February 11, 2009


Posted in Atheism, Worldview tagged , , , , at 1:30 pm by Andrew

4. Atheism is Not a “Worldview.”

This post summarizes the fourth set of answers to potential objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians argue that it is reasonable to believe that non-material things exist. In many cases, this argument is extended to include the claim that atheists subscribe to a “worldview” that arbitrarily excludes the supernatural.

I contend that a) atheism isn’t a worldview, and b) that my arguments survive the shared worldview both of the atheist and the theist. My ongoing, in-depth analysis of these sets of responses is permalinked to the right and can be found here.

Atheism is not a worldview, and does not entail hardcore materialism. This is such a basic issue that I’m surprised the “worldview” argument has taken such hold in contemporary apologetics.

As Wikipedia helpfully tells us, a “worldview” is defined as one’s comprehensive framework for evaluating the world, including theories of why we are here, where we’re going, how to get there, how to behave, and so on.

On face, then, atheism cannot be a worldview, because different atheists have different answers to those questions! In terms of ethics alone, we know that some atheists are Randians; some are Bethamite utilitarians; some follow more closely to John Stuart Mill; some are even Kantians. Many atheists follow Hume’s theory of epistemology, but many others do not. And so on. If atheism does not provide a single answer to these fundamental questions, it cannot be a worldview, by definition!

I think many Christians want to label atheism a worldview as part of a chain of argumentation that goes something like this: atheism means hardcore materialism, and hardcore materialism is self-contradictory; therefore, atheism is self-contradictory.

But, of course, nothing in atheism mandates hardcore materialism. At most, atheists believe in methodological naturalism, which says (roughly) that empirical claims require empirical evidence. (All of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, share this limited aspect of “worldview” — otherwise, we’d be awash in a sea of credulity.)

Contrary to the arguments of some Christians, nothing in this limited methodological naturalism rules out the supernatural a priori. Consider, for example, J.B. Rhine’s parapsychology experiments at Duke beginning in the 1930s with Zener cards and the like. (These experiments are parodied in the opening scene of Ghostbusters.)

Now as it turns out, Rhine’s studies were inconclusive at best (and in many cases, faked), but *had* they revealed statistical evidence for ESP, atheists would have had to take those results seriously using the principles of methodological naturalism. Similarly, double-blind efficacy-of-prayer studies seem to me to be a good way to test for the supernatural; it’s just that — like ESP — all of those studies to date have either been inconclusive or faked.

In other words, methodological naturalism contains no inherent bias against miracles.

Finally, Christians sometimes contend that other non-material things “exist” — like mathematics, love, morality, and the like. My short response is that these things exist as abstractions, as contingent upon the human mind. For example, we can arguably say that “five” exists — but only because we can either rationally comprehend “five” as a component of pure mathematics or because we can count out five apples, five puppies, and the like.

Note that this limited claim is, in turn, contingent on empirical verification. For example: it would obviously make no sense to claim that “five” exists, but that it was simultaneously impossible to tell if a pen full of puppies contained five, or fifty, or five million puppies. Similarly, “love” may be an abstraction, but it too manifests itself to our senses, both electrochemically in the brain and in terms of extrinsic behavior.

If someone wants to claim that God exists in the limited, contingent way that “five” or “love” exist — as an abstraction or a human mental concept — then I don’t disagree with them. But that is not Christianity.

I thus conclude that the fourth and final set of objections against my general case for atheism are not sufficient to warrant belief in God. My in-depth, updated (and lengthier) discussion of this issue can be found here.