An Atheist Answers “Atheism on Trial” from Philosophy Now Magazine

In the August/September 2015 issue of Philosophy now, Stephen Anderson explores Atheism by putting the concept on trial.  While the author thinks it is a clever way to write an article, the meat of the article is lacking; it is all style, no substance.  I love reading Philosophy Now magazine and I implore you to read Atheism on Trial for yourself in its entirety preferably before or even after you read this article.  I will not reproduce the entire Philosophy Now article here, as I usually do, but rather I will pull out quotes from the article and respond.  Feel free to put any questions you have or inaccuracies you find in the comments below.

There was a time – some years ago – when to profess disbelief in a Supreme Being could be hazardous to one’s health. You could get hacked to pieces with a scimitar or boiled in oil. Neither the public nor the authorities had much tolerance.

This is called the Middle East, and it is NOW!  Anderson is, of course, talking about Medieval Europe, and Christianity, but killing apostates and Atheists still happens, and by followers of the same Abrahamic god.

 Today, atheism has taken its comfortable seat by the fire and has its feet up. It has de facto control of education, the universities, and the academic press. It is the go-to position of our media and the controlling assumption of political discourse. Popular atheist authors have no trouble churning out bestsellers and culling invitations to speak. Atheism has never been so respectable. 

Anderson must be from a Scandinavian country.  In the US, most people have no qualms about reminding Atheists about their not-so-comfortable seat IN the fire.  The US was built as a secular government so all religions would have equal protection under the law.  Yet, we have god on our currency and our patrol cars.  11 States have statutes that bar Atheists from holding public office and celebrities such a Oprah and Steve Harvey publicly declare that Atheists cannot have morals because they have no god-belief. The only place in America where Atheists are treated respectably are in academia, which itself is a very small percentage of the population.

Maybe the really daring thing today is not being an atheist, but challenging atheism. It can certainly be risky, and can provoke a whole lot of knee-jerk animus, even if one supplies good arguments to back one’s case.

Anderson must be a Christian.  Why do I say that?  In two sentences he tries to build the case that being non-Atheist means being persecuted.  I run into this all the time with Christians.  At first I thought it was just a rhetorical tactic, and for some it is, but for most Christians it is because they’ve never had their core beliefs challenged on such a fundamental level.  Theists place a great deal of their identity in their god and their religion.  To claim it is all fairy-tales is to claim they are living a lie.  Such a notion causes great cognitive dissonance within the theistic mind.

But Anderson is saying something else too.  It’s subtle until you see it.  He is right off saying that Atheist counter-arguments to his theistic assertions are merely “knee-jerk animus” despite what Anderson considers a good argument.  Mr. Anderson, if your argument has a soul-crushing (as it were) counter-argument, then it is by definition NOT a good argument.

Before we begin the trial, perhaps we ought to clarify the case. What is ‘atheism’?

Good start, we must always define what we are to argue against not only to clarify and elucidate our exact position, but to also so counter-points can be honestly made.

In answering, let us observe the principle of charity.

I smell a trap.

This means we ought to address an opposing view in its strongest and most representative form, rather than in any of its weaker or less representative forms. In charity, then, we must ask ourselves, ‘What is the strongest form of atheism?’

 And here is the first mistake.  Catch it?

To begin with, we could consider a basic definition. ‘Atheism’ is clearly ‘a-’ plus ‘theism’. Theism is from the Greek for God (or gods), of course; and the ‘a-’ prefix is the Greek negation of whatever it’s prefixing. Thus atheism means simply ‘no God’. It claims there exists no kind of god.
That’s basic. But we might ask, ‘Is it really necessary to understand atheism as so  

Here is Anderson’s mistake: The Fallacy of Equivocation.  What Anderson is equivocating is Strong Atheism with run-of-the-mill Atheism.  In itself, Atheism simply means a lack of belief in any gods. In Strong Atheism, not only are the various gods not believed in, but the Atheist takes the position that it is more likely that proofs against the gods is stronger than proofs for the gods.  Strong Atheism is not held by all atheists.  In fact, Strong Atheists are a minority in the Atheist community.  Why? I don’t know. What I think to be the case is that Strong Atheists tend to be exceptionally skeptical and rational and were once theists. However, it was their skepticism and reason that saved their mind. Most Atheists in the world were never indoctrinated to begin with.  Most Atheists in the US realized at some point that it was all hogwash and that was that, their Sundays are now free.

