Over at The Atlantic, you can read one of the more bizarre takes on atheism I’ve seen in a while. It’s not a nasty critique of New Atheism in the John Gray style, but a very strange piece about how New Atheism, LIKE RELIGION (these articles always draw that parallel), is based on wish-thinking.
“What?”, you say. “How can that be?” Well, read “Irrational Atheism,” a short piece by Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and, according to Wikipedia, “a self-described individualist anarchist.” If you don’t know what that is, Wikipedia can also inform you about individualist anarchism.
At any rate, I find it bizarre that so many of these misguided pieces—articles that nearly all of us could refute standing on our heads, come from philosophy professors. What does that say about philosophy?
Sartwell’s piece starts off on a bad note:
Religious beliefs are remarkably various. But sometimes it can seem that there is only one way to be an atheist: asserting, on the basis of reasoned argument, that belief in God is irrational. The aging “new atheists”—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, for example—pit reason against faith, science against superstition, and declare for reason and science.
“Aging”? Well, we’re all aging. If he means “old,” implying “superannuated,” why doesn’t Sartwell just say so, or is he using some sly denigration here. And, of course, Sam Harris is hardly old: he’s 47. As for the rest of the sentence—the contrast between science and superstition—that’s fine. Except for one thing: Sartwell doesn’t buy it.
Sartwell’s thesis is in fact the tired old mill-horse that atheism, like religion, is based on faith: in his case, a faith in naturalism:
[New Atheism] pictures the universe as a natural system, a system not guided by intelligent design and not traversed by spirits; a universe that can be explained by science, because it consists of material objects operating according to physical laws. In this sense, atheism embodies a whole picture of the world, offering explanations about its most general organization to the character of individual events.
Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion—neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith, stances taken up by tiny creatures in an infinitely rich environment.
. . . I have taken a leap of atheist faith.
There we have it: naturalism, like supernaturalism, is a matter of faith. That’s wrong on several levels.
First of all, while atheism is intimately connected to naturalism, the two are not identical. Most atheists do indeed believe that there is nothing supernatural (i.e., nothing defying the laws of physics) in the universe, but not all atheists agree. The philosopher Tom Nagel, for instance, believes in some kind of teleology that is not at bottom naturalistic, but he’s also an atheist. The justification for naturalism is that it works: we have never understood anything about the universe by assuming the supernatural, while assuming naturalism as a working hypothesis has moved our understanding ever forward.
The justification for atheism is related but not identical: we haven’t seen any evidence for any gods. One could in principle be an atheist but not a naturalist: if, for example, you haven’t yet understood how nature works but you also haven’t seen evidence for any gods or divine intervention. Not understanding something doesn’t by default mean that a god is involved. (This is the mistaken “god-of-the-gaps” gambit.)
But at any rate, the kind of “faith” we have in science is not the same kind of “faith” we have in gods or the divine. I could explain this in detail, but fortunately I already have: in my piece at Slate called “No faith in science.” Suffice it to say that in religion faith is basically belief in something that lacks sufficient evidence to convince most rational people, or, in most cases, no evidence at all save revelation, dogma, authority, and wish-thinking. (These things aren’t evidence, of course.) In science we don’t really use the word “faith”; rather, we have confidence in the existence of phenomena based on evidence in principle available to anyone. As I said in my piece:
You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically. You wouldn’t go to a shaman or a spiritual healer for strep throat—unless you want to waste your money.
The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is simply a word trick used to buttress religion. In fact, you’ll never hear a scientist saying, “I have faith in evolution” or “I have faith in electrons.” Not only is such language alien to us, but we know full well how those words can be misused in the name of religion.
Somehow Sartwell seems to have missed this crucial difference.
Further, he seems to think that most atheists have arrived at their nonbelief in a manner similar to the way believers embraced their faith. He argues that we have an a priori emotional commitment to atheism, or were brought up as atheists, and then embrace the “arguments” for atheism only later, in a manner similar to how Jesus and Mo supported their religion. Proceeding with this flawed line of argument, Sartwell says this:
Religious people sometimes try to give proofs of the truth of their faith—Saint Thomas Aquinas famously gave five in his Summa Theologica. But for many people, belief comes before arguments, originating in family, social and institutional context, in desire and need. The arguments are post-hoc rationalizations. This can be true of atheism as well. For me, it’s what I grew up with. It gets by in my social world, where professions of religious faith would be considered out of place. My non-faith is fundamentally part of how I connect with others and the world.
Does Sartwell not know that for many—perhaps most—atheists, the adoption of unbelief came not from indoctrination by family or peers, but through thinking through the supposed evidence for faith? After all, many atheists (and many readers here) were brought up religious, and only later realized that it was a man-made system of thought that simply confected its “truths.” As for atheism helping us get by in our social world, religion would in fact be a much better way of doing that, at least in the U.S.
Sartwell continues his threadbare argument:
The idea that the atheist comes to her view of the world through rationality and argumentation, while the believer relies on arbitrary emotional commitments, is false. This accounts for the sense that atheists such as Christopher Hitchens or Dawkins are arrogant: Their line of thinking often takes the form of disqualifying others on the grounds that they are irrational. But the atheist too, is deciding to believe in conditions of irremediable uncertainty, not merely following out a proof.
