Lewis Wolpert’s Presumption of Atheism and the ‘Insufficient Evidence’ Objection to Belief in God

By Peter S. Williams

‘The secular humanist outlook… is committed to… scepticism of a theistic God… for it finds insufficient evidence…’ –Paul Kurtz[1]

Cell biologist  Lewis Wolpert has recently attained a measure of notoriety with the British  public, primarily through the publication of his book Six Impossible Things    Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (Faber, 2006)  and through his participation in a public debate on the existence of God with  Christian philosopher William Lane Craig; a debate held on 27th February 2007 at Westminster Central Hall in London, hosted by the well-known  journalist John Humphrys and reported by him in a major article for the Daily Telegraph.[2] Professor Wolpert, who is a vice president of the British Humanist Association,  admits that he ‘stopped believing in God when I was 15 or 16 because he didn’t  give me what I asked for’[3];  but he has subsequently and repeatedly justified his atheism by asserting that:  ‘There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of God.’[4]

Problems with the Presumption of Atheism

Reliance upon  the ‘Insufficient Evidence’ objection is a risky gambit for the atheist, for as  philosopher William Rowe observes: ‘To fail to provide any arguments for the  non-existence of God is… to virtually concede the debate to the person who at  least gives some arguments, however weak, in behalf of the position that God  exists.’[5] Atheism put forward on the basis that there is insufficient evidence for belief  in God (and that in the absence of such evidence it is atheism that should be  given the benefit of the doubt rather than theism or agnosticism) stands before  the constant possibility that new evidence, or a better formulation and  appreciation of old evidence, might turn up. Such atheism cannot afford to be  dogmatic, for: ‘even if the theist could not muster good arguments for God’s  existence, atheism still would not be shown to be true.’[6] As atheist philosopher Kai  Nielsen admits: ‘To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show  that the conclusion of the argument is false…. All the proofs of God’s  existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists.’[7]

According to Robert A. Harris: ‘a common sense look at the world,  with all its beauty, apparent design, meaning, and vibrancy, would seem to  predispose a neutral observer to presume that God exists unless good evidence  for his non-existence could be brought to bear… The fact that materialists  often struggle with this issue, working to explain away the design of the  creation, for example, would seem to back up this claim.’[8] Nevertheless, British humanist Richard Norman asserts that: ‘the onus is on those who believe in a god to provide reasons for  that belief. If they cannot come up with good reasons, then we should reject  the belief.’[9] It was another British philosopher, Antony Flew (who recently became a theist[10]), who most famously urged that  the ‘onus of proof must lie upon the theist’,[11] and that unless compelling reasons for God’s existence could be given there  should be a ‘presumption of atheism.’ However, by ‘atheism’ Flew meant merely  ‘non-theism’, a non-standard definition of ‘atheism’ that includes agnosticism  but excludes atheism as commonly understood. The presumption of atheism is  therefore not particularly interesting unless (as with Richard Norman  explicitly and Lewis Wolpert implicitly) it really is the presumption of atheism rather than the presumption of agnosticism. However, the former is far harder  to defend than the latter:

the ‘presumption of  atheism’ demonstrates a rigging of the rules of philosophical debate in order  to play into the hands of the atheist, who himself makes a truth claim. Alvin  Plantinga correctly argues that the atheist does not treat the statements ‘God  exists’ and ‘God does not exist’ in the same manner. The atheist assumes that  if one has no evidence for God’s existence, then one is obligated to believe  that God does not exist – whether or not one has evidence against God’s  existence. What the atheist fails to see is that atheism is just as much a  claim to know something (‘God does not exist’) as theism (‘God exists’).  Therefore, the atheist’s denial of God’s existence needs just as much  substantiation as does the theist’s claim; the atheist must give plausible  reasons for rejecting God’s existence… in the absence of evidence for God’s  existence, agnosticism, not atheism, is the logical presumption. Even if  arguments for God’s existence do not persuade, atheism should not be presumed  because atheism is not neutral; pure agnosticism is. Atheism is justified only  if there is sufficient evidence against God’s existence.[12]

As Scott  Shalkowski writes: ‘suffice it to say that if there were no evidence at all for  belief in God, this would [at best] legitimize merely agnosticism unless there  is evidence against the existence of God.’[13] Steven Lovell similarly points  out that, to avoid a double standard, the atheist cannot use the ‘Insufficient  Evidence’ argument alone, but must combine it with one or more of the other  objections to belief:

Time and again I’ve heard people say that they don’t believe in God  because they think there is insufficient evidence for His existence. If the  person saying this is an atheist (one who thinks that God doesn’t exist, that  ‘God exists’ is a false statement), then they imply that they do have  enough evidence for their atheism. Clearly, if we reject belief in God due to  (alleged) insufficient evidence, then we would be irrational to accept atheism,  if the evidence for God’s non-existence were similarly insufficient. It would  be a radical inconsistency. If theistic belief requires evidence, so must  atheistic belief. If we have no evidence either way, then the logical  conclusion would be agnosticism.[14]

There are, then, a number of serious problems with using the claim  that there is insufficient evidence to justify belief in God to justify a default  ‘presumption of atheism’ as Wolpert does.

