This topic came up recently in a discussion, and I wanted to be sure that all my readers were aware of how to think about the work that the presupposition of naturalism does in supporting naturalistic views of science. When I was little, way back in the 1990s, Phillip E. Johnson’s work on the definitions of science, evolution and creation were very important stuff. He was everywhere, doing lectures on university campuses and debates on the radio with Eugenie Scott. I was able to get a bunch of this audio from Access Research Network on AUDIO CASSETTES, but now that’s all obsolete.
Thankfully, I was able to find an old column written by Johnson in the Wall Street Journal, and preserved by Access Research Network.
A Chinese paleontologist lectures around the world saying that recent fossil finds in his country are inconsistent with the Darwinian theory of evolution. His reason: The major animal groups appear abruptly in the rocks over a relatively short time, rather than evolving gradually from a common ancestor as Darwin’s theory predicts. When this conclusion upsets American scientists, he wryly comments: “In China we can criticize Darwin but not the government. In America you can criticize the government but not Darwin.”
That point was illustrated last week by the media firestorm that followed the Kansas Board of Education’s vote to omit macro-evolution from the list of science topics which all students are expected to master. Frantic scientists and educators warned that Kansas students would no longer be able to succeed in college or graduate school, and that the future of science itself was in danger. The New York Times called for a vigorous counteroffensive, and the lawyers prepared their lawsuits. Obviously, the cognitive elites are worried about something a lot more important to themselves than the career prospects of Kansas high school graduates.
The root of the problem is that “science” has two distinct definitions in our culture. On the one hand, science refers to a method of investigation involving things like careful measurements, repeatable experiments, and especially a skeptical, open-minded attitude that insists that all claims be carefully tested. Science also has become identified with a philosophy known as materialism or scientific naturalism. This philosophy insists that nature is all there is, or at least the only thing about which we can have any knowledge. It follows that nature had to do its own creating, and that the means of creation must not have included any role for God. Students are not supposed to approach this philosophy with open-minded skepticism, but to believe it on faith.
[…]All the most prominent Darwinists proclaim naturalistic philosophy when they think it safe to do so. Carl Sagan had nothing but contempt for those who deny that humans and all other species “arose by blind physical and chemical forces over eons from slime.” Richard Dawkins exults that Darwin “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” and Richard Lewontin has written that scientists must stick to philosophical materialism regardless of the evidence, because “we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
So, if you’re having a discussion with a person who believes in naturalism – that everything in nature can be explained by material forces alone – then they will give you a stock response to all of your evidence for something outside of nature.
Origin of the universe? That’s not science
Cosmic fine-tuning? That’s not science
Origin of life? That’s not science
Cambrian explosion? That’s not science
Habitability-discoverability? That’s not science
It’s not that the people who did the science around these discoveries invoked God, and that’s why it’s not science. On the contrary, the mainstream scientists who made these discoveries scrupulously left God out of their microscopes and telescopes. These discoveries – which have only gotten worse for the naturalists as more details emerge – do not have easy naturalistic explanations. If you ask the naturalist for an explanation, they will resort to various sorts of speculations:
future science will undermine all our current knowledge
we are in an unobservable multiverse that exists eternally
aliens seeded the Earth with life, and THEY evolved
there are lots of fossils we haven’t discovered yet
there are lots of stars and planets we haven’t discovered yet
What’s the answer to this arguing from ignorance?
I think ridicule is best. You need to start by telling the full story about how these discoveries were made. Name the scientists, state the dates. Tell the whole story of how the science was done. Do this for each discovery. Then, at the end, ask them which of these scientific discoveries they deny. Ask them for naturalistic explanations of the ones they accept. Pretend to be confused, then concerned about their sanity. Finally, you should be as condescending as possible, and just explain that we can’t believe in fairies and unicorns. Explain things to them as if they were a child: we have to base our worldview on what science has revealed. We can’t hold out for Santa Claus to come down the chimney with new science that undermines all we have discovered. We have to go with the science we have today, and the science we have today says Creator and Designer. That is the best explanation of the what we know right now. And the trend is that these discoveries are becoming even MORE difficult for naturalism to account for. I guarantee you that the average rank-and-file atheist knows more about Star Wars and Star Trek lore than they do about actual scientific discoveries that threaten their beloved religion of naturalism.
