Come all ye faithful atheists….

May 15, 2006 | By | 17 Replies More

Something struck me: aren’t the atheists just as much condemned to relying on faith for the view as the God fearing people they often criticise?  Let me expand and explain.

1. The existence of God is unverifiable so you can never prove or know for sure whether He really exists (a typical atheist claim).

2. But similarly, you can not prove his non-existence either, for the same reason.

3. Therefore, in order for atheist to believe that God DOES NOT exist, he must rely on an article of faith, just as much as the theist requires an article of faith for his belief that God does exist!!

This is kind of interesting because the main ground on which the atheist attacks the theist is usually on the basis that faith is not a legitimate ground for believing in anything!!! Kind of hypocritical, don’t you think?

It seems that the only escape from being committed to faith is to be an agnostic: the claim that the question of God’s existence can not be/should not be answered….. In other words, they just pass over the question without any kind of commitment either way. Almost like they are running away from the question because they have no way of answering it…. not the most exciting position, don’t you think?
But one does not get off so lightly. To hold the atheist or agnostic positions comes with more of an intellectual cost than one might think!! Here are 3 possible problems:

1. The prime mover argument. Theoretical physicists are used to dealing in cause and effect. If we consider the start of the universe, there will always be a point at which we may ask “but what caused that event to occur?” Eventually, science just gets stuck because while the universe quite obviously exists, it seems illogical that something could at one point have come from nothing….. If we posit a temporally infinite God, this is a big thing to ask someone to believe. But at least it solves the prime mover problem.

2. Without a God, there is a problem with our ethical views and values generally. Why should anything really ULTIMATELY mater if there is no God who cares whether what we do, and no God who will reward or punish us for our deeds in the afterlife? In fact, life could arguably seem devoid of any ultimate meaning generally…. (It is for this reason that I think many people become theists in the first place).  It seems that the only alternative is to languish in the kind of nihilism that Nietzsche spoke of…. or maybe the pursuit of a pure hedonistic life without really caring about anything or anyone…. both seem unsatisfactory.

3. Third, an argument to suggest that belief in God is actually rational, known as Pascal’s Wager.  If God does not exist and we spend our lives believing in Him (and going to church etc.), then we surely lose very little – perhaps just our Sunday mornings….. But, if God does exist and we choose not to believe in Him, then we risk going to roasting away for an eternity in the depths of hell!!!! So surely, it is worth our while to believe than not believe based upon what will be lost if he doesn’t exist (relatively very little) and what will be gained if he does – avoiding hell (an incalculably large amount).

There are problems with Pascal’s Wager though. Arguably, we can not just believe something based upon what would be the most convenient position for ourselves…. whether or not we hold a position to be true rests rather on whether there are good reasons to believe the position itself.  If we just performed the actions of belief without believing (because we were just scared of going to hell), then you will have sidestepped the whole debate anyway…. besides which, in most of the religions I know of, God requires actual belief, not just mere actions.

Speaking personally as the agnostic that I am, I often look at the theist with envy because they seem totally at peace with themselves and the world. They do not fear death because they believe in an afterlife, they know why their good deeds “count” for something, and they seem to have a general purpose in their lives.  I am just not able to overlook the blatant irrationality of believing in God…. and I seem unable to develop the faith required.

I hear that the Buddhists are the only atheist religion in the world!!! Maybe I should go off and do that!!!!!!!!!       😉

[Note from Erich:  Jake, 25, is a contributing author residing in London. One of his cyberspace homes is]


Category: Meaning of Life, Religion

About the Author ()

Jake, 25, is a Resident of central London. On his myspace page ( Jake describes himself as a “jewish, lawyer-wanabe…. finished a degree in psychology, philosophy and french way back in 03 and am now really looking forward to finally finishing my long career as a student (currently doing the lpc and the bpp)….” You can contact Jake directly at

Comments (17)

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  1. Jake says:

    ps. now you guys know my myspace address, if any of you have any ideas on my infon theory/philosophy of information, i would be highly grateful!!


  2. Vix says:

    I have often pondered what the world might be like if there was no religion and the concept of a "superior being" never crossed peoples mind. Most of my religious friends have mentioned something close to hitting home at promblem #2, but I don't think it would be an issue, here is why.

    First, all societies set up mores, or laws, to govern whats right or wrong in society. This is one way society puts down morals, "if you do this you will be punished(jailed)." Also, one of the things I seem to remember going over in my ethics class was there were a few things that are needed in order for a society to function. Among them are: a respect to property(no stealing), the value of life (no murder), and protecting children from harm (death to children means no future generation).

