• What do you think is the strongest argument against atheism?

    This is always an interesting question because it challenges your own worldview, assuming you are an atheist. It’s the classic line of questioning you get when you are in an interview:

    “So, Mr Pearce, what do you think your biggest weakness is?”

    Of course, I have no weakness…

    I actually think that my understnading of atheism and the worldview to which it pertains is coherent and solid and there are no real thorns in its side. Perhaps, though I don’t see this as an issue for atheism per se, and one can argue similarly for God, for me the question of why there is something rather than nothing is pretty mind-boggling. I have in the past even felt slightly nauseous thinking about it. It’s a biggun.

    Whether it be morality, fine-tuning or whatever (these present no problems for me), I would be intersted to hear what YOU think the weakest areas of atheism are, and what you think the strongest arguments against atheism are.

    You become rationally stronger in your own views when you look at their weakest points to see if they stand up. Let’s be self-critical.

    Science & Technology
    Ratheism, computer, people, images, lth0w, atheism

    Category: AtheismPhilosophy of ReligionSkepticism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • Sorry to respond with another question – but do you think there’s a difference between an argument against atheism and an argument for theism? Or are all arguments against atheism arguments for theism?

      I suppose there’s a difference if atheism is a positive claim about the nonexistence of God, so I guess it depends on definitions, etc.

      Anyway to answer your question – I don’t think it’s a very good argument per se, but I often find it emotionally compelling – the transcendent feelings inspired by natural beauty and great art.

      • Good question: I tried to pre-empt that with me “not against atheism per se” point about something rather than nothing.

        You could argue about consciousness or abstracts etc but these are only by extension from naturalism.

    • Kevin Lowe

      I suppose one could make an argument for supernaturalism by appealing to the seemingly numinous nature of some emotions. I think that people tend to perceive merely natural phenomena as simple, boring and/or incapable of entailing the components that would be necessary to cause these emotional states so it’d be a pretty intuitive jump to thinking it must be explainable by something other than natural phenomena. Of course this doesn’t survive rigorous scrutiny because one would realize that if that non natural phenomena were understood, it would also seem boring and simple. Maybe this is just intuitive because there being a mysterious element to our transcendent seeming emotions makes them more appealing to us or something.

      • I figured most people would end up gong down the naturalism vs supernaturalism route.

        Interestingly, your hypothesised position is one I have had with a fellow TPer who is not convinced about free will illusionism and naturalism because he can’t comprehend a humanity without those things and what he thinks that entails. An argument from wishful thinking because he doesn’t want humanity stripped of its emotions, mystery and artsy kind of stuff.

        But he had no positive arguments to back up his worldview, so hey.

        • Kevin Lowe

          It’s especially interesting because we lose none of that on naturalism. We just move to hypothesizing (or acknowledging) that the bounds of natural phenomena are a lot more wondrous than we initially presumed. Not only that, but this could be better from a wishful thinking pov because if everything wonderful about our existence is caused by merely natural phenomena, then its fundamentals may be fully understandable and/or exploitable scientifically, which could lead us into an incredible future. Of course this tangent could also be used to support dystopian predictions and that’s a whole other debate.

    • John Grove

      I don’t know of any argument that I find even half way interesting for theism. They are all based on poor reasoning and what “science doesn’t know”.

    • It seems to me the fine tuning argument is the best that theists have, although maybe the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics argument’s that Aquinas used are the best.

      What seems to convince most people that theism is true is the moral argument, but I find that argument horrible. Still, so many fall for it, but I think this is due to a lack of knowledge in ethics.

      • Kevin Lowe

        That’s interesting imo because the most common reason, by far, I’ve heard people give for leaving religion was some version of the problem of evil/suffering.

        • That’s a case of people coming out of religion, I’m talking about why people go into religion.

          • Kevin Lowe

            Yeah, I know. I think it’s interesting if we’re both right and most theists think theism is true because of a moral argument while most people who leave theism do so because of a realization that God can’t be moral by their standards. I personally think that’s an interesting contradiction to dwell on.

