The Language of God: Questions for Atheists

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:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • anna

    your “monkey down my pants” story makes me laugh so hard that I can’t continue reading.

  • http://www.blind-mind.com Andrew A.

    I take myself to be a strong atheist, and both type 1 and 2 are definitely part of my reasons. Type 2 is most useful for rapidly discarding any random god someone imagines: if someone says their god is both X and not X, then the god necessarily does not exist as described. Type 1, on the other hand, is the more practical way to disprove a god. If a someone claims their god will act in response to a prayer, and no act is performed, then certainly their god does not exist as described.

    Although there can be no certainty for sufficiently unimpressive gods, there is equally little reason to argue against those gods. All the ones that matter can be soundly defeated by the preponderant lack of evidence.

  • Alex Weaver

    I suggest your choice of taxonomic clade for the metaphor may be unfortunate, but it’s otherwise a wonderful comparison. :3

  • L.Long

    The statement…’humanity seems to have a universal desire to seek God.’ Is true only from a primate point of view that was carried over to religious political control.
    It really was ‘humanity seems to have a universal desire to seek Cause and reason, and why.’ But was called g0d for lack of better name. But under religious control they forgot the original questions.
    When people started asking the questions again, religion just hates that they are natural answers not because it ain’t g0d but it robs them of their power.

  • Alex SL

    As for strong atheism, both PZ Myers and Massimo Pigliucci seem to take that position. Although the latter’s explanations are generally hard to parse, the argument in both cases seems to be that every “god” that is not omnipotent, omniscient etc. does not really count as a god, but merely as a very powerful being of physical nature (like very advanced aliens), and that real 3-O gods are logically impossible. The idea being that if you cannot completely transcend the laws of nature, but are in some way part of them, you aren’t a deity.

    I consider that a cop-out: many non-abrahamic gods aren’t all-powerful, all-knowing or all-merciful, and we would still use the word. Also I suspect that MP’s main motivation for that stance is that if he accepted these lesser gods as possibilities to be examined, he would have to concede that (lack of) scientific evidence is necessary to dispose of them, and not only his beloved philosophical arguments. But there you go, another possible argument for strong atheism.

  • Jormungund

    Did Collins mention Epicurus or other ancient atheists? Atheism certainly wasn’t invented in the Enlightenment.

    decreasingly unpunished application of human reason

    Is this grammatically correct? Should it be ‘increasingly unpunished’? I think there is a double negative problem here.

  • jack

    Of course it is possible simultaneously to be both a strong atheist and a weak atheist. I am a “weak atheist” with respect to the God of Deism, but a “strong atheist” with respect to the Xian God — or should it be Gods? That pesky trinity idea! If a particular conception of God asserts that God intervenes in our reality in a detectable way, and we test those assertions and detect no such intervention, then we have a failed hypothesis on our hands, ready for the trash can of demonstrably false ideas.

  • TEP

    If this universal search for God

    There is no such thing. If he were talking about a universal search for gods, he might have a case, but only a tiny minority of people throughout history have sought out Yahweh. Some have searched for Yahweh, some have searched for Zeus, Hera, Hermes and Poseidon, others have searched for Osiris, Anubis, Hathor and Ra, and still others have searched for Hadad, Dagon and El. Most people have sought out multiple gods, and for most people, Yahweh wasn’t among them. So, if the ‘universal’ tendency of people to seek out religion were actually an argument for religion, it would also demonstrate that a) Christianity is most likely false b) Yahweh probably doesn’t exist because most people searched for other gods and c) there are probably a very large number of gods.

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

    The first atheist was someone who, when told by the first theist that there were a bunch of spirits living in the mountain who would provide good crop yields in exchange for the sacrifice of a goat, roared with laughter and told the first theist to cut back on the funny mushrooms.

    Asking for the origins of atheism is like asking for the historic origins of not believing in leprechauns or who invented the idea of not believing a Nigerian scammer who tells you they’ll give you $20 million if you send them a $300 fee first. The ‘point of view’ of rejecting a particular claim originates the moment someone makes the claim and somebody doesn’t buy it. There’s nothing more to it than that.

  • http://bible.luke-senior.co.uk Luke Senior

    The monkey reminds me of The Dragon In My Garage.

  • LindaJoy

    I was so taken in by a speech that Daniel Everett (the priest deconverted by his interaction with the Piraha tribe) made to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s audience a couple of years back that I emailed him about it. He mentioned that his book and experiences were going to be the subject of a documentary, but it seemed that nothing was happening on that front. I just emailed him recently and he said that the documentary should be out this year. I don’t have any details, but if you just google his name or the title of his book (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes), you can probably get more information. Anthopology has always claimed that every culture on the earth developes a god/spiritual/religion component, but these people have not.

    As far as hard and soft atheism, I would say that for me being a hard atheist (there absolutely are no gods) does not set me up in a position of having some burden of proof. The universe has lots of examples of things that absolutely can not happen or exist simply because of the laws of nature, so why can’t an atheist say there absolutely are not any gods, period? I read about a scientist who calls himself a “possibilitarian” because he thinks that since we find new and awesome stuff about the universe all the time, ANYTHING is possible. I think that’s nonsense.

