Counting to Nothing

The exact definition of atheism is one that’s hotly-debated in philosophical circles. The everyday meaning, roughly: ‘an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God’ is simple enough, as is the slight clarification ‘or any of the gods’, and its corollary, ‘y’know or all of that stuff, like devils, angels, prayers, the afterlife, miracles and so on’.

But traditionally there’s been a problem which boils down to whether atheism is holding the belief ‘there is no God’ or not holding the belief ‘there is a God’. I think it’s easy to see there’s (a) little practical difference, and (b) quite an important one philosophically. It essentially comes down to who has the onus to justify their position, and the upshot is an endless cycle of ‘you need to prove God exists / no you need to prove God doesn’t exist’.

Part of the point of being an atheist is that you really don’t think this sort of thing is worth bothering with. But, if pressed, most atheists would say they hold the belief ‘there is no God’, rather than not holding the position there is one. Atheists who do talk about their atheism are fond of saying things like ‘Off is not a TV channel’ or ‘abstinence is not a sex position’, ‘people who don’t live in Manchester aren’t Amancunian’. It seems faintly ridiculous to suggest that someone who is not interested in Cricket ‘has not-interest’ in things like spin bowling, the West Indies, Wisden or the state of the pitch at Lords.

If atheism is framed as ‘not holding the belief “there is a God”’, that assumes the default state of the human race to be ‘religious’. It’s no coincidence that theists often accuse atheism of being a ‘religious belief’, or that ‘it takes more faith to be an atheist’, or say things like ‘the vast majority of the human race is religious’. If someone told a vegetarian that they were carnivorous, because No Meat is a type of animal, you would probably think that someone should be sectioned, but ‘atheism is a religious belief’ is a respectable argument in theistic circles.

It would be handy strategically for theist philosophers if atheism was ‘holding the position there is no God’, as it essentially makes the argument a Home game for them, not an Away one. Atheists, by that definition, have opted out of theism and they’re the ones who have to justify their position, and they’d have to do it starting out by explaining their notions of God and why they’re rejecting them.

The dark secret of theology is that it can’t do the job most people think it’s there for.

I’d always assumed a lot of theology was about looking for signs of God, like God was a Higgs-Boson or something like that. Modern theology actually has very little new to say or do concerning ‘proof God exists’ (or disproving it). And the reason is simple: within moments of starting a study of theology, it’s made clear it’s impossible to use logic to prove God exists.

We can demonstrate this in one sentence. Ahem. ‘There is, by definition, no way for us to distinguish God from a being capable of deceiving all other beings into believing it is God’. Whatever the miracle, demonstration of power, revelation, artefact or argument presented, however kind or wise ‘He’ was, we could never be sure that ‘God’ was the real deal. He wouldn’t need to be God, he would just need to be able to make us think he’s God. Even if ‘real God’ showed up with a host of angels, bellowed ‘IMPOSTER!’ and sent Jesus in to kick the false God in His nuts, then … well, what’s to say this new arrival isn’t just another imposter?

‘Fooling every human being’, presumably, would require a lot less power than ‘being God’. We’re easily fooled, after all. The overwhelming probability is that any given ‘God’ is not God. And, happily, that’s exactly what religions teach – the central proposition of most religions is that while every other one is the work of smooth conmen in it for the bling and pussy, this religion is the one, real deal. Not every human being holds the idea ‘gods exist’, but every single person holds the position ‘not all claims made about gods are true’. Indeed, if you’re looking for a ‘universal human religious belief’, then the only ones we know for certain have existed in every society are ‘sorry, not buying it’ and ‘I’m being dragged along under protest’. As the motto goes, every Christian’s an atheist when it comes to all the other gods. The early Christians in Rome were prosecuted for atheism, as they did not honour the city gods.

There have been lots of attempts at proofs, some better than others, but even the scholar responsible for the most extensive and influential attempts to come up with something compelling, Thomas Aquinas, concedes ‘to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible’. It’s not that we haven’t found compelling logical proof God exists, Aquinas says, there simply can’t be a compelling logical proof independent of faith. And, of course, if you have faith, you’ve already answered the question you’re meant to be exploring. It explains why Aquinas’ proofs are seen as eloquent and persuasive to existing believers, but weirdly lacking to everyone else.  