Anderson makes his equivocation so he may commit on of the most basic of logical fallacies.  He is trying to set up a straw man. By using Atheism in a highly specific, and inaccurate, way, Anderson can use arguments specific to a certain position even though those arguments do not work on the basic position as a whole.  The reason for this is that, to Anderson, it will be easier to show that Strong Atheism is a weak position, without addressing Atheism as a whole.  Remember, Atheism is simply a lack of belief in any gods, so even if the theist can show that there might be some sort of deity floating out in space, the Atheist can always fall back on asking which one.  That then puts the theist on the defensive as they then have to prove that their specific deity is the correct one. Apparently, Anderson has made that mistake before and does not want to repeat it.

I will spare the quote, but Anderson brings in agnosticism into the mix and tries to muddy the waters by saying that agnostics want to believe, they just have no proof.  Of course he then goes on to say that Atheists do not want to include agnostics because that would make believing in a god a personal thing, and not a statement of reality.  I won’t say much on this other than Anderson confuses agnosticism with atheism.  Agnosticism meant “I don’t know”.  If someone says they are agnostic it means that they don’t know if there is a god or gods.  That is a statement of reality.  Most Atheists are agnostic Atheists meaning that they don’t know if there are any gods and they do not believe in them. A Strong Atheist is more of a gnostic Atheist, meaning they find arguments against the gods convincing and do not believe in any gods.  By itself, Atheism is a personal statement, but then so is theism!  Belief is a personal thing.  However, most theists are gnostic theists, meaning they know the god they believe in exists. But their religion requires it.  Atheism has no such requirement.

Anderson then goes on some asinine comments about whether or not he should believe that Denmark is a real place or not. What he is trying to do is get the reader thinking that his denial of evidence to the existence of Denmark is of equal value to Atheistic skepticism of supernatural deities.  This is done to make the point that an Atheist wouldn’t want his agnostic friends coming along for the trial. Again, most Atheists are agnostics, so still, it is only a minority of Atheists that Anderson is willing to put on trial.

Again, the principle of charity must come into play. In ancient Rome, Christians were persecuted as ‘atheists’ because they failed to believe in enough gods. But I doubt very much that sort of characterization of their position would satisfy modern atheists. So we must be clear: do atheists wish to deny only one God, or two gods, or the entire spectrum of possible gods?

I think it must be all. I don’t know of any atheist who would be happy to think that Zeus doesn’t exist but Ares does; that Thor and Loki don’t exist but Allah does; that Yahweh doesn’t exist but the pantheon of Hindu gods is real. For a true atheist, I think all gods, no matter of what name or nature, have to be out: and I think I’m staying in the true atheist spirit in saying so.

Well, at least Anderson gets something right.  Christians are still atheistic about all but one god. Atheists just disbelieve in more more god than Christians.

But if this is true, then this thorough-going atheism can no longer get any support from one of the New Atheist’s favourite objections; namely, that things in this world are messed up, and this negates any possibility of there being a good God. For the apparent disorder of the world could rather be evidence of an evil or uncaring God. But these possibilities cannot matter here, since atheism has to deny the existence of even an indifferent or evil Supreme Being. 

Ah, the specter of New Atheism!  Again, equivocation.  To be fair, most, if not all New Atheists are Strong Atheists, but New Atheism is and Anti-Theist movement.  Anti-Theism holds that religion itself is a bad thing. No good religion has done cannot also be done by secular means.  However, religion – or more specifically faith-based belief and the absolute obedience righteousness requires – can make good people do the most evil things. That is a far different position than simply not believing in any gods.

 This makes the famous ‘Argument from Evil’ so beloved by New Atheists simply off topic: the existence of evil or injustice does not count as evidence against gods of every possible kind, and leaves harsh, judgmental or indifferent gods as possible. (Though maybe it can even be answered with some explanation that allows for a benevolent God, such as the argument from free human will).

Quite the contrary!  I love invoking the problem of evil to Christians and Muslims.  They hold their god as a loving god, yet cannot morally reconcile the flood story or even that of Sodam and Gamora, or the plagues of Egypt.  As far as free will goes, the concept of free will further muddies the waters of morality (the last topic in the video here) and free will itself is a wonky concept especially when applied to religion (the first topic in the video here).

