is atheism irrational?

“If a belief is as likely to be false as to be true, we’d have to say the probability that any particular belief is true is about 50 percent. Now suppose we had a total of 100 independent beliefs (of course, we have many more). Remember that the probability that all of a group of beliefs are true is the multiplication of all their individual probabilities. Even if we set a fairly low bar for reliability — say, that at least two-thirds (67 percent) of our beliefs are true — our overall reliability, given materialism and evolution, is exceedingly low: something like .0004. So if you accept both materialism and evolution, you have good reason to believe that your belief-producing faculties are not reliable.”

On the (New York Times) philosophy blog The Stone, I spotted this entry and first wondered if I had misread the title, as atheism sounds (to me) as a most rational position. I then read the piece and found it mostly missing, even though a few points rang true(r). First, theism is never properly defined. (Even though the author Alvin Plantinga seems to stick to monotheist religions.) This is a not-so-subtle trick as it makes atheism appear as the extreme position, since it is rejecting any form of theism! Then, the interviewee is mostly using a sequence of sophisms as arguments that atheists are irrational, see e.g. the even-star-ism and a-moonism and a-teapotism entries. Further, some of his entries very strongly resemble intelligent design arguments, e.g. the “fine-tuning” line that the universe is too perfectly suited to human life to be due to randomness. Even though Plantinga also resorts to evolution when needed, as in the above quote. (The interviewer is not doing a great job either, by referring to evil, or the need (or lack thereof) of God versus science to explain the world. Rather than resorting to rational arguments. And without mentioning the fundamental point in favour of atheism that the existence of a sentient being driving the whole universe while remaining hidden to us humans requires an infinitely stronger step than arguing this is impossibly incompatible with the laws of Physics and the accumulated corpus of experience since the dawn of humanity.) The whole strategy of Plantinga is actually to turn atheism into another kind of belief “that materialism and evolution are true” and then to rank it equal with the theisms. A very poor philosophical performance. As also (and better) pointed out in this other post. (And as my daughter remarked, fresh from writing a philosophy essay, Plantinga is missing the best argument of all, namely Pascal’s wager, an early instance of decision theory applied to religion.)

5 Responses to “is atheism irrational?”

  1. I think after Tversky&Kahneman (and de Finetti, Nietzsche, Darwin and Lao Tsu) we could safely end the quarrel over who is the most irrational. The only rational position left nowadays is to finally embrace our innate irrationality.

  2. I already commented on the second round in this series, but lost the comments before it got published. I do not have time nor will to run through it again: In short, this is not a great defence of atheism. The third one has now appeared, by John Caputo, who is a deconstructionist, in the Derrida tradition. The piece is worth reading to get a good laugh at this complete non-sense. (And at the sect-like interpretation of the writings of the head guru Derrida.) Sadly flagged as “abstruse French theory”.

  3. Bernhard Says:

    I think it is a question of the exact definition and maybe this is difficult for me to understand in a foreign language. It burns down to the question, whether atheism is the belief, that there is no god or it is just the lack of belief in a god.
    From a scientific position it is reasonably possible, that a god or gods do exist. So a belief, that there is no god is still an unscientific belief. That is an unproven Null. Only if you define atheism as the lack of belief in any specially defined god (like in: I could’nt reject the Null…) it is a superior and more scientific position.

  4. Jean Louis FOULLEY Says:

    Thanks Christian for reminding us about this confrontation between rationality and a-theism we are not so much concerned here in France as compared to other countries although the commemoration in 2009 of the publication of Charles Darwin’s book “On the origin of species” generated a lot of debate also here.

    The history of the relationships between Science and God is a long and often a painful one. Remember what happened to eg the scholars arguing in favor of heliocentrism in the XVI and XVII centuries.

    Pascal’ wager is based on the idea of an infinite utility for believers if God exists and a finite loss if he does not both for believers or not, then leading to an infinite expected utility for believers. But as in the St Petersburg paradox, does infinite expected utility make sense ?

    Regarding also probability theory, Martyn Hooper in a recent article published in Significance (2013, 10,36-39 ) about Richard Price (RP) and Bayes’ theorem, mentioned, by referring to a letter of RP to Canton that “RP believed it (Bayes’ theorem) could be useful to explain the probability of God”. Although highly desirable from a social and scientific points of view, disentenglement of rationality and deity is not so easy to implement.

  5. Thanks for this. I’ll have to look up Pascal’s wager.

    Karen Armstrong’s book “The Battle for God” has some worthwhile sections on atheism/theism.

    I’ve always appreciated the movie “The Quarrel”. Two men, holocaust survivors, take opposing sides in the theist/atheist debate.

    Personally, I’ve often been interested in Shintoism. It’s one of the few belief systems that seems to have a deeply integrated appreciation of Nature. The Miyasaki movie “My Neighbor Totoro” has many Shinto references in it.

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