Why Atheists are Obligated to Hold Positive Speculative Beliefs

by Eric Steinhart

Many atheists come to atheism through skepticism. And sometimes that skepticism is radical. It’s hostile to anything that doesn’t meet the alleged standards of our best science. It’s hostile to any theory that is merely speculative. Of course, to be consistent, these radical skeptics ought to apply their skepticism to themselves. If you’re a skeptic, you ought to be skeptical about your skepticism. And, if you are skeptical about your skepticism, then you’ll be willing to entertain speculative theories.

Suppose somebody (perhaps a theist) tells you that God designed and created the universe. The theist runs the good old Kalam Cosmological Argument: she acknowledges that the big bang was the first event in our universe and asserts that God is the cause of the big bang. You reply that we don’t know how the universe came into existence. We just don’t know the explanation for the big bang, or for the fine tuning of the laws of physics, etcetera. Since any theory that explains the existence and structure of our universe is speculative, you deny it. You just say that we don’t know. We may never know. And, since we don’t know, you say that we shouldn’t speculate.

Well, how will we ever know if we don’t speculate? You’ve got to propose theories before you can test them. The failure to speculate destroys the very root of science. And, when you keep silent, you’re endorsing the position that the topic is mysterious. For instance, by refusing to endorse any speculative explanation for the universe, you’re saying that the existence of the universe is mysterious. But with that, you’ve handed the whole topic over to the religious mystery-mongers. Right! God is the mystery behind all mysteries.

The only way to avoid mystery-mongering is to offer a rationally grounded speculative theory. You can’t know that it’s true. But you can give reasons, you can give arguments, you can provide evidence. Even skeptics are rationally obligated to believe the very best theories available – even if they don’t meet the standards of our best science. If scientific theories are not available, then speculation is necessary. If scientific theories are not available to answer some question, then it’s wrong and it’s harmful to refuse to provide the best possible speculative answer.

The task for the atheist is not to refuse to think; the task is to think better than the theist. The task is to formulate atheistic theories that are superior to theistic theories. Of course, they need to be evaluated, and replaced with better theories as soon as possible.

I don’t know whether some sort of cosmic evolution explains the existence and structure of our universe. But I do know that it’s a better theory than the theistic theory that God said “Let there be light!”. If you’ve got an even better theory, great, let’s hear it. Failure to adopt any theory is to allow the weaker theories to win the hearts and minds of people who would rather have some answer than no answer. And that’s most people.

Patheos Atheist LogoLike Camels With Hammers and Patheos Atheist on Facebook!

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.