[This speech was delivered before the Society of Separationists in 1976. It was transcribed from an audiocassette which had the title, “Atheism: The Case Against God.” However, in order to avoid confusion (since Smith has published a book under that same title), I have retitled this speech as “How to Defend Atheism.” — jjl]
I’m especially pleased to be speaking before the Society of Separationists meeting because, as you may know, there are very few explicitly pro-atheist organizations left in the world, let alone in the United States. And of those that remain, S.O.S. is undoubtedly the largest and most active. And since I’m addressing an atheist organization, I shall be speaking to you for the most part as fellow atheists. I won’t be attempting to convert anyone and I won’t insult your intelligence by attacking Christianity or the Bible and so forth. Instead, I will be concerned with discussing basically what atheism is, why it’s important, and how best to defend it successfully. And just in case there are a few religionists in the audience, I invite you to stay around and experience for an afternoon what it feels like to be part of an intellectual elite.
Now before discussing atheism directly, I want to make some preliminary comments that are quite important, because unless you understand my general philosophical approach, I don’t think you’ll understand my approach to atheism. If there’s one major intellectual problem facing America today, I would say it’s the credulity crisis. Or, to put it more bluntly, I would say that we’re plagued with a blight of gullibility in America. It never ceases to amaze me how people are willing to accept the most absurd, moronic beliefs not only without supporting evidence, but often times in the face of conflicting evidence. It is sometimes said that religion is on the decline in America, but even if this is true we are not witnessing a corresponding decline of irrationalism. Irrationalism, by which I mean ignorant disregard or disrespect for reason, is still going strong. It changes its form from time to time, but nevertheless it’s still with us. So, while we may say, that some traditional Western religions seem to be on the decline and have been for some time, irrationalism continues to rear its ugly head, whether it’s in the form of occultism, Eastern mysticism, or in the form of Uri Geller, demonic possession movies, and even some psychological fad groups such as Este, which are closer to religious cults than to any legitimate psychology.
Now, what accounts for this resurgence of irrationalism in America? Well, there are undoubtedly many factors involved, but certainly one of the most significant is the inability or unwillingness on the part of many, many people to reason well. Most people do not know how to think critically beyond a very rudimentary level. America, for all of its stress on technology and science, continues to produce an abundant crop of intellectual vegetables who neither care about what is true nor even if they did, how to go about ascertaining what is true. So make no mistake about it: you are born with the capacity to reason, but you are not born with the skill to scare? To reason. Proper reasoning must be learned and practiced. Even with the proper guidance, it can take years for to ingrain proper reasoning habits, to the point where they become second-nature.
We are supposed to be an educated nature, but when is the last time you heard of a course on critical thinking being given at the grade-school level, for example? Did you ever wonder why, when children were being force-fed every subject from geography to social studies and other useless topics, that they are not given the opportunity to learn to think correctly? Well, this isn’t too surprising if you think about it, because you cannot teach critical thinking without inevitably stepping on someone’s toes. Can you imagine the reaction of many parents, if Johnny came home with the homework assignment to investigate the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? Of course, this wouldn’t go over too well.
The basic point I wanted to make about atheism in regard to this is: atheism is important only when viewed in this larger context which I will call the “habit of reasonableness.” Atheism is significant only if and when it results from this habit of reasonableness. The American child who grows up to be a Baptist simply because his parents were Baptist and he never thought critically about those beliefs is not necessarily any more irrational than the Soviet child who grows up to be an atheist simply because his parents were atheist and because the state tells him to be an atheist. The fact that the Soviet child in this particular case may have the correct position is irrelevant. So it’s no so much what one believes, or the content, as it is why one believes as one does. So the issue of reasonableness pertains to the concern for truth, concern for the correct methodology of reasoning. And just because a person espouses atheism is no guarantee — believe me — that person is necessarily reasonable.
This is basically why I never crusade for atheism per se outside of a wider framework. Atheism is significant, to be sure. But it’s significance derives entirely from the fact that it represents the application of reason to a particular field, specifically the area of religious belief. Atheism, unless it is ingrained within this greater philosophical defense of reason, is practically useless. When, however, it is the consequence of the habit of reasonableness, then atheism stands in opposition to the wave of supernaturalism and mysticism we are currently experiencing. In other words, irrationalism in any form it may occur.
Now what this means is that atheism will not get very far simply by attacking religious belief. Rather, we have to defend reason, first and foremost, and then criticize religion within that framework. If you understand that most people adopt religion for psychological rather than intellectual reasons, you will understand why I think direct, frontal assaults on religion rarely, rarely persuade anyone to atheism. If, as atheists have been pointing out for many years, religion is an emotional and psychological crutch, then you don’t get a person to stand on his own two feet simply by kicking out the crutch, if for no other reason that the person will hold onto it for dear life. Rather, you must first convince the person that the crutch is unnecessary and even harmful. And then, you can convince him that he’s able to get along much better off without the crutch. So you don’t have to kick it out, at this point, he will simply throw it away himself.
