&S’s claim that science makes theism more likely than atheism. I conclude, then, that S&S’s argument is not successful.
Notes
[1] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (second ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 153.
[2] Swinburne 2004, p. 154.
[3] The main or only difference between Swinburne’s argument from spatial order and S&S’s E2 is that the former also appeals to our ability “to execute an enormous variety of purposes” in the world, whereas the latter does not.
[4] Herman Phillipse, God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 258.
[5] For what it’s worth, I think E2 is much more promising than E1′ as a potential source of theistic evidence.

bookmark_borderVideo of Lowder’s Debate with Frank Turek on Naturalism vs. Theism

Topic: “What Better Explains Reality? Naturalism or Theism”
Link: https://youtu.be/ENZYEPpR2Jc
[youtube]https://youtu.be/ENZYEPpR2Jc[/youtube]
Links to Specific Elements of Debate:

This debate featured many arguments. Against theism, Lowder defended the following evidential arguments:

Against naturalism, Turek argued that atheists have to steal several intellectual concepts from God in order to argue against God. These concepts include Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science, as summed up by the acrostic CRIMES. In response to the alleged ‘CRIMES’ of atheism, I argued that what we really needed to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics: Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality).
See also my comments about the debate (written a day or two after the debate).
I haven’t watched the video yet, but I’d love to hear what you think of the arguments.

bookmark_borderThe VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics

My latest video, “The VICTIMs of Christian Apologetics: The Things Apologists Falsely Say Depend on God, But, if God Exists, God Depends on Them,” is now available on YouTube. It is a narration of some of the many hundreds of PowerPoint slides I created in preparation for my recent debate with Frank Turek on naturalism vs. theism.
[youtube]https://youtu.be/xXWTc6-toDo[/youtube]
This video presentation is a (roughly) 2 hour 30 minute critique of Frank Turek’s latest book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case. Turek accuses atheists of stealing from God in order to argue against God. How do atheists steal from God when arguing against God’s existence? According to Turek, this is summed up by the acrostic CRIMES (Causality, Reason, Information and Intentionality, Morality, Evil, and Science). So his argument is that atheists must assume each of those things, but each of those things in turn presuppose God’s existence.
For each letter in CRIMES, atheism can steal these concepts from God if and only if: (a) atheism is logically incompatible with the concept represented by that letter; and (b) positing an all-powerful God explains that concept, not just assumes it. But as I will explain, each letter in CRIMES fails one or both conditions.
Now, since repeatedly accusing an innocent person of a crime harms the accused, I’m going to frame my response as an acrostic of my own: VICTIM (Value, Induction, Causality, Time, Information and Intentionality, and Morality). Instead of talking about crimes, what we instead need to talk about are the VICTIMs of Christian apologetics. The VICTIMs of Christian apologetics are things which Christian apologists falsely claim depend on God, but the truth is that God depends on them.
Since the video is quite long and detailed, the following serves as a handy index:
Counter Apologist went through the effort to list the topics covered and give time-stamps/links for each topic which you can find below:

HT: Counter-Apologist for creating the index

bookmark_border25 Lines of Evidence Against Theism

Refutation of Anna Marie Perez

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First Paragraph

Here is Perez’s first paragraph:

Atheism is a religion.  Atheists act like Dracula confronting a cross when faced with the fact that their beliefs rely solely on faith.  They hate the word faith, even though it’s all they’ve got.  They try to make the claim that their religion is based on science, although actual science doesn’t support their claims any more than science can prove the existence of God.  When they are called out for having faith, they’ll say something like, “An absence of belief isn’t faith,” yet their claim of an absence of a belief is a lie.

Atheism is a religion in the same sense that baldness is a hair color, which is to say that atheism isn’t a religion at all. Although atheism, by itself, is not a religion; there can be atheistic religions. or example, I think some versions of Buddhism are atheistic, but I would definitely count Buddhism, in all of its forms, as a religion.
But let’s move onto her third sentence. Her third sentence is false. If she’s defining the word “faith” the same way as the Biblical book of Hebrews does (“confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”), then she’s wrong to assume that “atheists,” without qualification, hope that no God or gods exist and that there is no afterlife. Yes, there are some atheists who hope for those things, but there are other atheists who hope for the opposite, and many more atheists who are indifferent. But if she’s defining the word “faith” to mean “belief without evidence” or even “belief against the (weight of the total) evidence,” then she’s mistaken.
Let’s start with some definitions:

naturalism (N) =df. The physical exists and, if the mental exists, the physical explains why the mental exists.
supernaturalism (S) =df. The mental exists and, if the physical exists, the mental explains why the physical exists.

Naturalism (N) and supernaturalism (S) are mutually exclusive: they cannot both be true. But they are not jointly exhaustive: they can both be false. To account for the possibility that both N and S are false, we can introduce a third, ‘catch-all’ option:

otherism (O) =df. Both N and S are false.

If N is true, then atheism is true by definition because N denies the existence of all supernatural beings, including God. So one way to defend atheism is to defend N. And one way to defend N is to present evidence which is more probable on the assumption that N is true than on the assumption that theism (T) is true. That is precisely what I am going to do here, by presenting twenty-five lines of evidence which are more probable on the assumption that N is true than on the assumption that T is true.
1. The Existence of the Universe
The universe–which may be defined as the sum total of all matter, energy, space, and time–exists. This fact is entailed by N: if N is true, then by definition the physical universe exists. But, although logically consistent with T, this fact is not entailed by T. If is true, God could create the universe, but God could also choose not to create the universe. Thus, contrary to the claims of both the Leibnizian and kalam versions of the cosmological argument, the existence of the physical universe is more probable on N than on T.[1]
In formal terms, the argument may be formulated as follows. If we let B be our background information; E be the existence of the universe; then the explanatory argument is as follows:
(1) E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E) is close to 1.
(2) T is not intrinsically much more probable than N, i.e., Pr(|T|) is not much greater than Pr(|N|).
(3) Pr(E | N & B) =1 > Pr(E | T & B).
(4) Other evidence held equal, T is probably false, i.e., Pr(T | B & E) < 1/2.
2. The “Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo Argument”
This argument may be summarized as follows:

(1) Everything that had a beginning comes from pre-existing material.
(2) The universe had a beginning.
(3) Therefore, the universe came from pre-existing material.