Theology hasn’t been able to budge from this position. Alvin Plantinga, one of the most renowned living theologians, concedes this when he says,

“I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.”

So, with no evidence even possible for gods, atheism’s right?

Theist philosophers have this one covered. Plantinga adds:

“But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars … Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.”

Plantinga’s a renowned Christian theologian, he’s dedicated his life to this, he’s emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, not some internet commentator schmuck, so I’ll take him at face value, and assume that it’s a good analogy for atheism.

One problem for Plantinga is that we can answer his question about stars.

At one level, he’s right. We encounter practical problems, to put it mildly, if we try to work out if there are an odd or even number of stars. The concept of ‘the number of stars’ is problematic. It assumes that it’s clear what a star is (that there are no judgement calls to be made about whether, say, a neutron star is a star, or whether a star that’s forming counts). Critically, the speed of light limits the available information. Even if we had some pressing need to count all the stars to work out if there were an odd or even number of them, we simply can’t acquire the evidence. This limit to our information also throws up the familiar problem that what we look at in the night’s sky is not the state of the universe ‘now’. It’s scientifically illiterate to imagine we could just take a snapshot of the universe and count the dots.

However … we can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of stars, and the number of stars is a whole number. We can agree that any whole number is either odd or even. We can agree that the number of stars is, therefore, either an odd or even number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question.

We have, as far as I’m aware, no particular reason to think that there’s some law of physics governing whether there was an odd or even number of stars. There might be. Imagine the universe was and remained perfectly symmetrical. There would be, basically, two identical sets of stars. If one popped into existence on one side, another would on the opposite side. There would, by definition, be an even number of stars. As things stand, though, to the best of my knowledge, nothing like that is at work.

The universe is vast. Stars form and they die. So we can say with confidence that given the vastness of the universe, even in the time it takes to ask the question ‘are there an odd or even number of stars?’, the answer will alternate from ‘odd’ to ‘even’ many times – millions or billions of times, in fact. Plantinga doesn’t actually say ‘in the universe’, but even if he’s just talking about how many stars are in our Milky Way galaxy, the answer will change by the time you get to the end of the question.

Let’s say what Plantinga meant to ask is ‘are there an odd or even number of observable stars in the night’s sky?’. The answer is, to Magnitude 10, with 99.9% confidence, ‘even’.

So far, so pedantic. Many theologians would just sneer at the over-literalistic answers there and say it was evidence of ‘scientism’ an arrogant belief that science can reach all the answers merely by counting and measuring. I hope so, as this would be really handy for my argument.

As a thought experiment, imagine we lived in a universe where everyone was utterly confident there were only five stars. Now try answering Plantinga’s question. ‘Do we have good evidence for the proposition that there are an odd number or even number of stars?’

Easy.

Plantinga’s argument boils down to ‘sometimes it’s difficult to count stuff’, that’s all. And if, as he says, it’s an analogy for the existence of God, all he’s saying is that it’s difficult to count the number of gods.

So, let’s use the same reasoning.

We can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of gods, and the number of gods is a whole number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question ‘how many gods are there?’, the issue is simply that they’re difficult to count.

Except, by Plantinga’s own logic, it’s not difficult at all. Even if we confine ourselves to the ludicrously narrow definition of science preferred by some philosophers as ‘the study of things that can be measured’, counting falls squarely in the remit of ‘science’. As noted, logically, we can never count above zero proven gods. The empirical measurement of proven gods concurs.

Inspired by Plantinga, we could ask whether the evidence points to there being an odd or even number of gods. Is doing so really more glib than asking any other question about gods? In fact, it’s more useful than most – if there are an even number of gods, that would at least rule out monotheism and the Trinity, which wouldn’t be a bad day’s work. As it happens, zero is an even number [two multiplied by zero = zero].

