Atheism: Philosophical Fallacy

As with my entry last week, this quote was taken from Ravi Zacharias’ book, The Real Face of Atheism.

By definition, atheism is the doctrine of belief that there is no God. It is an affirmation of God’s nonexistence. This ought not to be confused with agnosticism, which claims not to know. Postulating the nonexistence of God, atheism immediately commits the blunder of an absolute negation, which is self-contradictory. For, to sustain the belief that there is no God, it has to demonstrate infinite knowledge, which is tantamount to saying, “I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge.”

So true. From a philosophical standpoint, unless you have infinite knowledge, the best you can do is conjecture about God’s existence, which in its basic essence amounts to agnosticism. Or from a logical standpoint, without the premise of infinite knowledge, it is a fallacy to conclude that an infinite being is nonexistent.

And from ‘the other side of the fence’ (this one by John Polkinghorne, “a colleague of Stephen Hawking” who’s “eminently known for his scholarship and brilliance in…high energy physics”, after discussing one possible explanation for the order observed in the universe):

Let us recognize these speculations for what they are. They are not physics, but in the strictest sense, metaphysics. There is no purely scientific reason to believe in an ensemble of universes… A possible explanation of equal intellectual respectability – and to my mind, greater elegance – would be that this one world is the way it is because it is the creation of the will of a Creator who purposes that it should be so.

  1. So untrue. Atheism does not require omniscience because it is not the absolute assertion that no gods can or do exist. Zacharias has created a straw man to attack rather than deal with what actual atheists say and argue. That is the philosophical fallacy here.

    http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutatheism/p/atheism101.htm
    Joe is the author. Oct 7, 07:25 is the time. <
  2. From the page you referenced:

    There is also a narrower sort of atheism, sometimes called “strong” or “explicit” atheism. Here, the atheist explicitly denies the existence of any gods – making a strong claim which will deserve support at some point.

    In this case, Ravi would be correct. These are saying absolutely that God does not exist, which must be proven to be considered rational or valid.

    I read further on the link you provided and found the expounded version of the attempt to deal with this issue. In my mind, it seemed pretty weak. The writer attempts two arguments against Ravi’s line of argument. First, while trying to avoid it, he ends up saying that atheism is nothing other than pure faith:

    As discussed elsewhere, atheism is simply the absence of any belief in the existence of any gods. To simply lack theism, it is not necessary for an atheist to be either omniscient or omnipresent.

    This is faith defined, and relegates atheists to the ranks of religion.

    Second, atheism is based on unprovable absolute negatives:

    we are rationally justified in denying something incoherent. If an atheist believes that the statement “God exists” is similarly incoherent, then that atheist can say “no god exists” with certainty and without being ominscient.

    This relegates the atheist to the ranks of the unreasonable (for anyone can make claims and be certain about them, but this does not necessarily make them true – and in this case, the atheist can never show God’s existence to be universally or absolutely incoherent).

    So your statement that “Atheism does not require omniscience because it is not the absolute assertion that no gods can or do exist.” is not necessarily true (especially for “explicit” atheists). More importantly, it seems to me that atheists either must be making claims of faith or claims of absolute negation (without absolute, or even universally agreed upon evidence).

    Thanks for the comment and informative link. I feel like I’m starting to get a better feel for the beliefs held by athiests, which is the whole goal of my study.
    Nathan Logan is the author. Oct 7, 10:30 is the time. <
  3. Atheism does not require omniscience because it is not the absolute assertion that no gods can or do exist.

    wouldn’t that be agnosticism then? ‘agnostic’ meaning that you ‘don’t know.’ literally ‘unknowing.’

    atheism in it’s very name is a statement that there are no god(s). literally ‘no god.’

    the alpha privative on the beginning of the word is a clear negation of the concept entailed in the denotation of the word.
    tim hettinger is the author. Oct 12, 15:11 is the time. <
  4. Nice Tim. Thanks for the insight.

    It pays to have seminarians as friends.
    Nathan Logan is the author. Oct 12, 19:46 is the time. <
  5. I’m not listed among “great blogs”. I’m hurt. If I can’t count on friends to feign enthusiasm, who can I count on? My psychaiatrist doesn’t even pretend anymore. I guess’ll have to count on my D&D friends. Yeah, this is off topic. But that’s what you get.
    TheBlueRaja is the author. Oct 13, 00:33 is the time. <
  6. “These are saying absolutely that God does not exist, which must be proven to be considered rational or valid.”

    Ravi doesn’t say “some atheists,” he’s making claims about all atheists. That makes him incorrect. If I say “Christians are idiots” or “Christians are bigots,” it’s not OK simply because my statements are true about some Christians.

