“Atheism rests on a less than satisfactory evidential basis”

Anyone who can utter or attempt to defend the position―as Alister McGraph did―that theism is a reasonable position because “atheism… rest[s] on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis” simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Reasonable conversations do not work that way: they do not attempt to destroy an opposing view (presented accurately, or not) and then simply fill the vacuum left behind with whatever their fancy is that day.

Even that is not a wholly accurate criticism of McGraph’s dumb little sentence: the removal of atheism does not create a vacuum; atheism is the vacuum. Atheism is simply not believing religious answers by the merit of being religious. It is a vacuum in which other conversations are to take place. Religious people are as welcome to the table as everyone else, but they do as everyone else at the table must do: provide a rigorous evidential or logical defense of their position. Merely attacking other views does not count as that payment, and it does not lend merit to whatever view you’ve arrived with.

Take my favourite practice question, one to which only a select few have a special access to the answer: what colour are are my pants? (That’s “underwear” to nearly every other “English”-speaking country.) I think we should be in agreement that ‘the idea that I am not wearing red pants rests on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis’, which is to say ‘there’s no good reason to believe my pants aren’t red’. A-red-ism is an indefensible position, by McGraph’s logic. Therefore, my pants are red.

If the nonsense of that logic isn’t jumping out of the screen at you right now, you may want to reconsider whether you’re actually equipped for conversations like this. You should not believe ‘Allallt’s pants are red’ just because you have noted there’s no evidence supporting the claim ‘Allallt’s pants are not red’. You should actually await the evidence that supports the claim.

To further highlight how wrong McGraph is, we’ll delve into the complexities concerning my pants: There is (clearly) a school of thought that supports the idea my pants are not green,  “a-green-ism” and a ‘sophisticated’ reformed school of thought that concerns itself not with colour, but with patterning; “a-polka-dot-ism” is one such reformed school of thought. Both these schools of thought rest on an equally unsatisfactory evidential basis. If anyone is to take McGraph’s reasoning seriously, suddenly the only possible answer is that my pants are at least bi-chromatic with polka dots. We have gone quite far down the rabbit hole of trying to decypher the nature of my pants without asking one very simply question:

Am I wearing pants at all?

You may defend that I am wearing pants by noting that ‘a-pant-ism’ rests on a less than satisfactory evidential basis, thus a-pant-ism is untenable, therefore only pant-ism is rationally believable. Your dissenters will note, also, that pant-ism rests on a… well, you get the idea.

The mistake here is in assuming that one must hold to a specific, defined, positive belief; that just because a question has been asked, you must believe one of the answers presented to you. (Like going into a McDonalds and assuming that menu represents all the foods in the world.)

The fact is that, save from a select few people with special access to this knowledge (who you are under no obligation to believe), a-pant-ism and a-chromate-ism (regarding my pants) are the only defensible positions.

A-pant-ism is not the belief that I am not wearing pants. (Neither does that sentence force the definition of a-pant-ism to be the belief that I am wearing pants.) A-pant-ism is to not hold any belief regarding my pants at all. No position―briefs, Y-fronts, boxers, non-existent―is defensible. Equally, a-chromate-ism is not the believe in a pair of pants without colour. It is simply not believing any colour at all.

The topics of Pants and Colour have no reliable evidence in their favour; there is no satisfactory evidential basis for the discussion at all, and as such, that’s the very reason a-pant-ism and a-chromate-ism are the only defensible positions on the topic. One should be without a belief if there’s no worthwhile evidence pertaining to the topic.

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9 thoughts on ““Atheism rests on a less than satisfactory evidential basis””

  1. Instead of discussing what they get wrong (an all too easy target), what about a discussion as to what they got right?

    Both sides of this “discussion” attempt to destroy the arguments of the other. That is not a basis for any kind of change of mind. A better starting point would be to find what each side got right.

    1. Steve,

      The atheist believes in the irrational proposition that everything just happened all by itself.

      The Christian believes in God the Creator whose existence has been proven by modern science.

      There is nothing in common between what is false and what is true.

  2. Yes, we do know what we are talking about.

    The atheist has to explain how everything just happened all by itself in spite of all scientific evidence to the contrary.

    It is the atheist who doesn’t know what he is talking about.

  3. “Instead of discussing what they get wrong (an all too easy target), what about a discussion as to what they got right?”