So, here’s the clever bit. Plantinga – if his analogy is a good one – believes this to be a counting game, he believes that there are a fixed number of gods, and he understands that there’s no way to demonstrate by counting that there are more than zero gods. Both Plantinga and the atheist have taken measurement and logic as far as it is possible to take them, and agree they’ve reached ‘zero’ using that method, the result that atheist expected. So it’s clearly only Plantinga who needs to appeal further than this. The atheist can stop there. An atheist may also have faith, but certainly doesn’t need it. The atheist may be wrong, of course, but it’s plainly Plantinga, and not the atheist, who needs to justify his position.

12 responses to “Counting to Nothing

  1. I wonder if it would be more useful to define atheism as a philosophical movement, a concrete thing of particular times, places, and people, rather than as an abstract principle. It can be useful to define “science fiction” or “surrealism” by their content, but often more useful to look at the context in which they emerged, and the results of their influence. (“Atheism”, “science fiction”, and “surrealism”, important categories for the West, would all be meaningless for an Ancient Egyptian – as I’m sure they would be for many cultures existing today.)

    • I think the bane of a lot of discussions about religion is that it’s about defining, and often defining other people’s beliefs. Added to that a sort of weird sense of false continuity that’s brought about by churches wanting to assert that their values are eternal ones, and a marked reluctance among believers to think that the current position of their church is different from where it was historically, let alone research old positions. (Studies in the US, where 40% of religious people have switched denominations at least once, show that almost all of them do when they feel their church has ‘changed teaching’, and the odd thing there is that people switch church even if the ‘new teaching’ is more in line with their personal position).

      I do get the sense with religion that some of this chameleon stuff is deliberate. ‘Oh … you’re using a different definition of “God” than the one I use’. It’s a great way to defuse an argument.

      I think various types of atheism, ranging from public challenge to the gods of the ruling class right through to ‘when I go to church, I’m just going through the motions’ is not a new thing. The basic philosophical questions (‘so why doesn’t prayer work, then?’, ‘does God have to follow the rules or is he capricious?’ and ‘why does the head of this religion get to live in a palace and why doesn’t the law of the land apply to him?’) are ancient.

      I think atheism, as a belief system, is more homogenous than Christianity, in that sense. Ironically, I don’t think atheists value the idea of it being a movement with eternal values. As I say in the post, I think one of the great liberations of atheism is that atheists don’t need to worry about this, and typically don’t have to.

      In that sense, I think it’s a little like the abortion debate – the ‘anti’ are organised, motivated, and see it as a very, very important issue. The vast majority of people favoured the current law if you asked them, but were not passionate about it. And the early tactics of the ‘pro’ activists were basically to create a symmetrical set of horror stories around coathangers and incest. It’s only recently that the ‘pro’ side have been able to frame it more in terms of broader women’s rights, and of countering a right wing religious movement. And it’s really only because the right wing religious movement veered into crazyland and abandoned the moderates to the point the *Pope* now thinks they talk about it too much.

      • (Sorry for this late reply.) You’ll be familiar with Mencken’s essay on dead gods. He thinks *every* deity in history was worshipped in exactly the same way, when in fact ideas like heresy are quite recent. Basically, he projected historical Western religion onto every time and culture, producing nonsensical results and undermining his important basic point (that all religions are temporary products of their time and place). IMHO projecting atheism onto every period and place risks the same error – especially when the doubters and inquirers, whether early Christians or Aztec intellectuals, are generally believers themselves!

  2. I think you’re right and this ‘star argument’ is not only silly, but misses the point, which is that it rather depends what you mean by ‘God’.

    A lot of atheists seem to think that the ‘God’ Christians believe in could be counted among the things in the universe (using that word in the sense of ‘all that exists’ rather than the sci-fi sense of, I don’t know, ‘one of the possible tracks of history in which I am setting my story’, so the idea of a plural form of it is nonsensical).

    (To be fair, I think a lot of confused Christians do think this as well).

    It’s only in this idea, which is not what Christians think, that it’s possible to ‘count gods’. We know that the question of how many stars there are is (subject to defnition) in principle decidable, even if in practice difficult to determine accurately, because stars are things that exist in the universe and therefore amenable to counting.