  • Dark Jaguar

    I agree with most of that, but I will play devil’s advocate on the “trinity” thing for a moment because I don’t really find that a solid argument. I never understood the claim of “trinity” to mean that god is exactly equal to “father” and exactly equal to “holy spirit” and so on so much as the idea that those are PARTS of an entity called god, basically 1/3, that have some sort of full admin access to the other parts and are all connected. There’s no violation of transitive property there. The analogy Christians I’ve known have used is something like a glass of sweet lemon aid, which is lemons, water, and sugar, and are all lemonade at once. Not exactly a very dignified comparison, but eh.

    I’ve got no reason at all to believe in any gods mind you, but I just don’t consider the trinity thing to be all that logically flawed so much as overly poetic.

  • http://www.freethoughtbooks.org Jerryd

    When I think of your discussion “A person is justified in believing that X does not exist if:” I’m reminded of Jimmy Hoffa who disappeared in 1975. No one heard from or saw him for he next seven years and he was declared legally dead in 1982–he no longer existed. I wonder if the people who wrote up his death notice went to church that week to praise and pray to the deity who hadn’t been heard from or seen for about 2,000 years without noticing a slight disparity regarding the criteria they used to consider a being to exist.

  • LindaJoy

    Dark Jaguar- One thing that stands out in my memory of Lutheran confirmation class was our pastor, who I really liked, trying to explain the trinity to us. The best he could come up with was it was like a new product that was recently being advertised- Quaker State “Three in one” oil. Of course, we all sat there and nodded our heads, wrote it down and repeated it on our final exams. I wish I still had a copy of that test paper. What a riot! Poor pastor. I wonder now if he went home and wondered what the hell he had just told us!

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    Tush.

    “Weak atheists” are weak minded, credulous fools or else they are phonies.

    Who the deuce thinks Jupiter, Vishnu, or Thor even might actually exist?

    Not as fabulous creatures in some science fiction epic about aliens building the pyramids, for gosh sakes, but as actual gods?

    And why, exactly, ought the various gods of the monotheists, differing from one another in as many ways as theologians – especially but not only dissident Protestant theologians – can imagine when you get into the weeds, be thought of any differently than the vast supply of polytheists’ gods or, for that matter, quasi- or semi-divine or spirit beings like Bodhisattvas, wood nymphs, leprechauns, fairies, divas, demons, and so on?

    There is no more evidence for any of these than for any wild story you might care to make up.

    And the proper epistemic response to such made up nonsense is neither to suspend judgment nor to consider all mutually exclusive god stories equally likely (whose number is limited only by infinity and so whose individual likelihood would be vanishingly small) – and the no-god story no more likely than any one of them – but frank, forthright, and honest disbelief of each and every one of these stories.

    That is, one rightly esteems these wild tales completely false, subject to re-evaluation under new evidence.

    Not that there is any old evidence, mind.

  • Miss Phoebe

    Didn’t St. Patrick teach the trinity to the Irish using the shamrock — 3 separate leaves united on one stem? Of course, poison ivy might have been a better example. . .

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    All the theologians’ analogies about oil, lemonade and shamrocks are beside the point. The problem is that, according to Christian beliefs, the Trinity isn’t a mixture or combination of several distinct parts into one thing, which is a concept that’s easy to understand. It’s three persons who mysteriously manage to in some way be the same, while in some other way being distinct from each other. That’s the concept that has no obvious logical coherence. As I wrote:

    If the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have separate consciousnesses or desires, then they are each separate gods, and there is no sense in which they are the same being. In that case, Christianity is polytheistic. But on the other hand, if the Son and the Holy Spirit have no separate consciousness or will from the Father, then they have no independent existence at all – they are merely instruments or tools through which God works to accomplish his will. One would not call a carpenter’s hammer a carpenter in and of itself, nor would one say that the carpenter was the same as his hammer. In this case, if the members of the Trinity have no separate consciousness, will or desires, then there is no Trinity at all – the whole doctrine is essentially just a convoluted way for God to talk to himself. Either way, the resolution is the same: the Christian divinity can be either one or three, but not both at the same time.

  • LindaJoy

    “Either way, the resolution is the same: the Christian divinity can be either one or three, but not both at the same time.”

    I don’t know about that Adam. The concept worked pretty well for the Quaker State Oil people! :) Linda

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    Hence the classification of the Trinity as an official “Mystery” of the faith.

    And hence Tertullian saying he believes because it is absurd.

    What can you do with a mind like that?

  • BJ Marshall

    The pants-monkey story comes from Sagan’s dragon. My friends know my sense of humor, and they’d appreciate my take. Perhaps I should change the clade, though.

    Collins did not mention Epicurus or any other ancient atheists. Recall how his “atheism” was dashed by the idle questions of an elderly woman? Yeah, I’m guessing he’s never done his atheist homework and really looked into things.

    @Gaius: I think I’ve finally decided to push myself over the fence: I’m a strong atheist.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    Bravo!

    Technically, Epicurus was no atheist, if I recall correctly, as he agreed to the existence of the gods.

    He differed from the usual view of his time in holding them to be material, wholly indifferent to the affairs of humans, and in fact wholly inactive in every way.

    Religiously inert, so to speak.