    Even if a society devoid of morals were to come into existance and people found stealing and murder fine; I do believe that society would quickly seek a form of stability, because a society of people could not survive without an adherance to those few rules/morals. Humankind does not need a god to realize what is is needed in order to continue existing.

    Problem #1 will never be solved, if we're "inside" a universe and theres an "outside" then the question then would be where outside came from.

    Problem #3 is a common Christian arguement I hear, but it shouldn't be a problem because it requires a person to acknowledge there might be some kind of "hell." I just remind my self that there is likely a religion I'm unaware of that doesn't have a "hell" and doesn't believe their god punishes people for not believing in it's existance.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Even though we cannot prove either the existence or non-existence of God, athiesm and theism are still not equally based on faith. A theist relies 100% on faith to believe in a god, because there is no physical evidence that any god exists. However, an athiest relies on ordinary perception: he sees no god, he hears no god, he feels no god, he tastes no god and he smells no god; therefore, what leap of faith is required to conclude there is no god?

    As regards the three arguments mentioned:

    1) The prime mover argument merely begs the question of God's existence: if the universe requires a prime mover, then so would the prime mover, and what created the prime mover, and what created the prime mover's Prime Mover, and what…? The result is an infinite progression.

    2) Moral and ethical rules require no god. For example, business meetings commonly begin with a discussion and agreement on "ground rules," without any reference to any god, merely to enable the meeting to occur more smoothly. Likewise, early human cultures undoubtedly evolved ethical and moral rules to avoid needless conflict. Indeed, many animal species have their own "rules" of conduct; for example, among species that fight battles for control of territory, food, mates, etc., such battles rarely result in either the death or serious injury of either participant, even though they are easily capable of killing each other. We humans have merely deluded ourselves into believing we have moral and ethical "rules," but really all we've done is codified (written down) our codes of conduct. Maybe that has made them seem in our eyes more tangible or "absolute" than the rules that govern animal societies.

    3) Pascal's wager proves nothing about whether or not any god actually exists, it merely declares that it is more "rational" to "believe" (for utterly self-serving reasons) in a god than to not believe in one. Using that same argument, it is more "rational" for you to believe that (pick your favorite movie star) is madly in love with you. If s/he is not madly in love with you, and you believe s/he is, then you've lost little; but if s/he is madly in love with you and you don't believe it, then you've lost a great opportunity.

    Finally, as regards envying the theists, you do not need to believe in any god to believe that your good deeds count for something (to the contrary, good deeds often pay handsome dividends), that there is a general purpose to your life (happiness, achievement, bettering the lives of others, etc.) and that you need not fear death (if you don't believe in hell, what's to fear?). Before losing too much energy envying theists, recognize that much of their "belief" is driven by a fear of damnation — a fear they would not have if they had never heard of their religion in the first place. Religion creates both the problem and the solution; thus, it should suprise no one that the solution each religion promises perfectly resolves the problem each religion invents. Toss in a bunch of "priests" who draw their livelihood from turning that religion crank, and you quickly arrive at the religious landscape we see today.

  4. Jake says:

    I like your response to my point 2. You are right: people could get their moral values from the societies they live in, and may not even need them to have any theist/religious source.

    i totally concede that point.

    however, many people do need God in order to give their lives direction, meaning and order. although i am not one of them, i have met many who do.

    on point 1., you just re-phrased my point about the infinity of time and infinity of causal regression as a point about the infinity of physical space. surely, this is just another good reason to posit the existence of God? i fully concede that admiting the existence of God is difficult given that He is totally unverifiable…. but admitting this does not come without its rewards: the gain is a theory with a wide explanatory role.

    the balance is something that cant be confirmed by evidence versus the large number of things that can be explained if you posit the existence.

    i am not convinced that the trade-off is entirely not worth the cost.

    i didnt understand your point 3.

  5. Jason Rayl says:

    Actually, as an atheist, I never attack a theist on the basis of faith. Faith is not a marker for a belief in a supernatural being. It is rather a habit of anticipation upon which to base potential action and choice. What usually gets attacked is not faith as a function of common sense, but Faith (captial F) which is tied aggressively to a supernatural perception of how the universe works. It is that supposition–that the universe must operate a certain way based on the presumed presence of said supernatural being–that I, personally, attack (and, really, "attack" is too strong a word–take issue with would be more appropriate).

    One can make the claim that the flowers in the hills open in response to the waking in spring of the fairies. But just because the flowers open does not prove the existence of fairies. It is the insistence of the Faithful (again, capital F) that the fairies just have to be there, otherwise the flowers could not open, even though we find other mechanisms by which the flowers can (and do) open to explain the phenomena that causes the antagonism on the part of those who believe there is no supernatural being.