Now I think it is far from certain that (2) is true. Let’s make a distinction between:

(2a) The expansion/inflation of the universe had a beginning.

and:

(2b) The universe itself had a beginning, viz., the universe began to exist.

It appears that (2a) is accepted by the vast majority of cosmologists. So let’s assume not only that (2a) is true, but that we know (2a) is true with certainty. It doesn’t follow that (2b) is true. In fact, as far as I can tell, (2b) does not enjoy the same widespread consensus among cosmologists as (2a) does. So there is reasonable doubt about (2b). But (2), like its theistic counterpart in the kalam cosmological argument, requires that (2b) is true. Because there is reasonable doubt about (2b), there is also reasonable doubt about (2).
But what if both (1) and (2b) are true? In that case, it would follow that (3) is true. But (3) entails the universe was not created ex nihilo, viz., created from (absolute) nothing. The falsity of creation ex nihilo is entailed by N (and physical reality’s existence is factually necessary and uncreated), but extremely unlikely (if not impossible) on T (and physical reality was either created ex nihilo or created ex deo [out of the being of God]).
3. The Continuing Existence of Physical Reality
Some theists, most notably Aquinas, talk about God as the “sustaining cause” of the universe. The idea is that even if the universe were eternal, it would somehow still require God to “sustain” it in existence. If God did not exist or, if God did exist but chose not to continue sustaining the universe, the universe would somehow cease to exist. So T is not only compatible with God never creating the universe at all, but also with the possibility of God creating the universe and causing or allowing it to cease to exist.
In contrast, if N is true, then there exists no being or thing capable of knocking physical reality out of existence. (If a multiverse exists, maybe there is a physical process which can “knock” baby universes out of existence just as there might be a physical process which can bring baby universes into existence. But there would be no physical process capable of knocking the multiverse as a whole out of existence.)
Since physical reality’s continuing existence is entailed by N but not by S, this is additional evidence favoring N over T.
4. The Scale of the Universe
Humans do not enjoy a privileged position in the universe, either spatially or temporally.[2] This fact is just slightly more probable on the assumption that N is true than on the assumption that T is true. Why? Because it is slightly more likely on T than on N, though unlikely on both, that there would be a reason why we would have a spatially or temporally privileged position (e.g., God’s desire to relate to us immediately after His creation of the universe rather than waiting billions of years, God’s desire to emphasize our importance to Him, etc.).
Notice that this argument does not entail the claim that we would expect human beings to have a privileged position in the universe if T is true. I, for one, don’t think we have an antecedent reason on T to expect that humans would have a privileged position in the universe. For all we know, if God exists, God may have created embodied moral agents throughout the universe. Indeed, for all we know, if God exists, God may have created embodied moral agents in an infinite number of physical universes!
Just as it is easy to imagine antecedent reasons on T why humans would have a privileged position (e.g., God’s desire to relate to us immediately after His creation of the universe rather than waiting billions of years, God’s desire to emphasize our importance to Him, etc.), it is also easy to imagine antecedent reasons on T why humans would not have a privileged position (e.g., God’s desire that the non-human scale of the universe be an illustration of the vastness of God Himself, God’s desire to increase the maximize the beauty of the universe, etc.). Let’s call the former set of reasons “privilege-supporting reasons” and the latter “privilege-defeating reasons.” Based solely on the content of T, we have no reason to assign different probabilities to privilege-supporting reasons and privilege-defeating reasons.
While the last paragraph shows that we have no reason to give either set of reasons greater weight than the other, the privilege-defeating reasons are compatible with God giving many (to say the least) non-privileged positions to humans, while there are so few privileged positions.[3] Thus, the specific way in which humans have a non-privileged position in the universe is (slightly) more probable on N than on T, even if the non-privileged position of humans in the universe (generically speaking) is equally probable on both T and N.
5. Evidence from the Hostility of the Universe to Life
So much of the universe is highly hostile to life, such as containing vast amounts of empty space, temperatures near absolute zero, cosmic radiation, and so forth. This more probable on N than it is on T.
6. The Unimpressiveness of Human Beings Compared to the Abilities of God
The omnipotence of God is taken for granted in the context of theistic arguments like the cosmological argument, the cosmic design argument (aka the misnamed ‘fine-tuning argument’), and arguments about alleged miracles. But the relationship of God’s omnipotence to his alleged creation or design of human beings is neglected. As Draper explains:

Or consider the fact that the most intelligent and most virtuous life form we know to exist is merely 20 human. While we are no doubt wondrous simians in many respects, given theism one might have expected something more impressive, something more worthy of the creative capacities and concerns of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being.[4]