    “This is faith defined, and relegates atheists to the ranks of religion.”

    Begging the question. It’s a definition of atheism and is no more “faith defined” than the definition of an electrical engineer.

    ”...atheism is based on unprovable absolute negatives…”

    No, it’s not, because the reasons for atheism are not included in the definition for atheism. There can be a million different reasons for being an atheist, only some of which may depend upon “unprovable absolute negatives.”

    Moreover, “faith” is not the same as “religion.”

    Finally, the quote you cite isn’t about an unprovable absolute negative. It’s simple: if you make a claim that I can’t make sense of, I am justified in denying, which isn’t the same as saying that a denial is absolutely correct. A justified statement need not be an absolute statement. If you make a statement that indicates you are ignorant about Italian culture, I may be justified in thinking that you are ignorant of Italian culture, but that’s not an “absolute, unprovable negative” on my part.

    “wouldn’t that be agnosticism then?”

    No. Agnosticism is about knowledge, a/theism is about belief. Related but separate issues – if you follow the link, there is an explanation about the difference.

    “atheism in it’s very name is a statement that there are no god(s). literally ‘no god.’”

    You forgot the “ism” – it is literally no-theism. A-theism is analogous to a-political, a-moral, a-synchronous, etc. In each case, the “a” prefix denotes the absence or lack of something – not the denial of something.
    Joe is the author. Oct 13, 07:11 is the time. <
  7. Mr. Raja, although you may not appear under the heading of great blogs, you do fall under “friends and family”. In my mind, that may even be a better place to be (although I definitely understand if you disagree). Also note the great company with which your link sits (amongst many other great blogs). Incidentally, from a hierarchical standpoint, the friends and family section appears above/ahead of/before the great blogs section.

    Ruminate on that one, if you will (which is just a nice way of saying, “put that in your pipe and smoke it”). Also, I would love to hear your informed thoughts on atheism, being that I know you have some.
    Nathan Logan is the author. Oct 13, 11:46 is the time. <
  8. Joe, thank you for your further comments.

    You said: Ravi doesn’t say “some atheists,” he’s making claims about all atheists. That makes him incorrect.

    While Ravi is making claims about all atheists, so are you. This was your original statement:

    Atheism does not require omniscience because it is not the absolute assertion that no gods can or do exist.

    You are making claims about all atheists that are contradicted by the link you sent me. Explicit atheists (still definitively falling into the group “atheists”) do indeed make this claim. This makes you incorrect.

    As far as your electrical engineering comment, I missed the point. To hopefully clear things up, I’ll start with the quote from the atheism page you referenced:

    As discussed elsewhere, atheism is simply the absence of any belief in the existence of any gods

    If that is the case, then atheism is the belief that no gods exist. This is just another faith/religion. Ultimately, unless you have absolute knowledge, you are falling back on your faith (belief in something you can’t objectively prove).

    If you make a statement that indicates you are ignorant about Italian culture, I may be justified in thinking that you are ignorant of Italian culture, but that’s not an “absolute, unprovable negative” on my part.

    I disagree here. If I make an ignorant statement about Italian culture (and stand behind it, once we have reached common understanding about the meaning of my statements), you then may assume that I am ignorant about that aspect of Italian culture. To extrapolate that instance to the whole renders you unjustified (justify meaning, “to demonstrate or prove to be just, right, or valid”), and therefore, unreasonable.

    You forgot the “ism” – it is literally no-theism. A-theism is analogous to a-political, a-moral, a-synchronous, etc. In each case, the “a” prefix denotes the absence or lack of something – not the denial of something.

    I think you might be playing some semantic games here.

    Deny : to declare untrue; contradict.
    Denial : a refusal to accept or believe something, such as a doctrine or belief.

    Atheists are indeed contradicting, declaring untrue, and refusing to accept the belief of theists. Defined, this is, in fact, denial of it.

    Joe, I’ve heard a lot of what you don’t believe, but other than a link to a page, I would like to here what you do believe.
    Nathan Logan is the author. Oct 13, 12:33 is the time. <
  9. Damn. You’re right. Would you hug me right now?