    Faith is an essential component of just getting out of bed in the morning–one must believe one can and that there is a reason to do so. Everything that follows is a philosophical disagreement over the source of that will and purpose.

  6. Jake says:

    This one’s for grumpy pilgrim.

    Look, I accept that in certain circumstances, the person who posits the non-existence of something based on a total lack of physical evidence that it exists has a stronger case than the person who insists something does exist based on the same lack. With many things that are apt to be perceivable through the senses, we can draw the inference (not deduction) that if we never see it, that is because it is not there. Example: no one has ever found an elephant living in the wild in England. Inference: that is because there are none. But the mistake you make is that God should be apt to be something which is perceivable!! Surely, God is precisely the sort of thing that is not directly sensible (detectable through the senses), so your point that he has never been sensed adds no weight at all to the atheist. Thus, the required leap of faith for the atheist is is to say he still does not despite the fact that our non-observance of him can not help me to refute his existence.

    Moving onto your refutations of my arguments.

    Firstly, it's infinite regression, not progression. Secondly, on my understanding of the argument, if God is temporally infinite (both into the past and future) the problem of the prime mover does not apply to him. The hard pill to swallow is “how can something be temporally infinite?”. well this is the theoretical cost that must be borne if you want to reap the advantage of avoiding the prime mover problem… but no, you are wrong to suggest it necessarily applies to God.

    On the morality and ethics point. You seem to suggest that generally agreed upon behaviour between people qualifies as moral behaviour. Ground rules in business meetings have nothing to do with ethics, nor do the pragmatic politics of early cultures. But why? Well, because morals are rules that we feel we should follow without necessary regard to the pragmatics of the situation. Consider a drowning baby in a river. We don’t say: “sorry baby, its just not pragmatic for me to rescue you – and there is no-one around to see me neglect you”. We rescue the baby, if we can. This is something that distinguishes your examples from ethical behaviour. But, for different reasons to the ones you present, I do think moral behaviour need only require the social condemnation in order to get people to follow them, at least in many cases.

    On Pascal’s Wager. Neither Blaise Pascal nor I would disagree with your movie star analogy. It is rather apt actually. Through trying to attack me on a point I never made, you are in fact supporting the point that I actually did make. Thank you.

    Finally, while your attempts to try to allay the fears mentioned in your final paragraph are valiant, they are flawed. yes, deeds can count for something, but they have no obviously fundamental value – in the grand scheme of things… this is what the 20th century existentialists called “the absurd”. consider: yes, my efforts to behave well may be appreciated by the recipients. It may gain me personal rewards. However, equally my efforts may have no positive outcome. But, the point is, 200 years after I am dead, there will be no one alive to appreciate who I was or all the good things I achieved. Maybe I will be remembered for an achievement or two, but that is not the real ‘me’. this is the kind of existential angst I used to suffer from as a teenager…. And I can see the theist not having this issue, for obvious reasons. Finally, I don’t know many petrified hell fire and brimstone theists… the ones I know are extremely smiley and happy dogmatic, cucumber eating, sandal wearing, hippies… God bless them!!! J

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Responding to Jake's reply, first, your suggestion that the "mistake" I make is that God should be something that is perceivable, follows exactly the formula mentioned in Jason's post today. The assertion that "Surely, God is precisely the sort of thing that is not directly sensible" fails because the exact same assertion can be applied to any fictional character that one wants to imagine — unicorns, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Flying Green Spaghetti Monster, the god Buddha, the god Zeus, the god Jake, the god grumpypilgrim, the married Jesus who is described in the novel 'The DaVinci Codes', etc. The argument is a non-starter.

    Moreover, it is not merely the five senses which fail to reveal any god, it is also statistical evidence. As I pointed out elsewhere in this blog, people who pray a god and/or claim to believe in a god do not live longer than those who don't, they don't have fewer car accidents, they don't have better survival rates from surgery, they don't have lower rates of divorce, they don't have smarter kids…the list goes on. Not only is no god perceptable to any of the five senses, but no god has a measurable impact on anyone's life. This raises the question: if no god can be perceived, and no god can be demontrated to influence world affairs, than what does it even mean to suggest that a god exists?

    Bottom line: as I said before, the theist relies 100% on his faith to posit the existence of a god, but the athiest is supported by virtually every source of information available to his five senses and his rational mind.

    Turning now to our other three points:

    1) Your proposed solution to the prime mover regression problem is to define your god in a way that makes the problem go away. That conveniently avoids the problem, but it does not answer it.

    2) On the moral and ethics problem, we seem to be essentially in agreement that morals and ethics can arise without the involvement of any god, simply because communities of humans will inevitably create codes of conduct that enable them to function amicably. I like your example of the drowning baby — I think it is closer to the point than is my example of the business meeting.