So atheists say that no god of any kind exists. But we must now ask, do they do so merely out of raw will, or fear, or personal preference, or private taste, or do they sincerely hope to do this on an evidentiary basis? The atheists I meet say, “We disbelieve because of the evidence.” Usually, they insist that something like history, science, truth or logic is on their side; and that something like credulity, superstition, and foolishness is essentially on the other side. But here, we need to pause to consider rather than assume the nature of appropriate evidence.

Quite right, most Strong Atheists are skeptics.  In fact, it is skepticism that led to Atheism to begin with!  So, what does Anderson want to do?  Attack skepticism.  Funny that skepticism was one of the terms he eliminated at the beginning, yet his first real attack on Atheism is an attack on skepticism. Intellectual battles, like that of the god question often encompass far more than the immediate topic. Today is no exception. However, I should say that the intellectual battle that Anderson is readying his analytical knife for hinges on whether or not it is better to not believe until evidence supports such a belief, OR should we believe first and try to reconcile that belief with the current body of knowledge until evidence shows the belief cannot be true.  The latter was the mode of thinking during the Dark Ages, the latter was developed by Rene Descartes to show that reality is real and that there is a benevolent god.  Ironically, it is Descartes who re-birthed skepticism and gave Atheists one of their strongest tools; the doctrine of doubt.  This is the basis not only for modern skepticism, but for science as well.  I won’t go too much into it here and I’ve already covered all of this in addressing R.R. Reno’s desire to dumb down our education system.

Anderson sets up his next attack by eloquently (at least far more so than myself) bringing in evidence for finding the rate of gravity on earth and then saying that (rightly enough) that the strength and type of evidence depends on the subject and depth of the question.

 For atheism, the statement is that “Evidence shows that there is no God.” 

And here it is. Why Anderson spent the introduction to his piece  defining Atheism in general as Strong Atheism.  Most Atheists hold that there is no evidence for gods, NOT there is evidence of no god.  See the difference?  In the first case, the burden of proof rests solely on the theist because the burden of proof lies with the person making the positive claim.  When you hear positive claim, it means the claim the evidence is FOR.  A negative claims is what the evidence is AGAINST something.  Negative claims happen all the time; as it turns out, you can prove a negative. Most atheists hold a null hypothesis, meaning that they recognize no proofs for the existence of gods, and do not recognize, or bother with, proofs against the gods yet refuse to believe in any gods until at least one is proven. The soft Atheist position is the hardest to assail, so Anderson leaves them alone. Instead he attacks the Strong Atheist position as he thinks (wrongly) that it is easier.

Many theists believe God is eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent. They also believe that He transcends the limits of time and space. They believe He has existed historically, and will continue to exist indefinitely; and so on. We must ask, then, “What is sufficient evidence to rule out the existence of such a being?”

Ah, the ever-impossible Abrahamic god.

As with the gravity example, one would have to conduct an investigation that fits the scope of the subject. It would certainly not be enough to decide the matter on the basis of personal preference or taste. Nor would it do to make a perfunctory personal search of the local terrain, and then declare victory. For an evidentiary denial of the God concept implies much more substantial proof. One would need to rule out every reasonable possibility of positive evidence for his existence.

Or we could take a short cut and rule out classes that meet the requirements. If god is outside time and space, then we can rule out all tests that measure time and space. But then if we do that, we’ve eliminated everything that would indicate any involvement of a deity on the universe.  We should also eliminate personal tastes, preferences as they are purely emotional in nature, and have no bearing on reality outside the person experiencing the emotions.  We should also eliminate any and all personal accounts because not only are eye-witnesses notoriously inaccurate in their recollections, but because any way to test their claims is eliminated by the space-time non-test-ability.

If indeed a description of God includes the sort of attributes I listed, then the atheists’ claim of evidence against His existence is completely unfounded.

This is a subtle attempt to throw in the Ontological Argument for god. While Anderson does not do so explicitly, the specter of ontology is brought up as a matter of fact, not as something itself that is disputable, which it is very much so.

Adequate evidence for atheism would require the observer to go everywhere, at all times, see everything, test everything, and eliminate all possibilities – then, having found that God was neither here nor there, neither in time nor in any dimension of space, neither on earth or anywhere around the universe, not in history and not in eternity – only then could he or she justifiably claim to have sufficient evidence to warrant atheism! 

