Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Nature of Atheist Belief

A charge frequently levelled at Atheist is that Atheism is a belief system just like religion, so let’s look at what 'belief' actually means.

Scientific belief is not an absolute position, but is always subject to review, revision and, when justified by evidence or logical deduction, abandonment. No scientific belief is sacred and unchallengeable, save perhaps the belief that no scientific belief is sacred and unchallengeable.

1. Strong scientific belief
I believe that, when I drop a stone it will fall towards earth. This belief is based on a life-time of experience, the knowledge that Earth has gravity and that gravity will cause it to happen, based in turn on the acceptance of the body of scientific opinion that gravity will cause a small object to fall towards a large one (though this latter explains how gravity works and so only explains what I can observe for myself).

My belief that a stone will always fall under gravity is strong because it is evidence-based and can be repeatedly tested in experiments. However, it allows for the possibility that one day a stone may fail to fall and so overthrow the entire theory of gravity, necessitating a complete revision of some basic scientific principles. And, of course, in the special circumstances which might prevail at some future state of the Universe, there may be no gravity so a stone would not then fall to Earth, although in such circumstances there would be no Earth, no stone and no-one to drop it.

2. Weak scientific belief.
I believe that Manchester United could win the Premier League next season. This belief is derived from the fact that there IS a Premier League in which Football teams compete and that Manchester United is a team in that league. These are factual observations which can be independently verified. I also believe that Manchester United have a team capable of winning the Premier League. This is based on the evidence of past results.

However, this belief in a possible outcome is NOT a strong belief because I also have a belief in several possible, mutually exclusive, alternative outcomes. I also believe that any other team in the Premiership could win the title. Given sufficient time and information, the probability of any one of them doing so could be ranked in order of probability, though maybe never accurately since some of the required information is itself subject to probability and uncertainty. However, it MAY be possible to reach a broad measure of confidence in the approximate final position of most teams, so my belief that Manchester United could win the title can be given an approximate measure of confidence.

Note: this latter belief differs from my belief in gravity only in the degree of confidence. Both are observation-based and can be scientifically verified, yet both are subject to probability and both allow for the possibility of being wrong. The probability of a stone not falling under gravity is very low (almost, but not quite, zero); the probability of Manchester United winning the Premiership may be less than 50%, however, my belief is only in the POSSIBILITY of it happening, not in the certainty of it, so I have complete confidence that it is possible, though it may not be probable.

3. Religious belief
Religious belief never allows for the possibility of being wrong. Faith is certainty, based on unchallengeable ‘truths’ which must be accepted a priori. No observations or experimental testing is required. Indeed, the act of doing so is an act of doubt which is contrary to faith and tantamount to heresy. Given the choice between faith-based ‘knowledge’ and evidence which refutes that knowledge, the true believer will choose faith and dismiss the contrary evidence.

4. The difference
So what is the fundamental difference between scientific belief and religious belief?

With scientific belief, the observer adopts a position subservient to the factual, observable, or logically deducible evidence and bases their belief, and their confidence in that belief in that evidence. The believer is subservient to, and is humbled by, the evidence.

A consequence of this subservience is that there can be no belief in its absence. Evidence drives belief, so, with no evidential drivers there can be no belief. This is where atheist arrive at their belief that there are no gods. There is no evidence for them so no belief that they exist. To believe they do so would be the equivalent of believing in a force which moves a stone horizontally when dropped. To believe in the absence of evidence is to adopt the religious position.

With religious belief, the ‘observer’ adopts a superior position and holds the view that something MUST be true simply because they believe it. The ‘knowledge’ they derive from their faith needs no evidential or logical support. Indeed, observational evidence is immaterial and irrelevant. The observer is superior to the evidence and can determine ‘truth’ by belief alone. In effect, religious belief is the assumption that the Universe is subservient to the will of the believer and facts only exist if permitted so to do.

As an Atheist, I find the arrogance of the religious position to be an affront to the Universe and an abuse of what must be one of the greatest creations of evolution – the human brain and the mind it allows us to have. It is an affront to humanity.

In the unlikely event that there is a sentient creator of the Universe, it is difficult to believe that it would not also be affronted by the arrogance of religious belief.

4 comments :

  1. I enjoyed that, fabulously clear. I agree wholeheartedly. I too am affronted by the minions of pretending. It IS an insult.
    A very nice piece, thanks Rosa

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  2. I'm sorry, but God concepts have to be regarded as a special case. A genuinely all-powerful supernatural being would be capable of creating a world that shows no evidence whatsoever for its existence. The absence of evidence cannot be evidence for absence here.

    I can totally accept that there should be no belief in the absence of evidence but this has to include the belief in no gods. To believe in no gods in the absence of evidence is, itself, to adopt a religious position.

    Ideas about the supposed supernatural are simply not amenable to science and will have to remain open questions. Any active believers or disbelievers in such things are wrong.

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  3. I'm ammused to see you arguing for the 'special needs' god of creationism. As I point out in another blog, the special needs child of creationist parents will have inherrited its handicap from those parents.

    A very nice illustration of a theological 'argument' which can, apparently conclude that, because the absense of evidence isn't evidence of absence (which it is, incidentally, though not proof of it) that it is therefore evidence of presence. There is a reason why theology isn't just called 'logic'.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I like tihs piece. Thank you very much. Though I am troubled that this and other blog articles you have written do not contain citations, either in brackets or in footnotes. I would appreciate citations for your assertions (like Wikipedia does and as do academic papers), as it would give me stuff to go and read and follow up on. Troublingly, I note the Christian bloggers are quite keen to quote 'blah blah blah' from the book of Montague (for instance) and by comparison I fear the works published here, as excellently-written as they are, are a bit "pop philosophy" iyswim. Please don't take it personally, I'm just looking for a bit of meat on the bones. Keep up the good work!! :)

    ReplyDelete

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