    As for atheism, I think one problem with it is that it hasn’t learned anything from Thomas Kuhn, Albert Camus or Michel Foucault. The biggest problem with atheism is that it claims to stand on a purely objective evidentiary platform, and it refuses to ackonwledge that the positivistic epistemology it so confidently claims is completely overwrought. Atheism should probably learn from Kuhn that nature of scientific investigation is paridigmatic, not evolutionary. The theory-laden and often uncritically held dogmatic doctrinal assumptions that underpin “normal science” (to use his term) put science and the evaluation of evidence in the uncomfortable chair next to all metaphysical enterprises—including religion. It also means that the evidentiary rules and scientific dependence of atheism is subject to sociological critique, and the influence of social factors on scientific opinion should be more seriously considered by atheists. The idea, therefore, that atheism deals with “evidence” and theism with “faith” is a hopelessly false dichotomy and should be abandoned by intelligent atheists who give a crap about their credibility.

    Atheists need to learn from Albert Camus in finally beginning to face up to the existential problem of naturalism and crass materialism. If the world is indeed nothing more than cosmic dust and atoms bouncing into one another, and life has no principled purpose other than reproduction, philosophy is the nose on a dog, and the love of knowledge so heralded by atheists has to be deemed the same value as religion—a crutch to sustain emotional well-being. The superiority complex in “the pursuit of truth” that pervades atheistic assessments of religion has to be exposed for what it is (on their own view) – a meaningless past-time that has no more intrinsic value than religion. Camu said that the one problem philosophy is supposed to solve is to answer the following question: “Why should I not kill myself?” A system built on chance and happenstance and blind machinations can’t intelligibly claim “meaning” or “purpose” for human existence. This isn’t an emotional problem, it’s a philosophical one – maybe THE philosophical one.

    From Michel Foucault, I’d simply say that atheists are guilt of the same evil the attribute to Christianity’s role in shaping the West—namely atheism is a power play. Atheists often contend that religion is used for purposes of power brokering among those who hold eternal life over the heads of the faithful. More evident in the modern post-enlightenment Western world is the stronghold atheistic naturalism has on the power structures of our day. Public instiutions depend upon it as the reigning paradigm. Far from simply an “honest appraisal of the evidence”, atheism in the academy is maintained in order to maintain power positions and influence in larger society. Disdain for relgion (which is by far the dominant stance over atheism in the world today) can be seen as the attitude of the wealthy secular Western elite trying to maintain its platform for global power.
    TheBlueRaja is the author. Oct 13, 12:33 is the time. <
  10. I forgot to mention that:

    1) The point from Kuhn is why many scientists are theists

    2) The point from Camus is why the philosophers who form the bedrock of western thought were theists (From Aristotle to Aquinas)

    3) The point from Foucault is why theists are routinely excluded in the contemporary academy and forced to privatize religious views – not in the interest of truth, but for the protection of reigning intellectual regimes.
    TheBlueRaja is the author. Oct 13, 12:40 is the time. <
  11. Whether or not God exists is a metaphysical question. Something beyond the realm of physics (and the scientific method, per se).

    Though, I’ve been trying to recreate ‘truth’ in a laboratory enviroment for some time now.

    There are people that believe in a completely materialistic neuro mechanical existence/universe. However, that belief is an fundemental epistemological assumption that is faith based.

    To say there is not a metaphysical realm is as equally e/affected statement as to say there is.

    Any kind of metaphysical or epistemological inquiry will and should go beyond the scope of physics. To reduce everything to the lowest common denominator of physical mechanics is in my opinion is overly simplistic, unwise, and ultimately nihilistic.

    I do enjoy a good newtonian understanding of the physcial universe on ocassion.

    I think that the world is a very, very complex place. And too often man’s rationalistic minds are simplifying things beyond their proper horizon. A kind of Occam’s Razor run amuck.
    tim is the author. Oct 13, 21:42 is the time. <
  12. Tim, whoever you are, you took the words right out of my mouth. Hear, hear!
    TheBlueRaja is the author. Oct 14, 13:50 is the time. <
  13. Hey, you’re Tim HETTINGER! I know you! Go get ‘em, tiger!

    PS This post does not intend to suggest the causation of carnivorous death to any implied or unimplied audience. There were no tigers harmed in the construction of this comment, and all proceeds sent to the office of Nampa Bible Church will be contributed to a tiger relief fund for those dispossessed in the Tsunami.
    TheBlueRaja is the author. Oct 14, 13:54 is the time. <
  14. Thanks for the comments guys. This has been quite the little discussion.

    Although I need to do more studying before I’ll be able to track with either Tim or Señor Raja, I caught some of what you guys are saying, and heartily agree with said part. This was particularly astute:

    Any kind of metaphysical or epistemological inquiry will and should go beyond the scope of physics. To reduce everything to the lowest common denominator of physical mechanics is in my opinion is overly simplistic, unwise, and ultimately nihilistic.

