Atheism: The Null Hypothesis

“The hard part is convincing a believer that
1. the absence of gods is the null hypothesis, and
2. there is no contrary evidence to justify rejecting it.”

Question from Ted:
I’m debating a friend who, although he is surrounded by scientific-minded people in University, chooses to embrace Christianity. I want to demonstrate to him that in any scientific research condition, the null hypothesis is favored over the alternative hypothesis by default, unless contradictory research can be produced. This would indicate that before the research is even commenced, it is more reasonable to assume that the null hypothesis is true than to remain undecided or accept the alternative hypothesis.

What are some good references that I can use to get this idea across to him?

It’s a good way to look at the question of gods, and nobody’s ever challenged me on it when I’ve used it before (not, I think, on ATA). If someone did fight me, though, I think I know how they’d do it.

Any textbook on high school or college/university statistics would be sufficient to give your friend the necessary grounding in the concept of null and alternative hypotheses. This is the easy part, because what you say above is straightforward and self-evident; the null hypothesis by definition is what you accept to be the case if no contrary evidence is found. The hard part is convincing a believer that
1. the absence of gods is the null hypothesis, and
2. there is no contrary evidence to justify rejecting it.

Regarding #1, a huge amount of believers are of the opinion that the burden of proof is on atheists because they can’t imagine the world, life, art, love, logic, etc. having come about without a god, and therefore (though they don’t often put it like this) atheism is an alternative hypothesis which needs to be supported with proof that a god wasn’t/isn’t necessary. This response is essentially equivalent to the cosmological, transcendental and/or design arguments for gods, which I and many others have written about before.

Regarding #2, there’s a huge variety of anecdotes and phenomena that believers present as evidence for gods and therefore good reason to reject atheism as a null hypothesis, whether or not it’s actually good evidence or evidence at all. Your friend is liable and entitled to present you with just about anything, so you’ll have to take it as it comes.

The well-known text which comes closest to treating the issue in this manner is God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger. So that’s the one I recommend to you and your friend. Read it yourself first, obviously.


9 thoughts on “Atheism: The Null Hypothesis”

  1. LX

    I don’t agree with you, but at the same time I like the way you think. Does that make sense? It’s like if you were a Christian you’d think like me, and if I were an atheist I’d probably think like you? I usually find it hard to disagree with you, and like me, you bring up the simple but philosophical types of arguments .

    Look, I will never be able to prove to you that God exists. matter of fact Billy Graham can’t do it either. No matter how much evidence there is for Christianity sooner or later it’s clear we have to have some faith.

    But that also works both ways, just like null and alternative hypothesis. My daughter was house sitting this week and she saw a book titled “I don’t have enough faith to be an Atheist”.

    What do we do about this? I see your friend who is surrounded by many intellectuals and who is a bright guy himself and yet he chooses to keep his “faith”. I find that average or normal. You see it and think, how can this smart guy not realize the errors of his ways.

    If we both keep discussing these issues I think that’s a good start. And this is a good place we can learn from each other?

    Good thoughts, peace, feeno

  2. Funny you should mention I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. That book is exactly the response to #1 I’ve described: a claim that the lack of evidence for atheism means that atheists have more faith than theists, and therefore theism is the null hypothesis. It reaches this conclusion mainly via the cosmological and design arguments. There are links above to my responses to those. I’ve also got a piece on evidence for atheism.

    I think that if I were still a Christian, I think it would be because of emotions which had overcome my reason on the matter and dragged it to the apologetic position. As it happens, I’m not currently prey to those particular emotions.

    Incidentally, Feeno, there are a great many people who think they can prove God exists. Have you ever picked any of them up on it?

  3. LX

    To me it seems clear there is a God. (that doesn’t mean there is one). but I don’t see how we can prove it? If there was wouldn’t we all be Believers? I have heard of some strange stories that have happened by people claiming proof. But if anything that would only prove it to them, unless of course there are witnesses?

    I think by human standards atheists might(?) have an argument. Because the Bible makes it clear that without faith it is impossible to please God. But by God’s standards (If there is a God), the Hey God you didn’t give me the “enough faith gene” in my DNA. That wont work as any type of excuse?

    But that would be a good topic, “Stories that prove God is Real”.

    Late, feen

  4. If the existence of God can be proved, it may simply be that nobody has succeeded in proving it yet. Proofs are not necessarily easy or obvious. You see it all the time in mathematics; an apparent truism is enshrined as a mere “conjecture” (e.g. Bertrand’s conjecture/postulate) and becomes a theorem when proved years or decades later after much effort.

    Continuing the comparison to mathematics, a proof may be based on logic rather than evidence that can be witnessed. The ontological argument is an attempted proof of this type. Regardless of the type of attempted proof, I feature them here when I come across them.

    As I’ve been saying a lot lately, Feeno, God according to Christianity and most other religions wants us to believe in Him. If that’s true then this all-powerful being is not getting what He wants, and that is fundamentally ridiculous. Especially since belief is not a choice, and therefore in a Christian universe whether we believe is apparently up to Him.

  5. Hi there,

    I have seen this statement, “belief is not a choice,” in several atheist documents. I have never seen it well supported. For instance I once saw an atheist state they were unable to believe they could fly and then flap their arms to demonstrate that they are unable to fly. That supports the belief that they can not fly by flapping their arms but says nothing of their ability to find an environment where our arms could provide enough lift.

    From my perspective, while I’ll agree there are some beliefs that must be held if we want to refrain from delusion, such as my belief that you are reading this, other beliefs seem quite malleable and within conscious control, like my belief that I will have everything I need to meet any challenge I face or the decision to look upon an event as positive instead of negative.

    What do you mean when you say, “We can not choose our beliefs” and why do you feel that way? To me it seems to be an abdication of personal responsibility for the list of things you consider to be true.

  6. What is “evidence”? How does it differ from “scientific evidence”? How is it possible to gather scientific evidence for potentially uncontrollable realities, like say the supernatural things, if they possibly exist? Is it still sound to reject unscientific evidence for things that cannot be controlled in an experiment, like say history? How do we reject studying evidence for some fields such as religion, without being guilty of special pleading?

    1. See this piece on evidence and proof for my definition of evidence.

      Scientific evidence is evidence that serves to either support or counter a scientific theory or hypothesis; since the existence of a supernatural phenomenon can be posed as a scientific hypothesis, evidence supporting it does count as scientific evidence.

      Historical evidence, such as remains or documentation, can be scientific evidence if it is sufficient to support a hypothesis, and I don’t think anyone has any objection to studying historical material. The crux of the matter is whether the documentation and supposed physical evidence of the supernatural that we actually have is good evidence. So far it has not been.

Comments are closed.