Friday, September 07, 2007

Rebutting the Theist Rebuttal

Theists often accuse atheists of being just as dogmatic in their beliefs as religious fundamentalists are in theirs. But Richard Dawkins, in his review of Christopher Hitchens' book God is not Great, makes the following argument:

The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that’s overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which there is evidence – trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost.


Unknown said...

I don't buy Dawkins's argument. If you turn the whole thing on its head, you get a better argument.

The atheist has no explanation for the beginning of existence. The theist has a frail argument -- I grant you. Since any ten year old thinking deep thoughts can wonder Well, if God created the universe, who created God?

Dawkins is a physicalist. Great. There are trombones, pelicans and electrons. But if there such a thing as consciousness? love? music? air?

Steve said...

Tom, I think Dawkins would reply that there's ample evidence for the existence of consciousness, music, air, and emotional states but NOT for the existence of the biblical God. I think he would also say that cosmologists and astrophysicists already offer more plausible explanations of the "beginning of existence" than do theists who, as you point out, can't explain the beginning of God (and try to circumvent this problem by asserting that his existence is eternal). And those SCIENTIFIC explanations are likely to improve over time. Can we say the same of THEOLOGICAL ones?

Unknown said...

It is impossible to gauge the odds on who's right, here.

What hurts the theist argument, for me, is primarily consideration of how their belief system developed over time and how it comes from so very little information about the world. Theistic religions became a mode of control, infused with all sorts of mumbo-jumbo to cohere a community. The Old Time Religions are all about control and community and resistance to The New.

But the idea that life has meaning is powerful, and the observation that the physical universe and the forces in the universe are incredible and fit together in ways that are improbable and magnificent suggest that they cannot have come into being randomly and without absolute genius stirring the pot.

I think there is basis for theists' general beliefs.

I, personally, accept, joyously, the truths that are uncovered by science. But I am not yet finding that science has the reach to adequately observe -- much less explain -- consciousness, music, emotions and how it is possible that anything exists at all.

The search for God, Truths and Everything will continue.

Anonymous said...

I'm especially in awe of the "genius" and "magnificence" of this "incredible" universe's "Food Chain."

What could possibly further prove with life torturously ripping one another apart that "Intelligent Design" is the whole truth and nothing but?

I mean, dummies like myself might try to claim that nourishment could come from strictly non-living materials or that humans should be without need of eating in the first place. But alas, I can only bow to such Intelligent Design as to what surely created the ingenious Food Chain.

Steve said...

I agree that the universe DOES "fit together" in incredible ways, and that, unfortunately, some of them are incredibly ugly and awful. I agree that it's difficult to see the universe as having come into being without the involvement of some kind of intelligence, and that it's equally difficult to attribute benevolent "divinity" to something ultimately responsible for all the violence and suffering we observe around us.

And, as I've stated previously, I'm inclined to find more credibility in a universe that always existed than in one that was brought into existence by a "God" who always existed, and in a universe out of which evolved conscious intelligence than in a conscious intelligence out of which the universe sprang forth or evolved.

And, yet, the older I get, the less it matters to me what I or anyone believes about all of this. What matters, to the extent that anything does, is that we be happy in the sense that we do our best for ourselves and others.