      • Graham Martin-Royle

        If fine tuning is the best argument for theism, theists have already lost. After all, the vast majority of the universe is hostile to human life. Indeed, so is the vast majority of our solar system or if we want to get even more parochial, the vast majority of planet earth is hostile.

        • I agree. Theists have no good arguments for god. But at least the FTA relies on actual science unlike the cosmological argument or any “intelligent design” arguments. But I really can’t think of a better argument that theists have.

    • If my neighbor told me he had a pet centaur, I’d be an a-centaurist, and their only argument against a-centaurism would be to produce the creature for examination. The only strong argument against atheism would have to be a strong argument favoring theism, and it’ll be difficult to provide that without strong evidence. In his novel Contact, Carl Sagan speculated about evidence in the form of an encrypted message from a Creator embedded in the digits of an irrational constant like pi.

    • I would, with respect, disagree that it is a good exercise in being self-critical [at least, for me]. The value in critical thinking about one’s own views is found in matters where non-rational bias can push you one way on a question or belief, and also the topic has to be personally meaningful.

      For me, neither of those conditions are met here. The arguments are so awful, so empty, such spectacular failures handily defeated by all available evidence and human knowledge that it can’t be “nudged” by any biases I might have, not unless I had pathological delusion-grade biases.

      On the second part, it might sound strange to say the question of the creator deity is not meaningful. But you have to look at it this way: either there’s no God, and the world is as I understand it with physical laws, evolved emotions, planets whizzing around stars; Or I am wrong, and there is a God. A distant, invisible entity having absolutely no apparent effect on the physical laws, evolved emotions, and planets whizzing around stars. And the question isn’t even that, it’s a step or two removed: what’s the best of all the crappy arguments that the second, mostly irrelevant, option is true? I can’t see any way this matters at all to my life or any decision I will ever make. So, there is no psychological source of selfish bias I can think of. It just doesn’t matter enough for that.

      We need self-critical thinking about beliefs and choices that could impact our lives or those of others, at least in principle. And we need it mainly when evaluating middle-level likelihood ideas. Ideas that have a reasonable chance of being right or wrong, like climate change is or was, like does dark energy exist? Is the less-free, but more-secure socialized economy of northern europe better for society? Should I buy those pants, can I pull off that look? The question about pants is far more salient than any about arguments against atheism.

    • Hmm… I’ll admit that deistic arguments can be, as Anthony Flew put it, compelling. Not that they hold actual merit once explored, but they do pack a rhetorical punch to those who haven’t really delved in (a)theological discourse. The same goes for pro agnosticism arguments (and these can be much trickier).

      The real problem, it seems to me, are atheists themselves (and at this point I realize that I’m mixing pure atheism with the movement and its proponents). The following points are not necessarily embedded in Atheism per se, but crop up so often that they might as well be.

      First, there seems to be an over-reliance on science, to the point of scientism, which often offers a really cheap way to attack atheism. [e.g. if your first rebuttal to fine-tuning is the multiverse (an unproven hupothesis) you’re doing it wrong… and give evolution a rest -even the Pope has accepted it; it’s no nail in theism’s coffin.]

      Second, it has become abundantly clear that many atheists don’t want to accept that after religion fizzles, we’re pretty much stuck with Nietzsche. Without morality by divine fiat plus a form of afterlife, ethics pretty much collapses into the humean gap and moral discussion turns into “let’s agree to these arbitrary rules so we can live together”.

      Not all people can handle that, so on one hand we have the moral argument suddenly gaining rhetorical traction and on the other we have desperate attempts for secular objective morality. Works like Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” seems to happily combine this with a good dose of scientism. I also feel like this point also carries a certain condescension for the hoi polloi, similar to the napoleonic observation that religion is what keeps the poor from killing the rich.

      The same things can also be said about free will, as it is becoming more and more clear that the everyday concept is indefensible.

      So, to sum things up, I think Atheism can have some philosophical trouble when dealing with purely deistic and agnostic arguments (though not insurmountable). But I think the issues of scientism, morality and free will are far worse since, while philosophical as well, they create image and acceptance problems.

