Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Presumption of Atheism

While different people can use “the presumption of atheism” to mean different things, in this article I’m going to use it to refer to the idea that atheism is the correct default position to have on the issue of whether gods exist. There are basically two ways to argue for this. One way is to define atheism broadly enough to include agnosticism, and then argue that agnosticism is the best default position. Another approach, and the one I’ll go for here, is to define atheism as the doctrine that there is no deity and argue that the actual default position should be the non-agnostic sort of atheism.

One Approach

One approach to the presumption of atheism is say that the nonexistence of any given entity is the default position. For example, why do we not believe in fairies, gnomes, leprechauns etc.? Is it because we have overwhelming evidence for their nonexistence? No. The average person on the street will disbelieve in these entities but when pressed she probably won’t be able to cite any evidence against them. Yet such average people are rational to disbelieve in those entities because believing in something’s nonexistence is the default position.

As attractive as this principle may seem, counterexamples abound. Suppose for example Bill ponders the idea of life existing on other worlds, but he has no evidence for or against the idea. The most reasonable position for Bill here is clearly agnosticism about life on other worlds.

A Better Approach

Still, aren’t we rational in believing that fairies and leprechauns do not exist? Why should we disbelieve the existence of fairies whereas Bill should be agnostic about the existence of life on other worlds? One relevant factor in the case of leprechauns and fairies is that they have a kind of substantial deviation from the types of things we know exist, whereas this isn’t true in the case of life on other worlds (e.g. we already know of one planet with life on it).

Yet whether a thing’s existence does constitute such a substantial deviation will depend on the world one lives in. To illustrate, suppose we lived in a world where we knew intelligent beings with supernatural powers exist. Humans regularly interact with fairies, leprechauns, and a few other supernatural species. Suppose also that in this world you have no evidence for or against the existence of deities, where we define “deity” to be an intelligent being whose powers supernaturally transcend human abilities and whom some humans worship. It seems that in this situation agnosticism about the existence of deities is reasonable, since in this scenario a deity would not substantially deviate from the sorts of things we know exist (e.g. we already know that there are intelligent beings with supernatural powers).

In the real world of course, fairies, leprechauns, and the like are all outside our domain of known entities. In the real world, invisible nonphysical deities with supernatural powers constitute a substantial deviation from the types of things we know exist. If for example I tell you that while I was walking in a city I saw a deity shoot lighting from his fingers, you would disbelieve me and rightfully so. But if you would disbelieve that a deity did that even when I said I saw it happen, how much more should you also disbelieve that deity’s existence when I make no claim to witness him? The case for the presumption of atheism becomes clear.

One Good Objection

I don’t know whether this objection to my argument for the presumption of atheism is successful, but it’s worth considering. One objection is whether this argument really counts as a reason for atheist presumption or an actual argument for atheism. To illustrate, J.L. Mackie put forth what is now known as the Argument from Queerness against objective values (a term that includes objective moral values, e.g. an action being objectively evil). In chapter 1 of his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, he writes, “If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.” This was an argument against the existence of objective values, and one could say that my argument for the presumption of atheism is similarly an Argument from Queerness for atheism (and thus an Argument from Queerness against the existence of gods). I’m not sure to what degree that is true, but as I said it is worth considering.