So the unimpressiveness of human beings, relative to the abilities of God, is much more probable on N than it is on T.
7. Complex Life Evolved from Simple Life
Intelligent life is the result of evolution. For a defense, see the Talk.Origins archive. See also my refutation of Perez’s third paragraph.
To be sure, biological evolution is logically compatible with theism; God could have used evolution to create life. But if T were true, God could have also used many other methods to create life, methods which are impossible if naturalism is true. Here are just two examples. First, God could have created living things according to a literal interpretation of the Genesis chronology. Second, God could have created all things simultaneously, i.e., on the same “day,” in contradiction to a literal interpretation of the Genesis chronology. Both of these examples show that God, as an omnipotent being, was not required to use evolution in order to create life.
In contrast, if N is true, evolution pretty much has to be true. Furthermore, since T implies a metaphysical dualism, it is antecedently likely on T that minds are fundamentally nonphysical entities and therefore that conscious life is fundamentally different from nonconscious life. But this in turn makes it likely that conscious life was created independently of nonconscious life–that evolution is false. Thus, the scientific fact of biological evolution is more likely on the assumption that N is true than on the assumption that T is true.[5]
8. The Biological Role (and Moral Randomness) of Pain and Pleasure
Physical pain and pleasure plays the same biological role as other biological systems, i.e., physical pain and pleasure aid survival and reproduction. But from a moral point of view, the distribution of pain and pleasure appears random.[6]
For example, consider the horrific suffering endured by someone who slowly burns to death while trapped at the top of a burning building, or the pain endured by someone dying from a terminal illness. Feeling pain while burning is generally useful because it alerts and motivates the organism to a direct threat to their survival. But such pain serves no biological use whatsoever in situations where the organism is unable to avoid death. And from a moral point of view, it is intrinsically bad that they have to experience such horrific suffering. In such cases, it would be better if they could “flip a switch” and turn off the biological structure(s) which make pain possible.
Likewise, consider the orgasmic pleasure experienced by male rapists. It’s generally useful for men to derive pleasure from orgasm because of the role it plays in reproduction. But if anything is morally bad, surely rape is. Once again, it appears that pain and pleasure play a biological role but are morally random. It’s as if certain gratuitous experiences of pain and pleasure occur only because the biological system isn’t ‘fine-tuned’ enough to prevent such experiences.
This is precisely what we would expect if N is true (and blind nature is indifferent to the moral value of pain and pleasure), but very, very much surprising if T is true (and there exists a God who would have both the means and the motive to have the morality and biology of pain and pleasure better aligned). If N is true, then all living things are the product of unguided evolution by natural selection; there seems to be no way for creatures to have evolved so that they only feel pain when it will aid survival. In contrast, if T were true, God could “fine tune” humans so that they experience pain only when it is necessary for some greater good. If God did exist, what possible reason could He have for allowing people trapped in burning buildings or people with terminal illnesses to endure such agonizing pain until they finally die? The chances that such a reason would intersect with the biological goal of survival is pretty slim. Thus, the biological role of pain and pleasure is much more likely on N than on T.
9. Intelligibility of the Universe without the Supernatural
If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic (i.e., non-supernatural) explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible, even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on N–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on T. Thus the history of science is some evidence for N and against T.
10. Human Mental Dependence upon the Physical
Scientific evidence shows that human consciousness and personality are highly dependent upon the brain. In this context, nothing mental happens without something physical happening. That strongly implies that the mind cannot exist independently of physical arrangements of matter. In other words, we do not have a soul. And this is exactly what we would expect if N is true. But T predicts the opposite. First, if T is true, then God is a disembodied mind; God’s mind is not in any sense dependent on physical arrangements of matter. Second, if T is true, then souls or, more generally, minds that do not depend on physical brains, are a real possibility. It is no coincidence that theists have traditionally believed in the existence of other supernatural persons, besides God, who also have disembodied minds, e.g., angels and demons. For these reasons, then, it is hardly surprising that until neuroscience discovered the dependence of the mind upon the brain, all or virtually all theists were dualists. It was not until after these discoveries were made, were theists forced to reexamine their dualism and consider ad hoc hypotheses like dualist-interactionism instead. But if nothing mental happens without something physical happening, that is evidence against both the existence of souls and the existence of any being who is supposed to have a unembodied mind, including God. Therefore, the physical nature of minds is unlikely if T is true, but what we would expect if N is true.
11. Neurological Basis for Moral Handicaps
In many cases, our ability to choose do morally good actions depends upon our having properly functional emotional capacities, especially empathy, i.e., our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.[7]  We now know, thanks to the relatively new discipline of neuroscience, that certain brain abnormalities cause people to experience less or even no empathy.[8] For example, violent psychopaths may know in some abstract sense that their behavior is morally wrong, but utterly lack the affective capacity for empathy which enables them to understand the impact of their actions on others’ feelings.[9]
While T is compatible with a neurological basis for moral handicaps, the fact that at least some moral handicaps can be explained neurologically is much more probable on N than on T. If T is true, then that means both

(a) God creates some human beings with moral handicaps that are not the result of the freely chosen actions of any human being;

and

(b) These moral handicaps make it more likely that they will harm others.