We’ve already eliminated this, by holding god to be outside time and space. To say that an Atheist must physically look everywhere is to make a sort of reverse god of the gaps argument.  To say that every physical place must be observed is to hold that god was just where you weren’t looking.  We can make the same argument with gravity.  No one can observe gravity.  Look under every rock, on every planet, in every galaxy and never find gravity.  This is because gravity is a concept to explain a certain phenomenon. While the phenomenon itself cannot be observed, its effects can. So what would the effects of a god be? Life? Something rather than nothing? we have to ask the right questions, and not look for the smell of the color two.

Now ask yourself: what sort of evidence will be necessary if I am to win? It’s not impossible. I will have to travel to all the places where an okapi could be found – the deep jungles, the grassy plains, the mountain valleys, and perhaps as well the zoos, the private collections and the illegal markets for animals. Having done all that, I could say, “I was right; no okapi exists.” Now, in contrast, ask yourself this: what would my colleagues, the okapi-believers have to do? How far would they have to go, and how many okapis would they have to locate in order to falsify my skepticism? That’s right: one. One single, solid, verifiable counter-case would be sufficient to bring my whole okapi-skepticism down.

Anderson is playing at sophistry here.  I am becoming convinced that he is a Sophist, and not a philosopher. What Anderson illustrates in the above paragraph is quite correct.  Without producing an okapi (or a yeti, or a unicorn) the skeptic mind would not believe in it.  And producing just one would suffice to provide belief.  Would that make the skeptic wrong?  nope, he would just reserve belief until evidence shows otherwise.  This is the position of most Atheist towards the gods.  However, Anderson is wailing not against Atheism as a whole but rather the Strong Atheist position.

In this case, Anderson is being disingenuous with his analogy.  In fact he is making a false analogy. it is false because because okapi are just another species of deer, or elk, or something similar. While they may be so rare that zoologists took forever in finding them led to skepticism of their existence, their existence was always held to be possible.  A more accurate analogy would be with unicorns. While there may be, or once have been, a horse with a single horn protruding from its head, it is not possible that such a creature existed that had magical powers.

You see, by positioning themselves as defending a negative, atheists have put themselves at a horrible disadvantage. If it should turn out to be the case that just one of the various sources of religious revelation claimed by the many varieties of theists should turn out to be true, if even one of the many phenomena attributed to the Supreme Being should turn out to be genuine, or if just one of the people on the earth had ever had a real experience with God, then atheism would be decisively defeated. And this explains yet another reason why atheists are forced to pretend they’ve rationally eliminated the possibility God exists – they are terribly vulnerable to disproof. Only if all religions are bunkum, only if all believers are deluded, only if all Gods are eliminated is atheism secure.

Even the most stringent of Strong Atheists are still waiting for this proof. If just ONE verifiable case of the supernatural (let alone any gods) were to present itself, then the Atheist would reevaluate his or her claims. If that supernatural phenomenon can be conclusively linked to a supreme being, then the Atheist would change his or her world view.  At least I hope they would, that would be the only intellectually honest thing to do.  After all, the only game changer to human outlook than aliens stopping by to say hi, would be to find proof of Odin or Zeus!  Yet we are still waiting for that evidence.

I am not saying that just because atheism is irrational we must all become theists immediately – various forms of agnosticism are still viable. It is however true that we have already detected significant vulnerabilities in these alternatives, and that is why we did not burden atheists with them in the first place. This has spared atheism instant humiliation, perhaps; but we have not been able to save it. Atheism simply isn’t a rational choice.

Oh this’ll be good.  let me guess, we’re in for some presuppositional apologetics. It’s a tiresome approach because of the mental somersaults needed to go through to arrive at the conclusion that presuppositional apologetics is basically one of the most convoluted arguments out there. So, on to the nest paragraph and let’s begin.

Its chief proponents know it. I can think of no atheist of recent times more celebrated than the late Antony Flew. But he died a Deist, leaving an account of his transformation titled, There is No A God. What about contemporary atheism’s most famous proponent, Richard Dawkins? He’s not much help: he’s realized the problem and publicly declared himself a ‘convinced agnostic.’ (Witness it for yourself: http://youtube.com/watch?v=dfk7tW429E4). This, of course, raises the question why, on other occasions, Professor Dawkins still allows himself to be called an atheist. Perhaps he senses that agnosticism simply cannot offer the kind of serious resistance to the idea of God that he wants to promote; and as a rhetorical flourish, atheism makes better press. But whenever he is pressed on the irrationality of that term, you can see that he lapses into calling himself a ‘convinced agnostic’ instead.