Try to make your face look like Tucker Carlson:
For God’s sake, even Richard Dawkins admitted in his debate with John Lennox that a good case can be made for a deistic God from the science we have now. If Dawkins can admit this, then you need to be extremely harsh to the village atheists.
If the word “naturalism” is all new to you, you should probably read the whole article and this longer article as well. The longer article really explains the different definitions of the words that are used in these debates. Johnson’s an excellent writer, and you will learn a lot.
The topic: What are the arguments that make belief in God reasonable or unreasonable?
First speech: arguments for reasonableness of belief in God
Second speech: respond to arguments against reasonableness of belief in God
Contingency argument: God – a transcendent, personal being – is the explanation of why a contingent universe exists.
Cosmological argument: God is the cause of the beginning of the universe, which is attested by physics and cosmology.
Applicability of mathematics to nature: God is the best explanation for the applicability of mathematics to nature.
Fine-tuning argument: God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe to permit life.
Intentionality of conscious states: God is the best explanation of the intentionality of our mental states.
The moral argument: God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties.
The resurrection of Jesus: God is the best explanation for the core of historical facts accepted by most ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.
Religious experience: God is the best explanation of our immediate experience and knowledge of his existence.
Dr. Rosenberg’s opening speech
First argument: The fallacy of ad hominem
I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry
Dr. Craig has said all of that before in other debates
You didn’t need to come out on this cold night
Craig’s arguments have all been refuted
Dr. Craig just doesn’t listen
Dr. Craig is not interested in getting at the truth
Dr. Craig is just interested in scoring debate points
The adversarial system is the wrong approach to decide truth
Dr. Craig is very confident about his take of physics
Second argument: The fallacy of arguing from authority
95% of members of the NAS are atheists
Therefore Dr. Craig cannot use science
Third argument: Effects don’t require causes
I am going to pretend that Craig said that “every effect requires a cause”
Quantum mechanics shows that some effects occur without causes
A particle of uranium (which is not nothing, it is something) decays without a cause
This uncaused effect is the same as the universe coming into being out of nothing uncaused
Therefore the principle of sufficient reason is false
Fourth argument: Silicon-based life and the multiverse
If these constants had been different, maybe we would have other kinds of intelligent life, like silicon-based life
Carbon-based life is not the only kind of life, maybe you can have other kinds of life, none of which have been observed
There could be different kinds of life in other areas of the universe that we can’t see
There are things we can’t see that disprove the current physics that we can see
Quantum foam is evidence that a multiverse exists
The multiverse would solve the problem of fine-tuning
Fifth argument: The Euthyphro dilemma
The moral argument is refuted by Euthyphro dilemma
Dr. Craig is such a moron that he has never heard of the Euthyphro dilemma ever before
This is found in the first and simplest of Plato’s dialogs
Why is Dr. Craig so stupid that he has not read this simple dialog ever before?
Evolution explains why humans evolve arbitrary customs and conventions that vary by time and place
Alternative moral theories: utilitarianism, social contract, etc. that don’t require God
Sixth argument: Mormonism undermines Dr. Craig’s three minimal facts about Jesus
Why is Dr. Craig so stupid and ignorant to persist in pushing such an ignorant, stupid argument?
Mormonism is a silly religion that is not historically well founded
Therefore, Jesus was not buried
Islam is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
Therefore, the tomb was not found empty
Scientology is a silly religion that is not historically grounded
Therefore, the eyewitnesses didn’t have post-mortem appearances
Eyewitness testimony is unreliable in some cases
Therefore, eyewitness testimony was unreliable in this case
Apparitions of Mary are bizarre
Therefore, the majority of historians are wrong to think that the disciples saw post-mortem appearances
Seventh argument: Deductive problem of evil
Evil and suffering are logically incompatible with an all good, all powerful God
Eight argument: God is not just to allow evil and suffering
God cannot make the evils of this life right in the afterlife
Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal
Dr. Rosenberg sketched the deductive argument from evil.
Dr. Rosenberg presupposes naturalism. Naturalism is a false theory of knowledge:
1. It’s too restrictive: There are truths that cannot be proved by natural science.
2. It’s self-refuting: no scientific proof for naturalism exists.
That’s why epistemological naturalism is considered false by most philosophers of science.
