Atheism is a worldview II

by Brian 2. May 2012 17:28

Atheists generally repudiate the claim that atheism is a worldview[i]. Some say atheism is merely the belief in a single proposition, whereas a worldview is a set of propositions comprising a philosophy of life or a conception of the world. Others say atheism is nothing more than the rejection of all gods and any system of belief one might wrap around this view is diverse and independent. But are these claims reasonable, and if not, why all of the denial? And suppose atheism is a worldview, why does it matter? These questions I will attempt to answer in this post. 



Is it or is it not?

A single proposition is not a worldview. The proposition “God exists” is no more a worldview than its negation “God does not exist.” It is one’s view of God and the corollaries associated with that view which contribute significantly to worldview. When someone says “an atheist only believes no gods exist” their statement is somewhat misleading. They are using the textbook definition of the word instead of the de facto description of the typical atheist. There may be a rare few out there who do not know or care about anything beyond the belief “there are no gods” (P) but most atheists have a fairly consistent set of corollary belief derived or dependent upon P. Consider the following questions:

  • Do most atheists believe matter ultimately precedes mind?
  • Do most atheists believe in abiogenesis over biogenesis (that life arose through material processes on earth or on some other world and transported here?)
  • Do most atheists believe the world has apparent design produced by material processes instead of actual design by an intelligent agent?
  • Do most atheists believe all self-regarding acts are amoral?
  • Do most atheists believe the essence of a man ceases to exist at death? 
  • Do most atheists believe the only purpose for existence is that which one self-determines?
  • Do most atheists value reason over faith and in significant numbers devalue faith altogether?
  • Do most atheists believe man is the primary determinant of man’s future?

Of course the answer is yes to most of these questions for most atheists.[ii] And these questions of origin, purpose, morality and destiny are the kinds of questions comprising worldview. One may find some variation in response to the above just as Christians for example do not agree on every issue, but that is not grounds to dismiss the correlation that generally exists.  Let’s be candid, atheists do not rally, come together for coffee, write books, debate, argue, criticize, litigate, and devote scores of hours to atheist-causes merely because they hold to a single contrary proposition to theists. No, many atheists have a substantive and comprehensive worldview, one that is derived and dependent upon their view of God, and one that motivates their behavior.[iii] Given who atheists generally are in terms of common core belief comprising worldview, it is obvious atheism is a richer description than just one who holds to a single proposition regarding nonexistence. This richer description is a worldview. 

Why deny it?

So what’s the big deal? Why would not atheists simply respond: “Yeah, atheism is a worldview, so what?” There are at least two answers; one clear-cut and the other a little more difficult to prove. I’ll just mention the later and then move right on to the former. The more atheism is acknowledged as a worldview, the more it will be recognized as a religion, and I don’t need to explain why this is an abomination to the atheist[iv]. But let’s skip this one and move on to a more tenable explanation as to why there is denial. Recognizing atheism as a worldview puts a new epistemic burden on the atheist. To start with:

If a core proposition (P) in one’s worldview is without warrant, then any corollary propositions (P1, P2 … Pn) of P are also unwarranted unless they have independent warrant.

Say because I believe that P (there are no gods), I also believe that P1, P2, and P3 given they are corollaries of P. I may very well have done my epistemic duty accepting corollaries P1, P2 and P3 given I have warrant (good reason) to believe that P. But what if I do not have good reason for that P? What if I assume there are no gods merely because I have no good reason for believing there are? In the absence of independent warrant for that P1, P2 and P3, I am slacking off my epistemic duty if I accept them. When the new atheist says: “you have not given me any good reason for believing Q” that does not mean therefore Q is false. One should be agnostic to Q merely on this basis. Building a worldview on a proposition you ought to be agnostic on is epistemic negligence.  I won’t rehash what I’ve gone into at length in my previous post. But suffice it to say the atheist does not want this additional epistemic burden.

If my point is still unclear, consider the following example. If I believe there are no gods (P) then I may very well believe design in nature is apparent and not actual (P1). P1 is a corollary belief on P because it is highly implausible, given that P; design in nature is actually due to the action of an intelligent agent[v]. Therefore, given that P1, my perspective on intelligent design (ID) is likely to be clouded. My skepticism of ID will most likely be exceedingly higher than my skepticism of abiogenesis. But without independent warrant for that P1, this bias is based solely on that P. But if the proper epistemic position for that P is agnosticism, then such bias is unwarranted.

