Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Excerpt:

‘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.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

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,

Steven

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.

Related posts

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Apologist Blake Giunta takes on atheist Dan Barker on the nature of God

I found  their exchange (20 minutes) on the TreeSearch.org site. It used to be be in WAV format, but I asked for an MP3 and Blake made an MP3 instead.

Many so-called new atheists have latched on to an odd argument against God’s existence that looks like this:

  1. If you can’t tell me what God “Is” then God does not exist.
  2. You can’t tell me what God is.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Of course, when you try to explain that God is an omniscient, omnipotent, all-good creator, they will say “no no no, you aren’t telling me what God IS, you’re just describing properties of God!”

In a recent conversational debate with apologist Blake Giunta, who runs the new apologetics debate web site treesearch.org, this seems to be the argument that atheist Dan Barker tried to use. Of course, the whole silly line of reasoning blew up wonderfully in his face. Blake pointed out that every worldview is going to have its fundamental entities, and these are just going to be such that they, trivially, cannot be reduced to some more fundamental entity which it “is” (otherwise it wouldn’t have been a fundamental entity). Blake pointed out that Dan believes in a fundamental entity, namely matter, and that if Dan used his own argument against himself, he would have to say matter does not exist. it was fun to watch Dan squirm so much about 8 minutes in!

I would have liked to see Blake offer one or two arguments against materialism, and offer one or two arguments for minds, but that might have meant getting the conversation off the path of getting Barker to admit his mistake.

I hope to see more Christians equipped to respond to this argument, because again, New Atheists have been pushing this a lot lately (notably Matt Dillahunty). Blake seems to have his finger on the pulse of what the new atheists are arguing.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , ,

New book “Counting to God” discusses seven arguments against atheism from science

Evolution News has a summary of the book – they recommend it.

Excerpt:

A lot of books — many of them very good — have been written about the debate over intelligent design. But rarely does one come along that combines a compelling story of the author’s personal journey to faith with a well-written, comprehensive, easy-to-read presentation of the scientific evidence. Lee Strobel’s 2004 Case for a Creator comes to mind, but that is now ten years old and it’s never too soon for an update. As a result, I’m pleased to recommend an outstanding new book: Counting to God: A Personal Journey through Science to Belief, by Douglas Ell.

Doug Ell is an attorney in Washington, D.C., with an undergraduate degree in math and physics from MIT, and a master’s degree from the University of Maryland in theoretical math. You’ll have to read the book to learn Doug’s entire story. He was born into a religious home, but by the time he started college, he had drifted away from his upbringing, which he came to see as outdated superstition. As an undergraduate student, he embraced scientism — the view that scientific investigation is the only means of discovering real truth. Sometime later, however, Doug was introduced to the scientific theory of intelligent design, and everything began to change.

Counting to God tells Doug’s story, but it also recounts key lines of evidence that support the theory of intelligent design and challenge materialist explanations of cosmic and biological origins. Ell presents what he calls the “seven wonders” of science of the new millennium:

  • The universe had a beginning, and a first cause, some 14 billion years ago.
  • The universe is finely tuned for life.
  • The complexity of life could not arise through unguided processes.
  • DNA contains information and biological machines.
  • New species appear suddenly in the fossil record.
  • Earth is a special planet, uniquely suited to life.
  • Quantum physics points to a reality outside of space and time.

Ell surveys the evidence in each of these areas, discussing other intriguing topics along the way, including the multiverse, junk DNA, irreducible complexity, orphan genes, and near-death experiences.

I think we’ve discussed all seven of those arguments on this blog before, depending on what he means by them.

The hardcover is a lot more expensive than the Kindle edition, but I felt that this was one book I wanted to put on my desk. So I took a chance and ordered it. I hope it’s as good as this review says it is!

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Stephen C. Meyer: does the Big Bang cosmology support the existence of God?

Here’s the 66-minute video featuring Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, who holds the Ph.D in philosophy of science from Cambridge University, and other degrees in the hard sciences.

The lecture starts really, really slowly. You can just fast-forward to the 12 minute mark, or you might die of boredom.