That’s just bogus. The atheist is not irrational to refuse to believe in gods without evidence. To say that this is “believing in conditions of irremediable uncertainty” is just obscurantist philosopherspeak for “the atheist doesn’t believe in things for which there is not good evidence.” I am still stunned that a card-carrying philosopher can make an argument like this. He goes on:
Religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on institutions and relied on the Church’s authorities and dogmas. But some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on “reason” or “science” without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data. Religion at its best treats belief as a resolution in the face of doubt. I want an atheism that does the same, that displays epistemological courage.
Really? Is naturalism—a way of regarding the world that came about not through fabrication or revelation, but from time-tested experience—the same thing as “a resolution in the face of doubt”? I don’t think so. It is the “insufficient data” for god that leads us to atheism, in precisely the same way that the insufficent data for the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, or alien abduction leads us to doubt their existence. It’s simply bizarre that Sartwell seems to want an atheism arrived at without rational argument, an atheism that he simply likes, and makes him feel “episemologically couragenous.” (Even writing those words makes me chuckle.) But an absence of evidence, where there should be evidence (as with God), is a rational reason for doubting the existence of gods. What is irrational is to accept gods on the basis of no evidence at all.
And so, almost inevitably, Sartwell brings up Kierkegaard, the man who said that one should believe without evidence—indeed, one should believe in gods because the idea is silly and insupportable:
Kierkegaard defined faith as “an objective uncertainty held fast in passionate inwardness.” He recommended Christianity not because it was well justified, and not in spite of the fact that it was insufficiently justified, but because it constituted a paradox: “The eternal God had appeared in time and died.” That’s not just difficult to explain, he said; it is entirely contradictory. By any reasonable measure it simply cannot be true. But that’s why believing it called for total passion over the course of a lifetime. Christianity was the best thing to believe in part because it was the hardest thing to believe.
If a believer rejects rationality in this manner, you aren’t likely to persuade him by showing him that his reasons are bad; he admits as much, or more. There’s no use having an argument with a person who rejects argumentation.
So what? If someone is irrational, there’s no point indeed in arguing with them. But that doesn’t mean that all believers accept their faith precisely because it’s unreasonable. Many rely on arguments—things they (but not we) consider as “evidence”. That, after all, is what apologetics is all about, and it’s what Natural Theology is about as well. Believers crave evidence for their faith, because in their hearts they know that there isn’t any. That’s why they scour the slopes of Mount Ararat for remains of the Ark, and dig up Jerusalem looking for Jesus’s tomb. That’s why Indian Christians flocked to a statue of Jesus in Mumbai that was dripping water: it confirmed their faith. When the skeptic Sanal Edamaruku discovered that the water came from blocked plumbing, so that Jesus was actually weeping toilet water, he was run out of the country on threat of arrest. If believers believed simply because it was unreasonable, they wouldn’t care about miracles.
And imagine if, in our daily life, we believed things because they simply “couldn’t be true.” We’d believe that horses could fly, that DNA was a triple helix, and that Republicans cared about the poor. Why exempt religion—supposedly one of the most important things one can commit to in one’s life—from the same evidentiary standards we use to accept other things?
At the end Sartwell simply jumps the shark in an incoherent burst of purple prose, much like the final group of explosions that end a fourth-of-July fireworks display:
By not believing in God, I keep faith with the world’s indifference. I love its beauty. I hate its suffering. I think both are perfectly real, because I experience them both, all the time. I do not see any reason to suspend judgment: I’m here, and I commit. I’m perfectly sincere and definite in my belief that there is no God. I can see that there could be comfort in believing otherwise, believing that all the suffering and death makes sense, that everyone gets what they deserve, and that existence works out in the end.
But to believe that would be to betray my actual experiences, and even without the aid of reasoned arguments, that’s reason enough not to believe.
Commitment for commitment’s sake is simply dumb and irrational. And Sartwell’s last sentence is ambiguous: a sign of poor thinking, poor writing, or, in this case, probably both. If by “actual experiences,” he means “I haven’t seen evidence for God,” then he is making an evidence-based argument, which of course undercuts his whole “leap of faith to atheism” trope. But if by “actual experiences” he means “I have found that atheism helps me get by in the world,” as he says above, then that’s not a “reason” for being an unbeliever.
Religion is irrational, for it asks us to believe without evidence. It’s even dumber to believe things that can’t possibly be true based on what we know about the world, which is what Tertullian and Kierkegaard asked us to do.
Atheism, despite whatever Sartwell says, is eminently rational. We see no evidence for any gods, much less the Abrahamic gods. There are thousands of different religions, each with adherents believing different tenets that are incompatible with those of other faiths. What is the justification for belief in such a case? If you’re a Pentecostal Christian, you think you’ll go to hell unless you accept Jesus as your personal savior. If, on the other hand, you’re a Muslim, you’ll go to hell if you believe that! That, my friends, is faith.
In contrast, there is only one brand of science, although we do have disputes about some issues not yet settled by hard evidence (and at least we have the guts to admit that “we don’t know” about things like dark matter). Neither scientists nor good atheists will accept something for which there is no evidence. It is in fact the paragon of rationality to refuse to sign onto such propositions.
How is it possible that a lowly biologist can see such things, and a credentialed philosopher can’t? Could Massimo Pigliucci possibly be wrong in saying that biologists aren’t credible when they try to do philosophy?