So to demonstrate that there is no need for a religious crutch, we must first be concerned with demonstrating the crucial and significant role of reason in a person’s life, philosophically, psychologically, practically, and every other way. Above all, there is one message we must communicate: one has nothing to fear and everything to gain, from the honest pursuit of truth. The desire for knowledge, for facts unvarnished by emotional prejudices and so forth, will always function for a man’s long-range benefit. It can never be against your interest to know what the truth is.
This means that the atheist, to effectively communicate his message, must display reasonableness in all aspects and areas of his life. You cannot crusade for free and critical thinking in religion, and then display slavish conformity in other areas of your intellectual life, such as your political beliefs. Any defense of atheism from a person who compartmentalizes his beliefs in this fashion is only subjecting some of them to scrutiny and will reek of insincerity, and justly so. This atheist will rightly be accused of hypocrisy. He’s willing to go only so far in critical examination of beliefs.
The reason I’m mentioning this is, besides my atheism which some people consider to be quite radical, I also hold political beliefs which by many standards are quite radical. I’m what’s known as a libertarian. And I must admit that I am quite amazed when I am confronted by fellow atheists who seem despondent by my political beliefs, not because they disagree with them — which is certainly their right — but simply because I am politically a radical. And my point is here: if you’re afraid of the term “radicalism” — if the idea of being an intellectual radical frightens you — then you’re in the wrong business by being an atheist. Certainly atheism, in most people’s eyes, is the most radical position you can hold.
So this is the first major point I wish to emphasize: that if you’re going to have a significant impact on the religious community, I think it’s necessary to put atheism within the broader perspective of reason. Let me elaborate on a little bit by what I mean by the “habit of reasonableness.” There’s a lot that could be said about this, but for obvious time limitations I’ll simply give you an outline.
First of all, let me distinguish reasoning from thinking. Thinking I consider to be any type of mental, cognitive process. If you’re daydreaming, remembering, any activity like this, you’re said to be thinking. Reasoning, however, is a much more specific term. Reason pertains to a goal-directed mental process which attempts to acquire knowledge. Whenever you set your mind in action, with the intent of arriving at truth, distinguishing truth from falsehood, you are said to be engaged in a process of reasoning.
The interesting thing about reasoning is that it is really a kind of decision-making process. Reasoning is concerned with, “Should I accept X as true?”, “Should I accept Y as true?”, “Should I accept X as probable, possible, or pertinent?”, and so on and so on. In other words, we have to make decisions in our intellectual life just as we have to make them in our everyday life. So what reasoning is concerned with — the philosophical approach — what we should be concerned with is establishing the proper criteria or standards of reasoning. To put it another way, you don’t have a choice as to whether you’re going to make intellectual decisions. You have to by your very nature. You have to accept some things as being true. You simply don’t have any choice. You would die if you didn’t.
The only choice you have here is, first of all, whether or not you’re going to make your standards of knowledge explicit, whether you’re going to be aware of what they are, as contrasted with simply accepting them as some sort of osmosis from a culture or whatever people tell you. And secondly, whether your standards of knowledge will be appropriate standards. And by that I mean, will they actually get you what you want, in this case, truth. Now, I’m going to suggest that of all the goods and virtues that man has, knowledge is the most important. Knowledge is a fundamental value for man because it stands at the root of all of his other values. We must know facts; we must know something about the world before we can determine anything about what is of value to you in the world. Thus, knowledge is indispensable to our very survival. And it’s only through our reason, through our power of conceptual thought, that we can apply our knowledge.
Because we have arrived at certain standards of knowledge, like the laws of logic, the laws of evidence, and so forth; because they enable us to distinguish between true and false beliefs; and because their goal, knowledge, is the fundamental good of man, I’m going to suggest that what I call the “habit of reasonableness,” by which I mean the ability to have ingrained in one self these standards of knowledge, to employ them habitually, to employ them almost as if they were second-nature, as if they were a character trait. I’m going to say that this habit of reasonableness is a primary virtue in human beings. Reasonableness I consider to be the primary intellectual virtue possible to man. And this leads to an interesting conclusion regarding atheism. If, as I have suggested, knowledge is a fundamental value for man, and if the habit of reasonableness is a primary virtue, and if atheism is a consequence of reasonableness, then it turns out that atheism is actually a consequence of being virtuous. Atheism is a consequence of a particular intellectual virtue. I’m saying this to counteract the prevalent, nonsense notion that atheists are immoral. Not only is this false, but quite the reverse is true. Atheism should proceed and often does proceed from reasonableness which actually signifies a virtue, a very important virtue. So you can take some pride in being an atheist if, in fact, it results from reasonableness.