Topics:

  • Up until the the last 100 years or so, everyone agreed that the universe was eternal
  • This is at odds with the traditional Christian view that God created the universe
  • Materialism, the view that matter is all there is, requires eternally existing matter
  • Discovery #1: Hubble discovers that the universe is expanding (redshift observation)
  • The expanding universe was resisted by proponents of the eternal universe, like Einstein
  • Some naturalists even proposed speculative static models like the steady-state model
  • However, not of the speculative models fit with observations and experimental results
  • Discovery #2: Penzias and Wilson discover the cosmic microwave background radiation
  • Measurements of this background radiation confirmed a prediction of the Big Bang theory
  • The steady-state theory was falsified of by the discovery of this background radiation
  • The oscillating model was proposed to prevent the need for an absolute beginning
  • But the oscillating model is not eternal, it loses energy on each “bounce”
  • A paper by Alan Guth and Marc Sher from 1982 proved that our universe will not bounce
  • In addition, experiments reveal that the universe will expand forever, and not contract
  • The beginning of the universe is more at home in a theistic worldview than an atheistic one
  • The beginning of the universe fits in well with the Bible, e.g. – Genesis 1, Titus 1, etc.

In case you are wondering about what the evidence is for the Big Bang, here are 3 of the evidences that are most commonly offered:

Three main observational results over the past century led astronomers to become certain that the universe began with the big bang. First, they found out that the universe is expanding—meaning that the separations between galaxies are becoming larger and larger. This led them to deduce that everything used to be extremely close together before some kind of explosion. Second, the big bang perfectly explains the abundance of helium and other nuclei like deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) in the universe. A hot, dense, and expanding environment at the beginning could produce these nuclei in the abundance we observe today. Third, astronomers could actually observe the cosmic background radiation—the afterglow of the explosion—from every direction in the universe. This last evidence so conclusively confirmed the theory of the universe’s beginning that Stephen Hawking said, “It is the discovery of the century, if not of all time.”

This is a good article to send to atheists who are not comfortable with what the progress of science has revealed about the beginning of the universe, and of time itself. If you look in agnostic astronomer Robert Jastrow’s book “God and the Astronomers” (2nd edition), you’ll find 6 evidences.

By the way, Dr. Meyer also does a great job of explaining the problem of proteins, DNA and the origin of life in this lecture. And you can hear him defend his views in this debate podcast with Keith Fox and in this debate podcast with Peter Atkins. He does a great job in these debates.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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Blake Giunta debates atheist Justin Schieber on the existence of God

I found an interesting new debate on Blake’s “TreeSearch” site, which is a useful site for training Christians on how to debate.

Details:

Blog followers will know that I recently appeared on Dogma Debate about a month ago. This is a very popular secular radio show/podcast which gets thousands of listens per episode (23,000+ for our last one). This time, Justin Schieber was specially pulled in to address arguments I had presented during my last appearance. Justin is a host of Reasonable Doubts radio (winner of the 2009 Peoples Choice Award for Best Religious/Inspirational Podcast), and brings to the table a wealth of philosophical sophistication. Our discussion got into some pretty advanced territory pretty quickly.

Listen free here

Note that the debate starts 30 minutes in.

He has a summary of his arguments in the post, and here’s one of the arguments he presented:

I presented the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence. Justin raised two objections:

(i) He articulated one of Paul Draper’s objections to fine-tuning arguments, namely that they “understate” the evidence insofar as they fail to take into consideration more specific facts which are tucked away in the relevant evidence being proffered for theism, and which then when considered as a whole bring about counter-balancing reasons to think theism is false.
(ii) Justin suggested that we would not necessarily expect a universe to be life-permitting (i.e. permitting moral embodied agents) because God could have just as easily created a heavenly world with immaterial creatures–such a world does not need fine-tuning. These are both arguments the fine-tuning proponent will want to be prepared for. Listen to see how you can handle them! (After the show, Justin made a very friendly public post on my Facebook wall: “I just relistened. Well, d***. I’m pretty embarrassed it took me so long for it to click for me on the fine-tuning issue. I concede that, in isolation, fine-tuning observations are significantly more likely on theism than on Naturalism.”)

He’s got a very winsome and controlled tone when he debates. I like it. And what’s interesting is that he really seems to impress the atheists who are listening to these podcasts – and there are a lot of them listening. This is good work!

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