Really?  Seriously? Anderson offers not an argument but rather the word-salad above that amounts to nothing more than an argument from authority fallacy? I had to look up Antony Flew, I had never heard of him before. That he turned to Deism late in life is no surprise, he was dying.  It is more comforting to believe in something after death than nothing.  And the comment on Dawkins, sure, he said that, but the joke is on Anderson.  remember an Atheist simply does not believe in a deity, an agnostic finds no evidence for or against the existence of a deity.  He allows that a god may be possible, but not in any way that is meaningful to humans, and definitely not the Abrahamic god!

Yet the strength of Anderson’s claim that Atheism is irrational is not in presuppositional apologetics, but in that he produced a case where one influential Atheist turned into a theist, and another considers himself more of a hard agnostic than an atheist. Mr. Anderson, listen very carefully: in the Atheistic community, we do not recognise authority in ideas.  Expertise, yes, but not authority.  Just because someone says something, does not make it so. Just take a look at the Richard Dawkins Facebook fan page, when ever he says or tweets something a bit off, like the fiasco about aborting a Down’s Syndrome baby and starting again, we call him out on it!  No one in the Atheist community speaks with authority, which is how it is in the science community.  It is the strength of WHAT is posited that is evaluated, not WHO said it.

The Verdict

Why then, we might ask, is atheism so popular? Why does it enjoy so much grace in the public eye, and why is it so often the default position in the academy? The motives cannot be philosophical, for atheism is not a position that can be compelled or sustained by logic. It is perhaps tempting to observe that something more visceral is at work. Ignorance? Evasion? Faddism? Or posturing? (After all, there is a considerable difference between wanting to appear intellectual and actually being intellectual). Whatever the case, it’s hard not to see that reason has left the building.

As for the Supreme Being, if He has seemed reticent to weigh in on this debate, it is not too surprising. Those who claim to know something about Him have often insisted that God is particularly uninterested in bowing to the demands of the hard-hearted cynic. As the Tanakh says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” That looks justified. Even by our most charitable account, we have seen that atheism is a disingenuous, bombastic claim to certainty, one without evidence or logic. What then can one call it but foolishness?

Oy vey!  Here is Anderson’s closing in its entirety. Is Atheism popular? No, not at all, but religious “nones” are growing in America. It is not at all popular, even a death sentence in the Middle East and in parts of Africa and the Far East.  Is it illogical?  Mr. Anderson, you claimed to be able to show that it is, but failed in a most basic way. In failing to do so, you must resort to intellectual name calling. Calling someone a fool for failing to hold your particular god-belief is just that, name calling. Is it just me or does anyone else find it interesting that Anderson posits that those “in the know” about the gods say that their god will not “[bow] to the demands of the hard-hearted cynic.” A cynic? That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, so let’s look at it:

a person who believes that people are motivated purely by self-interest rather than acting for honorable or unselfish reasons.
“some cynics thought that the controversy was all a publicity stunt”

a member of a school of ancient Greek philosophers founded by Antisthenes, marked by an ostentatious contempt for ease and pleasure. The movement flourished in the 3rd century BC and revived in the 1st century AD.

So which is it? Is Anderson saying that Atheists view others as motivated solely by self interest, or that we follow a 2000 year old Greek aesthetic lifestyle?   I think he means skeptic which is simply to doubt until evidence shows otherwise. But even then, that is skepticism, not Atheism. I shall resign myself from name calling; or at least any further name calling. I will not make fun of this article that one would normally expect from a first-year philosophy minor.  The kind of work that said student would re-read two years later and laugh at his own naivety.  We can be comfortable in the knowledge that Mr. Anderson  tried to run with the adults, but he came in last and must go back to what ever church he preaches at in the kiddie pool.

© Dr Stephen L. Anderson 2015
Stephen Anderson is a philosophy teacher in London, Ontario.

Oh.  Doctor?  Teaches philosophy?  I couldn’t find any further credentials for Anderson, so I don’t know if he is a medical doctor, has a doctorate in divinity, theology, astrology or other flim-flam, or if he has a legitimate doctorate.  Nor could I find out if he teaches on the street corner or at a university.  Oh well, he calls himself a doctor, but still, unless this whole piece was satire, and I missed it (I really hope that is the case) or he should get a refund on his degree.

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