    The Christian view of God, however, is not like this (there are other views of God which are not like this too: pantheism, panentheism, etc, but I will stick with the Christian one as that’s what was brought up). In the Christian view of God, God is not a ‘thing that exists'; rather, God stands in relation to the universe as an author stands to a novel, a playwright to a play, a painter to a painting: God is not so much a thing that exists as the cause of anything existing at all (this is a fusion of the idea worked out in the Old Testament that, whereas other societies believed in local gods, Israel’s God was God over the whole world due to having created it; and Greek ideas about the philosophy of causes: see Aquinas).

    And this is why obtaining empirical evidence for (or against) God’s reality is impossible: because while inside the play (or novel, or painting) it is impossible to tell how it came to be. Any test you can run in the universe can only tell you what the rules are within the universe: they cannot tell you whether those rules are the result of creation by a God, or of, say, necessary quantum fluctuations in a vacuum that ballooned into a universe of matter.

    If you are handed a text you can’t, by analysing the text alone, tell whether it was written by a person with something to communicate, or was the result of tossing a load of scrabble tiles up into the air. There is nothing about the text itself which you can use to tell whether it is a meaningless, random collection of letters that just happens to make sense, or a communicative act with inherent meaning.

    You might decide which explanation is more or less likely by examination of the text (if there are passages of random gobbledegook, then perhaps that means it was created from scrabble-tile-tossing; if there are staggeringly beautiful phrases that express eternal human truths you might think it was probably intentionally crafted) but you cannot, simply by analysing the text with no access to its origins (and we’re talking here ‘origins’ in the causal, not chronological, sense: knowing the physics of how the universe began is no evidence either way for whether those physics are authored or not), be sure.

    (And to stretch the analogy, if presented with a world that alternates between seemingly meaningless random crap and staggeringly beautiful apparently meaningful stories, you might get very confused as to which was more likely).

    The question for atheists, then, is, ‘What God don’t you believe in?’ It’s perfectly possible to disbelieve in the actual Christian God, of course: to think that the universe has no intent behind it, no purpose, no meaning, that it simply exists because it is in some sense logically necessary that it do so. But that’s not the same thing as disbelieving in, say, the gods of Olympus, or Odin, which (if they existed) would be things-in-the-universe rather than the logically-necessary creative intent that is the cause of all existence.

    (Greek philosophers, for example, tended not to believe in the Olympic gods, so were all atheists in that sense, but some did believe in a necessary first cause, so were not atheists in that sense, while others didn’t believe in the first cause, so were atheists in both senses).

    • Thanks for this.

      I’m suspicious that the reason theologians decided God was a non contingent being was because it makes him a harder target. I don’t think it’s surprising to learn there are ‘confused Christians’. They’re told God hears prayers, performs healing miracles, sent His son to Earth, created humans in his image, ‘guides evolution’ and so on … but also that He’s not something that science could detect. We might not be able to see God, but it’s harder to explain why we shouldn’t be able to see his footprints. It’s confusing to be told He’s omnipresent and also not really there. In the words of Joyce, I think the theological God is one who’s been ‘refined out of existing’.

      Instinctively, I think we can say that the universe is in one or two states: (1) This is a theistic universe, one which God has had at least one contact with, (2) We live in a universe that is atheistic. And that it matters which, and that the only way it can matter which is if it makes a difference, which means that there’s at least a theoretical discernable difference between (1) and (2). If that’s the case, we can talk about the difference it might make.

      As for ‘counting gods’ – I was going from the Plantinga analogy. He’s a revered theologian. I have to take at face value that his example was a good one. And no analogy can survive sustained assault, but my point was that Plantinga is inadvertently exposing that his position is a ‘difficulty in counting’ one. We can never disprove (1), which is satisfied if God manifested for a nanosecond halfway between here and Andromeda once, a billion years ago, then left, carefully removing all traces. Again, the Plantinga analogy is a helpful one. While agnosticism is a healthy position for a human being, it’s disatisfying because the universe is not in an agnostic state. There are either zero gods or more than zero.