    3) On Pascal's Wager, I was not "attacking" you, I was simply pointing out that whether or not a person chooses to believe in a god, their choice is orthogonal to the question of whether or not any god actually exists. Thus, Pascal's Wager is unrelated (i.e., irrelevant) to the question of whether or not any god actually exists. I do not see how this supports your point.

    Finally, as regards valuing one's own life, my point was that we all have a choice: we can believe that our lives have meaning, or we can believe that there is a god somewhere who gives our lives meaning. Either way, we are making a leap of faith. Indeed, if we are to find faith in an athiest, this is where we would find it: the theist has faith that there is a god who gives his life meaning; the athiest has faith that his life has meaning whether or not there is a god. Whether the theist is driven more by a fear of hellfire, or more by a dreamy vision of heaven, is not only a moot point, but one that we cannot ascertain from their demeanor. Dreamy visions of heaven are obviously much more comforting, so naturally that is the one people try to think about. But whether or not that is what actually drives them to pray, to "believe" in a god, to attend religious services, to give alms to the poor, etc., is a question neither you nor I can answer.

  8. Jake says:

    Well, first off, thanks for your post. You made some good points, and you made me think about mine. My main objection is in the following 2 paragraphs…. The rest are small qualifications to your counter arguments that I broadly agree with.

    Pleasantries aside, however, I refer you to your first paragraph. I still don’t see why the argument is a non-starter. Your list contains characters (apart from maybe Buddha) who the vast majority of rational people, including myself, would not believe exist. I also agree with you that if my assertion that “God is not directly sensible” can be applied to God, then it is equally applicable to the characters in your list. But, I just don’t see the problem here. I think the confusion is because there are two labels you are putting on your list of characters: 1. That they are unobservable (like God), and 2. That no reasonable person (or a very small number of people) believes they exist (unlike God). So, just because your list shares with God the characteristic of being unobservable (characteristic 1.), this DOES NOT entail that it should also mean that it would be absurd to believe He exists (characteristic 2.), on that basis.

    In short, I think you are making the false presumption that the unobservability of something goes together with its lack of existence. Just because your characters are unobservable and don’t exist, does not necessarily mean that God cant exist just because He is unobservable. So, I just don’t think you can legitimately infer or deduce that if we conclude that God is “unobservablility says nothing about his existence” we are therefore committed to the absurd conclusion that we still can’t doubt the existence of your fictional characters just because they are unobservable. I think your reducito ad absurdum argument does not work in this context.

    On statistical evidence, I merely say that this is just the accumulation of observed evidence, so the same point applies as I laid out in the previous blog.

    I agree that there is no measurable impact on peoples lives if they believe in God. In fact, I would go further than that and wager that there is actually an inverse correlation between family wealth and how religious they are!!!

    But the same old point applies: the lack of evidence for something tells you nothing about its existence or its non-existence unless you would expect that there would be some evidence of it if it did exist. Example. As no one has ever reported the existence of giant, pink elephants living in the wild off the south coast of England, I think it is fair to conclude (by inference) that they do not exist. This is because if they did exist, you would expect someone to notice them pretty soon!!! But this just is not the case with God: there is no reason to expect that you would have evidence of his existence. In fact, if the bible is any source of authority, 1. God would not interfere in your life in this way, and 2. if you do choose to believe in God despite this lack of evidence, you will be rewarded in the afterlife. So God may well be causally absent in our worldly affairs, but that has no bearing on his existence.

    1) prime mover problem. I half agree with you… the problem is actually ’answered’ (technically speaking), but only in a superficial sense. Positing a temporally infinity removes the question of who is the prime mover. In this sense it is answered. But, this ‘answer’ immediately begs the question of “but how can something be temporally infinite?”. thus, the infinite regress of the prime mover is immediately replaced by a begging of the question issue. Both are unsatisfactory. Forced to choose between the two explanations, I don’t think it is obvious which is the more satisfactory!!!!!!!!!!

    2) cool.

    3) I do apologise for saying you were ‘attacking’ me. This was a most unsporting comment of me. I will not lose me cool again. J

    I agree that P’s W does not really help in determining God’s existence. The merit of the argument, if there is any, is that it allows someone to ‘believe’ in him based on self serving motives. But again, I agree with you that it is not clear that such motives could ever be the basis for a genuine belief in something.

    I have no issue with your ideas and speculations in your final paragraph. I note them with interest. My main beef with you is your first two paragraphs.

    finally, i am positively intrigued by your "Flying green spaghetti monster". 😉

  9. Yana says:

    While I am an agnostic for epistemological reasons, I tend to agree more with the atheists when it comes to agruing about the existence of God. I would, therefore, like to argue from an atheist's perspective in addressing these three points.