A Popular Objection to Theism

Despite these problems,  the ‘Insufficient Evidence’ objection to theism is widely used by contemporary  atheists. A 1998 survey of 1,700 American skeptics conducted by Skeptics  Society director Michael Shermer and MIT social scientist Frank Sulloway showed  that 37.9% of non-theistic skeptics said they didn’t believe in God because    there is no proof. The 2005 Dare to Engage Questionnaire, which  surveyed nearly five hundred 15-18 years old students, found that among self-designated atheists (20% of  respondents) who took the opportunity to give an  explanation of their disbelief, the third most popular response (given by 13%  of those giving a reason for their atheism) was that there    is a pervasive lack of evidence for God.

The  ‘Insufficient Evidence’ objection can be traced back to Bertrand Russell. Asked  what he would say if he found himself standing before God on the judgement day being  asked, ‘Why didn’t you believe in me?,’ Russell replied: ‘I’d say, “Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!”’ Richard Dawkins says that in the same situation: ‘I’d quote  Bertrand Russell: “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.”’[15] (There is an interesting  difference in attitude on this point between Russell et al on the  one hand, and H.L. Mencken on the other hand, who answered essentially the same  question by saying: ‘If I do fetch up with the twelve apostles, I shall say,  “Gentlemen, I was wrong”.’[16] In this context we should not shy away from the fact that atheists may – and  note that I say may rather than will – fail to appreciate genuine  evidence for theism due to non-rational factors. As Piers Benn acknowledges:  ‘since some theistic religions teach that sin can impair our thinking, we risk  begging the question against those religions if we assume that if we can  see no good reason for believing them, then they are almost certainly false.’[17])

According to Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion[18],  if one examines natural theology: ‘the arguments turn out to be spectacularly  weak.’[19] He actually goes so far as to say that: ‘there is no evidence in favour of the  God Hypothesis.’[20] This is an astonishing claim for Dawkins to make, since he once defined biology  as ‘the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been  designed for a purpose.’[21] There is, then, according to Dawkins himself, at the very least, prima    facie evidence for the God hypothesis. The Humanist Manifesto II,  drafted by Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson, declares with more caution than  Dawkins, or Wolpert, that: ‘We find insufficient evidence for belief in  the existence of a supernatural… theism… is an unproven and outmoded faith.’[22] (The term ‘outmoded’ here is a  fine example of what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’.[23])

Taking a  historical view on the same objection, Kai Nielson states that:

Starting with the early Enlightenment figures, finding acute and  more fully developed critiques in Hume and Kant, and carried through by their  contemporary rational reconstructers (e.g., Mackie, and Martin), the various  arguments for the existence of God have been so thoroughly refuted that few  would try to defend them today and even those few who do, do so in increasingly  attenuated forms.[24]

Professor  Wolpert likewise praises David Hume’s scepticism, stating: ‘Hume is the only  philosopher I take seriously…[25] However, such claims are surprisingly out of touch with the reality of  contemporary practice in the philosophy of religion. What William Lane Craig  calls ‘the obsolete, 18th century objections of Hume and Kant’[26] have received substantial  replies from contemporary philosophers.[27] David Hume, in particular, is widely regarded as an over-rated thinker who  inspires much unnecessary kow-towing.[28] According to James F. Sennett and Douglas Groothuis: ‘Natural theology is alive  and well in contemporary philosophy; the supposed Humean refutation of the  enterprise is a myth whose exposure is long overdue.’[29]

Many  contemporary philosophers give their endorsement to the project of natural  theology, and while individual arguments for God may often be defended in more  rigorously cautious terms than was the norm in medieval scholasticism, today’s  natural theology can hardly be called ‘attenuated’ when philosophers like  Robert C. Koons are prepared to say that: ‘the evidence for theism has never  been so clear and so strong as it is now.’[30]

However, questioning the claim that there is insufficient evidence  for God’s existence is not the only way of responding to Wolpert’s  ‘Insufficient Evidence’ objection. Many philosophers question the assumption  that it is necessarily irrational to believe in God in the absence of  evidential justification. After all, there are plenty of other beliefs about  reality that appear to be rational to hold in the complete absence of  evidential justification (e.g. the belief that the world is not a computer  simulation as in the film The Matrix), and the demand for evidence can  neither be fulfilled ad infinitum (i.e. it is impossible to justify all our beliefs) nor be consistently applied to itself (what evidential  justification is there for the belief that all beliefs must have evidential  justification in order to be rational?).

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