Playing off of my last post, I think one of the worst intellectual traps the atheist can fall into is the shallow argument. Pretty much everyone has a natural bias to arguments featuring conclusions they happen to agree with, whether or not those arguments are totally sound. And when you take an uncharitable view to people who challenge those arguments, it can be hard to effectively judge their point against your own. So you end up with two fairly common fallacies among ardent atheists:
1.) Failure to distinguish between different religious claims. This one is the less common one. After all, these things should be pretty obvious: Not everyone who calls herself a Christian thinks the Bible is the literal word of God. Not everyone reaching for eternal reward thinks that faith in his deity is the only way to get there. Hell, some religious don’t don’t even think that God is omniscient, or interacts with the physical world in any observable way. I imagine if I were one of those people, I would be pretty weary of being conflated with Creationists.
2.) Overreliance on the argument from empiricism. Let’s talk about this guy:
I love this man. He’s a comic genius, and it’s great that he’s also public about his atheism in a thoughtful, articulate, non-dickish manner. But in his recent column on why he’s an atheist — the one all of my atheist tweeps keep linking around — he makes the appeal for atheism from science. It’s a popular argument, but it’s also a bad one.
The problem with the argument is that it takes multiple arguments and collapses them into one, in a manner not unlike the first fallacy. It confuses empirical claims with metaphysical claims. Science, of course, is only interested in the former.
The difference between an empirical claim and a metaphysical claim is the difference between saying, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts,” and, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts because a divine intelligence was displeased with the pharaoh for keeping the tribe of Israel enslaved.” The first one is definitively true or false, and you can look at evidence in the real world to make a judgment one way or the other. That’s where science comes in. But as far as divine intelligences go, science has absolutely nothing to say. You can’t measure or quantify a mind. You might be able to track physical phenomenon that are correlated with what one might want to call a mind, but science can’t help us make that determination.
(Aside: This cuts both ways, of course. You might witness something you want to call a miracle, because you see no logical explanation for it. But the fact that there is no explanation that science can currently afford us does not mean you can make any definitive metaphysical claim about the event. As the analytic philosopher of logic A.J. Ayer would point out, the solitary fact that the Red Sea miraculously parted does not mean that God did it — not unless your definition of God is solely, “that which parted the Red Sea.”)
My point isn’t that these questions have no definitive answer. My point is that this reliance on science to explain everything is cheap and intellectually lazy. Any argument over the existence of God has to take metaphysics into account as a discipline entirely separate from empirical observation.
That means taking the other philosophical problems of a godless universe seriously as well. For example: If there is no God, do we have any reason to believe that there are actions or consequences that are good and bad independent of our feelings about them? What is good? Do we have any reasons to be good? What’s the point of doing anything, really?
These questions don’t have scientific answers, either.* And all we accomplish by pretending that the answers are easy or obvious is to make ourselves willing accomplices in our own ignorance. Instead, I find it more helpful to see these questions as a gift to atheists: the universe is far more ambiguous without a God to tell us right from wrong, but it’s also full of so much more mystery and wonder. We squander that gift when we dismiss challenges to our premises out of hand. Better to find out what clues believers can bring to the hunt.