What moral justification would God have for allowing both (a) and (b) to obtain? This seems utterly surprising and completely random from a theistic, moral point of view, but precisely what we would expect on N (and blind nature is indifferent to the moral consequences of brain abnormalities).[10]
12. Flourishing and Languishing of Sentient Beings
Only a fraction of living things, including the majority of sentient beings, thrive. In other words, very few living things have an adequate supply of food and water, are able to reproduce, avoid predators, and remain healthy. An even smaller fraction of organisms thrive for most of their lives, and almost no organisms thrive for all of their lives. If naturalistic evolution is true, this is what we would expect. If all living things are in competition for limited resources, then the majority of those organisms will not survive long enough to thrive. Moreover, even those organisms that do thrive for much of their lives will, if they live long enough, deteriorate. However, if T is true, why would God create a world in which all sentient beings savagely compete with one another for survival? Does anyone really believe that this could be morally justified? The fact that so few sentient beings ever flourish is more likely on N than on T.[11]
13. Self-Centeredness and Limited Altruism of Human Beings
Humans are effectively self-centered; our tendency to behave in self-centered ways is usually much stronger than any tendency to behave in selfless ways. These selfless or altruistic behaviors can be divided into two types: kin altruism and non-kin altruism.
As Purdue University philosopher Paul Draper has argued, the mixture of moral goodness and moral badness we find in Homo sapiens is easy to explain on Darwinian naturalism.[12]  The Darwinian naturalist explanation for our overwhelming tendency towards self-centered behavior is obvious. Kin altruism is also easy to explain: behaviors that promote the survival and reproduction of my kin make it more probable that my genes will be inherited by future generations. Non-kin altruism is weaker than kin altruism and also absent more often than kin altruism. Given that kin altruism exists, this pattern or distribution is exactly what we would expect on Darwinian naturalism.
On T, either God created humans directly (special creation) or indirectly (Darwinian theism or theistic evolution).  Since God is omnipotent and omniscient, He could create humans without making them inherently self-centered. Since God is morally perfect, He would have good moral reasons for creating altruistic humans. Furthermore, He would not create inherently self-centered humans unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. So given that humans are inherently self-centered, T entails both that God is not constrained by biological goals like survival and reproduction (and hence does not need to create human beings who are inherently self-centered) and that He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. And that’s a really big coincidence that Darwinian naturalism doesn’t need.[13]
14. Triumph and Tragedy
There are three additional facts about good and evil which favor N over T.
First, to paraphrase Paul Draper, our world contains much horrific suffering and relatively little glorious pleasure. As he puts it, “Indeed, triumph is the exception and tragedy the rule on our planet, where the deepest and the best aspirations of human beings are routinely crushed by a variety of circumstances beyond their control.”[14]
Second, horrific suffering often destroys a person, at least psychologically, and prevents them from growing morally, spiritually, and intellectually.[15]
Third, many people do not seem to feel God’s comforting presence during tragedies.[16] Just as loving parents would, say, comfort a child undergoing chemotherapy, we would expect a loving God to comfort human beings who suffer as the result of tragedies. If T is true, then God loves his creatures and wants all of his creatures to love Him in return. However, many people find it hard to love God when they do not understand the reasons for their suffering and God seems so far away. In other words, even if God has a reason for allowing tragedies, He could still comfort victims of suffering so that they know He loves them. Yet there are many victims of tragedies who report not feeling God’s comforting presence. This is not at all what we would expect if T were true. However, if N is true, we would expect victims of tragedies not to experience God’s comforting presence for the simple reason that there is no God. Thus, God’s silence in the face of tragedies is much more probable on N than on T.
Now, ask yourself: if God exists, why is there so much horrific suffering and so little glorious pleasure? Even after thousands of years of theological reflection, theistic philosophers still have no idea. They just assume that there must be a reason for God allowing evil. For example, Alvin Plantinga, one of the most influential theistic philosophers of our time, admitted, “Many of the attempts to explain why God permits evil … seem to me shallow, tepid, and ultimately frivolous.”[17] Naturalists, on the other hand, have a plausible explanation: there is no all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing being to intervene. Therefore, facts about triumph and tragedy are much more likely on N than on T.
Of course, it’s logically possible that God has a reason for allowing tragedies, a reason we humans do not understand. But it’s also logically possible–and no less likely–that God has extra reasons for preventing tragedies, reasons we also do not understand.
15. Ethical Disagreement
The philosophical discipline of ethics is notorious for its controversy. Not only do philosophers disagree over general ethical theory (such as utilitarianism vs. deontological ethics), they also genuinely disagree about the morality of specific acts, like war, abortion, the death penalty, gun control, and sexual behavior.
The problem is not just that people disagree about morality. The problem is also that theists, including Christians, disagree about morality. Now this tends to be very awkward for the Christian. A Christian, at least if he admits there is genuine ethical disagreement, has to believe both that God wants humans to behave morally and that He has left them in the dark about whether specific kinds of behavior are morally acceptable.
On B, however, there is no God, just impersonal nature. And impersonal nature gives us even less reason to expect moral agreement than T does. So ethical disagreement is more probable on N than on T.
16. Moral Progress and the Lack of Moral Prophets
Not only is there ethical disagreement in modern times, but there is ethical disagreement across different time periods throughout human history. To cite just one example: slavery was once widely considered moral, whereas it is now widely considered massively immoral. Ethical relativists will cite this phenomenon as evidence that morality is relative to culture, while moral objectivists interpret this same fact as evidence of moral progress.
If T is true, why aren’t there “moral prophets” in the sense that they clearly perceive objective moral truths which are ahead of their time, such as someone 2,000 years ago declaring that slavery, misogyny, and homophobia are wrong? Why do we instead observe moral progress? For example, why did much of humanity, for most of human history, believe that slavery was morally acceptable? What possible moral justification could God have for allowing people, on such a massive scale, to have mistaken moral beliefs about so many things?
If we make an analogy between God and human parents, believing in T and moral progress is analogous to a human parent letting children believe that it’s okay to, say, hit other people, until the children grow up to become teenagers, at which point the children “discover” that assault is not so morally acceptable after all. Since a good human parent would never do this, why would a good God do this?
In contrast, if N is true, blind nature is indifferent to whether people have correct moral beliefs.[18] Thus, moral progress and the lack of moral prophets is more likely on N than on T.
17. Nonresistant Nonbelievers
There are people who do not believe that God exists.[19] At least some of those people are “nonresistant” nonbelievers—that is, their nonbelief is “not in any way the result of their own emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with God or any of the apparent implications of such a relationship.”[20] Such nonbelievers are open to having a relationship with God—in fact, they may even desire it—but are unable to have such a relationship.
Given that human beings exist, the fact that some of them are nonresistant nonbelievers is much more probable on the assumption that N is true (and blind nature is indifferent to religious belief) than on the assumption that T is true (and there exists a perfectly loving God who would ensure that a meaningful relationship was always available to those He loves).
18. Former Believers
As Schellenberg points out, such individuals, “from the perspective of theism, were on the right path when they lost belief. If theism is true, indeed, then these individuals already were in relationship with God and the loss of belief has terminated that relationship.” [21]
19. Lifelong Seekers
Schellenberg defines lifelong seekers are ”individuals who don’t start out in what they consider to be a relationship with God and may not even be explicitly searching for God, but who are trying to find out where they belong and, in their wanderings, are open to finding and being found by a Divine Parent–all without ever achieving their goal. These are individuals who seek but do not find.”[22]
20. Converts to Nontheistic Religions
As Schellenberg puts it, there are individuals who investigate other serious conceptions of the Ultimate and who turn up evidence that produces religious belief in the context of nontheistic religious communities and/or on account of nontheistic religious experiences–and the truth of atheistic claims may be seen to follow by implication.[23]
21. Isolated Nontheists
Here is Schellenberg again: “those who have never been in a position to resist God because they have never so much as had the idea of an all-knowing and all-powerful spiritual being who is separate from a created universe but related to it in love squarely before their minds–individuals who are entirely formed by, and unavoidably live their whole lives within, what must, if God exists, be a fundamentally misleading meaning system.”[24]
22. The Geographical Distribution of Theistic Belief
The distribution of theistic belief is uneven around the world. Why does the epistemic or moral defectiveness of non-believers vary dramatically with cultural and national boundaries? For example, why is more than 95% of Saudi Arabia Muslim, while Thailand is 95% Buddhist and only 5% theist? Given the widely held assumption that, generically speaking, epistemic and moral defects are evenly distributed among the world’s peoples, it is hard to see how that question could be answered.[25]
23. The Temporal Distribution of Theistic Belief
Maitzen argues that especially compared to naturalistic explanations, none of the theistic explanations of blameworthy or blameless non-belief accounts for how the global incidence of theistic belief has varied dramatically during the existence of the human species.[26]
24. God’s Silence About His Purpose(s) for Creating Humans
If humankind was created for a purpose by God and had a role to play in carrying out this purpose, then God would want us to have a possibility of achieving our role so that he would have a possibility of achieving His goal. For us to have a possibility of achieving the purpose for which we were created, we would need to understand our role in carrying out this purpose. The purpose for which humanity was created is unclear in the Bible and elsewhere. Despite the lack of clarity regarding the purpose of life, God has not provided any clarification about his purpose or our role. God would not have chosen to remain silent about our role in carrying out his purpose because, following from the first premise, this would be self-defeating. Therefore, humankind was not given a role to play in carrying out a purpose of God.[27]
This may also be categorized as another, more specific fact about divine hiddenness. Why? Despite the lack of clarity regarding the purpose of life, it is antecedently more probable on T than on N that God not only created humans for a purpose, but that humankind would be given a role to play in carrying out that purpose. For the same reason, the lack of any role for humankind to play in carrying out God’s purposes is evidence favoring N over T.
25. The Distribution, Types, and Effects of Religious Experience
Theists will often appeal to religious experience as evidence favoring over N. But the fact that people have religious experiences hardly exhausts what we know about the distribution, types, and effects of those experiences.[28]
First, not everyone has theistic experiences. Given that some people have religious experiences, the fact that not everyone does have such experiences is more likely on N than on T.
Second, those who do have religious experiences almost always have either a prior belief in God or extensive exposure to theistic religion. The distribution of theistic experiences we find is antecedently more likely given N than given T.
Third, the subjects of religious experiences pursue a variety of radically different religious paths, none of which bears abundantly more moral fruit than all of the others. Theism gives us reason to expect that worshiping God is a source of moral strength, a source not available to those who do not worship God, and so T gives us some reason to ‘predict’ that theists would live significantly more moral lives than atheists. The fact, if it is a fact, that no one religious path has produced significantly more moral fruit than another would be more likely if all of these experiences are delusory (which follows from N) than if some or all are genuine revelations from God (and T is true).[29]
So once the evidence about religious experience is fully stated, it’s far from obvious that that it favors T over N.

