Sunday, February 27, 2011

Do Atheism or Agnosticism require "Faith"?

In critiques of their books, and in public debates, atheists such as Richard Dawkins seem to often hear statements such as "Sure, we Christians believe in God simply through faith....but you atheists have faith too, faith in there not being a God". If one watches, for example, the debate between Dawkins and Oxford math professor and Christian John Lennox on YouTube, you will hear Lennox make this assertion about half way through the debate. Dawkins vehemently denies it, and I think he is basically correct in doing so.

But this claim about atheists having faith in the nonexistence of a God is heard so often that it seems worthwhile to examine and analyze it in some detail.

Classical logic would hold that if someone, let's call him/her "A", asserts the existence of X, the burden of proof is on A. Here "proof"can simply mean evidence that makes A's assertion plausible, not of course a rigorously logical proof, as these are only possible in formal logic or mathematics.

For example, if I assert that there is an elephant in the next room, you might quite rightly be skeptical unless I can give you some plausible reason as to how I know that, or why I believe that. Of course, to the extent that such a beast would represent a trampling threat, you might well decide to play it safe and act quickly as if it were true by fleeing the scene. This would not be the same as believing the claim of the elephant, and when a safe position is reached you might well ask for what evidence I had for the claim.

The situation between asserting X exists and X does not exist are in general not symmetric in that sense. Our legal system recognizes this with regard to the guilt of a suspect, where the existence of guilt in a defendant is assumed not true unless it is established beyond reasonable doubt by a judge or jury.

Let us digress a little to ask what does faith really mean? I think it is quite complex. There is a cynical definition that it means "believing something that you have no good reason to believe". It is in fact a rather slippery word that is commonly used to mean different things. It seems that in the Bible, for example, it is used not to mean faith that God exists, but rather trusting in God or Jesus doing the right, loving things for us. In other words, it is simply assumed that such beings exist. As we might say of a person, "I have complete faith that Jane will do the right thing---I know her, and she will not let me down".

But it is clear that this meaning of faith cannot be used to justify belief in some being or person actually existing. So Lennox cannot be using Faith in this way when he states in the debate that he believes in God and Jesus on faith. And of course it makes no sense to say something like "Atheists have faith too", when using faith in this sense.

It seems that the term Faith is often used as almost synonymous with hope----that is, if a person asserts that he believes in God on faith, he or she may really be saying that he/she fervently hopes that God exists, and has decided to convince himself that it is true. It must be admitted that an atheist might hold similar hope that God does not exist, so Lennox's claim might be plausible here. (Indeed, regarding the God as described in so much of the Old Testament, I admit to having the hope that such a God does not exist).

I rather understand and admire a definition given by Mr. C. S. Lewis, to the effect that faith is a sort of steadfastness in a position, where one does not allow oneself to be swayed by mere mood swings, once one has in ones best, most rational moments, decided on a position. When defined this way, it can of course be a precept to be followed by agnostics and atheists as well as by theists. In fact, it would seem to be a really a good mental strength to cultivate in any intellectual context. But I must add that I do not think very many people intend this meaning when speaking of their faith.

I think that there is arguably some evidence for theism, however slight, in the sense of the "prosecution" having some exhibits on their behalf (I am going back here to the analogy of a guilty verdict corresponding to the assertion that God exists). Maybe not "good enough" evidence, but not "no evidence". But it is evidence of a subtle nature, and mostly subjective. Indeed, if I did not feel that there was some evidence, I would call myself an atheist rather than an agnostic. Indeed, I think one mistake Lennox made in the debate is that he fails to stress that Christians do have, or believe they have, evidence for their belief. But it is largely subjective.

What is this evidence you might ask? Well, it is the seeming fine tuning of the universe, the awesome subtlety of the universe in terms of physics and life, and the yearning I think we all have to see things eventually be "put right". Of course, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog site, none of these are strong defenses of theism, rather just what might be called "inklings". Not necessarily of Christian theism, but perhaps of some sort of non-Christian deism or theism or even polytheism. Or, it could even suggest some kind of transcendent realm beyond human understanding.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Agnostic or Atheist?

I want to consider theistic agnosticism, which, loosely defined, is the position of being uncertain on whether there is a God.

I am seeing a lot of claims these days to the effect that one should get off the fence and be either a believing theist, or an atheist. This has probably been stimulated in part by the New Atheist movement. Personally, I have a great deal of sympathy with this movement, and I am an avid reader of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, these four likely being its most prominent and most articulate spokesmen.

I happened upon a certain website recently that seems to represent the typical "ixnay to the agnosticyay" view, and I would like to briefly analyze what I think is wrong with it, and why I continue to think of myself as an agnostic.

Now, Dawkins frequently makes the valid observation, in debates with theists (usually Christians), that most everyone today is an atheist with respect to Zeus or other gods of the ancient world. In other words, one must specify the gods one does or does not believe in. I agree with him on this. Indeed, I would be an atheist regarding not only Zeus, but also Allah, the old testament depiction of Jehovah, the Hindu pantheon of gods, and surely a great many other gods from the past and present that I have never even heard of.

However, there are two types of theism that I am uncertain about, and there could well be some degree of overlap between these two: one is the Christian God, as depicted in the writings of people like John Polkinghorne, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton. These make a good case, and go a long way toward giving plausible "apologetic" arguments for Christianity. I remain unconvinced, but can see their points, and think them worthy of serious consideration. No doubt these views represent relatively "liberal" theological positions, and I might well consider myself an atheist with respect to the God depicted by more Bible-literal sects, such as evangelical and other conservative clergy and religious writers. I come close to being an atheist even with regard to the deity put forth by the Polkinghorne et al writers mentioned above, but would deem their arguments sufficiently weighty and plausible that I suppose I stop short of being virtually certain they are wrong. Perhaps I am not looking in the right places, but I have yet to come across arguments anywhere near as convincing for the gods of Islam and Hinduism.

The other type of theism I consider plausible might blur a bit with Deism.....the argument that the universe seems a mighty big coincidence, never mind the question of why there is a universe anyway. Of course the literature is teeming with claims about how the "multiverse" is an alternative, and better, explanation of the apparent fine tuning of the world (I will not go into this here, but just give the Wikipedia reference). While the multiverse idea seems plausible, and could be right, I have a nagging suspicion that a deistic or theistic explanation might be as least as plausible.

One may discern two seemingly different forms of agnosticism. In one type, one says simply that he or she does not know if there is a God. In a second type, a stronger claim is made, that one cannot know whether there is a God or not. The first type leaves open the possibility that one might later make a more definite move into theism or atheism based on evidence or metaphysical insights.

Consider the analogy of a police detective: a certain person is a suspect in a murder. Some are convinced that the person is very likely the guilty culprit, while others are convinced that he is not. In neither case are these people absolutely certain, say, it is just that they are strongly inclined toward their belief. But the police detective is not sure either way. He can, let us say, imagine that the suspect committed the crime, but at the same time see that there are things that do not quite seem to add up to the suspect's guilt.

Let us say that the people reasonably sure of his guilt are in the position of the theist, while the ones fairly certain of his innocence are the atheists (the labels can be reversed here). But the police detective is truly agnostic on the issue. He can imagine plausible arguments either way. He may even be of the second kind of agnostic, and feel that it will be impossible to make the determination of his guilt or innocence. Or, he may be of the first type, and feel that further investigation into the case will tip the scales one way or the other.

The web site referenced above seems to dwell a lot on whether atheism or agnosticism is the more socially well-regarded position. I reject that consideration as being irrelevant. I simply point out that agnosticism with regard to some given theistic position is reasonable, being as it is analogous to the position of the police detective.