Philosophy of Religion 10: Anti-theistic arguments

Where have we got to, then, a bit over half way through Murray and Rea’s An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion?

Religious belief has been tied (I’d say pretty misguidedly) to “perfect being” theology. Murray and Rea have a shot at making metaphysical sense of talk of a perfect being in the first couple of chapters — which I haven’t discussed enough here, and really should come back to. But the notion is (unsurprisingly) left pretty murky. Their attempts in Ch. 3 to make sense of the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation are based on hopeless analogies. They seem to place some weight on “religious experience” in Ch. 4 but are remarkably silent on what that might consist in — and they give no good reasons for supposing that such experiences are a reliable guide to anything. And in Ch. 5 our authors themselves defeat most of the standard arguments they consider for theism, except for the fine-tuning argument; and if that last one is still in play, it’s arguably because they don’t properly examine the probabilistic reasoning on which it depends.

So where do we go from here? The story continues …

In Chapter 6, Murray and Rea turn to “Anti-theistic arguments”. But, at this stage in the game, in what sense does the atheist need anti-theistic arguments? She might well muse along the following lines:

“Burden tennis”, batting the burden of proof to and fro over the net, is rarely a very profitable pastime! But still, maybe this case is an exception. After all, “perfect being” theists, when you come down to it, are making some highly exotic claims, claims that aren’t that much clearer after Murray and Rea’s labours, and which make the beliefs, say, of ancient Greek religion look very modest and humdrum. Not just powerful gods, but an omnipotent god. Not just gods intermittently casting an amused eye over mortal folly, but an omniscient god. And one not just occasionally taking a passing interest in some of us, for good or ill (and occasionally, understandably, running off with a particularly pretty nymph) but loving us all equally. And on it goes, wilder and wilder (e.g. the three-for-the-price-of-one Trinity). By the workaday epistemic standards we use in most of our lives, those extravagant claims look quite extraordinarily fanciful. So we can reasonably insist that someone who advances such claims literally (not, for example, as inspiring myth) and expects to be taken seriously, had better have some very, very, good arguments. Pending such arguments, which we haven’t been given yet, we atheists don’t have much to do.

Or at any rate, recalling Russell’s teapot, we needn’t do much by way of coming up with additional reasons against a perfect being to add to the lack of weighty enough reasons for believing in any such a thing. But of course — in a spirit of human curiosity — we might well be interested in reflecting about what it is about our minds and about human societies that make us rather prone to be gripped by such fanciful ideas. What role do they play for us? What sustains religious belief in our emotional and social life in the absence of weighty reasons? Well, there’s a very long tradition of intriguing enquiry about this — the “natural history of religion”, if you like — which seeks to explain the role of religious belief. Thus, for example, Dennett’s speculations about the evolutionary advantages of a tendency to over-interpret agency in our environment are just the latest ingredient in a long and complex story. And this evolving story seems to make a pretty good stab at the beginnings of explaining the role of religious beliefs without sustaining their truth-claims

Now, you might well have expected Murray and Rea to have addressed this sort of calm “default atheism” head on and at length at this point. For in a highly secularized society like large swathes of “middle England”, inchoate versions of this kind of detachment from religion are nowadays very widely shared.

But at the beginning of the “Anti-theistic arguments” chapter, they in fact say that “we will set aside arguments which claim that the absence of evidence makes belief in atheism more reasonable or obligatory since that issue was addressed in chapter 4.” However, chapter 4 doesn’t address default atheism. It talks about the notion of faith and about whether “religious experience” might be the result of a reliable belief-acquiring mechanism — but we saw that the discussion of the latter was vitiated by a failure to properly discuss naturalistic stories about our proneness to such “experiences”. As I noted before, Dennett (for example) is nowhere mentioned. Nor is the Hume of the Natural History mentioned. Nor are Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx in the index (to take names from just one other familiar strand of enquiry about the roots of religion). It looks as if Murray and Rea are just not interested in engaging with the naturalizing default atheist.

Glancing ahead just at the subsection titles, however, I notice the next chapter “Religion and science” does in fact say something about evolutionary psychology and religious belief. So I’d better suspend judgement for a bit here. It may be that the complaint is only going to be that key bits of missing discussion come not in Ch. 4 but later in Ch. 7 (which might be pretty ill-judged arrangement, but that’s better than a disastrous lacuna). We shall have to see! For the moment, then, I just note that default atheism, seemingly the position of most of the students I’ve taught over the years, is not yet getting the kind of direct discussion that I’d have expected (at the point I would have expected it given what’s gone before). I wonder: does this betoken the fact that North American authors are more used to dealing with students who are, as they say, coming from somewhere else? Anyway, we’ll move on to consider what they do discuss in Chapter 6, which is mostly the argument from evil. (But I need to gather my strength for that, so don’t hold your breath ….)