Notes

[1] Indeed, when properly understood, it becomes clear that neither the Leibnizian nor the kalam versions of the cosmological argument are arguments from the existence of the universe. Rather, the former is an argument from the contingency of the universe and the latter is an argument from the beginning of the universe.
[2] This is based on a brief sketch of an AS in Paul Draper, “Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic,” in Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser, eds., Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 199-200.
[3] I owe this point to Paul Draper.
[4] Paul Draper, “God and Evil: A Philosophical Inquiry,” 19-20.
[5] Paul Draper, “Evolution and the Problem of Evil” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (3rd ed., ed. Louis Pojman, Wadsworth, 1997), pp. 219-230; cf. Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy of Religion (Mayfield, 2001), chapter 6.
[6] Paul Draper, “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists” Nous 23 (3): 331-350 (1989).
[7] Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 16.
[8] Baron-Cohen 2012, 39.
[9] As Baron-Cohen points out, the neurological basis for moral handicaps challenges traditional views about moral responsibility. “If zero degrees of empathy is really a form of neurological disability, to what extent can such an individual who commits a crime be held responsible for what they have done? This gets tangled up with the free will debate, for if zero degrees of empathy leaves an individual to some extent “blind” to the impact of their actions on others’ feelings, then surely they deserve our sympathy rather than punishment.” See Baron-Cohen 2012, 160.
[10] Some theists have pointed out that moral evil, such as fallen angels or demons choosing to do evil, might explain so-called “natural evils.” This argument makes the inverse point: certain natural evils explain at least some moral evil.
[11] Paul Draper, “Darwin’s Argument from Evil” in Scientific Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion (ed. Yujin Nagasawa, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 49-70 at 61.
[12] Draper 2012.

[13] Draper 2012.
[14] Draper 2013, 73.
[15] Paul Draper, “Evil and Evolution,” unpublished paper. Cf. J.L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 243-69. Cf. Marilyn McCord Adams, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” in The Problem of Evil (ed. Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 209-221.
[16] William Rowe, “The Evidential Argument from Evil: A Second Look,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil (ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder, Indiana University Press, 1996), 276.
[17] Alvin Plantinga, “Epistemic Probability and Evil” in The Evidential Argument from Evil (ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 70.
[18] For the sake of simplicity, I am using “moral beliefs” as a catch-all phrase to include beliefs about both ethical and non-ethical propositions, and so “moral progress” over time  includes correcting past, mistaken beliefs of both types.
[19] This sentence, of course, assumes that at least some (if not most) professions of atheism are genuine. Those familiar with intra-Christian debates on apologetic methodologies will notice that I have just ruled out the claim of some (or all?) presuppositionalists, namely, that there are no atheists and instead there are only professed atheists. I agree with  John Schellenberg: “it would take something like willful blindness to fail to affirm that not all nonbelief is the product of willful blindness (even if some of it is).” See J.L. Schellenberg, “What Divine Hiddenness Reveals, or How Weak Theistic Evidence is Strong Atheistic Proof” God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence (http://infidels.org/library/modern/john_schellenberg/hidden.html), 2008.
[20] Schellenberg 2008.
[21] Schellenberg 2007, 229.
[22] Schellenberg 2007, 233.
[23] Schellenberg 2007, 236.
[24] Schellenberg 2007, 238.
[25] Stephen Maitzen, “Divine Hiddenness and the Demographics of Theism” Religious Studies 42 (2006): 177-91.
[26] Maitzen 2006.
[27] Brook Alan Trisel, “God’s Silence as an Epistemological Concern” The Philosophical Forum, 43 (2012): 383–393.
[28] Paul Draper, “God and Perceptual Evidence” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 32 (1992): 149-65.
[29] Paul Draper used this argument in a debate with William Lane Craig on the existence of God, but he now believes that there is insufficient sociological evidence to prove that theists do not live more moral lives than atheists. I have chosen to follow Draper’s lead, so I have presented this point tentatively.

bookmark_borderWhat is Atheism? – Part 2

Levels of Analysis

I’m going to make a second attempt to clarify and define the word “atheism”.  This time, I will emphasize that the analysis and definitions exist at different levels.  Swinburne’s clarification and analysis of “God exists” makes use of different levels of definition or analysis:
Level 0:  “God exists.”
Level 1:  God exists IF AND ONLY IF exactly one divine person exists.
Level 2:  X is a divine person IF AND ONLY IF X is a spirit who is eternally omnipotent, eternally omniscient, eternally perfectly morally good, the creator of the universe, and a source of moral obligations for human beings.
 
