By Peter S. Williams
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. 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’; but he has subsequently and repeatedly justified his atheism by asserting that: ‘There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of God.’
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.’ 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.’ 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.’
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.’ 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.’ It was another British philosopher, Antony Flew (who recently became a theist), who most famously urged that the ‘onus of proof must lie upon the theist’, 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.
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.’ 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.
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.”’ (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”.’ 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.’)
According to Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The God Delusion, if one examines natural theology: ‘the arguments turn out to be spectacularly weak.’ He actually goes so far as to say that: ‘there is no evidence in favour of the God Hypothesis.’ 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.’ 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.’ (The term ‘outmoded’ here is a fine example of what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’.)
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.
Professor Wolpert likewise praises David Hume’s scepticism, stating: ‘Hume is the only philosopher I take seriously… 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’ have received substantial replies from contemporary philosophers. David Hume, in particular, is widely regarded as an over-rated thinker who inspires much unnecessary kow-towing. 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.’
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.’
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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