Monday, January 03, 2005

Atheism, Religion, and Science

REVISED, 01/04/05 - 7:08 A.M.
REVISED AGAIN, 01/25/05 - 6:00 P.M.

Do atheists suppose that they are somehow more "scientific" than Theists or Deists? I began to wonder about that after reading a post by Matt Young at The Panda's Thumb about philosopher Anthony Flew's "conversion" to Deism. Young is the author of No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe, about which the publisher says,
Rejecting belief without evidence, a scientist searches the scientific, theological, and philosophical literature for a sign from God -- and finds him to be an allegory.
It seems that Young is a scientist and an atheist. Which leads me back to Anthony Flew's "conversion" to Deism, which is noteworthy because, according to Richard Carrier ("Anthony Flew Considers God...Sort Of" at The Secular Web),

...Flew is one of the most renowned atheists of the 20th century, even making the shortlist of "Contemporary Atheists" at So if he has changed his mind to any degree, whatever you may think of his reasons, the event itself is certainly newsworthy....

Carrier goes on to say this:

The fact of the matter is: Flew hasn't really decided what to believe. He affirms that he is not a Christian -- he is still quite certain that the Gods of Christianity or Islam do not exist, that there is no revealed religion, and definitely no afterlife of any kind (he stands by everything he argued in his 2001 book Merely Mortal: Can You Survive Your Own Death?). But he is increasingly persuaded that some sort of Deity brought about this universe, though it does not intervene in human affairs, nor does it provide any postmortem salvation. He says he has in mind something like the God of Aristotle, a distant, impersonal "prime mover." It might not even be conscious, but a mere force. In formal terms, he regards the existence of this minimal God as a hypothesis that, at present, is perhaps the best explanation for why a universe exists that can produce complex life. But he is still unsure....

In an update, Carrier adds that he asked Flew

what he would mean if he ever asserted that "probably God exists," to which [Flew] responded (in a letter in his own hand, dated 19 October 2004):

I do not think I will ever make that assertion, precisely because any assertion which I am prepared to make about God would not be about a God in that sense ... I think we need here a fundamental distinction between the God of Aristotle or Spinoza and the Gods of the Christian and the Islamic Revelations.

Rather, he would only have in mind "the non-interfering God of the people called Deists -- such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin." Indeed, he remains adamant that "theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience...." *

Thus, in spite of his "conversion" to Deism, Flew takes up what seems to be a standard line of atheism: A belief in God or Creation is unscientific because a belief in God or Creation is an unfalsifiable hypothesis; that is, one can simply assert that there is a God and that there was a Creation, without fear of contradiction by physical evidence.

That leads me to ask whether atheism is any more scientific than a belief in God or a Creation.

Consider these statements:

A. I believe that there is a God; that is, an omniscient, omnipotent being who created the universe, and who remains involved in the events of the universe, including the lives of humans. (Theism)

B. I believe that there is some kind of force or intelligence created the universe, but that force or intelligence has since had no involvement in the universe. (Deism)

C. I believe that there is no God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B. (Strong atheism)

D.1. I choose not to believe in a God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B, even though His or its existence cannot be proved or disproved. (Weak atheism)

D.2. I choose to believe in a God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B, even though His or its existence cannot be proved or disproved. (Weak theism or deism)

E. I take no position on the existence of a God, force, or intelligence of the kind posited in A or B because His or its existence can never be proved or disproved. (Agnosticism)

If A and B cannot be disproved (falsified) by empirical evidence -- as atheists insist -- then C cannot be proved empirically, because the disproof of A or B would imply the proof of C. Similarly, if C were a falsifiable hypothesis, then the disproof of C would imply the proof of A or B (depending on the exact form of the disproof).

Both versions of D acknowledge the unfalsifiability of A, B, and C. But both versions of D then take a leap of faith, as it were, to reject or embrace the idea of a God. That is, each draws a conclusion that cannot be supported empirically. The statements of disbelief and belief in D.1 and D.2, respectively, are therefore on the same empirical footing as A, B, and C.

The scientific virtue of statement E (agnosticism) is that it does not pretend to assert a truth, as do A, B, and C. Nor does it make a leap of faith, as do both versions of D. Statement E addresses the issue of falsifiability head on and comes to a scientifically valid conclusion. Therefore, agnosticism is the only scientifically honest position to hold in opposition to a belief in God or a Creation.

Atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion. As noted scientist and anti-religionist Richard Dawkins puts it:

I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all "design" anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe. [Emphasis added.]

As I say in another post:
Thus -- to a scientist qua scientist -- God and Creation are unknown unknowns because, as unfalsifiable hypotheses, they lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry. Any scientist who pronounces, one way or the other, on the existence of God and the reality of Creation has -- for the moment, at least -- ceased to be scientist.

* Carrier's account is consistent with Flew's statements in “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: An Exclusive Interview with Former British Atheist Professor Antony Flew,” Philosophia Christi, Winter 2005, in press, but available here.