9 thoughts on “Philosophy of Religion 10: Anti-theistic arguments”

  1. Anthony Zarrella

    First, I’d like to apologize – Google led me to this particular segment of your blog in isolation from the rest (while I was looking up something similar for a paper), and I responded without thinking to check if you had addressed my points in previous sections.

    I’d also like to note, however, that my mentioning of theism as a majority viewpoint was not intended to be any sort of proof (or even really evidence) of its truth, but simply intended to demonstrate that it is in accord with common intuition. Generally (though not always), a theory that runs counter to widely held beliefs must show good reason for claiming those beliefs to be wrong. I fully agree that there areseveral proposed naturalistic explanations for why people believe such things, but merely showing that we are naturally inclined to believe in a certain theory does not prove that theory false (or even give good reason to think it is false). Case in point – presumably we are naturally inclined to believe in the basic truths of logic.

    So, yes, there are reasons for theism to be widely believed that have nothing to do with its truth value, but the mere fact that it is the dominant theory means that you cannot simply, by fiat, set up a presumption of its falsehood.

    As a final note, from what you’ve said so far (and I did go back and skim the rest now), I’d have to agree that these particular authors are making a fairly poor attempt at selling their theories. However, it seems like (and perhaps I’m just reading you wrongly) you don’t make much of an effort to distinguish between the messenger and the message. You seem quite eager to count Murray and Rea’s poor argumentation as a point in favor of there being no effective argument for theism.

    You quite correctly keep noting that you’re only referring to the kind of theism that Murray and Rea are discussing, but even that kind has many adherents who have argued the point far more eloquently and persuasively (though certainly not definitively).

    I have to confess that I have never read any of your published works, but if you have one (or will have in the future) dealing with this subject specifically, I’d be most interested in reading it. You make many interesting points (though I disagree with most of them), and I’d like to see where they’d go if they were fully developed.

  2. I don’t want to comment on all the comments that I’m getting — but perhaps just a few words about the last one.

    Re “As far as I can tell, every other widely-held belief that’s been struck down over the years has been defeated by proving (at least by a preponderance of the evidence) that the new alternative theory was actually better, not by simply stating a presumption in favor of the new theory.” But that isn’t the situation here. The question is whether theistic belief of the kind Murray and Rea are discussing (I have to keep making that qualification) actually gets to starting line as worth taking seriously as a theory of anything. By the stage of the book I was commenting on, they had considered a number of pro-theistic arguments, and by their own evaluation, most of them have little force, and the one left of the table (the fine-tuning argument) they hadn’t really investigated properly. So by that stage, there is no good very reason to take the postulation of a their sort of deity as a serious candidate for truth, just on the “not multiplying entities beyond necessity” principle.

    Ah, it might be said, that’s forgetting that “theism is by far the majority viewpoint – something like 80% of the world’s population claims belief in some religion or other”. Of course, we might wonder what these supposed theists actually believe in. Murray and Rea make it clear what they are talking about — i.e. the God of “Perfect Being” theology. It seems to me very moot how that conception relates to the actual beliefs of religious practioners (including, I might add, some of the Anglican clergy I’ve known). So even if 80% of people are religious in some wide sense, I very much doubt that the metaphysically complex views that Murray and Rea are discussing have such currency. But in any case, even if it is a fact that 80% of people believe that p, that is no reason to think that p is true, when we have explanations of the currency of the belief that have nothing to do with its truth (and we have a developing raft of such naturalistic explanations of the prevalence of religious beliefs and practices).

  3. Anthony Zarrella

    A few observations…

    First, it seems that “default atheism” simply is a dressed-up way of saying “we’re going to force all the burden of proof onto the theist” and it doesn’t seem that there’s much justification for that (after all, theism is by far the majority viewpoint – something like 80% of the world’s population claims belief in some religion or other). As far as I can tell, every other widely-held belief that’s been struck down over the years has been defeated by proving (at least by a preponderance of the evidence) that the new alternative theory was actually better, not by simply stating a presumption in favor of the new theory.

    Second, trite though it may sound, I was under the impression that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” was still sound scientific and philosophical principle. If you simply doubt that the existence of a god (or God) can be positively proven (or at least successfully argued for), then call yourself an agnostic and be done with it. As an agnostic, you can have personal leanings towards the existence of God, or vice versa, but your official philosophical stance is “no way to know”. To take the next step and identify as an atheist has to mean that you believe there’s a solid argument against the possibility of a God. Skepticism and burden-of-proof games (tennis or otherwise) can get you agnosticism, but atheism is a positive claim and requires positive argument.