Level 3: X is a spirit IF AND ONLY IF X is a bodiless person.
Level 3:  Person P is a perfectly morally good person IF AND ONLY IF  P is so constituted that P always chooses to do the best action when there is a best action, or one equal best action when there are  two or more equal best actions available, or a good action when there is no best or equal best action, and P never chooses to do a bad action.
Level 3:  X is eternally Y IF AND ONLY IF  X has characteristic Y at every moment in the past, and X has characteristic Y now, and X has characteristic Y at every moment in the future.
In Level 1, Swinburne clarifies or defines the words or phrases in Level 0.  In Level 2, Swinburne clarifies or defines the words used in the definition in Level 1.  In Level 3, Swinburne clarifies or defines the words used in the definitions in Level 2, and so on…
I am not saying that this is a good or correct analysis of “God exists” , just that I think it is a good idea or strategy to analyze complex ideas this way, with levels of definition or analysis.  One advantage is that we might be able to arrive at agreement more easily at the lower levels (such as at Level 1 or Level 2) than at the higher levels (such as Level 3 or higher), and that would still be progress worth making.
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Atheism is Opposition to Theism

Etymology does NOT determine the meaning or use of a word.  However, in the case of the word “atheism”, etymology does reflect the basic logic of the word.  Atheism is in opposition to theism.  Roughly speaking, an atheist is someone who REJECTS or DENIES theism.  The concept of atheism is logically dependent on the concpet of theism.  One can know what “atheism” means only if one knows what “theism” means.
Just as theism is an intellectual position, so atheism is an intellectual position.  It is a common mistake to think that “atheism” refers to the lack or absence of theistic belief.  Newborn babies lack theistic belief, but that does not mean that newborn babies are atheists.  Newborn babies are neither thesits nor atheists nor agnostics.  Newborn babies do not have an intellectual position about the existence of “God” or about the existence of “gods”.
Cats and dogs lack theistic belief, but neither cats nor dogs are atheists.  Cats and dogs have no intellectual position on the question “Does God exist?” nor on the question “Do any gods exist?”   Cats and dogs are neither theists, nor atheists, nor agnostics.  Rocks and trees lack theistic belief, but rocks and trees are NOT atheists.  Rocks and trees do not have an intellectual position on the question of the existence of God, or gods.  Rocks and trees are neither theists, nor atheists, nor agnostics.
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The Ambiguity of the Word “Theism”

But the word “theism” is somewhat unclear and problematic, which in turn makes the word “atheism” somewhat unclear and problematic.   First of all, “theism” is an ambiguous word:

theism

n. Belief in the existence of a god or gods, esp. belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.
(The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition)
Sometimes “theism” is used in a broader sense that refers to belief in any sort of god or gods.   Sometimes the word “theism” is used in a narrow sense that refers to traditional western theism (the dictionary speaks of belief in “a personal God as creator…”).  To be clear about which of these senses one intends, we can use adjectives to qualify the term “theism”.
traditional western theism – the belief that God exists (where this belief is understood in keeping with the  traditional concept of God found in the three major western religions).
general theism – the belief that one or more gods exist.
Because there are two differnent senses of the word “theism”, there are two different senses of the word “atheism” that correspond to those two senses of “theism”:
weak atheism – the rejection of traditional western theism.
strong atheism – the rejection of general theism.
If one rejects general theism, then this implies that one ought to also reject traditional western theism.  If one rejects the claim that “There is at least one god”, then one ought to also reject the claim “God exists”, because “God exists” logically implies that “There is at least one god.”  Therefore, if one accepts strong atheism, then one ought also to accept weak atheism, because strong atheism logically implies weak atheism.
But one can reject traditional western theism without rejecting general theism.  One could, for example, reject the claim “God exists” because one believes that the concept of “God” contains a contradiction (say, between the divine attribute of omniscience and the divine attribute of perfect goodness), but have no similar objection to the concept of a “god”, and thus not reject general theism.  Thus it is possible to accept weak atheism without accepting strong atheism.
Given the disambiguation of “theism” and the corresponding disambiguation of “atheism”, it follows that one can be both a theist and an atheist without self-contradiction.  One could accept weak atheism (and thus reject traditional western theism) while also accepting general theism, by believing in the existence of one or more (finite) gods.  For example, if a person believes that Zeus exists, then that person believes that “There is at least one god” (namely Zeus), but that person might also REJECT traditional western theism, and thus reject the claim that “God exists”.  Such a person would accept weak atheism and also accept general theism.  Therefore, such a person would be both an atheist (in accepting weak atheism) and also a theist (in accepting general theism).
Here are some general advantages to the above proposed terminology:
1. It  encompasses the insight that  atheism is an intellectual position, and avoids the common mistake of viewing atheism as being merely the lack or absence of a particular belief.
2. It recognizes the ambiguity of the word “theism” and avoids confusion and equivocation by the use of adjectives to clarify which of the two senses of the word is intended.
3. It recognizes the logical dependency of the concept of  “atheism” on the concept of “theism” by creating a set of two categories of “atheism” corresponding to the two categories of “theism”.
4. The use of the word “rejection” (as opposed to “denial” or “negation” or “false”) allows the term “atheism” to include skeptics who deny that the claim “God exists” makes a statement that could be true or false.  Some skeptical philosophers assert that the sentence “God exists” does not express a true statement, and also does not express a false statement.  But such a view can be understood as a “rejection” of traditional western theism.  This also allows for atheists who reject the claim “God exists” not because they are convinced that the claim is false, but because they are not convinced that it is true.  Many atheists assert that the evidence for the claim “God exists” is too weak to justify acceptance of this belief.  Such atheists admit that the claim “God exists” might turn out to be true, but that we ought to reject this claim unless and until someone provides solid evidence for the truth of the claim.
5. Distinguishing different forms of “atheism” would be useful for making the point that everyone, or nearly every sane adult, is an atheist, in the sense that nearly every sane adult rejects belief in one or more gods.  Christians, for example, generally reject belief in Zeus and in the other gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons.  These Greek and Roman gods lack the infinite and unlimited characteristics of the God of traditional western theism.  So, we could define a specific category of theism in which a person believes in one or more finite gods, gods who lack one of more of the following attributes:  (a) eternally omnipotent, (b) eternally omniscient, (c) eternally perfectly morally good, (d) the creator of the universe, (e) a source of moral obligations for human beings.  Let’s call this “finite theism”.  Christians reject finite theism, and thus Christians could be categorized as holding the position of “finite atheism” – the rejection of finite theism.
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Varieties of Unbelief