The reasonable person, when examining religious claims, will be concerned only with the truth-value of those claims. One often hears that religion makes people feel better, happy, etc., but these are all side-issues. I’m not going to go into arguments against what I call “intellectual humanism,” namely believing something just because it makes you feel good. I’m going to suggest that if you are concerned with reasonableness, then your foremost concern in any discipline, certainly religion, should be with the truth of religious claims. When the atheist is confronted with the claim that God exists, he’s concerned first and foremost with the question, “Is that claim rationally justifiable?” As corollaries of that, he will be concerned with, “What is God?” How do we define that term? Is the definition intelligible? It’s not. And secondly, even if we can make some sense out of the concept of God, is there any evidence or supporting arguments in support of the existence of a god? Again, there are not. The atheist, proceeding from the habit of reasonableness, will ultimately reject the claims of religion and the claims of theism as false. And therefore he will reject the belief in God as being unreasonable.
Going back to a point I made earlier, you often also hear it said that this is irrelevant to most religious people. Religious people don’t believe for intellectual reasons. If you talk on an intellectual level to religious people it won’t hit home with them, because it’s not personal enough for them. To this I can only say, yes, it’s unfortunately true that many religious people are not concerned with the issue of truth and falsehood. My point here is that that’s their problem, not mine. And it’s not your problem. And if they persist in their irrationalism, then they can and they often do convince themselves of almost anything. Let me remind you that standards of knowledge are our only means of selective discrimination in our beliefs. The standards of meaning, evidence, argument, and so forth are the sift (??) by which we discriminate those beliefs that are worthy of acceptance from those that are not. If you abandon these standards, if you consider them unimportant, then you will be at the mercy of any belief that happens to come your way. You will have no standards by which to distinguish this a is a good belief or whether it’s not. Very likely, you will be at the mercy of one intellectual fad after another. This is quite common nowadays. You see people going from one cult of Easter mysticism to a cult of psychology and back and forth in quasi-religious cults. This is the logical consequence when reason is abandoned. There is no longer a grounding-point or a means of discriminating between beliefs. A person who is irrational by choice is at the mercy of his feelings at a particular time. I think it will come as no surprise to anyone if I point out to you that most Christians, if they were raised in a Moslem culture, would be Moslems, not Christians. Most Moslems, if they were raised in a Christian culture, would be Christians, not Moslems. And because atheism, at least in American culture, represents an unorthodox position, this accounts for why by and large atheists are independent thinkers. To become an atheist in this culture you have to have at least enough independence to question the prevailing wisdom concerning religion, because you are inundated with this in school, by your parents, by your culture, and certainly by the mass media.
Now there a few side issues I want to point out before I get into an actual definition of atheism because I think these are quite important. These are more practical issues than philosophical ones. I’m sure that if you have tried to argue atheism, you have encountered certain practical problems in communicating your beliefs.
The first thing I want to point out is rather depressing to some people. Since reasonableness is a habit to be learned, not everyone is capable of conducting a good argument. For that matter, not everyone is capable of arguing in an intelligible sense at all. Argument is also a skill that has to be learned and practiced. What this means is that, for the most part, you are probably wasting your time if you argue with many religionists, for the simple reason that many of these religionists are incapable of arguing well. It’s almost like you have to educate some Christians before you can persuade them to atheism. You have to first convince them that they should be concerned with what’s true and what’s not. They should be able to distinguish between rational and irrational argument. And so on and so on. And then two months later, you might be able to say to this person that if they carry this out, it will lead them to atheism. But unless you have a lot of personal interest in this person, unless they are personally significant to you, you will probably not want to waste a lot of your time educating or re-educating this person to the principles of reason. What do you do? Some people just give up on the person. Some people, you have to. Some people you might refer to books. This is where books play a crucial role in education, that if a person sits down with a book he is able to gleam a lot of information that you are not able to communicate in a short period of time.
This leads me to a second area of practical advice: take religionists at their word. If they say they are not interested in reason or truth, then cease the conversation possibly, making the remark, that it is impossible to communicate with someone who, by his own admission, is not concerned with rationality. In other words, if you understand the importance of reasonableness and what it signifies, you will understand that you must back up your conviction in practice. You must make it clear to your adversary that you are not willing to waste your time and energy with him if he is not even willing to concede the fundamental principles of reason. It’s like you are talking in two different languages with no means of translation. All you are doing in situations like this is giving yourself a headache. I think it’s important to make religionists totally aware of the consequences of their irrationalism. It will irritate religionists to no end if you simply refuse to speak to them after a certain point because they undoubtedly wish to convert you. But if you make it clear that you are unwilling to discuss the issue until he is willing to concede the basic fundamental principles of reasoning, then I think you will impress upon him in a very practical sense how important you take reason to be. What happens when you don’t do this is that you suffer from his irrationalism. You end up with a headache or frustration because he refuses to be rational.