      We clearly live in a universe where (1) is difficult to prove. We needn’t. There are universes in fiction and folklore, including the religious texts, where (1) is very easy to prove. People chat with gods, see the physical laws overturned, see direct consequences for defying the gods, gain wordly boons from them.

      So it would seem that the question is ‘why would God be so determined to make this universe look atheistic?’. There are theistic answers, but the atheists’ position seems most sensible. If the universe acts like there are no gods, that’s functionally identical to their being no gods. Do gods, in football terms, interfere with the course of play? Aquinas’ arguments depend on God being *necessary*. If there’s a working model which doesn’t require God, then the model may not be the true state of affairs, but it renders Aquinas false. As I said in the post, Aquinas is not seeking to prove the existence of God, he takes that as read.

      The thing about plays … the character of the author is evident. Plays have audiences, plays observe unities. They are conscious artificial, deliberately open to interpretation, the best ones are deliberately problematic. So I don’t think it’s a good analogy. Is the universe a more piece of artwork? Again … I don’t like the answer, because it’s essentially saying we’re in a simulation.

      “Any test about the rules of the universe can only tell you about the universe?” Sure. Happy with that as an answer. There will always be unanswerable questions. As I said in the article, judged by that criterion, the implications of Plantinga’s argument are simple, and we can call this now: there’s no God, at least meaningfully.

      “The question for atheists, then, is, ‘What God don’t you believe in?’” No religious person believes in all the Gods. There are clearly ways in which people can assess whether they should believe in a given god. And the converse is true – no actual ‘religious person’ is generically religious. No one ever goes ‘well, Mr Dawkins, you’ve disproved *my* gods, but there are plenty of others, you haven’t disproved them all’.

      And I think we can attack some theistic ideas at the trunk, we don’t have to trim the branches. It can be like Guess Who, we can flip down sets of gods. Was mankind created specially? No … lose all those gods for whom that claim is made. Does praying affect medical outcomes? No … lose all the religions that claim it does. Carry on that route and we end up with ‘throughout history, people have believed in gods’ (well … sure, but people have believed in astrology and sympathetic magic longer, and atheism was around before monotheism), and ‘it makes people feel good’. Well, all sorts of things make people feel good. And the way they work is almost always by helping them momentarily ignore the real world, not by engaging them more fully with it.

      • The thing about seeing the footprints of God is… well, if God did create the universe, then it’s not so much that He didn’t leave footprints as it’s all footprint. You might as well expect Hamlet go looking for Shakespeare’s footprints in the basement of Elsinore: the ‘footprint’ is the fact that Elsinore, and Shakespeare, exist at all (I think one of the greatest theological works of the last century was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).

        And in fact there aren’t any fictional universes where people chat with the gods of those universes: no character on the Discworld has ever had a chat with Terry Pratchett, the Sandman never confronted Neil Gaiman, Doctor Who never materialised in Television Centre. Any ‘gods’ the characetrs in those works do interact with are not, in fact, the creators of their universes (even if they claim to be) but are characters the same as them. (And even in works which claim to have the author show up it is not, of course, actually the author, merely another character: see the philosophical treatise Duck Amuck for the most thorough examination of this idea).

        And if you were handed (or were living in) a story in which you met ‘gods’, you still could not tell from the evidence of the text alone whether that story had a real God, ie, an author, or whether it existed simply because of random chance. Even things like the ‘gods’ granting boons couldn’t settle that argument, because that only proves that that is the way that particular universe works; it says nothing about how that universe came about.

        (When it comes to Aquinas, I think it’s important to realise that when he proves the existence of God, all he proves, and all he claims to prove, is the existence of a first, necessary cause: that is all he thinks it is possible to prove using reason alone. To know about the nature of that cause he turns to the Bible. Using reason alone one can deduce that in order for anything to exist, something must be logically necessary: either it is logically necessary that the universe itself exists, or there is something else whihc logically necessarily exists which either directly, or through a causal chain, causes the universe to exist. but one cannot deduce using reason alone whether that thing has, say, personality and intent (like the Christian God) or is something entirely intentness (my favourite way of putting that is ‘like quantum fluctuations in a vacuum’ which sounds nice and sciency without actually meaning anything).