It should be clear at this point the core proposition of the atheistic worldview “there are no gods” (P) must be warranted and accepted because there is good reason to accept it. Otherwise, without warrant, atheism as a worldview is a house of cards. One must have good reason for that P and not merely accept it as a default or hold the view as an agnostic. Otherwise, such a person cannot honestly claim their worldview, which depends significantly on that P, has epistemic integrity. But given the popularity of the sort of weak/default atheism displayed by the most prominent new atheists today, a house of cards it often appears to be.

Why does it matter?

In some ways it doesn’t. It is not illegal to deny what atheism is any more than it is to have a straw worldview. But atheist activism is on the rise. Skepticism and unbelief are on the rise[vi]. Prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins at the recent Reason Rally are as blatant as ever in their attacks. Their strategy is to “ridicule and show contempt” for what religious people hold dear while allegedly taking the high road of reason. Ironically it may be their high-calling of rationalism that is their unraveling. In the meantime, I hope others will stand up for those being deceived into thinking one has to check their brains out at the church door except when entering the church of atheism.



[i] For example, Luke Muehlhauser at http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=1270...here denies atheism is a worldview using the dictionary definition instead of the de facto description. He tries to show not all atheists agree on the eternality of matter, the multiverse and objective morality, while conveniently ignoring all of the things there is general agreement on. At http://evaluatingchristianity.wordpress.com/the-summary-case-for-atheism/arg4long/ you will see a similar rationale where the writer says atheists don’t all agree on fundamental questions. Yet only a select few examples are given and he seems to ignore the fact all major worldviews are made up of people who do not agree on every fundamental question. That hardly means their worldview is not substantially derived from their fundamental view of God. On ethics, one atheist may choose nihilism while another objectivism. But the fact there are two options available does not deny their atheism as a prior and essential element of their ethical view.

[ii] We are talking about western atheism, not any variant of Buddhism or other eastern worldview that is nontheistic.

 

[iii] There is likely a strong political correlation to atheism as well, though I will not attempt to argue that here.

 

[iv] A letter from an atheist (parody): Atheism is not a religion! We do not make claims about ultimate reality, because reality is ultimately absurd. We are not rude like those smug, pathetic Christians with their ludicrous faith in a nonexistent creator. We do not try to convince others of our perspective. So listen carefully: We do not pray or raise our hands, or sing ancient hymns. Yes, it’s true, we may sing each other’s praises at rallies, on blogs and on Facebook. And we do get together for fellowship over a meal or coffee from time to time. And yes, we gather for friendly neighborhood projects while helping to lead others away from the infestation of religion. But that’s different; we do not force our views upon others regarding religious things like origins, meaning, purpose or destiny. Okay, it is true; we believe the universe is the ultimate brute fact, the first-cause, the alpha of reality. And it is fair to say; we believe there is no meaning or purpose to life other than what we choose individually – and you are free to choose of course, as long as it doesn’t contradict a long list of axioms we hold. And yes, we believe there is no ultimate destiny other than certain nonexistence at death. But at least we do not worship anything, not even science. We merely look upon science with delight in its magisterial pronouncements and revelations on the way things really are – even those things metaphysical and beyond its reach. Yes, sometimes science is at odds with our worldview. But we have the patience to wait for its inevitable correction. We may have been wrong for centuries on the static universe model whereas theologians had it right. But who cares? At least we are not dogmatic and rigid when it contradicts our foundational beliefs. We simply understand it’s not real science. We take the time to understand logic and rational thought. We know the supernatural is a nonexistent reality because we know naturalism is the only reality. Therefore we are free from circular reasoning, free from non sequiturs, and are free to go where the evidence leads. And when we put on our “new atheism” face, we confidently proclaim: We don’t know; we just know you don’t know. So now it should be clear to you, atheism is not a religion!

 

[v] I’m discounting for the sake of brevity those who may believe some fantastical notion of intelligent aliens seeding the planet billions of years ago.

