In a recent post I excerpted some quotes from Robin Le Poidevin's recent book Agnosticism on the moral argument. In this post I want to share some more quotes from the book on the presumption of atheism. I wanted to title it, 'An atheist denies the presumption of atheism', but the more I read, the more convinced I am that he cannot possibly be an atheist. The book seems to be, not merely a description of agnosticism, but a strong positive argument in its favor. Therefore, unless Le Poidevin is merely writing 'speech in character', it seems that he is an agnostic. Nevertheless, he provides a very convincing rebuttal to the presumption of atheism, which is relevant to the discussion between Christians and atheists.
Atheism doesn't require defense. Rather, it is up to theists to convince us that there is a God. Unless they can do so, we can remain comfortable in our disbelief. Only if they produce a really compelling argument in favor are we obliged to stir ourselves and show just where the argument fails. If there's room for doubt (and there's always room for doubt over arguments for God) then the rational thing is to be an atheist. (p.46)
This line of thought might initially be tempting, but it is very definitely wrong-headed. It isn't just theism that goes beyond the common ground. Atheism does so too: it says that there exists nothing more in the world than what both theist and atheist could agree exists. So atheists are not excused, on these grounds, from providing reasons for their position. (p. 47)
This would be a very dangerous principle to put into practice! Everyday life requires us to have countless positive beliefs about the world, some so obvious that we barely think about them: that we have bodies that allow us to move around, that whatever we see in front of us exists, that there are other people similarly situated with whom we can communicate, and so on. But the philosophical skeptic shows that even these beliefs can be challenged. The skeptic invites you to contemplate the following: despite appearances, your brain does not reside in a body at all, but is being kept artificially alive in the laboratory of some unhinged neuroscientist, who cunningly stimulates your brain in such a way that you have a continuous series of entirely illusory experiences...The idea is ludicrous, of course. But can you think of a reason that enables you to rule it out completely?...Now consider again the proposal that all positive beliefs have to be justified, and in the absence of a totally convincing justification, the negative belief is the default position. Since we cannot conclusively defeat the skeptic, we would have to concede that we should give up our belief that we have bodies that can move around, and so on. We don't want to do this, so we shouldn't accept the principle. (pp.47-48)
Thought of in these terms, does theism have a much lower initial probability than atheism? It isn't at all clear that it does. Of course, once we start filling in the details, going beyond the basic role that God is supposed to play and describing how exactly he plays those roles, then the specificity of the hypothesis goes up, and the initial probability consequently goes down. And the same is true of atheism. Once we go beyond a denial that there is a being that plays the roles in question, and start to fill in the alternative explanations, then the initial probability goes down. It looks, then, as if theism and atheism start on pretty much the same footing. There should be no presumption of atheism, and indeed no presumption of theism either. The initial position should be an agnostic one, which means that theists and atheists share the burden of proof. (p.53)