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The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The next part of Chapter 7 shows Collins’ poor understanding of atheism. He starts by differentiating between “strong” and “weak” atheism, but then he makes the baseless claim that for the majority of atheists, strong atheism is “generally the assumed position” (p.161). He makes this distinction so that he has a group he can refute. He asks three questions, and I’d like to address them similarly to those posed by Michael Egnor.

But first I would like to address Collins’ assertion that most atheists are “strong atheists.” I would have liked to have seen some data here on the composition of atheists. I mean, if we’re just speaking anecdotally, then I’m perfectly fine to say the majority of atheists I know are weak atheists – that is, we’re not making a positive claim that there are no gods, so the burden of proof lies squarely with the theist – so I could go ahead and call that “generally the assumed position.”

Here’s how I’ve explained the position to people. I tell my wife that I’ve stuffed a monkey down my pants again. She rolls her eyes, looks, and doesn’t see the usual monkey-shaped bulge; “No no,” I reply, “this monkey’s really small and invisible!” Knowing that she can’t see my monkey, she’ll then try to feed the monkey; “No no, see – it doesn’t require any food.” Can she sense heat from it? Can she hear it breathe? At some point, she’s going to say, “You know, love, I really don’t think you have a monkey in your pants this time.” She’s an a-pants-monkey-ist, but only because she lacks belief in my monkey. She isn’t definitively saying I have no monkey, because she could not possibly meet the burden of proof. If anything, a-pants-monkey-ism – like weak atheism – may very well be the default position; I don’t believe in god because I have not seen compelling evidence to warrant my doing so, and my lack of belief requires no positive evidence.

Now on to the questions. I’ll provide Collins’ musings on the subject before providing my responses:

1. If this universal search for God [that Collins has argued for previously] is so compelling, what are we to make of those restless hearts who deny His existence?

Recall that Collins has argued previously that humanity seems to have a universal desire to seek God. In this particular section, he tosses out yet another Augustine quote from Confessions: “Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (p.162). Since my deconversion, I’ve thought it odd that a god would create us for himself and stir in us a desire to praise our creator god. What a megalomaniacal tyrant!

The search for god is not entirely universal. There are cultures, like this Amazon tribe, who have no purpose for god and deconverted missionaries sent to them. The search for god might just be our hypersensitive agency detection device. And, as scientific history has amply shown, “Throughout history / Every mystery / Ever solved has turned out to be / Not Magic.” (Thank you, Tim Minchin.) So, I first refute Collins’ claim that his Universal Search for God Argument is not at all compelling.

Next, why do we atheists deny his existence? Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by an angry God who demanded to know why he had not believed. Russell said his reply would be “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence” (The God Delusion, p.104). I personally deny god’s existence for the following reasons:

  • I find the traditional arguments (teleological, cosmological, anthropic, etc.) for the existence of god fail – or are at least not compelling.
  • I find the evidential problem of evil to be compelling against theism.
  • I find the application of the Outsider Test for Faith to compel me to reject the religion of my upbringing as I reject all other religions.

2. On what foundation do they make such assertions with such confidence?

Collins doesn’t really address this; or, at best, his answer is combined with his assessment of the historic origins. We’ll give this one a skip on Collins’ part.

For those strong atheists who positively assert there is no god – and by doing so, take on the burden of proof – I would suspect that they predominantly take two paths. Not being a strong atheist (yet), I know I’m putting myself out there are as potentially setting up a straw man. I don’t pretend to speak on behalf of the strong atheist community, but I’d like to put my thoughts out there in case any strong atheists can help me correct my thinking.

The first path is arguing that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. I know that apologists like William Lane Craig have argued that this is incorrect thinking. However, I think it is valid when applied correctly, in the same way that the professional exterminator who does a thorough investigation, looking everywhere where evidence might be found, concludes that the absence of evidence of termite damage most probably (almost certainly) means an absence of termites. Michael Martin, as reference by Matt McCormick in an Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on atheism cites that:

A person is justified in believing that X does not exist if:

  1. all the available evidence used to support the view that X exists is shown to be inadequate; and
  2. X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then there is a presumption that would be evidence adequate to support the view that X exists; and
  3. this presumption has not been defeated although serious efforts have been made to do so; and
  4. the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined; and
  5. there are no acceptable beneficial reasons to believe that X exists..

I think the second path also has a lot of power but is seldom used effectively: arguing that certain definitions of god are incoherent due to internal inconsistencies. For example, I think the concept of the Holy Trinity is incoherent (God is “Holy Spirit” and God is “Jesus” but the Holy Spirit is not Jesus; it seems contrary to the transitive property) so I’m quite confident I can rule that type of god out, though I’m not sure whether this is a category error.

As far as weak atheists go, I think it’s a simple case that the arguments are not compelling and the evidence is lacking: “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on nothing; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing and admits of no conclusion.” —Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

3. And what are the historic origins of this point of view?

Collins talks about atheism playing a “minor role” until the Enlightenment and the “rise of materialism” (p.162). A more powerful force, Collins says, was a “rebellion against the oppressive authority of the government and the church, partiularly as manifested in the French Revolution” (p.162). Collins states that atheists who equated the organized church with god himself decided it best to discard both. Finally, Collins mentions Freud, who argued that belief in god was just wishful thinking.

I would say the historic origins of atheism have roots in the increasingly open and decreasingly unpunished application of human reason. It was kind of hard to be an atheist when the Spanish Inquisition was around. As societies have become increasingly tolerant of free speech, I think fewer people have shied away from speaking their minds on this subject.

Other posts in this series:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...