Watching The Atheism Tapes

I just began watching The Atheism Tapes (on Netflix), by Jonathan Miller, a series of interviews with prominent atheist intellectuals. In the first episode, Colin McGinn reviews some standard arguments for and against the existence of God.

He puts forward lack of positive evidence as his principal reason for not believing that God exists. Paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, he says, “there’s no more reason to believe in the Christian God than in the Greek gods.” I think this is a silly assertion. Nobody believes in the Greek gods today. However, many millions of people do believe in the Christian God today. He may not think that’s a good enough reason to believe in God, but it’s a big jump to say there’s “no evidence”. If he’s talking scientific evidence, then I grant him the argument. Scientific evidence is a very narrow sort of evidence, as science is a very narrow sort of inquiry. But the continuing faith of millions over thousands of years does constitute some sort of evidence.

Later in the interview, he admits that people do have a sort of “cosmic loneliness”, or angst. He sees this as an explanation for why people have such a need for believing in God. The belief appears to satisfy their deep need for connection. This is another sort of evidence. You can use it to either explain people’s need to believe despite God’s non-existence, or you can view it as another sort of evidence for God—a being which, when believed in, “satisfies a deep craving in the human soul”, as McGinn puts it.

McGinn is most persuasive, I think, when he brings up the problem of evil. This should be truly challenging to any Christian or anyone who believes in the existence of a good, all-powerful God. Why would a good, all-powerful God let evil things happen in the world? McGinn notes the standard, ultimately unsatisifying explanation offered by theologians: God gave us free will, and we’re the ones that mess it up. Then what about natural disasters? Ultimately, the problem of evil is a real problem for faith. One of my beliefs as a Christian is that whereas God is all-knowing, we are not. And we’re not particularly meant to be. There are things we don’t understand and won’t ever understand in this life. Atrocities such as holocausts happen. There is a profound potential for evil in the human heart. These are things we have to contend with, even if we can’t fully explain them. If you’re going to believe in a religion, make sure it’s one that acknowledges and contends with the reality of suffering in the world and evil in the human heart—even if you were born into a free, wealthy society such as America where we are protected from much of the world’s suffering.

I have friends, family members, and colleagues who are atheists, and I want to better understand their point of view. I also want to find ways to address my doubts and to bolster my own faith in the face of unbelief. Despite my natural affinity for philosophy and philosophical arguments, I don’t put my hope in them as a primary way to grow closer to God (which is a primary goal of mine). They do play a minor role though; they fit in somewhere. Otherwise, I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about this topic. Just know that I haven’t even begun to expound on why I do believe, and I can’t necessarily explain all the reasons why I’m compelled to believe. (For one thing, I believe God had a large role in my choosing to believe and continue to believe, and that’s hopelessly circular from a philosophical perspective.)


  1. James said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 3:48 am

    Leaving aside the fact that lots of people believing an incorrect thing for many years is actually not evidence of anything, there /are/ still followers of the ancient greek gods who only in the last few years have been allowed to practice their religion openly in greece.

  2. Evan said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 8:40 am

    Such are the perils of absolute statements. :-) It sounds like I should have said “very few” instead of “nobody”.

    “not evidence of anything”? Of course it’s evidence of something. Maybe it’s evidence of one of the world’s most successful conspiracies, or evidence of a particular flaw in human nature (tendency to believe in something like God). My point is that it should not be ignored in such discussions. To do so reflects a very narrow sort of inquiry and/or makes one sound immensely ignorant. The widespread existence of belief too has to be addressed (which, to his credit, McGinn does later in the interview in his discussion about “cosmic loneliness”).

  3. Aaron said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    “But the continuing faith of millions over thousands of years does constitute some sort of evidence.”

    The only thing that is evidence of is that millions of people have faith in a particular religion. To assert that it means anything beyond that would simply be an appeal to popularity. If you were to take Schroedinger’s Cat and ask 10,000,000 people whether they think it’s alive or dead, do their opinions change the hard facts of whether it ACTUALLY is alive or dead?

    Faith, by definition, is a belief in the ABSENCE of evidence. It is the determined irrationality that makes faith a beautiful thing. Attempting to rationalize faith is an error, and is more or less not possible — some people believe it because they want to believe it — that’s it. Faith also does not need justification, any more than stating that you like chocolate does.