With these preliminary comments, let me proceed into the meat of the subject matter which is, of course, atheism. There’s a lot that can be said about this. I’ve written an entire book about this subject and there are a number of other books available. So I don’t want to repeat a lot of material that you can get simply by reading books on this subject. I do want to sketch in briefly what atheism is. I then want to move over to some issues which I had not covered that thoroughly in some of my writing.
First of all, before we can understand atheism, we have to understand what theism means because obviously a-theism is a derivative of the term theism. Well, theism is simply the belief in a god or in any number of gods. If, to the question, “do you believe in the existence of a god or gods?”, you answer “yes,” you are philosophically a theist. But the raises the additional problem, what is a god? Much ink has been spilled over this question, but for our purposes this afternoon by “god” I mean any kind of supernatural or transcendent being. Any kind of being, in other words, who in some way transcends or is exempt from the natural laws of the universe, whether it’s a creator god, the god of Deism, the god of pantheism, etc. Whatever it might be, if this being has the ability to, in some way, circumvent the laws of nature, then this being would properly be designated as supernatural — in other words above natural law — and would then qualify as a god. This would mean, for all practical purposes, that if you believe in the existence of ghosts or magical elves — if these creatures had supernatural powers — then they would be gods.
If theism is the belief in some kind of supernatural being, what is atheism? Again, there is a lot of controversy over this. I’ve given one entire talk over what the definition of atheism should be; here I will simply state the conclusion. Atheism, properly considered, is simply the absence or lack of theistic belief. In other words, to the question, “Do you believe in God?”, you answer, “No,” for whatever reason, you are an atheist. You will often hear it said that an atheist actually denies the existence of a god or gods. This is true; many atheists do but not all. This kind of overt denial of the existence of a god or gods is a sub-category of a broader kind of approach which should in a general sense be known as atheism. This gets quite complex to go into all of the reasons why some atheists would not wish to deny that any gods exist. Just take my word for it that historically and philosophically it’s very justifiable to say that the best, most generic definition for the term atheism is simply the absence or lack of belief in a god.
There’s one overriding principle that is operative here if you understand this definition of atheism. It is what is known as the burden of proof or the onus of proof. What this principle states is that the onus of proof is on the person who asserts the truth of a proposition. If I say to you, X is true, I am intellectually responsible for providing some kind of reasons for accepting it. If I do not provide you any reasons or I provide reasons that are invalid, you are legitimately justified in rejecting my claim to knowledge as unfounded and hence irrational. This is probably the single most important principle in regard to the defense of atheism. The theist asserts an affirmative proposition; he asserts that a god or gods exist. The burden of proof falls entirely upon the theist to prove or demonstrate the reasonableness of that claim. It is not up to me or to you as an atheist to demonstrate that a god does not exist. It is up to us to say to the religionist, “You have made an assertion. It is your responsibility to demonstrate the truth of that assertion. If your claims hold up, then you are rational. If your claims do not hold up and you continue to believe as you do, then you are irrational.” That is the most central, fundamental point in regard to atheism. You do not have the burden of proof as atheists; the religionist does. You are not asserting the truth or existence of anything; you are challenging the theists’ claim to truth. Your only responsibility in this regard is to examine critically the views of religionists, subject them to rational scrutiny, and either accept them or reject them on that basis. That is your sole responsibility. You have done your job after that.
I should mention briefly the problem that sometimes comes up. Isn’t it true that some atheists do deny the existence of a god? Yes, it’s true. I would, for example, not only say I don’t believe in the Christian god, but that such a being does not exist. Again, this would get us into some philosophical points that I can’t go into here, but basically the reason for this is that if you examine a concept and it turns out that it is inherently self-contradictory, in the same way that a “square circle” is self-contradictory, then I may reasonably say that such a being cannot possibly exist. And this is indeed the case with the Christian god. It is internally muddled and self-contradictory. I think it’s interesting that if you come across a Christian who says to you, “Well you can’t say that God doesn’t exist!”, you might ask the Christian an interesting question: “Do you believe in the god of Zoroastrianism? Do you believe in Allah? Do you believe in Zeus?” There are literally hundreds of gods that the Christian himself does not believe in. The Christian himself would say that these gods do not exist. Well how does the Christian know that? If he is so hot to trot to say that we cannot know that a god does not exist, then how can he say that Zeus does not exist? Well, of course, the Christian is liable to say in response, “Well that’s ridiculous! Everyone knows that Zeus doesn’t exist. It’s a mythical idea.” He’ll go on at some length and give some very good arguments which, if applied to his own beliefs, would demolish them entirely. Monotheists, the people who believe in one god, are very close to being atheists. They are only one step removed from atheism. They’re just a hairline away from being an atheist. All I have to do is get rid of that one last god and he’s made it over the line. This is a rather novel way of looking at monotheism but I think it’s justified. All you have to do is ask the Christian to apply his own standards by which he rejects the hundreds of gods that have been offered throughout mankind’s history, and apply them to his own beliefs, and they will demolish that belief as well.