    And I’m glad to hear that tigers are being protected – as we all know, that’s priority numero uno in this, or any other discussion.
    Nathan Logan is the author. Oct 14, 14:06 is the time. <
  15. You could probably add: “impossible”. There is simply no such thing as a purely mechanistic account of the universe. All physics imply metaphysics and epistemology, and hang on a preconcieved metanarrative which gives data its intelligibility. Most atheists I’ve come across live in utter denial of that, and characterize themselves as objective observers being driven by brute fact and the laws of evidence alone. It’s intellectually dishonest at best and (as I said before) self-desceptive wish fulfillment created to meet emotional needs at worst.

    And Nate Logan is hot with a capital “sexy”. That’s the only self evident brute fact available to prospective knowers of which I am currently aware.
    TheBlueRaja is the author. Oct 14, 15:19 is the time. <
  16. Quoting myself:

    I would like to here what you do believe. (emphasis mine, by definition)

    Here? It’s a wonder I made it out of the third grade. Besides, unless I’m using some sort of text reader, I won’t be hearing it – I’ll be seeing it.
    Nathan Logan is the author. Oct 20, 18:24 is the time. <
  17. ??It’s a wonder I made it out of the third grade. ??

    Who really wants to leave the third grade though? Cookies and recess? That third grade is the stuff.
    tim hettinger is the author. Oct 23, 23:04 is the time. <
  18. “While Ravi is making claims about all atheists, so are you.”

    No, I made a statement about atheism, not atheists. I said what atheism does not require – this not a claim that no atheists do it. Atheism does not require bathing daily, but is that a statement that no atheists bathe daily? Of course not.

    You do such a poor, poor job at reading what I write. Not only do you criticize me for saying something I didn’t, you don’t even have the decency to admit that Ravi made a false generalization about all atheists.

    ”...then atheism is the belief that no gods exist.”

    The absence of belief in X is not the same as the belief in no-X. I don’t believe that you are currently wearing a blue shirt, but this doesn’t mean that I have the belief or faith that you aren’t wearing a blue shirt.

    “If I make an ignorant statement about Italian culture (and stand behind it, once we have reached common understanding about the meaning of my statements), you then may assume that I am ignorant about that aspect of Italian culture.”

    Assuming that you are ignorant of Italian culture is not an absolute, unprovable negative assertion on my part, which is my point.

    “I think you might be playing some semantic games here.”

    If “denial” simply meant “not believe,” there would be no need to include both as fully separate definitions.

    “Atheists are indeed contradicting, declaring untrue, and refusing to accept the belief of theists.”

    Not believing in the truth of a claim is not the same as asserting that the claim is untrue.

    “I’ve heard a lot of what you don’t believe, but other than a link to a page, I would like to here what you do believe.”

    If I thought you were able or willing to fairly and honestly read what I wrote, I might tell you. Judging by the above, though, that isn’t something that I can accept as true. Besides, the topic is Ravi’s false generalizations about atheists and erroneous conclusions about atheism. Changing the topic and making it personal about someone you don’t know doesn’t alter that.

    In summary: Ravi employs a straw man to attack atheism and therefore reaches a false conclusion. What he claims may be true about some atheists, but it’s not necessarily true of all (or even most). This makes his general position on atheism fairly useless unless one happens to come across such an atheist. You won’t know that, however, unless you take the time to ask them and you won’t do that if you rely on half-baked, prejudicial assumptions derived from second-rate apologists.
    Joe is the author. Oct 25, 18:02 is the time. <
  19. Joe, thanks again for continuing to respond.

    Pardon me for misunderstanding what you were saying. I think I now get the differentiation you were making between atheism and atheists, although I’m not entirely convinced that it changes the point of my argument.

    Your argument seems to be focused around this statement (and line of reasoning):

    Not believing in the truth of a claim is not the same as asserting that the claim is untrue.

    As Tim stated above, your choices when confronted with whether or not you believe something are threefold:

    1) Believe that it is true (theism, in this case).
    2) Believe that it is not true (atheism, in this case).
    3) Believe that you don’t know, or can’t know (agnosticism, in this case).

    I refer you to Dictionary.com (clearly an unbiased third party) for the definitions of agnostic:

    1) One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a God.
    2) One who is skeptical about the existence of God but does not profess true atheism.

    But before I get further into it, there is a slough of argumentation from Tim and TheBlueRaja that counters your points about Ravi’s statements. Before I’ll engage you further, I think it’s only fair that you deal with that.

    I appreciate your persistence on this topic and hope to hear again from you soon.
    Nathan Logan is the author. Oct 25, 18:35 is the time. <