 

[vi] http://www.alternet.org/belief/151947/goodbye_religion_how_godlessness_is_increasing_with_each_new_generation

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New Atheism Epistemology

by Brian 10. March 2012 19:26
New Atheism is not unlike the old except its members tolerate religion less and ridicule it more. The movement has been popularized by The Four Horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens. I have observed an expedient trait in the new atheists where they strategically shift position between strong and weak atheism. Weak, implicit or negative atheism emphasizes a lack of evidence for the existence of God rather than positively asserting the nonexistence of God. Strong, explicit or positive atheism requires good reason to make the claim God does not exist. I use the words “good reason” as a placeholder for that which provides warrant or justification for one’s belief.[i] In this post I will argue an element of duplicitousness exists in the new atheist movement. But first let’s look at the difference between strong and weak atheism. The following diagram should clarify the two positions:
 
 

The expressions on the right of the diagram provide examples of where one approximately falls in the spectrum using a statement of belief. On the left side of the bar are numbers (from 0 to 1) showing the epistemic probability for the proposition “I believe God exists (G).” On the far left of the diagram you will note a few popular positions including their approximate range in the spectrum. At this point you may be wondering: What is epistemic probability?
 
Epistemic probability (EP) provides a means to measure one’s confidence in the truth-value of a proposition. A value of 1 indicates certainty in a proposition (say P). Certainty in ~P (that is ‘not-P’ or the negation of P) is represented by 0. In the middle at 0.5 is equal confidence, or lack thereof, in that P and in that ~P.  We refer to this middle region as agnosticism, a word derived from the Greek a-gnosis meaning without knowledge. Being without knowledge in this context is not referring to background knowledge (though that may be lacking too) but rather knowledge of the truth-value of that P. Finally, EP is not to be confused with statistical probability:
 

On the one side it [probability] is statistical, concerning itself with stochastic laws of chance processes. On the other side it is epistemological; dedicated to assessing reasonable degrees of belief in propositions quite devoid of statistical background. Hacking (1975):
 

EP comes in at least two flavors: subjective and logical. Subjective EP is primarily based on one’s personal inductive standards and can lead to epistemological relativism. One may feel entirely certain about a matter, but their position may be merely subjective if it lacks an independent standard to ground it. The logical version of EP takes a more objective approach. Something independent of the knower provides warrant or “good reason” for their position. Now you may be wondering: What does this have to do with new-atheism? Here is my answer:
 

A duplicitous pattern exists in the new atheism movement where adherents display strong atheism based on a subjective EP in most areas of discourse. But when it comes time to rationally defend their position, they are compelled to retreat to agnosticism based on a logical EP.

In the April 2009 debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig an exchange took place where Craig asked whether Hitchens’ position was one of strong atheism or agnosticism. Hitchens replied: “Once I’ve said I’ve never seen any persuasive evidence for the existence of something…I will go as far to say, have the nerve to say, that He therefore does not exist.” When Craig then asked for arguments for the nonexistence of God, Hitchens continues: “I find all of the arguments in favor fallacious and unconvincing.” Hitchens’ attempt to evade the question is challenged again by Craig, but to no avail. Hitchens simply refuses to provide an argument. Craig finally asks him if he agrees “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” to which Hitchens replies, “I can’t say that I do.”[ii] This was one of the few candid exchanges I’ve witnessed by a prominent new atheist on this subject. In the absence of argument for atheism, rationality pulls Hitchens relentlessly towards agnosticism. Yet Hitchens remained incorrigible and asserted a strong subjective atheism throughout the debate.

Hitchens is not alone. Recently Dawkins spoke at a debate at Oxford University with the Archbishop of Canterbury.The chairperson said to Dawkins “…you, Richard, believe you have a disproof of God’s existence” to which Dawkins emphatically responds “You were wrong when you said that.” Dawkins goes on to say that in the God Delusion he rates himself a six out of seven where seven is absolute certainty God does not exist. This would be equivalent to a 0.14 EP. Here Dawkins is suggesting that if he had a disproof he’d be a seven, but without it, he is just a six. The chairperson then suggests to Dawkins that he ought to call himself an agnostic, which is odd given someone claiming an EP of 0.14. Yet Dawkins astonishingly replies “I do!” When the chairperson seems unsatisfied with anything less than perfect certainty for such a prominent atheist, Dawkins half-jokingly relents “okay, I’m a 6.9.” Now that’s a very strong atheist position with an EP of 0.014. Quite frankly, I’m not even that certain of what I had for breakfast this morning! But then Dawkins says something extraordinary I think cuts to the chase:

“When you talk about agnosticism it’s very important to make a distinction between ‘I don’t know whether x is true or not’ therefore it is 50-50 likely or unlikely…and that’s the kind of agnostic in which I’m definitely not. I think one can place estimates of probability on these things and I think the probability of any supernatural creator existing is very very low.”
 
