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March 03, 2010

The Kierkegaard Gambit-1: Excuses for the lack of evidence

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have noticed an interesting development in discussions of whether god exists. The new/unapologetic atheists have been relentless in hammering home their basic message that in the absence of any evidence in favor of the existence of god, it makes no sense to believe in such an entity. It is not a very difficult argument to understand. The position of the new/unapologetic atheists follows that of the very old 'new' atheist Bertrand Russell, who advised that "it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it is true." (Skeptical Essays, I (1928).) Or, as I said in a previous post that describes my basic assertions: "There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns."

This laser-like focus on the need to produce evidence for god has put religious believers in a quandary. Of course 'god' is the name of a slippery and malleable concept and believers often try to evade any pointed criticisms of god's existence by saying that the god the atheists deny is not their concept of god and so those arguments do not apply to them. So let's define what at least some atheists define as god. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion (p. 31) defines the god that he finds implausible and it is as good a definition as any: "there exists a supernatural, superhuman intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us."

One can add that atheists are philosophical naturalists. Julian Baggini in his Atheism: A Very Short Introduction explains the meaning of an atheist's commitment to naturalism:

What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life. (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 13-14)

It should perhaps be clarified that the basic problem that atheists have is with a god that shares the same world as us and whose existence has some impact on the world. If believers want to postulate god as some entity wandering around in an alternate universe distinct from our own that has absolutely no contact with our universe or as some kind of metaphor that also has no empirical consequences in this world whatsoever, they can knock themselves out and we atheists would not be concerned (or even interested) in the slightest. We would pay as much attention to them as we would to people discussing whether unicorns are silver or white.

Atheists have thus set a clear target for religious believers to aim at and refute: Show us the evidence for your god. After all, most religious people believe in a god, defined as a supernatural creative intelligence who is at the very least the creator and guider of our own universe. Surely there must be at least some incontrovertible evidence of his existence? The same goes for the existence of the soul or for miracles or the afterlife.

But such evidence for a 'supernatural creative intelligence', which is the kind of god that atheists seek to refute because it has empirical consequences, has never been produced. This has put religious apologists deeply on the defensive because they know that after millennia of trying, they simply cannot point to any concrete and credible evidence for the existence of such a god.

It can be argued that the entire field of theology is based on trying to specify the characteristics of an entity for which there is no credible empirical evidence whatsoever. It should not be surprising then that there are so many religions offering so many versions of god, and that even within religions there are sects and divisions each with its own variations. In fact, if you get down to the level of a single individual, each person can argue in favor of a purely idiosyncratic god that appeals just to that individual alone. In the absence of any evidentiary requirement, how could you ever prove that person wrong? I suspect that if you take any two people who belong to the very same sect and go to the very same church/synagogue/mosque/temple and ask them to list the properties of their god, they will still not be able to agree on what their god is like. Such a lack of consensus is an indicator that we are dealing with a fictitious entity that never makes contact with the empirical world.

Instead of concrete evidence being provided, what is offered range from vague generalities such as 'everything in the world is evidence for god' to pointing to alleged miracles whose miraculous nature disappears under close scrutiny. Some naïve believers sometimes appeal to personal experience (They "feel" god's presence; god "speaks" to them, they have a "relationship" with god, etc.) but such claims are indistinguishable from any other form of delusion. Others have tried to turn the lack of evidence into a virtue, by saying that god does not want to make it easy for us to believe by providing clear evidence because he believes that faith in the absence of evidence is a virtue. Again, they do not provide evidence to support how they know that their god has this curious notion that evidence about his own existence is a bad thing when it is so obviously a good thing in every other aspect of life.

More sophisticated religious believers want to preserve their credibility as supporters of science and realize that miracles are not only in contradiction to the laws of science, they can be and have been easily explained away. They know that personal feelings and emotions are not credible as evidence. They realize that making a virtue out of the lack of evidence is obviously special pleading at a laughable level.

So what options are left to them? In the next post in the series I will discuss two strategies that are adopted: The Nineteenth Century Gambit and the Kierkegaard Gambit.

POST SCRIPT: Author Terry Pratchett on religion

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