I have previously focused in on two varieties of unbelief:
1. Belief that “God exists” makes a false statement.
2. Belief that “God exists” does not make a true statement and does not make a false statement (because it does not make any statement at all).
But there are various sorts of unbelief/atheism.  Some atheists say that the belief that “God exists” should be rejected because…

  • it is certainly false
  • it is can be proven to be false
  • it can be proven that it does not make any sort of statement
  • it is probably false
  • it probably does not make any sort of statement
  • it has not been proven to be true
  • it is not provable
  • it is not a scientifically testable belief
  • it is not subject to empirical confirmation or disconfirmation
  • the evidence for it is too weak to justify belief 
  • the word “God” is too unclear and ambiguous to allow for a rational evaluation of this claim

There are a wide variety of reasons for rejecting the belief that “God exists”, but so long as one is aware of the view or belief that “God exists” and one chooses to not accept that view or belief, then that constitutes REJECTION of the belief and thus is a form of atheism.
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Levels of Analysis of Atheism

Level 0:  Person P holds the intellectual position of weak atheism.
Level 0: Person P holds the intellectual position of strong atheism.
 
Level 1:  Person P holds the intellectual position of weak atheism IF AND ONLY IF person P rejects traditional western theism.
Level 1: Person P holds the intelletual position of strong atheism IF AND ONLY IF person P rejects general theism.
 
Level 2: Person P rejects view V IF AND ONLY IF person P is aware of veiw V and P has chosen to not accept view V.
Level 2: Person P accepts traditional western theism IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that God exists, where this belief is understood in keeping with the traditional concept of God as found in the three major western religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
Level 2: Person P accepts general theism IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that one or more gods exist.
 
Level 3:  Person P believes that God exists, where this belief is understood in keeping with the traditional concept of God as found in the three major western religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that there is exactly one divine person.
 
Level 4:  Person P believes that there is exactly one divine person IF AND ONLY IF person P believes that there is exacly one spirit who is eternally omnipotent, eternally omniscient, eternally perfectly morally good, the creator of the universe, and a source of moral obligations for human beings.
 
Level 5:  X is a spirit IF AND ONLY IF X is a bodiless person.
Level 5:  X is eternally Y IF AND ONLY IF  X has characteristic Y at every moment in the past, and X has characteristic Y now, and X has characteristic Y at every moment in the future.
We do not have to arrive at agreement at Level 4 or Level 5 in order to make intellectual progress on clarification and analysis of “atheism”.
If we can arrive at agreement at Level 2 or Level 3, that will still be some significant intellectual progress.
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Counterexamples to My Previously Proposed Definitions

My previous proposals have run into a couple of powerful counterexamples.  Here are the definitions that I originally proposed:

DEF4A

Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “God exists” does NOT express a true statement.

DEF4B

Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “One or more gods exist” does NOT express a true statement.

 One counterexample stems from the fact that I am pointing to sentences in the English language.  But there are atheists who do not speak or understand the English language.  Some atheists might only understand French or German or Spanish.  Such a person would presumably have no opinion about whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a true statement, or even whether it expresses any statement at all.
Another counterexample stems from the fact that people can have a mistaken understanding or interpretation of a particular sentence in English, even if that person has a general understanding of the English language.  Suppose that someone who understood English had very limited exposure to western religions and interpreted the sentence “God exists” to mean “there is life after death”.  If this person believed there was no such thing as life after death, then this person would believe that the sentence “God exists” does  NOT express a true statement.  Yet this person might well believe that God exists while denying that there is life after death.  In that case, this person would NOT be correctly categorized as a “weak atheist”.

bookmark_borderWhat is Atheism?

