Nielsen’s Philosophy and Atheism, Part IVSaturday, December 3rd, 2011 at 8:31 pm by Jacqueline
Is belief in God unjustified?
As a part of my recent philosophical wanderings, I’m reading Kai Nielsen’s 1985 book Philosophy & Atheism. He wants to show that belief in God is unjustified.
The presumption of atheism
One question Nielsen takes care to address is With whom does the burden of proof lie?
That is, must the theist propose and defend the concept of God, providing sufficient reason for belief? Or must the atheist provide proof for disbelief?
Nielsen introduces a collection of essays by Anthony Flew called The Presumption of Atheism, in which Flew argues that it is on theists to produce evidence in support of their beliefs. Like in law, wherein a party to a trial is assumed innocent until proven guilty, Flew argues that one should presume that belief in God is unreasonable until proven otherwise. This doesn’t preclude believers from having deeply held convictions about God’s existence or the nature of God (in the same way some people may be convinced of a party’s guilt, despite a lack of evidence).
Nielsen doesn’t think this is the way to approach the question. Instead, he points out that
“In speaking of God, we are speaking of what the believer takes to be an ultimate mystery. A reflective believer, if he is philosophically literate, knows very well the concept of God–the concept of such a mysterious reality–is only partially intelligible to him and is likely to be through and through unintelligible to the skeptic. Given this state of affairs, it is very unlikely that it will be the case that the believer can produce good enough reasons to convince the skeptic that this procedural presumption of atheism has been defeated and that it is not unreasonable to believe in God” (p. 132).
And similarly, it seems just as unlikely that the atheist will ever be able to produce sufficient proof against God’s existence for the theist to accept it.
Flew assumes that reasonable people will proportion their belief to the evidence and will not take belief in God to be justified until evidence that could convince other informed, impartial, reasonable people can be produced. But this would trap the believer and throw the debate in favor of the skeptic. As Nielsen points out, even if it is rational to seek evidence to ground one’s beliefs, isn’t it also rational to have adequate grounds for disbelief?
According to Nielsen, Flew also assumes that
“Beliefs must be shown to have grounds to be reasonably believed. So it is perfectly in order and nonprejudicial to demand that of the believer, particularly when the belief is that this exhibiting of grounds is just what cannot be done for certain fundamental religious beliefs. So, Flew reasons, given that reasonable demand for grounds, the presumption of atheist is justified” (p. 137).
The main problem with this is that “[t]here are many things we reasonably believe which we do not believe for a reason” (p. 139). Not all the beliefs of the theist or of the atheist are intimately grounded in conscious reasoning and evidence. In fact, Nielsen argues that it is “wildly unrealistic and indeed actually an unreasonable demand” (p. 139) to requires that all beliefs must be grounded in reasons and evidence, and that all beliefs should be proportional to those reasons and evidence. I would have liked Nielsen to expand on a few examples of such reasonable beliefs here, but he points us instead to Wittgenstein’s On Certainty to find further arguments on the matter.
Nielsen covers a few more of Flew’s assumptions and how we ought not accept those assumptions as truth. Without reading Flew’s essays myself it’s hard to evaluate how justifed Nielsen is making these arguments, so perhaps I’ll add them to my reading list.
There are still a few chapters left in Nielsen’s book, covering religion and ethics, religion and rationality, and whether philosophy has any business criticizing or justifying theological systems. Given how large each of these topics is, and given that Nielsen has written entire books on these subjects since the writing of this one, I may gloss over them and end with a final post tying up loose ends with miscellaneous notes and thoughts. Stay tuned.