      • jjramsey

        Without morality by divine fiat plus a form of afterlife, ethics pretty
        much collapses into the humean gap and moral discussion turns into
        “let’s agree to these arbitrary rules so we can live together”.

        That’s not quite right, since the rules are hardly arbitrary. Ask yourself what would life be like if we had no compunctions about lying, taking stuff that’s in another’s possession, and killing. It doesn’t take a Thomas Hobbes to figure out that it would be nasty, brutish, and short. The rules are designed, to various degrees, to avoid that.

        • Oh, come on, you know what I mean. Obviously moral norms are useful, there’s no arguing that, but the divine ultimately removes impunity from the discussion, which is something most people really care about. Without a deity to make sure justice is served at some point, we have to settle with the flawed human justice system (and despite the statues, Themis is hardly blindfolded, nor are her scales impartial).

          Am I the only one who has experienced sarcastic sneers from theists, when arguing that without the divine, justice becomes an entirely human matter? Or the realization that morals are ultimately there for groups of people who don’t have enough power to safely ignore them?

          I would argue that these are points that make an atheistic worldview unpalatable to a wider audience.

      • im-skeptical

        Many of us regard scientism as something vulgar. It just doesn’t sound as sophisticated as assuming that there are other ways of knowing things. of course, theists insist that there is more knowledge to be had than what we can gain from purely science. They are referring to intuition, divine revelation, or sensus divinitatus, or perhaps philosophy.

        But how do we actually know something is true? I think that scientific method is the only way we have to test and confirm the things we believe, and thereby arrive at a degree of confidence that those things are true. I don’t discard philosophy, either, but it must be scientifically informed. Ultimately, the premises behind any philosophical argument must be based on some epistemological foundation, and what would that be, if not science?

        So scientism, like LFW, may not sound appealing, but what other alternative do we have?

        • There’s nothing wrong with Science, but we have to accept that there are fields of inquiry where it has limited value. I know it’s been done to death, but it bears repeating that Ethics (the strongest example) are outside the purview of Science by definition, so attempts like Harris’ can’t really avoid the stigma of Scientism, even if it sounds a tad passé. The issue often becomes confused further with people who have no concept of the issues involving the Philosophy of Science, thinking of it as this monolithic, immovable thing; be all and end all and (sadly) often taking it on a perverted type of faith. Massimo Pigliucci has an interesting article on Scientism that might be worth your time.

          And as you mention when saying “what alternative is there”, we might just have to face up to the fact that in some cases there might just be no “there” to be found (e.g. moral nihilism) or that Science + Philosophy as it stands today isn’t up to the task and we don’t have a viable alternative.

          The one thing I know for sure is that many people are not content with this sort of ambiguity and lack of finality. It is the great irony of atheism really: Having to convince theists settled in a worldview of definite answers of a different worldview that offers nothing of the sort :-/

          • im-skeptical

            Pigliucci’s over-the-top view of scientism is not something I would care to defend (nor would most any scientist, I suspect), but it is just the kind of thing that plays into the hands of theists.

            • I’m not entirely sure we read the same thing. I didn’t see something too objectionable in that article and I certainly wouldn’t classify it as over the top, in any case. Your final comment however, is entirely irrelevant (you may find this interesting).

            • im-skeptical

              Perhaps I did read it wrong. But as I see it, the “alphabet soup” of scientism that Pigliucci argues against is a straw man. It doesn’t represent the actual views held by anyone on the planet that I know of. I believe that taking a scientific approach is the best way we have of knowing things, and that everything we know is ultimately based on empirical observations. But the idea that you can separate logic and mathematics from science is absurd. The idea that one who takes a scientific approach to knowledge has no humanity or can’t also enjoy works of art is laughable. We may have beliefs and values (such as ethical values) that are not based on empirical knowledge, but those things are not part of what we “know”. To claim that we know things that are not observable or detectable (or logically derived from things that are) is antithetical to a scientific approach to knowledge.

              I don’t know if you would say I’m guilty of scientism, but others do say that, and it’s fine with me, as long as you don’t try to claim that my scientism entails a lot of ridiculous positions like the ones in Pigliucci’s article. If he wants to take a stance against scientism, he should at least present a realistic view of what scientism entails. Otherwise, what’s the point?