I want also to mention briefly a term which is very important in the history of atheism. This is the term “freethought.” I won’t spend a lot of time on this, either, but it does bear mentioning because “freethought” is a term that has been used quite widely historically. What is the significance of “free” in “freethought”? In a sense, all of your beliefs are free. Nobody can force you to believe something you don’t wish to believe. Well the significance of “free” in “freethought” is morally free. The freethinkers historically were reacting to the doctrine that you are morally obligated to accept a certain set of beliefs — a dogma — as true, that you are in some sense immoral, for example, if you do not accept the tenets of Christianity. Along came the freethinkers and they said, “No! One ought to be morally free to investigate beliefs to the best of one’s ability, without being morally obligated to accept any one set of beliefs n particular.” This is the primary significance of freethought. It relates back to the point that I made earlier of the importance of the habit of reasonableness. One who is concerned with being reasonable will, of necessity, be a freethinker.
I want to get to get a little bit into the murky waters of the concept of God and just make a basic point as to why proofs for the existence of God invariably. In my book and in books written by other authors, such as Antony Flew, Chapman Cohen, Wallace Matson, and others, you will find quite detailed refutations of arguments for the existence of a god. The argument from a first cause, the various cosmological arguments, the argument from design, and so forth. I obviously cannot cover those here. But I do want to make reference to the basic problem involved in such “proofs.” The basic problem is this: the concept of God — the concept of the Christian god in particular — once you strip away all of the verbiage that surrounds it, the concept of God always turns out to be some kind of unknowable being. Now notice I didn’t say, “unknown,” I said, “unknowable.” This is the basic and central belief of theism. The belief in some kind of unknowable creature. By “unknowable,” I mean a creature which by it’s very nature can never known by man. We don’t just mean some thing we don’t presently have knowledge of. There are lots of things we don’t have knowledge of. We’re talking about something in principle that cannot be known. There seems to be an obvious problem with attempting to prove, much less even talk about, a being which by the theists’ own admission is unknowable. How can you talk about, conceptualize, or demonstrate, the existence of such a thing? It is, in principle, impossible. This, basically, is why all of the alleged proofs must ultimately fail. There is one passage from the famous eighteenth century materialist and atheist Baron D’Holbach that is quite good in this regard. After noting that theology has “for its object only incomprehensible things,” D’Holbach argues that “it is a continual insult to human reason.” He continues as follows:
No religious system can be founded otherwise than upon the nature of God and of man and upon the relations they bear to each other. But in order to judge of the reality of these relations, we must have some idea of the divine nature. But everybody tells us that the essence of God is incomprehensible to man. At the same time, they do not hesitate to assign attributes to this incomprehensible god and assure us that man cannot dispense with the knowledge of this god, so impossible to conceive of. The most important thing for man is that which is the most impossible for him to comprehend. If God is incomprehensible to man, it would seem rational never to think of him at all. But religion concludes that man is criminal if he ceases for a moment to revere Him.
D’Holbach concludes, quite well I may add, that “religion is the art of occupying limited minds with that which it is impossible to conceive or to comprehend.” You simply cannot intelligibly discuss, much less prove, the existence of an unknowable creature. It’s philosophical nonsense. The concept itself is meaningless.
Of the many “proofs” that have been offered, probably the most popular on a layman level is what is known as the argument from religious experience.
I have not talked about this or written about this previously, so I want to spend a few minutes on this because this is the argument you’ll most frequently encounter. And it confuses some people, with justification because it’s a confusing argument. By the argument from religious experience, I mean some variation on a theme such as, “I know God exists because I’ve had some sort of personal experience”, to put it in fundamentalist terms, “Jesus has come into my heart,” and so on. To put it in Eastern mysticism terms, “I’ve had some sort of experience with the Oneness of the universe.” Whatever the terms might be, this is the basic idea: attempting to prove some philosophical point with reference to personal experience of some kind. This is the argument most commonly resorted by religionists or mystics.
The first problem with this argument is that it is not really an argument. An argument presumably has some sort of premises, follows a chain of reasoning, and has a conclusion. This “argument” is simply a bald assertion. It’s not an argument at all. I might just as well say that there exists invisible fairies in this room because I’ve had personal experience with them. Or there’s an invisible green elf sitting on my shoulder because I’ve had personal experience of it. In other words, once you resort to this balderdash you can “prove” or argue anything. This is the complete abandonment of any kind of rational criteria. To attempt to make a philosophical point about the existence of something simply by referring to some kind of internal experience, a feeling.