Yes, very, very low indeed with his brazen claim of strong atheism at 0.014. On the one hand Dawkins says emphatically he is an agnostic when asked about a disproof, but then he quickly distinguishes himself from a “50-50” agnostic. But here’s the problem with Dawkins thinking - he misconstrues EP with statistical probability. An agnostic does not hold there is a “50-50” chance God exists. An agnostic doesn’t know if God exists. The following thought experiment should help to clarify where Dawkins went wrong:
 

I tell you I have a box full of paper slips with numbers on them and later ask you to draw slips at random. But just prior to drawing, I ask you to assess the epistemic probability in the proposition "You will draw a seven" (P). Of course you have no idea. You do not believe you will draw a seven any more than you won't. I might have put all sevens in the box, or none. The correct logical EP is 0.5 because you have no justification for moving up or down without additional knowledge. However, this does not mean as you draw numbers from the box, the number of "sevens" drawn will approach 50%. The statistical odds in drawing a “seven” are not 50-50 just because you are agnostic and your EP is 0.5.

 
So why would Dawkins try to obfuscate and redefine agnosticism? Why was Hitchens so reluctant to be labeled an agnostic? The answer is obvious. You cannot legitimately speak, rally, write, argue and debate relentlessly about one of the most profound subjects if you simply don’t know. You cannot have integrity and be bent on the destruction of theism if you don’t know. You certainly cannot be one of the four horsemen of atheism if you don’t know. What recourse do they have other than to weasel out? Agnosticism, properly understood, is not a category any prominent new atheist is comfortable with.

If these new atheists have good reason to avoid agnosticism, why not just boldly claim strong atheism at all times? Why even leave the door cracked open on agnosticism? Again the answer is fairly obvious. Without good reason for atheism, the best one can rationally and honestly proclaim is agnosticism. Referring again to the above diagram, in the absence of good reason for G one is moved downward to 0.5. But in the absence of good reason for ~G, one is moved upward to 0.5. Merely on the basis of finding arguments for theism wanting, one cannot rationally infer strong atheism. A rational person ought not to believe a proposition is false just because they feel there is no compelling good reason to believe it is true, unless of course they also have good reason to believe it is false. [iii]

But if sound arguments are available for atheism, if good reasons can be shown, then the new atheists ought to articulate them. Hitchens should have presented his arguments at his debate with Craig. Dawkins should have presented arguments for atheism to the chairperson at Oxford. But as mere agnostics, perhaps new atheists should take down their signs and close up their shops in the marketplace of ideas. If they do not know, they simply have no business competing with those who claim to know.
[i] For more information see Alvin Plantinga’s Warrant trilogy.
 
[ii] Approximately 1:22:00 into the debate
 
[iii] The following from basic propositional logic demonstrates why in the absence of a good reason for P simpliciter, one cannot infer ~P. Assume the following statement is true: “If Annie goes to the movie, Connie goes to the movie.” (A->C). If the antecedent “Annie goes to the movie” is true, the consequent “Connie goes to the movie” is true. This is a very simple inference pattern called modus ponens. The antecedent A, if true, provides definitively good reason to believe the consequent C is true, given the conditional statement is true which we assumed at the beginning. But what if I said: “Annie does not go to the movie.” What should you infer? Well, if you infer, therefore, “Connie does not go to the movie” – you would be in error. This form of inference is fallacious and is called denying the antecedent. If Annie doesn’t go to the movie, it may be Connie goes with another friend, or perhaps she stays home. You simply do not know. On this proposition alone, if the antecedent is false, you ought to be agnostic on the consequent.
 
 

Reason Rally

by Brian 21. February 2012 06:05

Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers and other New Atheists are planning a “Reason Rally” in Washington, D.C. on March 24. They’re billing it as “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history.” My first thought was why in the world would I waste my time paying this noise any attention? After all, this is the likes of Dawkins preaching to a choir of the likes of Dawkins’ followers.

But on the Christian Apologetics Alliance (CAA) someone pointed out to me there may be media coverage (even if it’s MSNBC and NPR.) There may also be an opportunity for rational discourse outside the polemics from the lineup of speakers. If you are interested, you may want to sponsor organizations planning to attend such as truereason.org. I know some of these guys from CAA and they are top-notch representatives of rational Christianity. Let’s hope and pray they will be given an opportunity to “share Christ person to person as opportunity arises.” I know if they have an opportunity, it will be capitalized on with 1Peter3 gentleness and respect.

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