Here’s something else I’ve not done a great deal of lately: a good old-fashioned dismantling of some bog-standard, classically inane, long-since-refuted-yet-still-infuriatingly-ubiquitous religious piffle.
I suppose it’s important that someone keeps explaining over and over again what a burden of proof is, and why atheists are moral, and all that malarkey, while so many people seem insistent on failing to understand any of it and keep repeating the same tired old shite. Usually, though, I just can’t find the strength.
But I’m getting back into the swing of it for Mehdi Hasan, who was featured in the Lines of Dissent section of the New Statesman a few months ago (the issue edited by Robin Ince and Brian Cox). The density of painfully simple errors and failures of reasoning packed into a relatively short space just begs to be addressed. Ooh, and I’ve just noticed there’s an online version too, so you can read along here.
The first mildly teeth-grinding moment comes from his defense of “faith”. He criticises Richard Dawkins’s characterisation of faith as “belief in something without evidence” as “sheer nonsense”, and goes on:
Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?
If you can find me an instance of Dawkins, or any atheist, making such a harsh judgment on any of the aforementioned thinkers, feel free to let me know in the comments. The fact is, “unthinking or irrational idiots” are Hasan’s words, which he extrapolated from someone’s definition of faith which doesn’t line up with his own.
And while I would dispute that “belief in something without evidence” is unprecedented as a description of faith that believers positively embrace and hold to, it’s fine if Hasan understands it differently. But his understanding is explained as “without proof, but not without evidence”. And frankly, this distinction is inadequately explained.
I don’t know how to interpret “proof” except as something like “evidence sufficiently convincing and voluminous that to withhold acceptance would be empirically unjustifiable”. That could probably be tighter and more pithy; the point is, evidence and proof are not two disparate things. The convincingness of evidence is on a scale; “proof” is what we call the upper end of that scale.
So he seems to be claiming that faith is believing in the truth of propositions for which there is more than zero evidence… but not enough evidence to actually support those propositions convincingly.
It’s like if you were talking to a stranger on the internet, and they tell you they’re actually Michelle Obama. Do you believe them? Well, if you don’t ask for any evidence at all, then you’re an unthinking or irrational idiot if you buy such a story. But say you ask for proof, and she sends you a picture of Michelle Obama which she says she just took on her phone. It’s not proof, exactly – it could be a picture someone just grabbed off the web – but it’s evidence, however weak. Now you’re having faith!
Hopefully the first (slightly bizarre) example to spring to my mind helps demonstrate that it’s not a meaningful distinction Hasan’s making here. Is belief in God supported by the facts, or not? If so, you don’t need faith. If not, you’re not justified in that belief, and faith isn’t going to help you.
Then he goes onto the “absence of evidence” trope, and comes out with this:
I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.
First, I think Mehdi Hasan just confessed to being agnostic on the subject of leprechauns, dragons, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, 9/11 conspiracies, alien abductions, Islamic creationism, Ganesh, crop circles, and the fact that I control the tides with my big toe. It’s the only non-faith-based position, after all. Unless he thinks he can disprove any of the above, which I’d be interested to see.
Secondly, the truism is seriously misleading. Absence of evidence can in fact be evidence of absence – if the particular absent evidence is something you would have expected to be present, if the phenomenon in question was real.
Example: there’s a decisive lack of evidence supporting the claim that there’s an elephant under my bed. This lack of evidence does, in fact, fairly conclusively suggest that no such elephant exists. I would go so far as to say that it “proves” it, to my satisfaction.
It doesn’t always work. Just because we’ve never found convincing evidence of alien life in the universe, for instance, doesn’t mean it’s not out there. This is because some models of reality in which alien life exists are entirely compatible with our continued ignorance of them. Whereas with the elephant under my bed, you’d have to come up with all sorts of excuses and amendments and provisos (it’s a special breed of tiny elephant, which is also a very good hider, and so on) for it to be possibly true, given the lack of evidence.
So if atheists assert that the lack of evidence for God is indicative of his non-existence, this isn’t by definition irrational. Some formulations of the God hypothesis aren’t explicitly contradicted by our observations of the world – but these tend not to be testable, or positively supported by any evidence either, so they’re not very interesting (see: deism). Other times, a particular interventionist God is actively refuted by the evidence. And yes, absence of evidence can itself constitute evidence in this regard, in some cases. (And yes, I do really mean “refuted”. I’m almost positive.)
Hasan cites multiverse theory as an aspect of science which can’t be proved, and requires faith. But you’ll notice he has to go to an extreme corner of niche physics, which is highly controversial and not uncritically accepted in its own field, to find such an example. When a theory is supported by mountains of evidence, science recognises that and no faith is required. The theory of evolution, for example, has been “proved” to the satisfaction of every credible biologist around. Its truth is asserted confidently, because it’s so firmly supported by data. It may be that multiverse theory isn’t similarly supported, and yet some scientists have some sort of “faith” in it, believing in its truth beyond what’s supported by the currently available evidence. If this is the case, then that’s not a good thing, as Hasan himself strongly implies.
He then seems to think that an argument for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument (which doesn’t even mention God, incidentally, only concluding that “the universe has a cause”), is supposed to score some sort of points “whether you agree with it or not”. Which is odd, because I don’t see many atheists denying that appeals to reason to support God exist at all. We’re just not convinced by them. Do an immense number of bad arguments sum up to one good one?
Here’s a perfectly valid logical syllogism:
1. If pie is delicious, I am a world darts champion.
2. Pie is delicious.
3. Therefore, I am a world darts champion.
And yet people remain unconvinced. My prowess at throwing a pointy thing at a flat thing just isn’t taken seriously. Odd, that.
He then brings up Anthony Flew, an atheist who prominently converted to some kind of theistic belief a few years ago, and says:
To pretend that Flew, of all people, arrived at such a belief blindly, without thinking it through, “without evidence”, is plain silly.
Which is another rather tedious appeal to authority. The fact that somebody who wrote some learned books on a subject now believes a particular claim doesn’t demonstrate that there’s any evidence for that claim. You know what would demonstrate that there’s some evidence? Demonstrating the evidence. I don’t care how smart and supposedly thoughtful Anthony Flew is; if he hasn’t got a convincing line of reasoning leading to his conclusion, then I’ll call him out for being irrational just as I would anyone else.
Hasan’s closing paragraph brings him back to the title of the piece:
In short, most of us who believe in God do so not because we are irrational, incurious or immature but because He is the best answer to the question posed by Leibniz more than 300 years ago: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
No he’s not. I’ve got a better answer. One that’s more intellectually honest and more conducive to the genuine progress of discovery and rigorous questioning of our understanding of things. Want to hear it?
Ask me the question.
I don’t know.