But more importantly than that: Epistemological naturalism does not imply metaphysical naturalism. (E.g. – W. Quine)
Dr. Rosenberg has to present arguments in favor of (metaphysical) naturalism, not just assume that (metaphysical) naturalism is true.
Dr. Craig presented eight arguments against metaphysical naturalism taken from Rosenberg’s own book:
1. The argument from the intentionality (aboutness) of mental states implies non-physical minds (dualism), which is incompatible with naturalism
2. The existence of meaning in language is incompatible with naturalism, Rosenberg even says that all the sentences in his own book are meaningless
3. The existence of truth is incompatible with naturalism
4. The argument from moral praise and blame is incompatible with naturalism
5. Libertarian freedom (free will) is incompatible with naturalism
6. Purpose is incompatible with naturalism
7. The enduring concept of self is incompatible with naturalism
8. The experience of first-person subjectivity (“I”) is incompatible with naturalism
Metaphysical naturalism is false: it is irrational and it contradicts our experience of ourselves.
And epistemological naturalism is compatible with theism.
Rebutting Dr. Rosenberg’s responses:
1. Contingency: no response
2. Cosmological: he mis-states the first premise to say every effect… when it is whatever begins to exist…, the origin of the universe was not from a vacuum, virtual particles come from a vacuum not nothing, there are interpretations of QM that are compatible with determinism. Rosenberg has to believe that the entire universe popped into being from non-being.
3. Mathematics: no response
4. Fine-tuning: the multiverse is refuted by empirical observations of the universe. Without fine-tuning, it’s not that we still have silicon to make life out of. It’s that we lose basic minimal things like chemical diversity, matter, stars, planets, etc. No life of any kind, not just no carbon-based life.
5. Intentionality: no response.
6. Moral argument: the answer to the dilemma is that you split the dilemma: God is the standard of good, and the commands flow from his unchanging moral nature. The commands are not arbitrary, and the standard is not external to God. Dr. Rosenberg is a nihilist and he cannot ground good and evil on his nihilistic view.
7. Resurrection: The Gospels are early eyewitness testimony. Mormonism and Islam have nothing to do with the minimal set of historical facts about Jesus agreed to by the majority of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum, general statements against eyewitnesses do not refute the specific eyewitness testimony in this case.
8. Religious experience: No response.
Dr. Rosenberg’s first rebuttal
I wrote a book and you should buy it, because it got me invited to this debate. Let me repeat the title a few times for you. Please buy it.
Dr. Craig is right, there are multiple interpretations of QM, not just the one I presented, including deterministic ones.
All the disturbing implications of naturalism that Dr. Craig stated follow from metaphysical naturalism, and metaphysical naturalism is true. (Note: he equates science with metaphysical naturalism)
Science proves that metaphysical naturalism is true, but I won’t say what specific scientific tests prove my philosophical assumption of metaphysical naturalism.
I’ll pretend that the Big Bang (science) doesn’t disprove naturalism, like Dr. Craig said. Again. (covers ears) La la la, there is no Big Bang.
We didn’t come here to debate epistemological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism.
Let me explain the problem of intentionality since I’m so smart and no one knows what it means.
There are many answers to this problem of intentionality.
My answer is that most scientists are naturalists, therefore naturalism is true, regardless of the argument from intentionality of mental states.
That’s how I would respond to one of the eight problems with naturalism that Dr. Craig raised. I won’t answer the other seven problems.
It is an argument from ignorance to argue that the applicability of mathematics to the universe requires a designer, because there are non-Euclidean geometries. Craig’s argument, which he gets from people like respected physicists like Eugene Wigner, is bizarre. It is bizarre, therefore I refute Eugene Wigner and all the other scholars who make that argument. It is bizarre! Bizarre!
Deductive problem of evil: there is no response to this argument, certainly not Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense. The deductive argument from evil has not been entirely abandoned at all! It’s not like arch-atheist J.L. Mackie himself admits that the deductive problem of evil doesn’t lead to a logical inconsistency between evil and God.
Dr. Craig has to tell me why God allows evil or God doesn’t exist.
It is offensive that Dr. Craig cannot tell me why God allows every evil and suffering that occurs.