    1) The prime mover argument does not necessarily invalidate the belief that there is no God, and scientists have come up with several theories in an attempt to address it. Many people ask the question, "What caused the Big Bang?" or "What was there before the universe was created?" The answer, some speculate, is that our universe may have branched off another "mother universe," and may be contained within it or outside of it, in a higher-dimensional space. Perhaps this was due to a quantum fluctuation, or some unexplainable cosmic event. No one knows for sure, but theories do exist to explain it. Also, you might ask: what caused that universe to exist? Well, maybe there is a higher-dimensional space out there that has always existed. In fact, time itself is relative, and is a dimension in and of itself, so there is no reason to object to the speculation that time may not have been a part of that universe, and even if it has, it could have been very different from the way we are used to perceiving it.

    2. The problem with a lack of objective morality that comes with the nonexistence of God is independent of the validity for his alleged existence. Granted, it does make me a little uncomfortable to know that there may not be an absolute moral code somewhere out there and that a claim such as "murder is bad" is only subjective. That doesn't, however, mean that it cannot be true. Believing in God because you prefer to believe in the existence of this moral code is tantamount to wishful thinking. When you analyze reality, you shouldn't base your beliefs on what you feel should be true, but on what you think is true based on evidence.

    But still, even if there is no such thing as an objective moral code, it does not mean that we cannot function well as a society. It appears that our internal sense of morality has evolved over time and is fundamental to our psyche (unless you're a sociopath). Even if you're an atheist, you can still experience the feeling of guilt, and you are able to feel sympathy and compassion towards others. That alone can motivate most people to be virtuous and altruistic. In fact, altruism is observed across many different species, such as a mother's risking her life to protect her young. Because of this internal feeling of "morality," along with the threat of punishment by the law, humans can function well without the existence of God.

    3. We have already discussed the problems with Pascal's Wager, so I will not say too much about it. I will, however, mention that God came to me in a dream and told me that the only way you can get into heaven and avoid hell is by spinning around in circles for an hour each day, never bathing, giving up your home and living in the streets, and giving me half of your income. Surely the gain is worth the sacrifice! After all, you can't prove that my dream isn't genuine.

    On a different note, I would like to comment on the statistical evidence pointing to God's noninvolvement in human affairs. Wouldn't that indicate that prayer doesn't work? If anything, I think it may just be a placebo.

  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    Hi Jake,

    I both agree and disagree with your first point, because it contains two different assertions. One assertion is that, "I think you are making the false presumption that the unobservability of something goes together with its lack of existence." To an extent, I agree with you — it is the idea that "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." I agree with that; however, it doesn't accurately reflect what we've been discussing.

    What we've been discussing is the assertion in your original post that athiests are hypocrites because they must make a leap of faith to disbelieve in God that is equal to the leap of faith which theists make to believe in God. I responded that the situation is nowhere close to being as equal as you suggested, due to the huge asymmetry of physical evidence: all the evidence supports the athiest; none supports the theist. In that context, the absence of evidence for God clearly does make a difference; namely, it contradicts the reason you gave for asserting that athiests are hypocrites.

    You then asserted that the lack of evidence for God somehow proves something different than the lack of evidence for the Flying Green Spaghetti Monster. Again, I disagree. Although I agree with your statement that, "your list contains characters (apart from maybe Buddha) who the vast majority of rational people, including myself, would not believe exist," that is merely an appeal to popular opinion, which I think we would both agree is notoriously unreliable. Consider, for example, the number of "rational people" who once believed in the god Zeus, the number who once believed the earth was the center of our solar system, the number who once believed diseases were caused by evil spirits, the number who once believed Saddam had WMD, etc. The list of untrue things that many "rational people" have believed to be true is virtually endless. Clearly, then, the likelihood that God exists does not increase merely because many "rational people" believe it (or claim to believe it). Moreover, your acceptance of Buddha as an exception to my list concedes that there is a strong component of geography (i.e., cultural upbringing) in the public opinion you rely on: take your poll in a region that is pantheistic, athiestic, anamistic, etc., and you would get a very different result than the one you are trying to use to support your argument. Thus, I continue to disagree with your assertion that the lack of evidence for God is somehow more persuasive of His existence than is the lack of evidence for Zeus or the Flying Green Spaghetti Monster. True, no one I'm aware of prays to Zeus or the FGSM, or goes to church every week to sing their praises, but such behavior is merely another aspect of the appeal to popular opinion. "What about the Bible?", you might ask. Well, there are other holy books (as well as many science textbooks) that contradict the stories told in the Bible; moreover I've seen other books which claim to show actual photographs of Bigfoot, flying saucers, ghosts, the Lockness Monster…does that mean we should believe in them, too? Bottom line: absent the (location-dependent, time-dependent, notoriously unreliable) popular opinion you have pointed to, why should we treat the lack of evidence for God any differently than we treat the lack of evidence for other invisible things?