There have been a number of attempts to defend this kind of argument. One of them that you’ll commonly hear is that this feeling is unique. The religionists or the mystic cannot communicate his experience to you because it’s so unique it cannot be communicated. To this I would answer that every experience is unique. Every experience you have is unique. There is no one experience you have that is totally like any other experience you have. The point is you have a mind, you have the ability to conceptualize, and this is what conceptualization all about. Concepts enable us to ferret out the differences among our experiences and focus on the most common elements and communicate among ourselves. This is what concept-formation consists of; this is how we reason. The religionist’s claim that he cannot communicate his experience because it is unique, if carried out consistently, would mean that we could not communicate at all because all of our experiences are unique. I think it would be more accurate to say that the religionist’s experience is simply unintelligible. He doesn’t understand what it is or why it occurred, so he makes up a reason that suits his purpose.
There’s another kind of response that is sometimes made. This is the parallel that you’ll often hear to the mystic, the person who claims to have had some sort of personal contact with a deity. It is in relation to ordinary man as a sighted man is in relation to a blinded man. I’m sure many of you must have heard this at one time or another. Not only do laymen use this argument, but sophisticated philosophers and theologians who should know better also resort to it. We’re sometimes given the illustration that if a sighted person went among a race of blind persons and he tried to convince them of what the world was like, they would say he’s irrational and deny that such things exist. Of course, the mystic wants to put himself in that same category. “I have a special intuitive faculty” or “I have a special hotline with God” and this enables him to have a special knowledge that mere mortals are not capable of having.
There are many, many problems with this so-called “argument;” I’ll point out just a couple. First, it’s true that there is a difference between sighted persons and blind persons, but this difference is attributed to some kind of difference in physical capacity. We can explain why — physically – a sighted person is able to have sense perceptions whereas a blind person is not. There is nothing mysterious about it, whereas this is not at all the case with the mystic. The mystic is claiming some kind of intuitive or special physical capacity — a new sense? If he is, let him provide us with some information about it so we can test it out. Second, the sighted person does not claim access to an inaccessible, supernatural realm. The sighted person is dealing with the same world as the blind person. He simply has an added sense ability that the blind person does not. I do not have to contradict the present knowledge of a blind person to explain what I see. He can test out independently, in his own way, the claims that I make. If I say to the blind person, “There is a wall immediately in front of you,” he doesn’t have to take my word for it. He can reach out and he can touch it, feel it, sense it, using the sense modalities that are open to him. This is another crucial point to keep in mind in regard to this argument. It’s not that the blind person and the sighted person are dealing in two separate worlds; the blind person does have a means of checking out our verifying the claims of the sighted person. Unfortunately, again, we do not have this opportunity when it comes to the claim of the mystic. What types of verifiable procedures or tests can we bring to bear on the mystic’s claim that he experiences some ineffable, supernatural realm. There is no way whatsoever because he not only claims to have a special sense, power, or ability, but that he claims to sense or know something that lies in another realm altogether. This is totally arbitrary, indefensible, and insupportable. There are a number of other things we could point out here as well, such as the fact that the blind man does not use different standards of knowledge than the sighted man does. They simply have different means of gathering evidence, whereas the mystic would require us to abandon many of the current standards of knowledge that we presently use. I’m sure you can imagine many other objections that might be made to this particular line.
Sometimes you hear it said that the mystic has undergone a lot of special training. He’s gone through meditation or whatever it takes, and through this special training he has acquired this special ability to in some way perceive a supernatural being. That doesn’t really mean anything except that you can go through years and still come up with a ridiculous conclusion, just as you can come up with that ridiculous conclusion in thirty seconds or a minute. And in fact I think you may understand that if you devote years of study to a discipline, after a while there arises a certain vested interest in the truth of that discipline. If I say I’m going to go out to the Himalayas and try to get in touch with the oneness of the universe, I go out there and I’m told I have to meditate for five years and go through certain practices in order to attain this, I think emotionally it would be very difficult after my five years are up to come back and say, “Well, it was a waste of time.” There is involved here a certain emotional vested interest in hoping what you devoted all this time to has some merit to it. You run into this problem not only with mystics, but also professors of theology. Can you imagine going through a seminary, going through years of theological training, having your livelihood depend on it, only to say one day, “Well, I guess this is all just a waste of time. It’s nonsense.” It’s very difficult to do that kind of thing and it takes an extraordinarily independent mind to be able to go against the grain of so much vested interest.