He literally said this: “I will become a Christian if Dr. Craig can tell me why God allowed EVERY EVIL THAT OCCURRED IN THE LAST 3.5 BILLION YEARS”
Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal
We are not in a position to know why God allows specific instances of evil and suffering.
God cannot force people to freely do anything – freedom is not compatible with determinism. Freedom is a good, but freedom opens up the possibility of moral evil. You cannot have the good of free will without allowing people to choose to do morally evil things.
God can permit evil and suffering in order to bring more people into a relationship with him.
The atheist has to show that God could allow less evil and achieve more knowledge of God in order to say there is too much evil.
The purpose of life is not happiness, but knowledge of God.
Dr. Craig quotes agnostic Paul Draper (Purdue) and Peter Van Inwagen (Notre Dame) to state that the deductive problem of evil is dead because of free will and morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil.
1. Contingency: no response.
2. Cosmological: QM does not apply, because the universe came from nothing, not a vacuum, and QM only works in a vacuum.
3. Mathematics: He mentions alternatives like non-Euclidean geometry, but we have to explain the structure of THIS universe.
4. Fine-tuning: ???
5. Intentional states: intentional mental states proves that minds exist, which fits with theism better than it fits with atheism.
6. Moral argument: You need God to ground morality, and Dr. Rosenberg believes in morality. He needs God to ground objective moral values and duties.
7. Historical argument: He has to respond to the minimal facts supported by the consensus of ancient historians across the ideological spectrum.
8. The problems of naturalism: He says that you can’t have science without naturalism, but you can have science with EPISTEMOLOGICAL NATURALISM, and theists accept science and methodological naturalism. We don’t accept METAPHYSCIAL NATURALISM because of the eight problems Craig presented, like intentionality, first-person, persistence of self, etc. You can believe in both science and theism, by embracing epistemological naturalism, while rejecting methaphysical naturalism.
Dr. Rosenberg’s second rebuttal
Dr. Craig hasn’t answered many of my points, I won’t say which ones though.
Debates don’t work as a way of deciding what’s true, so we should overturn the entire criminal justice system.
The principle of sufficient reason is false because it is disconfirmed by quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics (vacuum and virtual particles that exist for a short time) is similar to the origin of the universe (nothing and entire universe and 14 billion years).
We know that alpha particles come into being without cause all the time from a quantum vacuum for a tiny sub-second duration before going out of existence, so we can say that the entire physical universe came into being for 14 billion years from absolute nothing which is not a quantum vacuum.
Peter Van Inwagen is the best metaphysician working today, and he says that my deductive argument from evil is not decisive, it’s not a successful argument. (Why is he undermining his own problem of evil argument????!)
Dr. Craig invoked Plantinga’s free will defense to the deductive POE. Freedom allows us to do evil. God could have given us free will without evil and suffering. I won’t show how, but I’ll just assert it, because debates are such a bad forum for supplying evidence for my speculative assertions.
If you answer the question 3 + 5 as being 8, then you don’t have free will – you are biologically determined if you answer 8, because everyone answers 8, and that means everyone is biologically determined with no free will.
Why can’t God give us free will and then prevent us from making a free choice?
No scholars date the gospels earlier than 60-70 AD, especially not atheists like James Crossley who dates Mark to 40 AD. Therefore Jesus’ burial isn’t historical, like the majority of scholars across the broad spectrum of scholarship agree it is.
The original New Testament documents were written in Aramaic.
All New Testament scholars are orthodox Christians, like atheist Robert Funk for example.
Dr. Craig’s concluding speech
In order to sustain the deductive argument from evil, Dr. Rosenberg must show that God could create a world of free creatures with less evil.
Principle of Sufficient Reason: not using the general principle of sufficient reason, but a more modest version of this states that contingent things should have an explanation for their existence. And we know that the universe is a contingent.
The New Testament was not written in Aramaic, they were written in Greek. Dr. Rosenberg is wrong there too.
(Dr. Craig spends the rest of his concluding speech giving his testimony and urging people to investigate the New testament).
Dr. Rosenberg’s concluding speech
Some long-dead French guy named Laplace said that he has no need of that (God) hypothesis. He did not know about any of Dr. Craig’s arguments made in this debate tonight when he said that, though.