        I don’t think this is religion retreating to make it a harder target; rather I think it is the only possible view of religion that makes it worthwhile. A ‘god’ that is simply the same kind of being as us, ie one present in the universe, but more powerful, say, would not be worth worshipping. Even if they turned out to have ‘created’ us in some von Daniken sci-fi sense like I hear happened in that Ridley Scott movie a couple of years ago that I never bothered to see, they would still be the same sort of beings as us, just chronologically prior, and hence no more worthy of worship than we are.

        Of course, this analogy isn’t perfect either: novels are not gossip about imaginary people, fictional characters don’t have consciousness or continuous existence, to ask what ‘really’ happened in the Marabar Caves is a category error. If the universe is a work of art, then it’s of a whole different kind to a novel, a play, a painting: it has conscious free beings instead of characters, it doesn’t cut out the boring bits but exists continuously, etc etc. But you would expect that: the sub-creations of creatures cannot but be shadows of the creation of which they are a part.

        Thinking about the star-counting analogy, actually I think you may be being unfair to Plantinga (though understandably so as he has, if I am right, not been as clear as he might be). Plantinga is, perhaps, not making an epistemological point about the kinds of things for which there can be evidence and the kinds of things for which there can’t, but merely about how it is rational to behave in the absence of evidence.

        If I am right, then Plantinga is saying, ‘here are two questions for which we don’t have good evidence either way; therefore the way we treat them should be the same’. He isn’t saying the reason why we have insufficient evidence for them is the same: in fact it isn’t, one is the kind of question about which it is impossible to have sufficient evidence while the other is the kind of question about which it is simply impractical to gather sufficient evidence, even though in theory we could find out the answer.

        As for praying affecting medical outcomes… how could you ever tell whether it does or not? You can’t double-blind God.

      • “The thing about seeing the footprints of God is… well, if God did create the universe, then it’s not so much that He didn’t leave footprints as it’s all footprint.”

        But Christianity teaches that there are specific instances where God is intervening. Outcomes change as a result of Christ’s sacrifice, or it’s meaningless. Miracles represent places where the footprints are heavier than normal.

        “You might as well expect Hamlet go looking for Shakespeare’s footprints in the basement of Elsinore”

        Hamlet does, though. It’s a play about a man who understands he’s living in a textbook tragedy, and that he’s been handed the role of ‘tragic hero’ and fights against that destiny before accepting it.

        “And if you were handed (or were living in) a story in which you met ‘gods’, you still could not tell from the evidence of the text alone whether that story had a real God”

        Well, indeed. That’s the point I was making in the original post. There’s no way to get there from ‘evidence’, you need ‘faith’.

        “Using reason alone one can deduce that in order for anything to exist, something must be logically necessary”

        I’ve never really understood the problem, to be honest. Every argument and system has axioms. I’ve never understood how you could argue from a position that nothing exists. Who would be arguing, how and with whom? And where the Thomists get very muddled, I think, is in attempting to prove the existence of God in an argument that defines ‘existence’ as being part of a chain of cause and effect, then says God doesn’t satisfy that definition.

        “Even if they turned out to have ‘created’ us in some von Daniken sci-fi sense like I hear happened in that Ridley Scott movie a couple of years ago that I never bothered to see, they would still be the same sort of beings as us, just chronologically prior, and hence no more worthy of worship than we are.”

        Again, though, this isn’t what Christianity teaches. Jesus performs the same sort of folklore wonders that Superman or Johnny Appleseed does. The miracles of the Old Testament God would be easy enough for Superman to perform. Again, there’s this disconnect between the God people going to church picture – nativity scenes, walking on water, healing the sick – and the ones the theologians have decided on, this abstracted figure. And, you know what? If it’s within the power of both God and Superman to save a kid down a well, and only Superman does … well, I don’t know about worship, but I think Superman’s the better being.

        “But you would expect that: the sub-creations of creatures cannot but be shadows of the creation of which they are a part.”