    That said — I would tend to side with McGinn on this — religious explanations were invented by man to help us make sense of things that are outside our realm of knowledge or ability to know. There were many religions that were around long before Christianity was even conceptualized, and the fact that Christianity & Islam are the flavors du siècle does make them necessarily more factual or truthful. The fact that so many people across the world believe in both of those particular faiths could be simply attributed to the fact that we have a better infrastructure now — it’s much easier to spread those religions nowadays than it was back when the Greek Pantheon or Zoroasterism were popular.

    But really, the main issue is this: your faith should neither be bolstered by how many people DO agree with you, nor threatened by how many people DON’T agree with you. It is what it is.

    Doubting or challenging the illusion will only make it stronger if you continually reassure yourself that the illusion is real.

  4. Evan said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

    Maybe we shouldn’t use the word “evidence,” as it seems to trip people up. Perhaps a more fruitful avenue of inquiry would be: What is the meaning of all these people believing in God? And there’s nothing that says we have to use the scientific method to answer this question or explore the phenomena at hand.

    Defining faith as an irrational illusion doesn’t help the conversation. If that’s what faith is, then I reject it too. But I don’t think that’s what faith is. And I certainly wouldn’t share your description of irrational illusions as a “beautiful thing.”

    I think there are good reasons to have faith/belief in some things and not others. You reject faith altogether, yet you say that to mix faith with reason is an error. According to whom? Is my heart off-limits to my brain? Pathways to truth and understanding are many and varied; this reality is perhaps not as cut-and-dried as you would like it to be.

    People die for their faith. They don’t die for their like or dislike of chocolate. There’s more to the picture than you’re willing to take in.

  5. Aaron said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    Faith and reason don’t mix because the latter falls apart when the former is introduced.

    I cannot reason myself to a conclusion if I am forced to take assumptions based on faith along the way — and in this context, by “assumption based on faith” I mean “that which cannot EVER be known, only believed”. We can infer much about the universe with small assumptions built on testable predictions, for example. Your metaphorical “heart” is simply an abstract construct — emotions are the byproducts of neurochemical exchanges, as painful, wondrous, or bizarre as they may be.

    The fact that people are willing to die for their faith but not for their love of chocolate merely underscores my feelings regarding its irrationality. Consider the actions of uber-fanatical sports fans — the hooligans or the Brazilian soccer fans, etc. that will engage in violent, sometimes murderous behavior, because of their fervor. Their devotion is to something tangible and yet you would be hard-pressed to call their actions “rational”. (“My sports team won/lost therefore I should set things on fire.”). When you introduce individuals whose objects of devotion are INtangible, the irrationality of it becomes even greater.

    Granted, the vast majority of people of faith are not setting things on fire or acting fanatically destructive — but the core basis is the same.

    Pathways to truth cannot be found through faith, simply because that which requires faith cannot be KNOWN with certainty, only BELIEVED with fervor. For someone with faith, no amount of evidence to the contrary will ever convince them they are wrong — the only way for a faith-based belief to change is for the the believer to arbitrarily decide that they no longer believe in it. This is not a pathway to truth, it’s a jump to conclusions. Confirmation bias serves to amplify the fervor, but it does not make the belief any more valid.

    The pathway to truth is carved away, like a sculpture. By eliminating those things which we know to NOT be true, we asymptotically flesh out the truth within. We can make educated guesses based on reasoned assumptions “X and Y are true, so I bet Z is true also”; but it would be completely irrational to state “Z is true” without making any reasonable efforts to disprove it, and carve away the chaff around it.

  6. Evan said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    Equating “knowledge” with scientifically proven hypotheses and everything else as “mere belief” seems a hopelessly black-and-white approach to truth. How do you know your mother (or wife or child) loves you? Can you have any basis for thinking this? Or is any other non-scientifically-proven belief just as valid because it’s all belief? In the range of human experience, very few things are scientifically testable. Why would you want to restrict yourself to such an impoverished epistemology?

    We all come with assumptions—even the scientists. Love is merely a “construct” to someone with a materialistic world view (matter is all there is). But this assumption is not scientifically testable any more than the existence of God is. There is an illusion lurking here, and that is that any of us can be assumption-free, or prejudice-free, and systematically build up knowledge from “nowhere.” We’re never nowhere. Recognizing the illusion for what it is does not invalidate science, but it does cast doubt on an unacknowledged scientism.

  7. Russ Urquhart said,

    April 4, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    Have you checked out Dinesh Desouza’s (sp?) What’s So Great About Christianity? It examines atheist beliefs an offers scientific questions to their issues, etc. Worth checking out.

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