As an atheist I frequently find myself trying to clarify and do away with misunderstandings and misconceptions about atheism. It feels as though I spend more time doing this, often to no avail, than I do actually explaining why I think that atheism is true in the first place.
This is usually just the result of miscommunication on the part of me and my fellow atheists, as opposed to being a deliberate effort on the part of believers to malign us.
Enter into the discussion the article by Chris Goswami "Why I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist". Well-intended or not, this article perpetuates several falsehoods about atheism in addition to making several elementary errors in its reasoning.
The first charge that Chris levels at atheism is that it is a faith in precisely the same way that Christianity, Islam, or Judaism is. Thankfully, so as to stop my head from spinning, he then clarifies that this is basically just to say that atheism is a set of beliefs.
It’s certainly true that atheists have beliefs. I clearly have beliefs about my life, my future, about history, about politics and Game of Thrones. It’s true that we atheists have beliefs regarding our atheism. I believe that atheism is true and that theism is false. I also believe that my atheism, as well as your theism, is not simply a matter of volition; I can no more choose to believe in this instant that your god exists, than you can choose to believe in this instant that your god doesn’t exist.
In so far that this is all that Chris means when he calls atheism a “faith” (that it’s a set of shared beliefs about the nature of reality) - then, I’m perfectly fine with this christening. Admittedly, I do find it to be a somewhat bizarre definition of the word 'faith', but really I’m much more concerned with Chris and other believers properly understanding my views, than the terms you or I choose to denote them with.
With that in mind, Chris Goswami then lists in his article what are, according to him, atheism’s "central beliefs". These are:
- The universe exists by chance
- Nothing exists beyond this life – there is no ultimate source of trust in the universe
- Humans are the ultimate judge of all things – there is no final moral reckoning
- Any value or purpose of life can be worked out from the wisdom of mankind
- Everything can be discovered by science
- There is no purpose or meaning to the universe
- Human ideals are progress, tolerance, and individualism
I’m more or less cool with 1 through 4. I do in fact believe that the universe exists by chance, that nothing exists beyond this life, that there will be no final moral reckoning, and that it is up to us humans to work out value, ethics, and so on, by our lonesome and without recourse to divine council.
But then, alas, we run into a problem with point 5: "Everything can be discovered by science". Implying that this is a belief of atheists, in general, raises my theological hackles. Chris, to his credit, seems to appreciate the controversial nature of this claim as he then spends most of the remainder of his piece elaborating on it. Confusingly, however, though Chris seems to understand that atheism and scientism are distinct positions, he nevertheless goes on to conflate and/or equivocate between the two of them.
In this way, Chris is able to say that "atheism is a faith that claims there is only one type of truth", (which is to say that atheists only believe in scientific truth), but then a mere sentence later go on to give a perfectly lucid definition of 'scientism' that notably does not mention or implicate atheism whatsoever.
Atheism and scientism are not one in the same
Atheism and scientism are not the same. And though many atheists do take a view with respect to science that may be rightly construed as scientism, many other atheists, myself included, do not. Most importantly, scientism does not in any way follow from atheism, in the way that say, atheism follows from naturalism. Hence, I’m perfectly consistent, logically speaking, with my affirmation of atheism and simultaneous rejection of scientism.
Furthermore, I’m actually not all that convinced that so called 'scientism' is as widespread in the secular community as Chris thinks. It certainly isn’t common at all among those nonbelievers with so much as a hint of a background in philosophical inquiry, and whether or not it is prominent in say, the broader secular community at large, remains to be seen (there were no studies or surveys cited). Speaking purely from personal experience, which, in my defense, seems to be all that Chris is doing here, I’d say that it’s not all that prominent at all. But until something is brought forth to substantiate this claim - to quote the great and honorable Hitch: “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
Topping off his remarks about scientism, Chris points out how it is self-refuting, because you can’t prove scientifically that science is the only way to discover truth, which shows that at least one truth can’t be proven scientifically. But this is hardly news in the debate between believers and nonbelievers, having more or less been recognised since the relative decline of logical positivism years ago. To imply, therefore, that this is a reason as to why you don’t have enough faith to be an atheist, and then go on to rebut it, is only to rebut a strawman version of atheism that many atheists themselves would gladly tear down with you.
Finally, Chris concludes his piece with an argument from John Lennox that questions why on earth we would trust our brains if we believed they were the result of mindless, unguided processes. If I can briefly hazard a response here, I think the answer to this question is two-fold.
Firstly, our brains evolved in an environment where, **at least some of the time**, it was advantageous to be right about what was being perceived (like when that really was a lion in the grass stalking you); this by no means guarantees that our perceptions are always veridical, but it does demonstrate that the process isn’t akin to a crab-shoot (as is often seemingly implied by theists in this context).
Incredulity is not an argument in itself
Secondly, as a matter of fact, we don’t just trust or rely upon our brains for our information and the acquisition of truth. Instead, what we do is use tools like science, mathematics, logic and philosophy, and so on, striving in whatever way possible to verify that which is in our head. This is the difference between armchair philosophy (what Chris seems to be referring to) and, say, experimental physics (what science actually is).
Chris, for all his efforts, just doesn’t "have enough faith to believe that the universe is some kind of gigantic car-crash, a colossal accident that just happened to come about." And though I could rejoin this with an, “I don’t have enough faith to believe that __ (please insert your preferred deflationary characterization of theism)" style retort, let me instead conclude by reminding Chris that our incredulity is not an argument in itself. Sure, it may be really good rhetoric, especially when you’re speaking to the choir, but this is not to say that it is good logic.
That Chris finds something impossible to believe is fine and dandy, but let’s not mistake this for an actual argument. And anyway, given that we’re talking about the very origins of our cosmos and everything in it, is it really all that surprising that our current answers are a bit counter-intuitive and out there? Surely, if anything, what would be surprising is if everything, even the most fundamental aspects of reality itself, made sense to us. Now, that, my friends, would be strange.
Cory Markum is an atheist and a blogger at the Atheist Republic website