Atheism or A-beliefism?

Question from Sarah:
Atheism or A-beliefism? Suppose we take the whole “Existence of God” question out of the religion and atheism debate. What do we have left? I’m inclined to say that we have a group of people who assert that BELIEF in the absence of empirical evidence is a reasonable and valid way of knowing, and a group of people who claim that it isn’t. My sense is that this fundamental difference in epistemology transcends the entire “God” issue. At the deepest level, an “atheist” isn’t someone who doesn’t embrace a belief in God, but simply someone who doesn’t embrace “belief” as a valid way of knowing. My question is, do you agree or disagree with this assertion and why?

Let’s make it a bit more concrete: Recent insights in astrophysics (eg. the Holographic Principle) and in information science suggest that the foundational components of our universe– rather than being tiny chunks of “solid stuff” (atoms)– might be information (bits). (“It from bit.”) If this is true, then we could actually be living in a Matrix-like universe. This could be a naturally-arising information-based universe, or an artificial one created by an intelligent being or beings. Let’s suppose that we do live in a an artificial “Matrix,” created and maintained by an individual Being. Clearly, that Being would not be an infinite, perfect entity like Jehovah or Allah. However, It would be omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal as far as we are concerned, and it would be supernatural, as far as we are concerned, since It transcends the laws of our universe. I don’t think that most atheists would have a problem with the possibility that this God exists, but they would definitely have a problem with accepting Its existence in the absence of evidence. Why, then, all the debate about God’s existence or non-existence? Why not debate about the REAL issue– which, as I see it, is FAITH as a way of knowing.

Answer by SmartLX:
I agree with you in part. An atheist does not accept the existence of a god or the equivalent, usually due to the lack of evidence or even due to perceived evidence of its absence. To such a person, faith is acceptance of a claim in the absence of evidence and is thus invalid by definition. And yes, I’m fine with the possibility of the existence of a number of different types of gods, including the master programmer version you describe, I just think that each is a very remote possibility and there’s no evidence for any of them.

However, advocates of a god’s existence are not so easily categorised. Perhaps they do generally accept faith as a valid reason to accept it, but when actually arguing the point with non-believers many of them go to the trouble of assembling and presenting what they claim to be evidence that their god exists. A large amount of the past material on this site consists of responses to claims of direct evidence, claims that the entire world IS evidence, claims that certain logical arguments serve as evidence, and attempts to shift the burden of evidence onto non-believers.

I don’t think re-framing the debate into a discussion of “ways of knowing” would be productive, or get anywhere at all. Believers already regularly take our evidence requirement at face value and throw “evidence” at us. Those who do not accept that evidence is necessary often ignore claims that it is, and think to themselves that those who demand evidence are misguided. (Indeed, the Bible explicitly warns against putting God to the test, and that’s good enough for many.) If we were to set our shared position such that some other “way of knowing” were the only valid one, the response from believers would likely be, “Very well, here is how the existence of God is absolutely plain in THAT way of knowing.”

No, the issue of whether God exists is the issue in which people are most often invested, rather than secondary epistemological issues, and I think the debate will stay right there because that’s what everyone wants to talk about.

9 thoughts on “Atheism or A-beliefism?”

  1. “… and there’s no evidence for any of them.”

    A huge step in approaching this whole debate in honesty would be for you to once and for all refrain from such statements. The truth is that there is NO evidence that you will accept, or entertain, or that you know of personally. Without knowing everything or even everything known to all people who ever lived, you cannot under any circumstances make such an absolute claim. And you are well aware of this and continue to make such claims. That is utterly dishonest.

  2. Tommy, the phrase you quote concludes the statement that begins, “I just think that…” It’s an opinion, not an unqualified declaration. I could have made it clearer by writing, “…and *that* there’s no evidence for any of them.”

    To clarify further, the opinion of atheists is that there is no available, substantive evidence for any gods, or else they wouldn’t be atheists. There might be evidence we don’t know of, or available evidence that isn’t good evidence, but neither is a reason to believe. I expanded upon this idea in an earlier article, in response to a well-known attempt to give atheists the burden of proof.

    Finally, I’ll entertain whatever evidence for God you care to present, but it goes without saying that I haven’t accepted any so far.

  3. Sarah writes: [ Why, then, all the debate about God’s existence or non-existence? Why not debate about the REAL issue– which, as I see it, is FAITH as a way of knowing.]

    The real issue IS the divine being question. I don’t see bigfoot proponents going into science blogs and science stories crediting bigfoot for all of creation. I don’t see the unicorn faithful denying the mountain of evidence for the theory of evolution. I don’t see leprechaun lovers trying to teach pseudo-science in high school science classes. The real issue is the god question. Even the name of the two groups involved (theists and atheists) reflects this.

    I think all you are trying to do is put a different shade of lipstick on the same pig. In general I see believers use this tact when debating the whole issue. They know they lack any evidence at all that supports their belief, so they instead try to frame the discussion away from their god and towards something else. I don’t know whether you specifically are trying to do that, I merely mention it because I’ve seen it many times before.

    There is no debate about faith being a way to know anything in my mind. It simply isn’t a way of knowing. The definition of the word (along with belief) in a religious context clearly indicates that it is an acceptance of something despite the evidence to prove it. There is no way to validate or verify it, no data that supports its conclusion. That goes for gods and unicorns and any other myth one can conjure up.

  4. Tommy writes: [A huge step in approaching this whole debate in honesty would be for you to once and for all refrain from such statements. The truth is that there is NO evidence that you will accept, or entertain, or that you know of personally. Without knowing everything or even everything known to all people who ever lived, you cannot under any circumstances make such an absolute claim. And you are well aware of this and continue to make such claims. That is utterly dishonest.]