    Once cannot begin to express how counterintuitive this proposition is. To discuss any possible points as potentially correct would detract from the purpose of the argument. To that, one might say smoking is a horrible habit that burdens the health system while ultimately killing those it deceives as a sustainable lifestyle — and then say it’s too easy to target how bad it is, what about discussing what’s right about smoking?

    Few are interested in picking through a basket of rotten apples in the hopes some might still be good — as deterministic of selling the whole thing to someone.

    “Both sides of this “discussion” attempt to destroy the arguments of the other. That is not a basis for any kind of change of mind. A better starting point would be to find what each side got right.”

    This isn’t how science works. If there’s a critical component that doesn’t add up, the whole equation is worthless. There is no “almost right” if it contains something incorrect — it’s all unusable.

    “The atheist believes in the irrational proposition that everything just happened all by itself.”

    This is a subjective assertion with no foundation.
    Atheist only believe the universe wasn’t created in 6 days just for one species of primate — as claimed by religion. Atheist = non theist, not pro-big-bang-theorist.

    Christians seem to believe anything they are told by the leaders of a subjectively rigid social construct.

    “Yes, we do know what we are talking about.”

    So far, no evidence of this exists.

    “The atheist has to explain how everything just happened all by itself in spite of all scientific evidence to the contrary.”

    Not at all. Atheist only have to explain the clear reasons why religion does not add up. This is an old and constantly repeated argument — as though proving it wrong every time doesn’t count if the argument is presented one more time. Clearly, to call out this argument at the end of an article that addresses this directly — is indicative of one’s literacy.

  4. “Anyone who can utter or attempt to defend the position―as Alister McGraph did―that theism is a reasonable position because “atheism… rest[s] on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis” simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

    Do you deliberately write “Alister McGraph” instead of “Alister McGrath”? Interesting wordplay. Anyway, here’s some more context to McGrath’s quote. He never says that theism is a reasonable position because atheism rests on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis. Here’s the quote in its original version:

    “Chemistry proved to be intellectually exhilarating. As more and more of the complexities of the natural world seemed to fall into place, I found myself overwhelmed by an incandescent enthusiasm. I chose to specialize in quantum theory, and found it to be mentally demanding, almost to the point of pain—yet rewarding. Although the quantum universe fascinated me, I was increasingly drawn to the biological world, intrigued by the complex chemical patterns of natural organisms. In the end, I decided to research advanced physical methods of investigating biological systems, under the supervision of Sir George Radda, who later became chief executive of the Medical Research Council.In the midst of this growing delight in the natural sciences, which exceeded anything I could have hoped for, I found myself rethinking my atheism. It is not easy for anyone to subject his core beliefs to criticism; my reason for doing so was the growing realization that things were not quite as straightforward as I had once thought. A number of factors had converged to bring about what I suppose I can reasonably describe as a crisis of faith—or lack thereof.
    Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain. The opportunity to talk with Christians about their faith revealed to me that I understood relatively little about their religion, which I had come to know chiefly through not-always-accurate descriptions by its leading critics, including British logician Bertrand Russell and German social philosopher Karl Marx. I also began to realize that my assumption of the automatic and inexorable link between the natural sciences and atheism was rather naïve and uninformed.”

    1. Well, he’s wrong here, too:

      “I also began to realize that my assumption of the automatic and inexorable link between the natural sciences and atheism was rather naïve and uninformed.”

      A-theism is content-free.

      1. Of course a-theism is content-free. It has no scientific implications, nor moral implications for that matter. Atheism does not automatically lead to good science or good morals. That’s why McGrath says his assumption of an automatic and inexorable link between the natural sciences and atheism was naïve and uninformed. He admits his mistake.

        1. You think that’s what he’s saying? I don’t see that. Not in the context and the tone. I read it as written, meaning he realised he could be a theistand a natural scientist… with a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance, naturally. Of course, he’s however correct, but it’s also correct, in this instance, to say you can be the leader of the KKK, or a Scrabble Champion, and also be a natural scientist. Being the leader of the KKK, a World Scrabble Champion, or a theist does not affect, in any way, the exercise of the scientific method.

  5. Indeed. I would add to what you’re saying, these words by Georges Lemaître, Catholic priest and physicist who formulated the Big Bang hypothesis:

    “Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

    The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.

    The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation.”

    Amen to that.

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