            • Nah, the article presents a spectrum of ideas that can crop up in a discussion abput scientism. It’s not a compact critique of a singular all-encompassing idea, nor was it meant to be, I gather. You’re being a tad ungenerous in your reading, aren’t you?

              True, you cannot completely separate Maths from Science, but Science (in this case, “observation” to be more accurate) is only useful in setting up the most basic of axioms (addition, subtraction and elementary geometry). After that it takes off pretty much by itself, mostly in the realm of the theoretical (anything outside the set of Real numbers) and the unverifiable [e.g. you cannot have observations regarding infinite series, especially the more mind-blowing ones, like “the sum of all positive integers is -1/12” (!)].

            • josh

              Okay, pet peeve of mine: the sum of all positive integers is not -1/12. The Reiman zeta function at -1 is equal to -1/12. This function is equal to the sum of 1 over the integers to some power (s) for positive s >1, i.e. the sum of 1/(n^s). But the sum of this series for s < 1 is divergent and the zeta function is not at certain values. The zeta function also shows up in quantum mechanics calculations so you should be careful about claiming it is in some rarefied otherland.

              More importantly though, Pure Math (TM), is rule following. You set up some rules for symbol manipulation and follow them, possibly finding the results interesting. This is useful when we set up the rules to mimic the way the physical world works. However, even in the limit of Pure Math one is ultimately working out a physical process within your brain, or in a computer, or on a sheet of paper. Math has to follow the rules of the physical world: you can only do the math that physics will allow you to do.

              Pigliucci is simply a bit of a humbug whose opinions on science far outstrip his competence.

            • im-skeptical

              Inasmuch as I may be uncharitable in my reading of Pigliucci, I think the same may be said of Pigliucci’s treatment of scientism. I find myself mostly in agreement with this:

            • Nice article. I agree with some parts, disagree with others. If anything our discussion was interesting though. Jonathan didn’t intervene, so hopefully we didn’t derail the overall discussion too much :P

            • Hi there

              Sometimes it’s good to let the readers go with it.

              My view is that science is the best,most reliable source of knowledge that we have. It is testable. But, as a philosopher, there is more to reality than science can hope to enlighten, most notably abstracta and concepts. For example, morality is abstract in ontology. That means that science is ill-equipped to tell us, in some sense, what is is, whether we have it in a normative sense, and what we should do.

              However, if there is, say, consequentialist more reality (excusing problematic ideas of objective) then science can be used as a method to deliver us optimal consequences and thus morality.

              I presume Pigliucci would be aiming much of his criticisms against people like Krauss who have at times stated some philosophically naive views.

              My mate James Lindsay (whose last book I edited and which I implore you to get! Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly – available from sidebar there>>>) just wrote an article on this with Stenger and Borhossian:


            • John Grove

              “morality is abstract in ontology. That means that science is ill-equipped to tell us, in some sense, what is is”

              I think for the first time I would disagree with you here. Science is probably the only domain which can give us these answers not philosophy. And many books are already shedding a lot of light on this.

              1. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
              2. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
              3. Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality
              4. The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas

              And of course Sam Harris “The Moral Landscape”

            • It can only build on foundations laid by philosophy, it cannot alone do it.

              Science cannot tell us what one should do in a given situation because that depends on abstract ideas and goals which are not defined by science.

              So it depends what your morality is. If it is, in some way, consequentialist, then science can help us make decisions, but it cannot define what the currency should be, or which time scale we should work our calculations out on. You could argue that decimating the world’s population, now, by 60% is morally what is best for our species, or not. That takes philosophy. Setting out the goals for humanity takes philosophy. etc etc

              Time is interesting. If we, say, had a choice to do X or Y, and X empirically benefited society (which is itself open to philosophy) best over the next 100 years, but Y could benefit us better over a thousand years, but X again might benefit us better past that, then we have time issues with how to calculate moral value.

              Science also would struggle to make claim to the if statements.