    As I read the rest of your comment, it appears we basically agree on the remaining items, so I'll let them stand as they are.

  11. Jake says:

    You made a fair summary of how we got to where we are now in this debate in your second paragraph. Thank you for the clarification.

    Usually, the absence of evidence of something would suggest that the thing does not exist. I gave the example of a very conspicuous elephant living standing near to you. If there were such an elephant, he would likely already be observed. Therefore, it is fair to infer that there is no such elephant, if he is not already observed.

    But this scenario does not apply to God because he is not the sort of thing that one could expect to be observed in the first place. It would be like stating that infrared rays do not exist just because they can not be viewed by the naked in eye in the visible spectrum. (by the way, I acknowledge that this analogy is not perfect as infrared, while not obviously observable, can still be observed in principle. This is not the case with God, who can not in principle be observed – existing or not existing).

    So, to complete the argument, as God is not within the category of things where there would likely be evidence of them if they did exist (like my elephant in 2nd paragraph), the absence of evidence is no help in our assessing of whether God exists or not. Therefore, the unobservability of God must be of equal help to both the atheist and theist in supporting their respective positions: namely, none at all.

    If you accept the above, in what sense is the leap of faith not the same for the atheist and the theist? In both cases, they are required to reach their beliefs without being able to use the lack of evidence for God’s existence to support them. Thus, surely, the degree of faith required is the same – namely, a complete faith. Thus, if atheists are on an equal footing, and if the atheists do often criticise theists for their reliance on faith, then surely they must be being hypocritical.

    In a more formal form, you are making the following argument:

    1. if God existed, then there would be (or at least would more likely be) some evidence of his existence.

    2. there is no such evidence of his existence

    3. therefore, there is not (or is more likely not) a God.

    Your argument form is valid. however, while I agree that premise 2. is true, I think that premise 1. is false for the reasons given above. Therefore, your conclusion (3.) is false under the argument.

    Going to your 2nd paragraph, you say there is a “huge asymmetry of physical evidence”. Surely, the evidence is the same for both sides: namely, there is none. So, I don’t understand what you mean by “asymmetry”. Second, you say that the “absence of evidence for God clearly does make a difference”, but you have jumped to the conclusion. You have not said why.

    If the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (your paragraph 1), then why does the “absence of evidence for God clearly make a difference”????

    Sorry to keep emphasising the point, but it keeps popping up as I work through your post. Paragraph 3: YES, I do exactly suggest that the “lack of evidence for God proved something different from the lack of the FGSM”!! absolutely right? Why? For the reason above: FGSMs from their very name would be highly conspicuous (like my pink elephants) if they existed. They would be large, green objects flying through the air with pasta sauce dripping off. Their very name implies that they would be noticeable. This allows us to infer that lack of observation is in favour of non-existence. Contrast this to another monster: THE SMALL, INVISIBLE, FLYING MONSTER (SIFM). This is surely more akin to the nature of God (as we popularly understand Him) than the FGSM. Thus, lack of evidence for God, says nothing.

    I think the only way for you to argue against this is to claim that, if God did exist, he would be observable (like my elephant). I can not see how you can agree with that and also resist my conclusion that atheists are hypocritical in the way described in the above paragraph.

    On a side note, this reminds me of Karl Popper’s falsification principle whereby any theory (eg. God does not exist or does exist) should be capable of being falsified. This doesn’t mean that it actually IS falsified because then it would be shown to be an erroneous theory. But, it does need to be capable of being falsified, in principle… which means that there is some opportunity that, if there was evidence against the theory, it could be presented. Therefore, Einstein’s theories are falsifiable because the experiments could have contradicted the theory (but ended up confirming them), while Freud’s theory of unconsciousness (along with horoscopes, usually) are unfalsifiable and therefore poor theories.

    Applying to the case in point, there is no opportunity to present evidence on God’s exist or non-existence, they are just bald assertions based on faith. Thus unfalsifiable, thus poor theories.

    You have made a big thing of my comment on the Bible, rational people, and popular opinion. Maybe I emphasised that too much in my argument because I do not think it is necessary for my point… I refer merely to your “bottom line” (a writing device that does help clarify things for me, thank you).

    You say: “absent the (location-dependent, time-dependent, notoriously unreliable) popular opinion you have pointed to […]”,

    Ok, I do. I absent all of the above for the purposes of my point. I refer merely to the above arguments to make my point.