        Again, this is Thomist nonsense. Of course a product of something can exhibit different and in some cases greater attributes than its ingredients. When it comes to art, there are soaring works created by the most appalling dickbags.

        “Thinking about the star-counting analogy, actually I think you may be being unfair to Plantinga (though understandably so as he has, if I am right, not been as clear as he might be). Plantinga is, perhaps, not making an epistemological point about the kinds of things for which there can be evidence and the kinds of things for which there can’t, but merely about how it is rational to behave in the absence of evidence.”

        If you haven’t the foggiest, it doesn’t mean you should celebrate fog. There are clearly ways of going about testing religious claims. ‘Faith’ is basically excluding one set of religious beliefs from that process, that’s all. Members of one Christian sect are able to find the claims of another foolish and dangerous. The ‘first cause’ argument applies to all the Christian versions of God, but people are able to parse that.

        “He isn’t saying the reason why we have insufficient evidence for them is the same: in fact it isn’t, one is the kind of question about which it is impossible to have sufficient evidence while the other is the kind of question about which it is simply impractical to gather sufficient evidence, even though in theory we could find out the answer.”

        Like I say, I have to take it that he doesn’t make that distinction, otherwise it’s such a poor analogy to be a useless one.

  3. “IMHO projecting atheism onto every period and place risks the same error – especially when the doubters and inquirers, whether early Christians or Aztec intellectuals, are generally believers themselves!”

    Absolutely, and I am a little guilty of that, I admit. As I said in an earlier post, my definition of ‘atheism’ is rather broad. You’re an atheist unless you’re actively altering your behaviour to tack more closely to the demands of your gods/religion/system.

    That said … I think for all the talk of ‘New Atheism’, the contours of atheism are ancient and broadly consistent ones and – probably more importantly – there has never been a civilisation where everyone’s a fanatic devotee or committed scholar. The vast majority of people, always, just keep their heads down. Archaeologists, historians and so on have consistently over-represented religion in culture, and presented religions as monoliths, when we know they’re consistently factional in nature.

    Throughout the world, throughout history, we have people who don’t attend religious ceremonies, who don’t believe prayer works, who are suspicious of the priesthood for various common reasons, who believe they can live a good life without gods, who are suspicious that religious teachings seem rather local and convenient, who doubt prophecy.

    It’s probably fair to say most of those people in most cultures believed gods *existed*. But they still ticked ‘none of the above’.

  4. People who believe in the existence of gods count as atheists as long as they doubt some aspect of religion? I hate to get hung up on definitions, but…!

    Whatever we call them, I’m keen for concrete examples of these people (from outside the Abrahamic tradition of the West), godless or otherwise. Not as a demand for proof, but more because I’m interested in what you’re getting at there. (But from outside the Abrahamic tradition, and not just suspicion of priests – those are too obvious. :)

    btw WordPress has gone mad – I’m getting no notifications of some comments, and five notifications of others!

  5. “Whatever we call them, I’m keen for concrete examples of these people (from outside the Abrahamic tradition of the West), godless or otherwise. Not as a demand for proof, but more because I’m interested in what you’re getting at there. (But from outside the Abrahamic tradition, and not just suspicion of priests – those are too obvious”

    What are you looking for evidence of? Irreligion? Non observance? Distrust of priests? Apathy? My examples tend to be Western, but I’m sure we can find examples elsewhere.

    What I’m getting at, I think, is a resistance to the idea that even when there’s a dominant religion that it means that the views of that religion dominate a society. America is ‘Christian’, most Americans are Christians. It’s not a meaningful statement, though. Most Americans don’t agree with many positions of their church, many don’t even know what those positions are, and those positions vary wildly within and between factions.

    I’m just trying to resist the ‘Star Trek planet’ view of a society. ‘France was a Catholic country in year X, therefore all French people agreed with the Pope when he said in year X that … ‘. Religions, obviously, want to big up the numbers, count every baptism as part of a bloc vote.