              I should put oil in my car

              That sounds good and proper, but actually it depends on the protasis, the if statement which is missing. If I wanted to test what would happen if I didn’t put oil in my car, then that statement is false.

              These goals are difficult for science to establish.

              We disagree on what the world we want, what goals we should have, what human flourishing looks like. Should it include spirituality? Freedom of or from religion? Once we establish this, then we can use science to deliver the correct outcomes. But establishing those original goals, though they can involve science, are fairly philosophically loaded.

              Some might say that morality shouldn’t involve using people instrumentally (deontologists). Consequentialism can be used to argue you can. Science can’t answer this because it is abstract, potentially based on abstract axioms.

            • John Grove

              Thanks Johnny for your thoughts and detailed explanation.

        • Weak scientism with compatibilism or hard determinism. There are plenty of philosophies that have nothing to do with theism being true.

    • al jones

      Apparent fine tuning and consciousness. They’re a hint that our current naturalistic framework isn’t (yet) all conquering. Fine tuning does have some plausible explanations, but we need an Einstein of consciousness.

      • Jeff Pinner

        Might I suggest Julian Jaynes book-length hypothesis on consciousness: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

        I believe that there is increasing evidence to support his conceptual work, which would show that consciousness is an almost inevitable outcome of evolution once the brain which supports it is in place, and that the brain could develop to support pre-conscious functionality. Basically the understanding that software (wetware?) will develop to use all the capability of the hardware that’s available. (Sheepish Grin)

    • Bill Latronica

      The theory of strong emergence and the tendency for chaotic systems to self-organize might hint at something beyond our current comprehension. Call that god or just supra-naturalism? It can be a god-of-the-gaps place holder until we learn about how the universe works. I’m not advocating for the fine-tuning argument at all. I find that line of reasoning weak.

      This is just my opinion and something I wonder about at times. I like to toy with the idea of panentheism, as that is the ultimate expression of strong emergence.

      • John Grove

        When I think of the self organizational properties of crystals I am not driven to think there must be a mind behind it but rather the elements that make up our cosmos and the forces of physics combined can produce a plethora of combinations and some which seem quite remarkable to us. I am reminded of Richard Feynman explanation of magnets and some of the “why” questions. It could very well be the universe is like an onion. The more layers we strip off with science, the more lay hidden for us. I’m not as optimistic that we will ever discover the theory of everything. The universe is a really strange place.

    • Urbane_Gorilla

      It’s an interesting question. Everyone should question their beliefs, but if you replace God with the Easter Bunny, would you even be asking this question? What the question supposes is that people that believe in imaginary beings should be allotted a certain credence, just because there are a considerable percentage that do believe. Needless to say, this wouldn’t even be an issue in very early Europe, or Asia, as Christians would be the group defending their notions.

    • Geoff Benson

      I suppose I’d have to go back to basics and say the basis of most belief in god, or gods, is

      1. How did everything begin? Hence god did it (heard Piers Morgan say exactly this).
      2. Personal experience (coincidence and revelation).

      As we can now give reasoned responses to both these points, and have rebuttals for the very best the apologetics can put forward, there is no REASON to believe in god. Hence belief is a choice, which requires at least side lining of the evidence, if not out and out disregard.

    • Clare45

      I think one argument could be that atheism does not give you a chance at a life after death. Living in reality can be more depressing than living in a fantasy world.

      • John Grove

        That is really not an argument though, it is more of an emotional reaction or psychological state with respect to grim prospect of not existing.

        • Clare45

          I agree, it is an emotional point and not rational, but cannot some types of arguments appeal to the emotions? It may be a logical fallacy, but theists mostly don’t care about logic, or they wouldn’t by definition be theists!

          • John Grove

            Reminds me of when WLC was debating Shelly Kagan. WLC kept appealing to emotions and stated that without god, the universe ending in a heat death was so depressing to him that it made him doubt whether any of our achievements in life itself have any meaning at all. To WLC, if death is the end, life really has no meaning at all. This is the same rhetoric that Rick Warren espouses. In some sense, I can agree with WLC, life has no “cosmic, ultimate” meaning. But apart from that, it still has “meaning”