    Finally, you say why should lack I absent all of that and merely refer to the above argument as laid out above as to why:

    “[…] why should we treat the lack of evidence for God any differently than we treat the lack of evidence for other invisible things?”

    my argument is that WE SHOULD NOT treat lack of evidence for God differently to lack of evidence for invisible things!! We treat them the same, God and my SIFM are treated the same. I don’t believe I have suggested contrary.

    Finally, with regard to everything else we have discussed, I am happy also to say we agree. It is best to concentrate on this, our remaining point of disagreement.

    I hope I have been helpful in the above. please let me know your view.

  12. grumpypilgrim says:

    Hi Jake,

    You state your argument well. I think we have narrowed our discussion down to one root question: should we expect to find physical evidence for the existence of God, or shouldn't we? Given the answer to that question, I think we would substantially agree on what sorts of consequences would flow thereafter.

    I like your comparison of God to infrared radiation, for two reasons: one, it illustrates your point nicely; two (insert my evil laugh here ) it contains a fatal flaw that I can use to contradict your argument.

    Unlike infrared radiation, God is widely claimed to be active in the lives of the people who believe in Him. Believers claim they converse with God, and that God speaks to them and answers their prayers. They describe God as a "personal god" and they pray to Him for help with all sorts of personal problems — and they claim God answers these prayers. All of these claims suggest they have a relationship with God that is very different from the relationship they would claim to have with infrared radiation.

    Thus, given the active — indeed, central — role that Believers claim God plays in their lives, I think it is entirely reasonable to expect to find some physical evidence to support their claims. If not spectacular examples (e.g., God miraculously parting traffic to help them get to work faster, in the same manner He is said to have parted the Red Sea), then at least in ways we can reveal statistically. If God is truly looking out for Believers and is answering their prayers, then why shouldn't we expect Believers to have a slight edge in life over non-Believers — better "luck" if you will? Why shouldn't we expect Believers to have, for example, lower rates of divorce, lower rates of car crashes, better survival rates after surgery, etc. — i.e., something that would support the claim that God is working in their lives?

    With this in mind, I think it is entirely reasonable to accept my #1 premise (which you stated very well):

    1) if God existed, then there would be (or at least would more likely be) some evidence of his existence.

    You asserted that this premise is false; however, aside from your analogy to infrared radiation, you did not actually provide any justification for why this premise should be considered false. God cannot be seen, felt, touched, heard or tasted — OK, I'll grant you that — but I'm not aware of any source that describes God as impotent, and that is what He would need to be for premise #1 to be false.

    Accordingly, this leaves me with a question for you (let's call it Final Question #1, or "FQ1"): what basis do you have for suggesting that we should expect to find no physical evidence for the existence of God? As I see things, neither the Bible nor the claims of Believers provide you with such a basis.

    One final comment I will make concerns the question of whether or not the lack of evidence for God means something different from the lack of evidence for other invisible things. Obviously, this question is almost synonymous with the question mentioned in the previous paragraph, but I'd like to explore it just a bit further. In your argument, you chose the FGSM, and I'll concede your point that maybe the FGSM is something we would want to see evidence of before believing that it exists, but you did not mention, for example, Buddha. If we accept your argument — that we should believe in God notwithstanding a lack of physical evidence for God, because we should not expect to find physical evidence for God — then what stops us from applying your same argument to other invisible supernatural beings, such as Buddha or Zeus?

    In other words, if you succeed in answering FQ1, then you have, in the process, raised Final Question #2 ("FQ2"): if the lack of physical evidence for God should not cause us to doubt the existence of God (because we should not expect to find said physical evidence), then shouldn't we give this same concession to other invisible supernatural beings, for whom physical evidence is also lacking; i.e., other gods?

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    grumpypilgrim and Jake:

    I have to say . . . you guys have displayed admirable stamina in narrowing the issues here. It looks like you’re on the brink of success. I hope I’m not about to unravel things in my attempt to help out . . .

    According to grumpypilgrim, the remaining issue is this: “Should we expect to find physical evidence for the existence of God, or shouldn’t we?”

    This issue reminds me of one of Daniel Dennett’s many provocative points (from his recent book, Breaking the Spell). Dennett knew he had to come up with a definition of “God,” in order to discuss religion. He decided that anything qualifying as “God” must be an “agent.” A proper God, then, is an entity that bears a persona, who has his own beliefs and desires, who communicates with His/Her/Its people and who (at least occasionally) intercedes. For Dennett, if the object of one’s praise/meditation doesn’t do these things, one’s organization is not a “religion.”