    I think there are issues of knowledge and awareness of teaching. I’m not saying every Christian has to have passages of Augustine memorised, but if you’re a Catholic who believes the Eucharist is symbolic, you don’t regularly attend church, don’t believe that the priesthood has any particular authority, that gay marriage is OK and you use contraception, in what sense are you ‘Catholic’? Those, by the way, are all positions the Pew survey says the *majority* of US Catholics hold. How little do you have to know and believe before you count?

    I don’t think the idea of self identification works here. It surely can’t be enough to say you’re something in a circumstance like that. If someone said they were vegetarian, and they added that they always ate meat at every meal … are they vegetarian? At what point does ignorance of what a term means counteract the entitlement to call yourself that term?

  6. Never mind my criteria – the Pew thing is a good concrete example which illuminated your point perfectly! Once again there’s a definitional problem if people who believe in God, attend church, and partake of the Eucharist are “atheists” – much as your meat-eating vegetarian is an odd sort of vegetarian.

    But putting definitions aside, this decline in the importance of the church is a modern, Western phenomenon, which brings me back to the thing about atheism being a modern, Western phenomenon, a specific intellectual movement. I don’t disagree that doubt and inquiry are universals, but that’s so vague a statement it tells me nothing. Instead, tell me something concrete, like where and when heresy was invented – the concrete history of religious, and anti-religious, thought.

    • Sorry, I wasn’t being clear. I wasn’t calling those people atheists, I was just wondering whether it’s sensible for anyone to label them Catholics, if they hold beliefs that are the opposite of Catholic teaching. With a further point that the Church will come out with a position and back it up with a statement like ‘there are a billion Catholics in the world’, implying that politicians should listen because a billion people would vote for the Church’s position. Studies show that Catholics have positions that align much more consistently with their political allegiance than their religious one. Republican Catholics tend to be firmer supporters of the death penalty and torture, Democratic ones are almost as pro-choice as the general population.

      But the tendency is a simple view of ‘they are Catholics, therefore they believe … ‘. And I suspect that if you looked at Aztecs or the Norsemen or anyone, that the number of theologically-literate, devoted, engaged participants is lower than we’d think. Not that everyone who isn’t actively engaged is an atheist, just that indifference to religion is far more widespread than the storybook version would have us believe.

      Call that ‘irreligion’, rather than ‘atheism’, perhaps. I think the irreligious are far more numerous than we’d think. America is a very religious country … but survey after survey shows that only 1 in 5 people went to church in the last week. And of that 20%, how many are there as active, engaged, fully willing, knowledgeable participants? If we say three out of four are (which I suspect is generous), that means there are about as many atheists as churchgoers in the US … and that 70% of the population is just irreligious. This is not the narrative we usually get.

      As for the heritage of atheism. Ironically, a lot of the evidence for unbelief comes from religious laws and sermons, which rail against unbelievers. Early America’s a great example – we think of it as being a Puritan theocracy, because of all the rules, but the rules are being piled up precisely because people *aren’t* being Puritanical. All the way back to the early civilisations, there are sanctions against people who don’t go to temple … why would you need those laws, if people all did?

      The codified philosophical basis, beyond basic scepticism, is at least as old as Plato. I think the Euthyphro argument remains compelling, far more compelling than ‘the problem of evil’. Plato’s writing around the time the first true monotheisms (not ‘only worship me’, but ‘there’s only me to worship’) are appearing. Plato is not strictly atheist, but he gives the gods the same roles we’d have for magnetism or heat or something like that, he strips them of any role in morality, or of any need to sacrifice or pray. It’s very late in the day that a ‘there were never gods’ model comes along, because there were gaps in knowledge like ‘how could the universe have begun?’ and a firm belief in mankind being created separately from the animals.

      Asian countries, as far as I’m aware, never had institutional religion in the same way the West does. There’s an emphasis on social order, rather than political power. The little I know suggests that there has been considerable resistance to Buddhism when it’s begun to take on the aspects of a Western religion – rich priests, landowning, militarising, attempts to become a formal part of the political system. And they have the notion of ‘heresy’, although this translation calls it ‘wordy warfare’, which is a far more excellent phrase:

      http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index.html

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