One last point I want to make about the religious experience argument. This is more practical, something you can use. One of the major problems with the claim to have religious experience is that there is no possibility of falsifying such a claim. In other words, if we are to believe the mystic, he wants us to undergo a kind of experiment. He wants us to subject ourselves to some kind of procedure and then we will see that his beliefs are correct. The way you will encounter this most often is when a fundamentalist comes up to you and says, “Look, if you will only get on your knees and pray to Jesus Christ to come into your hear, then you will see that what I’m saying is true. I can’t communicate this to you unless you go through these procedures.” Certainly you’ve all ran into that from time to time. Let’s suppose this fundamentalist is of a philosophical bent and he wants to defend this argument here. He might say,
You claim to be reasonable. You claim to be open-minded. All I’m asking you to do is undergo an experiment. All you have to do is get down on your knees, look up at the sky, hold your hands, and ask Jesus to come into your heart. Now if you’re really open-minded, wouldn’t you be willing to do at least this little bit to check out my claim? Isn’t that what open-mindedness consists of?
I want to point out here an interesting thing that never comes up when the fundamentalist argues this way. The fundamentalist wants to set up an “experiment,” as he would put it, but he doesn’t want to take the risk that is inherent in any experiment. In other words, if there’s a possibility of an experiment succeeding, then it must also be possible that it will fail. If there’s a possibility of success, there must be a possibility of failure. There must be a risk involved in the experiment. The fundamentalist has a hypothesis: “Jesus is your personal savior or should be” or “God exists” or whatever. He wants to test this hypothesis so he tells you to accept Jesus. Here’s what you say to the fundamentalist:
You have a hypothesis. You’ve set up an experiment. I am wagering the truth of my claims on this experiment, but you have to put up similar stakes. You have to wager the truth of your claims on the experiment. So if I get down on my knees and do what you say is necessary, if what happens is what you say will happen, then I will be convinced. If, however, I get down on my knees and it doesn’t happen, that will falsify your hypothesis and you must give up your belief in God.
This is very, very important to understand what I’m saying here. If that “experiment” is to be a legitimate experiment, there has to be risk on both sides. But the trick comes when you find the religionist is not willing to do that. Is he willing to take the corresponding risk of giving up his belief if you are not saved after you get down on your knees? Is he willing to do that? I would say that in 99.9% of the cases, “no.” What would he say? “Maybe you weren’t sincere” so he’ll blame it on you. Or “maybe God didn’t feel like saving you at the time” so he’ll blame it on God. But never will he blame it on himself. Never will he blame it on his own ideas. The next time you’re in this situation, instead of just dismissing it as absurd — which it is — you might ask this question of the Christian: “If you really want to the scientific spirit about this , I’ll test this out. I’ll do this. But if it fails, you have to give up your beliefs and become an atheist.” That seems fair, but of course he won’t do that. As a final reminder, I will suggest that if he says he will do it, get it in writing, or get it in front of a group of witnesses, because Christians are not known for their intellectual integrity on matters such as this. You may recall the passage by Paul that “I become all things to all men in order to save” which is a call to intellectual hypocrisy in the name of spreading Christianity.
You often hear many objections to atheism. There are so many I cannot cover all of them. One of the ones that I want to comment on is the claim that “If atheism is correct, then we’re faced with a cold, indifferent universe, there’s no purpose to our universe, we’re insignificant specs on a whirling planet in a vast galaxy.” Well, that’s quite true. The universe doesn’t give a damn about you. It doesn’t give a damn about me. The point is you’re supposed to give a damn about yourself because if you don’t, no one will. Certainly the universe won’t. And in that sense I suppose you are insignificant as far as the universe is concerned. If you died tomorrow, the universe is going to hold a funeral for you or stop in its tracks. The universe will continue on its merry way. It’s not really correct to say you’re insignificant because the idea of significance and insignificance makes no sense when you consider an inanimate cosmos. Significance is a term that only applies to some sort of conscious evaluation. But nonetheless, in a sense, you are not that significant as far as the totality of the universe is concerned. So far as the problem, “What purpose is there in man’s life?”, there is no purpose in man’s life. There is a purpose hopefully in your own life but it is up to you to set it. Again, if you don’t, no one will for you.
I think this is why religion is so devastating, not only philosophically but also from a psychological point of view. You sometimes hear it said, “What would we do without religion? What would we do without Christianity?” I don’t understand what we do with religion or what we do with Christianity. I don’t understand what religion is supposed to solve. What if I believe in Jesus? That’s not going to make my life successful. Either I’m going to fail or succeed; I’m going to try or not; and simply believing in some sort of mythical deity will not change that. It’s still up to me. It’s still a personal matter. I don’t understand what this great psychological, moral benefit that religion is supposed to be that religion has offered throughout the ages. Undoubtedly, it gives some people a sense of comfort. If comfort is foremost in your life, even at the expense of truth, then perhaps you will believe in God. But as I pointed out at the beginning, I think the foremost concern should be truth. Truth may be somewhat painful on some limited occasions, but in the long run I think it’s clear that it will always work to your long-range interest. This is one benevolent, good effect of atheism. Atheism clears the air, as it were. It clears away the psychological, moral, and philosophical debris. It allows people to set out on their own to pursue rational goals, rational values, and so forth.