    However, an even better way is to discard the whole concept of “burden of proof”. It’s a great concept in court, not so good in philosophy. Let’s go with the Simplicity Principle (with acknowledgment to Professor Sehon, who taught it to me). Given two candidate theories, the one that leaves significantly more unexplained mysteries ought to be discarded.

    Theism has a good deal of unexplained mysteries – neither I nor any smart theist will deny that, and some of them (like the Trinity) are explicitly called out as mysteries by many organized religions. That is, they freely acknowledge that the issue is not rationally soluble. Others (some explicit Mysteries of Faith, others simply mysteries in the simplicity sense) include “Why does God exist at all?” “Why is there anything?” “Why does God have the properties He does?” and (though many promising attempts have been made to resolve this last one) the infamous Problem of Evil.

    However, for atheism/naturalism to claim that it has no mysteries to be resolved is quite frankly ridiculous. Why do the laws of nature work the way they do? Why does gravity vary as the inverse square of distance? Why does light travel at the precise speed c? How did the universe get here in the first place? How did life come to be? And, most popular of all with theists, the Fine-Tuning dilemma (i.e. 20 separate constants in physics, all of whose values are mathematically independent of one another, all of which have a nearly infinite range of possible “settings”, and all of which must be “set” within an infinitesimally narrow percentage of their range in order for the universe as we know it to exist).

    Now, it’s certainly an open question as to which of those two sets of mysteries is in fact greater and therefore more damning. However, at the very least it seems that dismissing theism as “ontological extravagance” is premature. The God of theism is, at least in part, an attempt to provide the answers to those tricky questions in atheism. So, either God is an “ontological extravagance” and atheism is guilty of the same by positing innumerable scientific facts and entities that “just are the way they are”, or both theories are solid theories worthy of serious consideration and reasonable debate.

  4. Hmm… the ontological extravagance of positing, alongside our minds and their experiences (which surely exist), and in order to account for those, an extremely creative Mind instead of mindless energies (in the form of various kinds of matter of some mind-independent kind, existing within 10 dimensions and probably many worlds)?

  5. “The difficulty for this kind of position is that one has to defend a kind of foundationalism in epistemology.” Not so. The position in question remarks on the ontological extravagance of theistic belief (as construed by Murray and Rea) by our everyday epistemic standards, and waits for some good arguments. That doesn’t presuppose foundationalism or any other ism.

  6. “Default atheism” reminds me of Antony Flew’s The Presumption of Atheism. The difficulty for thsi kind of position is that one has to defend a kind of foundationalism in epistemology that seems to be in trouble these days. My own view has always been to accept a kind of epistemological conservatism: you have the right to accept the beliefs you have unless the other side can give you good evidence to the contrary. Even the subjectivist theory of prior probabilities undercuts the default argument. What if someone just happens to have a high prior for theism. If that person were to toss away that prior for the sake of putting the burden in the proper place, don’t you have to commit a probabilistic incoherence. Even if you had a high prior to Russell’s teapot, wouldn’t you have to conditionalize your way out of such a prior, however weird that prior might be to others.

  7. I’ve read pretty widely in philosophy, but I’ve never seen “burden tennis” used in a context not influenced by Dennett, and I have fairly often seen it credited to Dennett. (I first saw it in one of Dennett’s works, but I’ve forgotten which one.) He may not have originated it, but it’s popularity seems to be largely due to him.

    Re “default atheism”, there’s a difference between being prone to be swept by religious beliefs and being born a believer; and you link “default atheism” yourself to “inchoate versions” of a “kind of detachment from religion [that] are nowadays very widely shared” and speculate that they may be shared more widely among British students than American ones. (Are the students hardwired differently?) Your reference to Russell’s teapot also fits here, for we are presumably all born without a belief in the Celestial Teapot.

    I think the line that everyone’s born atheist, as well as the line that atheism is merely a lack of theism, rather than a belief that god doesn’t exist, are part of a cluster of ideas that tries to make it seem natural to regard atheism as the default position and tries to put the burden of proof on the theist.

    I’m wondering why it has recently become so popular.

  8. “Burden tennis” is philosophers’ informal talk, pretty widely used. Not an especially Dennettian usage, I’d have thought!

    As to what I’m calling default atheism, that is a very old stance and certainly not especially due to Dawkins. I got it as a schoolboy from Russell, and those with better historical knowledge than me can tell us where he got it from …

    Note by the way that it isn’t the idea that “everyone is born an atheist”. We might indeed be hardwired to be prone to be swept up by religious beliefs.

  9. “Burden tennis” is straight Dennett.

    “Dafault atheism” … is it Dawkins?

    I mean: is the recent popularity of this idea due to Dawkins?

    All of a sudden, I’m seeing lots of people saying that atheism is simply the lack of a belief in god, and that everyone is born an atheist, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before.

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