A-theism

Bud over at Dead Logic has a fantastic post handing a smackdown to Christian apologist Tim Keller, whose book The Reason for God I wrote a partial critique of back in November. Bud takes Keller to task for his claim that rejecting Christianity requires one to have formulated an alternative hypothesis:
Keller claims that the "only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it." Keller seems to misunderstand what it means to doubt. He apparently thinks that to doubt Christianity means "to have an alternate belief" in lieu of Christianity. No, Tim. To doubt is to question, to be unsure of the claim(s) being made, to require evidence before accepting the claim(s) as truth. Doubt does not require an "alternate belief" as Keller suggests.
I think Bud nails it on the head. As many a debate in forums and here on this blog attest, some Christians seem to have a great deal of trouble accepting atheism as a lack of belief in gods. They insist that it must be a contrary claim – the positive assertion that gods do not exist. In other words, they insist that all atheists must be strong atheists, otherwise we're just agnostics. This dim view misrepresents the views of nearly all "new atheists" as well as distorting the definition of agnosticism – a term coined by Thomas Huxley to describe a specific epistemology:
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle... Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.
Imagine we were living in medieval times (the times, not the restaurant). Back then, illness was thought to be caused by all manner of mysterious phenomena, most infamously tainted blood. Well, we now know, in our modern time, that demons and tainted blood aren't what make people sick – it's microorganisms (of course there are other kinds of illness, but this will do for the analogy). But in medieval times, people lacked the technology to confirm this reality, and simply conjured up whatever explanations they could.

Those people could have – theoretically – set up all manner of scientific experiments to determine whether tainted blood caused people to become ill. They could have rejected the concept of tainted blood purely on the basis that there was no evidence that it was true. But when tainted-blood-believers challenged them with "Well, what do you think it is?" they would only be able to answer with a humble "I don't know". This of course would not change the fact that microorganisms were then – as they are now – the cause of most illnesses.

In other words, the rejection of the proposition that tainted blood causes illness does not require a competing hypothesis. The tainted-blood theory can be rationally evaluated on its own terms, and disregarded in the absence of supporting evidence.

Atheism is like a supernatural version of a-tainted-blood-ism. It's not asserting an alternative hypothesis, and our rejection of theism does not require us to conjure up alternative explanations for the origin of the universe, the meaning of life, or whatever else believers like to hang their hats on.

Richard Dawkins once remarked that evolution allows us to be intellectually fulfilled atheists. That is, even though creationism could be disregarded as invalid long before the theory of evolution came along, the scientific advances of the last 150 years have allowed us to answer back that question, "Well, if God didn't do it, how did we get here?" with a thoroughly substantive counter-claim. And as science rolls onward, I think that many fields have begun to offer insights into our origin and nature that provide rational counters for religion. Evolution and cognitive psychology have demonstrated how our moral faculties were emergent; abiogenesis is showing how the laws of chemistry produced life on primordial Earth; and modern cosmology has demonstrated that it is possible for the universe to exist causelessly, negating the need for a Creator.

But fortunately for the less scientifically inclined atheist, none of that scientific knowledge is necessary for us to identify the arguments for theism as logically invalid, and disregard them accordingly.

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