Main Site

This is Gem Newman's blog. Return to the main site.


15 November 2010

"Atheism Requires Faith"

You may remember the Uniter, the University of Winnipeg's student newspaper, which featured terse interviews with members of the Winnipeg Skeptics a few weeks ago.

Although I had some problems with that article, I think that it was more or less fair and well-intentioned. Those are not descriptors that I would apply to this article, however. To paraphrase Alec Guinness, "You will never find a more wretched hive of straw men and villainy. We must be cautious."

However, contrary to what appears to be popular belief, it is not simply "religious" (a term I use reluctantly) types like myself nor even the vague "spiritual" seekers who exercise faith. Rather, we all do – even those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or skeptic.

Take, if you will, the notion of origins. Where did the universe come from in the first place? A "religious" person will likely tell you that, according to faith, it was created by an external, supernatural agent (as much as they may disagree about the nature of this agent).

Many atheists – or perhaps a fairer term would be naturalists – will shrug off such an assertion as unscientific and opt instead for a purely "rational" (a term I use under deep suspicion here) approach to the matter.

Oooh, that reeks of scathing condescension. Do go on!

Often, naturalists counter such religious beliefs by explaining that the universe is the product of time and chance. Since the existence of an external, supernatural agent cannot be proven rationally, it must be discounted.

Thus, the world is apparently split between two types of people: those who exercise faith to support their worldview, and those who do not.

This dichotomy is false, through and through.

After all, who out of us, from the most ardent religious apologist to the most die-hard naturalist, was there at the beginning of time? Who actually saw what happened?

Since the answer is clearly no one, any assertions made about such fundamental origins are necessarily products of faith.

I have faith that the natural world was birthed from the supernatural. A naturalist has faith that the universe (that is, the "natural" world) came into being of its own accord.

Ah, what a delicious example of false equivalence!

Which of these beliefs is the more rational one? Let us consider, for a moment, what preceded the moment of creation (or Big Bang, if you prefer). As a Christian, it is my belief that before the universe came into being, God "was."

Oh. The cosmological argument. How delightfully dull.

A naturalist, however, runs into a distinct difficulty here: Logic (not to mention the most fundamental laws of science) dictates that some sort of pre-existing physical matter must have been present in order to give rise to the Big Bang. Yet, where this matter came from is unclear.

"Logic"? I don't think that word means what you think it means. You probably mean "common sense". As might say, you fail logic forever.

This ambiguity has all too often been dismissed by naturalists as merely fodder for the philosophers, even though it is an absurd mistake to do so.

Physical matter, however rudimentary, requires causation – it cannot arise out of nothing. To suggest otherwise is to commit scientific suicide and throw one's credibility to the wind.

...and, in waxing poetic for a moment, he immediately jumps the shark.

I learned something from my last letter to the editor: this one never exceeded 250 words. Here it is:

In his article "Making the Leap" what Jon Kornelsen neglected to mention is the burden of proof.

In cases where no unambiguous evidence is forthcoming, the burden of proof dictates the default position. There are two possible default positions for belief in a proposition when evidence is absent: (1) believe every proposition until proven false; or (2) withhold belief until propositions are proven true.

The problem with the first option is that it is logically inconsistent. I'll illustrate by way of example.

Proposition 1: "Leprechauns place a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow."
Proposition 2: "Leprechauns do not exist."

With no evidence forthcoming, option (1) forces you to accept both propositions, even though they are mutually inconsistent.

For this reason, we accept option (2), and conclude that the burden of proof lies with the claimant. If you claim that a deity exists and it created the universe, you bear the burden of proof.

I do not have "faith" that the universe came into being of its own accord. As philosopher Julian Baggini said, "I'm genuinely in the dark about how the universe started, whereas plenty of religious believers have that hole in their understanding plugged by their deity."

To say "I don't see how the universe could possibly have begun other than by divine decree" is simply absurd. It is an argument from ignorance, and a logical fallacy. Saying "I don't know" is always more intellectually honest than pretending that you do.

Gem Newman,
The Winnipeg Skeptics

Tip o' the cosmological argument to Robert McGregor for the link.

Addendum: Reddit's Fallacy_Nazi didn't think much of the article, either.


  1. "Since the existence of an external, supernatural agent cannot be proven rationally, it must be discounted."

    He's trying to paint us negatively, but I contend that one is logically obligated to hold that position.

    ASSUME there is a deity. You have two options: It is a deist deity (ie NEVER interviens) or it is a theist deity (ie has interviened at least once in human history).

    if a, deist) You by definition can have no evidence of this god, as it has never, and will never interact with the universe. Regardless of whether this god exists, you can assume it doesn't and nothing changes.

    if b, theist) This god has interacted with the universe at least once. This interaction must be a natural one, as the universe is a natural thing. Therefore, this interaction can be rationally studied, and therefore there is at least one part of your god that is not *super*natural

    In short, if your god is fully and only supernatural, you can assume he doesn't exist and nothign changes. If he interacts with the universe, this can be observed and judged.

  2. "Since the existence of an external, supernatural agent cannot be proven rationally, it must be discounted."

    The main problem that I have with that statement is this: just because something cannot be "proven" does not mean it must be discounted. This is a clear misunderstanding (or intentional distortion) of our position.

    As I mentioned at the creation museum, proof is not a scientific concept: it is a mathematical, logical, and philosophical one. All the same, many scientific theories are still useful, because they are good models backed by solid evidence.