    Therefore, to believe in Luke Skywalker’s “Force” or to intellectually acknowledge a “first cause” (traditionally known as Deism) is not to actually believe in “God,” according to Dennett. Before reading Dennett, this is not where I would have drawn the line on God versus No-God—I’ve generally acquiesced with the labels chosen by those who recognize a “God.” Dennett is convincing me otherwise on this issue, however. “God” is anything anyone simply calls “God,” then all vague poetic notions of Force, Beauty, Intelligence, Harmony or Presence are worthy of being called “God” and religion becomes a tent big enough for even the most strident atheist. That would screw things up horribly! We would no longer know who to hate based upon their different beliefs!

    So back to grumpy’s question: “Should we expect to find physical evidence for the existence of God, or shouldn’t we?” If one defines God as Dennett does, probably “YES.” If one takes a broader view of “God” (God is equivalent to Luke Skywalker’s “Force”), then probably no.

  14. Jason Rayl says:

    Just to throw a physics wrench into all of this, there is one condition the resolution of which would decide me one way or the other. (Actually, it would decide me that there IS a god.) But it's kind of a frustrating condition.

    Should we NEVER find the Higgs Boson, I would accept that as proof of God's existence.

    I know, I know, proofing something doesn't exist and all that…

    But this isn't an unreasonable condition. We have tracked down and identified ALL the major subatomic particles Quantum Theory tells us should exist–except the one that has the job of determing why all those other particles come in the discreet sizes they do (and the existence of everything depends on those particles being what they are and as large as they are). The question is complicated, of course, having to do with energy distribution and the association of mass in specific arrangements, and it would take a short book to explain, but the theory predicts a sort of "master mold" particle which would determine the sizes and energy alotments of the rest. Without it, they exist as they do without explanation.

    If we never find the Higgs Boson, then only God could be doing the sorting.

    Now, one could posit that the Higgs Boson, found or not, IS God, or at least is God's tool for doing this job. But if it is there, then it is there by the inevitability of the way the universe functions sans a deity–which would at worst leave the question open. But that's only if we find it. If we don't–if, after sorting through everything there is, we find there isn't one, that kind of makes a solid case for God's actually existence.

    As for the argument that something unobservable may still have existence, well, of course. Depends on which side of the skull you're talking about, though. My imagination is quite real. So, for instance, is what science is calling Dark Matter, which is not directly observable.

    But it's effects are observable.

    So if God exists, whether we can directly perceive it or not, there would be effects that we could perceive, effects that could not be explained any other way.

    Miracles? Ah. Well, I defer to Gibbon, who observed that all miracles are reported by second, third, and fourth hand observers, never by eyewitnesses (in the case of Jesus, etc) and should be credited only so far. (I frankly credit it a miracle that a species so psychotic can actually manage to build a mutually beneficial civilization. But that's a tonbgue-filled cheek observation.)

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    Jason says: "But that’s only if we find it. If we don’t–if, after sorting through everything there is, we find there isn’t one, that kind of makes a solid case for God’s actually existence."

    The question that comes to my mind: at what level of confidence do we decide it's not there? I say this knowing that I sometimes have trouble finding my keys.

    In other words, who gets the discretion of saying: "Time's up. Party's over. We can't find it. There IS a God!"

    If there is no boson (and there IS, therefore, a God), would religious hymns need to be reworked? Would we then sing: Oh, God, hold me closely unto thy boson . . ."?

  16. Jason Rayl says:

    Ergo, the conundrum continues….

  17. Yana says:

    Since the Flying Green Spaghetti Monster has been mentioned several times among the comments, I would like to show you this picture:

    It's the Flying Spaghetti Monster! While He is neither green nor visible, He is somewhat relevant to our discussion here. According to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, He is God; He created the universe, and He cannot be observed. He also directly changes scientific measurements (e.g., radiocarbon dating) with His Noodly Appendage, so contradictory scientific observations do not necessarily contradict His existence. Why not believe in Him, instead of Jesus, Allah, Buddha, etc.? That's just something for the theist to consider, or for someone seeking a new religion.

    Now, all jokes aside, I would like to turn my attention to the Higgs Boson. We shouldn't have to wait long to find confirmation or dismissal of its existence, as physicists expect the Large Hadron Collider, which is scheduled to start operation in 2007, to settle this debate. But even if the Higgs boson will not be shown to exist, physicists have several alternative theories in mind: the top quark condensate, technicolor, little Higgs, and the Higgsless model. I'm still not sure, however, if the Higgs boson can explain the exact values of all the fundamental constants in the universe, and why they have the values that they do. Perhaps they have their observed values in this universe but have different values in the other universes, however many that would be. No one knows. If they did arise by chance, then maybe our universe is one of several billion that offers the potential for life to exist. I wish I knew.

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