I know this is a well-worn topic, but I think it is worth hashing over this old question one more time.
First, some obvious points that many ignorant, bible-thumping, knuckle-dragging bigots are unable to grasp:
1. ATHEISM is not the same as MATERIALISM (not all atheists are materialists).
2. ATHEISM is not the same as MARXISM (not all atheists are Marxists).
3. ATHEISM is not the same as HUMANISM (not all atheists are Humanists).
4. ATHEISM is not the same as AGNOSTICISM (not all atheists are agnostics).
5. ATHEISM is not the same as SKEPTICISM (not all atheists are skeptics).
6. ATHEISM is not the same as NATURALISM (not all atheists are naturalists).
7. ATHEISM is not the same as EXISTENTIALISM (not all atheists are Existentialists).
If you don’t understand these basic and obvious points, then please stop reading this post now, and go back to your cave or to your church’s para-military compound in Arkansas or Alabama.
Now for something a bit more sophisticated.   Consider the following initial, rough definition of “atheism”:
DEF1
Person P accepts ATHEISM if and only if P believes that “There is no God.”
There are a couple of problems with this definition.  First of all, (DEF1) is compatible with someone being a polytheist.  One can both believe that “There is no God” and at the same time (without any contradiction) believe that “There are many gods”.  To believe that “There is no God” is to believe that there is no god who is the one-and-only all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal creator of the universe.
But denying that there is a god who has infinite power, infinite knowledge, and infinite duration is NOT the same as denying that there is any god whatsoever.  One could deny the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal god and yet believe that there are many gods who have finite power, and finite knowledge, and/or who are of finite duration.  In other words, one can reject traditional western theism (the belief in God found in the western religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and yet be a polytheist and believe in the existence of many finite gods.
A second problem with (DEF1) is that it does not make room for atheists who claim that the concept of “God” is incoherent.  A.J. Ayer, Antony Flew, and Kai Nielsen were all atheist philosophers, but they all believe that the sentence “God exists” is incoherent.  They believe that the sentence “God exists” is neither true nor false.  So, they also believe that the negation or denial of this sentence is also incoherent.  Thus, none of these atheist philosophers believed that the sentence “There is no God” makes a true statement.  On the basis of (DEF1) none of these atheist philosophers would be categorized as being an “atheist”.
The best solution to the first problem, is to draw a distinction between strong and weak atheism.  Weak atheism is the denial of traditional western theism.  Strong atheism is the denial of the existence of any and all gods.
DEF2A
Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that “There is no God.”
DEF2B
Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P believes that “There are no gods.”
On these definitions, strong atheism implies weak atheism, but weak atheism does not imply strong atheism.  Someone who believes that “There are no gods” must also believe (to be logically consistent) that “There is no God”.  But some one who believes “There is no God” could believe that “There are some gods” (i.e. gods who are finite in power, knowledge, or duration).
These definitions, however, do not get around the second objection, concening atheists who believe that the sentence “God exists” fails to make a coherent statement.  One way to get around the second objection would be to characterize atheism not as a belief, but as the absence of a belief:
DEF3A
Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P does NOT believe that “God exists.”
DEF3B
Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P does NOT believe that “One or more gods exist.”
But while these definitions might get around both the first and second objections, they are still problematic, because we think of atheism as being an intellectual position or stance.  The lack of a belief, however, is not an intellectual position.  Presumably, ALL BABIES lack the belief that “God exists”, but it is absurd and counterintuitive to say that ALL BABIES are atheists.  Babies simply don’t have any position on the question of the existence of God, and they certainly do not have a position on whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a coherent statement.
I propose an alternative way to deal with the second objection, a way that preserves the view that atheism is an intellectual position or stance, and that avoids the counterintuitive implication that ALL BABIES are atheists:
DEF4A
Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “God exists” does NOT express a true statement.
DEF4B
Person P accepts STRONG ATHEISM if and only if P believes that the sentence “One or more gods exist” does NOT express a true statement.
As far as I can see, these defintions get around the two main objections that we have been considering, and they do so while preserving the intuition that atheism is an intellectual position or stance, a belief that we cannot ascribe to ALL BABIES.
Some who accept weak atheism believe the sentence “God exists” expresses a statement that is false, while others who accept weak atheism believe the sentence “God exists” does not express a coherent statement at all.  Both sorts of atheists are encompased by (DEF4A).
Some who accept strong atheism believe the sentence “One or more gods exist” expresses a coherent statement that is false, while others who accept strong atheism believe the sentence “One or more gods exist” does not express a coherent statement at all.
One final point, which is probably the most controversial point I have to make on this topic.  Although atheism is an intellectual position or stance, it is NOT a point of view.  At least, it is NOT a worldview, and it is NOT an ideology, and it is NOT a philosophy, and it is NOT a religion.  In short, atheism is the rejection of a specific religious belief or a religious “assertion”.  Weak atheism is basically the rejection of traditional western theism.  Strong atheism is basically the rejection of any sort of theism, including belief in one or more finite gods.
That is why the first seven statements at the beginning of this article are true.  Atheism is the rejection of a particular religious belief or religious “assertion”.  Atheism is NOT the assertion of a general point of view or philosophy or worldview.  Furthermore, atheists do not necessarily agree on WHY we ought to reject a particular religious belief or assertion.
Some atheists reject the assertion that “God exists” because they think it is FALSE.  Other atheists reject the assertion “God exists” because they think it is INCOHERENT.  The atheists who think “God exists” makes a FALSE statement have different reasons and arguments for thinking this statement is false.  So, atheists do not necessarily agree with each other about WHY we ought to reject the assertion that “God exists” or that “One or more gods exist”.
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Update (10/5/15):
Angra Mainyu suggested a counterexample to my proposed definition 4A:
c. What if Alice is silent on whether God exists on your definition, but she believes that “there is an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being” is not true …? 
The classification you propose does not cover a case like that.
I also came up with a similar objection to 4A.  What about a person who does not understand English?  A person who speaks French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, or Japanese but does not understand English will in most cases NOT have an opinion about the truth or the coherence of the sentence “God exists.”  because he/she will not understand the meaning of this sentence.
I can get around my objection and perhaps Angra Mainyu’s objection as well by revising the proposed definition a bit:
5A. Person P accepts WEAK ATHEISM if and only if P believes that a sentence S does NOT express a true statement, and sentence S has the same meaning as the English sentence “God exists.”

There is a difficulty with this defintion, however. It appears to imply that the sentence “God exists” is a meaningful sentence, which begs an important question.

However, it does NOT assume that the sentence “God exists” expresses a coherent statement.  The sentence, “This is a four-sided triangle.” is a meaningful sentence, and it can be translated into other languages, but it is an incoherent sentence in that it contains a logical contradiction.  So, 5A leaves open the question as to whether the sentence “God exists” contains a logical contradiction, but does assume that this sentence has a meaning, at least enough meaning for it to be possible to translate the sentence into another language.

Personally, I don’t mind begging the question as to whether “God exists” is a meaningful sentence.  It seems obvious to me that it is a meaningful sentence, and one reason for thinking this is that it is obvious that this sentence can be translated into other languages.  How could a meaningless sentence be translated correctly into another language?  So, I’m OK with begging this particular question.

bookmark_borderLINK: New Essay by Galen Strawson: “Real Naturalism”

“I’m a naturalist, an out-and-out naturalist, a philosophical or metaphysical naturalist, a naturalist about concrete reality. I don’t think anything supernatural or otherwise non-natural exists.
One can’t classify anything as supernatural or non-natural until one has a substantive conception of the natural relative to which something can be classified as non-natural. I do have one. I take it that reality—by which I mean concrete reality, anything that exists in spacetime—is entirely physical. I’m a physicalist naturalist. I don’t believe there’s any non- physical concrete reality. I think metaphysical naturalism is the same thing as physicalism as just defined: the view that concrete reality is entirely physical (I’m putting ethics aside).There are, however, important questions to be raised about what this amounts to. They’re old questions, in fact, but they haven’t received enough attention recently. One result of this is that many—probably most—philosophers who call themselves naturalists are in fact extreme anti-naturalists. They’re false naturalists— noturalists. “

LINK