As one final argument or satire on an argument, you may have heard of Pascal’s wager at some point. Blaise Pascal was the famous French mathematician, philosopher, and theologian. He came up with this argument which consequently became quite famous, which went something as follows. Reason can’t prove or disprove the existence of God. Weigh the odds. If the atheist is correct, we’re going to die, nothing will happen, and nothing is lost. But if the Christian is correct, the nonbelievers are going to believe in Hell for eternity. So it seems like the practical odds would lie with Christianity. We would wager on Christianity because the practical odds are so important. If you wager on Christianity and there is no god, you don’t lose anything.
The first obvious problem with this is it completely shoves aside the whole issue of intellectual integrity, as if you can just do a complete turn-about in your beliefs willy-nilly without suffering any psychological damage, which simply isn’t possible. It would require such a gross miscarriage of intellectual integrity to do this kind of thing that it’s inconceivable that someone with Pascal’s kind of mind would even offer it.
But I want to offer you a kind of counter-wager, called the “Smith’s wager.” Here are the premises of my wager:
1. The existence of a god, if we are to believe in it, can only be established through reason.
2. Applying the canons of correct reasoning to theistic belief, we must reach the conclusion that theism is unfounded and must be rejected by rational people.
Now comes the question, “But what if reason is wrong in this case?”, which it sometimes is. We are fallible human beings. What if it turns out that there is a Christian god and He’s up there and He’s going to punish for eternity for disbelieving in Him. Here’s where my wager comes in. Let’s suppose you’re an atheist. What are the possibilities? The first possibility is there is no god, you’re right. In that case, you’ll die, that’ll be it, you’ve lost nothing, and you’ve lived a happy life with the correct position. Secondly, a god may exist but he may not be concerned with human affairs. He may be the god of traditional Deism. He may have started the universe going and left it to its traditional devices, in which case you will simply die, that is all there is to it, again, and you’ve lost nothing.
Let’s suppose that God exists and He is concerned with human affairs — He’s a personal god — but that He is a just god. He’s concerned with justice. If you have a just god, he could not possibly punish an honest error of belief where there is no moral turpitude or no wrongdoing involved. If this god is a creator god and He gave us reason as the basic means of understanding our world, then He would take pride in the conscientious and scrupulous use of reason the part of His creatures, even if they committed errors from time to time, in the same way a benevolent father would take pride in the accomplishments of his son, even if the son committed errors from time to time. Therefore, if there exists a just god, we have absolutely nothing to fear from such a god. Such a god could not conceivably punish us for an honest error of belief.
Now we came to the last possibility. Suppose there exists an unjust god, specifically the god of Christianity, who doesn’t give a damn about justice and who will burn us in Hell, regardless of whether we made honest mistakes or not. Such a god is necessarily unjust, for there is no more heinous injustice we could conceive of, than to punish a person for an honest error of belief, when he has tried to the best of his ability to ascertain the truth. The Christian thinks he’s in a better position in case this kind of god exists. I wish to point out that he’s not in any better position than we are because if you have an unjust god. The earmark of injustice is unprincipled behavior, behavior that’s not predictable. If there’s an unjust god and He really gets all this glee out of burning sinners and disbelievers, then what could give him more glee than to tell Christians they would be saved, only to turn around and burn them anyway, for the Hell of it, just because he enjoys it? If you’ve got an unjust god, what worst injustice could there be than that? It’s not that far-fetched. If a god is willing to punish you simply for an honest error of belief, you can’t believe He’s going to keep his word when He tells you He won’t punish you if you don’t believe in Him because He’s got to have a sadistic streak to begin with. Certainly He would get quite a bit of glee out of this behavior. Even if there exists this unjust god, then admittedly we live in a nightmarish universe, but we’re in no worse position than the Christian is.
Again, if you’re going to make the wager, you might as well wager on what your reason tells you, that atheism is correct, and go that route because you won’t be able to do anything about an unjust god anyway, even if you accept Christianity. My wager says that you should in all cases wager on reason and accept the logical consequence, which in this case is atheism. If there’s no god, you’re correct; if there’s an indifferent god, you won’t suffer; if there’s a just god, you have nothing to fear from the honest use of your reason; and if there’s an unjust god, you have much to fear but so does the Christian.
We come back full-circle to our original point, that atheism must always be considered within the wider context of the respect for reason and the respect for truth. I think that, as atheists, when you try to communicate the atheistic message this is the central point you should hammer home again and again.
[George H. Smith is the author of the book Atheism: The Case Against God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1980) and Atheism,Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1991). He has also been a frequent contributor to Reason and Libertarian Review.]