There is no need to explain how the universe began or how the universe is finely-tuned if you just assume metaphysical naturalism on faith.
The Easter Bunny, therefore atheism.
Most scientists are atheists, therefore atheism.
You can do a lot of science without God, just don’t look at the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, or the other parts of science that Craig mentioned, as well as the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability argument, and so on.
You can be a Christian, but good Christians should not use arguments and evidence.
Good Christians should be irrational and ignorant. Bad Christians look for arguments and evidence from science and history.
Good Christians should embrace the absurd. Bad Christians want to search for truth and use logic and evidence.
The MIT physicist says that the fine-tuning is real, and is best explained by positing the existence of an infinite number of universes that are not fine-tuned – the so-called multiverse.
While challenging the Platonic dream of theoretical physicists, the multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are required for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine-tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it. Actually, the word anthropic, from the Greek for “man,” is a misnomer: if these fundamental parameters were much different from what they are, it is not only human beings who would not exist. No life of any kind would exist.
If such conclusions are correct, the great question, of course, is why these fundamental parameters happen to lie within the range needed for life. Does the universe care about life? Intelligent design is one answer. Indeed, a fair number of theologians, philosophers, and even some scientists have used fine-tuning and the anthropic principle as evidence of the existence of God. For example, at the 2011 Christian Scholars’ Conference at Pepperdine University, Francis Collins, a leading geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, said, “To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability…. [Y]ou have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles.”
Intelligent design, however, is an answer to fine-tuning that does not appeal to most scientists. The multiverse offers another explanation. If there are countless different universes with different properties—for example, some with nuclear forces much stronger than in our universe and some with nuclear forces much weaker—then some of those universes will allow the emergence of life and some will not. Some of those universes will be dead, lifeless hulks of matter and energy, and others will permit the emergence of cells, plants and animals, minds. From the huge range of possible universes predicted by the theories, the fraction of universes with life is undoubtedly small. But that doesn’t matter. We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.
I thought I was going to have to go outside this article to refute the multiverse, but Lightman is honest enough to refute it himself:
The… conjecture that there are many other worlds… [T]here is no way they can prove this conjecture. That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.
Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.
The multiverse is not pure nonsense, it is theoretically possible. The problem is that the multiverse generator itself would require fine-tuning, so the multiverse doesn’t get rid of the problem. And, as Lightman indicates, we have no independent experimental evidence for the existence of the multiverse in any case. Atheists just have to take it on faith, and hope that their speculations will be proved right. Meanwhile, the fine-tuning is just as easily explained by postulating God, and we have independent evidence for God’s existence, like the the origin of biological information, the sudden appearance of animal body plans, the argument from consciousness, and so on. Even if the naturalists could explain the fine-tuning, they would still have a lot of explaining to do. Theism (intelligent causation) is the simplest explanation for all of the things we learn from the progress of science.
We need to be frank about atheists and their objections to the progress of science. Within the last 100 years, we have discovered that the physical universe came into being out of nothing 15 billion years ago, and we have discovered that this one universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life. I don’t think it’s like that the last 100 years of scientific progress on the origins question are going to be overturned so that science once again affirms what atheists believe about the universe. Things are going the wrong way for atheists – at least with respect to science.
See it in action
To see these arguments examined in a debate with a famous atheist, simply watch the debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens, and judge which debater is willing to form his beliefs on scientific progress, and which debater is forming his beliefs against the science we have today, and hoping that the good science we have today based on experiments will be overturned by speculative theories at some point in the future. When you watch that debate, it becomes very clear that Christian theists are interested in conforming their beliefs to science, and atheists are very interested in speculating against what science has shown in order to maintain their current pre-scientific view. That’s not what rational people ought to do when confronted with evidence.
‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.
Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.
In my discussions with atheists, they are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,
And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:
Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God. Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.” If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars. There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).” Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.
But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.
There’s a history behind this. Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.
So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken. For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.” Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does. It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence. He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.
But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.” So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists). As Antony Flew confesses,
the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way. Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford: Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)
Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view. It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all. On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists! In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.
One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.
So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position? Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists. If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view. But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof. So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions. They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.
This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”
So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?
Dealing with subjective atheists
How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”. When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.
Dealing with persistent subjective atheists
What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.
And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.