    I know you and I have covered this territory already in other threads, but it bears repeating…

    The reason that there is no evidence that atheists will accept from you is because you don’t have any actual evidence. You have “personal experience”, unproven claims (like miracles), and so forth. The entirety of religious belief is based on unfounded claims and unproven stories that cannot be validated or verified. And I don’t feel that I am making any statements here that are unreasonable in the least. The bottom line is that there is no evidence that can be brought forth that can pass close scrutiny.

    As I’ve said before, I completely agree that we don’t know everything about eveything. There could be a unicorn, or an Odin, or an Easter bunny. No one can say with 100% certainty that those things do not exist. But taking all the information that we do have, and looking at all the things we do know, we can see that none of it points to the existence of divine beings. And by “information” I am talking about data that anyone can collect and analyze on their own. Someone claiming that a personal god creature got them off drugs and turned their life around makes for a lovely story, but there is no proof that divine intervention is responsible for it.

    If you want honesty, maybe you need to start with yourself. Be honest and admit that there isn’t even one shred of data that points to the existence of the supernatural, and that your belief system is founded on untestable claims…

    1. TOMMY WROTE: [Without knowing everything or even everything known to all people who ever lived, you cannot under any circumstances make [such] an absolute claim.]

      Tommy has once again drunk the presuppositionist kool-aid and it’s started to repeat on him! This claim is basically that knowledge requires omniscience and therefore can only count as knowledge if it is characterised by complete certainty. In reverse form, without certainty we cannot have knowledge. It’s part and parcel of the presupposition that all knowledge ultimately comes from god. It all sounds very intellectual and plausible to a philosophically naive person already immersed in their faith but it’s not going to convince a philosophically adept atheist to become a theist, let alone a Christian. Tommy’s claim is very easily refuted in a number of ways.

      First, such an argument appears to rely on a completely novel definition of knowledge. Knowledge as most philosophers know it is ‘true belief that is properly justified’. Let’s say I make the knowledge claim that the planet Earth is spherical. I could of course be wrong. I might not exist on Earth, I might be a brain in a vat on a square planet. It is possible. Does it then follow logically that I cannot possibly truly know that the Earth is, in reality, spherical? No, of course not. If the Earth actually is, in reality, a sphere then my claim really is a ‘true belief that is properly justified’. It is knowledge. It matters not one wit how I came to have that knowledge. It is still true knowledge.

      Second, it is logically impossible to be wrong about everything. There are some things that I can know with complete certainty while not being omniscient. I offered several examples to Tommy on another thread and all he could do to respond was to meander off into word-games and conversational gimmicks. I’ll try again. Here is something I know for certain:

      Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)

      This is my basic, bottom-level presupposition, perhaps my only one. I know this for certain in exactly the same way that a presuppositionalist claims that they know that their god exists – because the contrary is impossible. In formal terms:

      1. In order for thinking to occur there must exist a being that thinks
      2. Thinking does occur, therefore
      3. A being that thinks does exist and
      4. This thinking being I experience as ‘I’, therefore
      5. I can be certain that I exist

      Everything I think (or do) presupposes the certainty of the knowledge of my existence. Even if I tried to believe that I don’t exist I am inevitably forced to infer my own existence. I must exist even if I wanted to have the thought that I don’t exist. So my existence is axiomatic; it requires no further evidence. Here are some other things I know for certain:

      I know that I am not omniscient

      I know that I am not the god that Tommy worships

      So Tommy, do you agree with that last absolute claim from someone who is not omniscient or are you going to refute its validity and by so doing refute your own presupposition?

      No doubt you will claim that you know that my claim is untrue because god reveals all knowledge to you. But that presupposition places you in an infinite regress: how can you be certain that god imparts information to you? Formally your argument goes:

      1. All knowledge comes from god
      2. I can be certain that all knowledge comes from god because I have defined god a-priori as omniscient and presupposed that he imparts all knowledge, therefore
      3. All knowledge comes from god
      4. I can be certain that all knowledge comes from god because I have defined god a-priori as omniscient and presupposed that he imparts all knowledge, therefore
      5. All knowledge comes from god

      See your problem? Unlike my presupposition of ‘cogito ergo sum’ (which is based on a shared observation and non-circular logic, is testable and falsifiable and not predicated on any belief in god), your presupposition is no more than unevidenced assertion and sophistry; a simplistic circularity with no real epistemological value. Once you presuppose that the existence of god is the foundation of all knowledge, what independent means are available to you to falsify or self-correct that presupposition? You no longer have any. All you have to fall back on are a-priori assumptions handed to you by someone else. Your presupposition must prevail, not because it is evidenced in any way, but simply because it has been defined a-priori as certain knowledge. It’s a philosophical dead end, which is why non-theistic (and the majority of theistic) philosophers rightly treat presuppositionalism with scorn or indifference.

      It’s also arrogant and disingenuous to claim that you have identified the omniscient source of all knowledge when you can’t exactly demonstrate to us that you, the guy known as Tommy, have any greater access to that omniscient knowledge than anyone else; all we observe is an individual characterised by the same epistemological fallibility as the rest of us. Consider seriously the following questions:

      How, when you are not omniscient yourself, do you assess the veracity of a person/deity who claims omniscience?

      How, when you are not omniscient yourself, do you assess the veracity of any claim that a person/deity is not omniscient?

      How, when you are not omniscient yourself, do you assess the possibility that your presuppositions haven’t been planted in your mind by an untrustworthy trickster person/deity?

      How, when you are not omniscient yourself, do you assess the possibility that your god was created by a meta-deity that your god is unaware of, who has deliberately tricked your god into having a sense of his own omniscience, which he has now imparted to you?

      How can your certain presuppositions possibly address these questions? Honestly, of course…..

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