googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Why is Atheism the “Default” Belief?

Friday, January 8, 2016

Why is Atheism the “Default” Belief?

If you were to ask an atheist why he's an atheist, very seldom will you hear a positive answer. That is, you will hardly ever hear “evidence” for why atheism is the correct belief. Instead, the person will likely say he's an atheist because he hasn't been convinced that theism is the correct belief. In other words, he's withholding belief in God until he sees the evidence that God exists. Because of this, many atheists will describe atheism as the “default belief” of any thinking person.

At first hearing, this sounds reasonable. In some ways, I hold a similar view. I don't believe in Bigfoot or UFOs, for example, because I've yet to see any convincing proof that they exist. The anecdotal stories, the grainy video footage, and the dubious trace evidence (like footprints or crop circles) seem better explained as hoaxes or misidentification. I'm sure many atheists look at a belief in God in much the same way as I look at a belief in Bigfoot. But is this skeptical attitude necessarily the correct attitude?

Pretend, for a moment, that you're walking through a forest and you happen upon a log cabin. It's crude and has only a dirt floor. It has no electricity, plumbing, or glass windows. It's just basically logs, notched and stacked, with openings cut out for the the door and windows. There's not a stick of furniture inside nor any other sign of anyone having lived in it recently. What questions might you ask yourself? I would think your first thoughts would be, I wonder who built this? Does someone live here? Where is he now?

I'm fairly certain no one would ask, “That's incredible! I wonder how these logs fell into the shape of a cabin?”

You see, logs organized into the shape of a cabin show design. Sections having been cut out to allow light and access show purpose. Design and purpose are the characteristics of created things and created things are the proof of a creator. The cabin obviously had a creator. Withholding judgment about the existence of a builder of the cabin is not the sign of a rational, thinking person. It's the stubborn refusal of an idiot to acknowledge the obvious!

Life is all about design and purpose. Never mind something as advanced as the human brain – even a single DNA molecule is far more complicated than logs stacked in a square. How can anyone look at a stack of logs and know there was a builder yet see something a million times more incredible and stubbornly withhold judgment about its Creator?

In his book, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins said, Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” There are those words again, “design” and “purpose.” He further says, The complexity of living organisms is matched by the elegant efficiency of their apparent design. If anyone doesn’t agree that this amount of complex design cries out for an explanation, I give up. Dawkins clearly sees design and purpose in the creation. Note, too, his use of the term, “this amount of complex design” which suggests it's more than a few examples of design.

What strikes me as most curious about his comment is how he says design cries out for an explanation. What is there to explain? Design and purpose immediately point to a Designer. I don't need any explanation about how some logs in the woods became formed in the shape of a cabin. The only thing that would need explaining is how so much design and purpose could come about without a Creator. But why would someone look for some other cause for design except that he rejects the most obvious cause a priori?

Dawkins has also said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In other words, people might reject the concept of God but, without evolution, how could they explain the obvious design and purpose visible everywhere in the creation? That question would gnaw at the atheist's intellect making it impossible for him to be entirely secure in his disbelief. This seems a tacit admission that God is the best, first explanation behind design and purpose.

It seems to me that skepticism about God is not the most reasonable starting point. Indeed, it's not the default position at all. Skeptics aren't open-minded people willing to be persuaded if they are presented with compelling evidence. Instead, they have committed themselves in advance to the idea there is no God. They can see the evidence for God in the creation; they simply refuse to believe in the Creator!


Steven J. said...

I don't need any explanation about how some logs in the woods became formed in the shape of a cabin.

That's because you had an explanation before you knew that this particular log cabin existed. You've seen humans building shelters; you've seen humans cutting trees for wood, and you've read about log cabins being built in the past. You aren't so much inferring "design" from "specified complexity" as inferring a known albeit in this case unobserved cause from the known results of that cause. If someone sees Mount Rushmore for the first time, he's probably already seen sculptures and knows that humans create them; inferring a human creator for the Mount Rushmore sculptures is simply an obvious extrapolation of this. It's not especially different in principle from seeing puddles on the ground and drops of water all over your car and inferring that it rained.

Note that we don't have observations of new kinds of living thing just poofing into existence. A designer and artificer of giraffes is an extrapolation bolder and more remote from our experience of designers and artificers of houses, or cars, or smart phones.

This seems a tacit admission that God is the best, first explanation behind design and purpose.

A tacit admission that God is the first explanation is not an admission, even a tacit one, that God is the best explanation. The first explanation for why the sun travels from east to west across the sky is that the Earth is standing still and the sun moving, but I do not think you will hold that this is the best explanation. Supernatural entities were the first explanation for a lot of phenomena: Zeus, or Thor, or Perun, sent lightning, Loviatar sent epidemics, etc. The antiquity of such explanations does not justify preferring them to naturalistic alternatives, once such alternatives are discovered.

Note that lightning is not better evidence for Perun than for Lei Gong, and "creation implies a Creator" does not, of itself, support the further inference that this Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent, or that He has revealed Himself to us in any way beyond creation itself. Against the design argument is the classic argument from suffering (e.g. the design of Plasmodium falciparum or Loa loa); the most obvious way to reconcile these two positions is to abandon the idea that the Creator is benevolent and all-powerful (though in that case, as Lucretius is supposed to have asked, "why call him God?"). The most obvious alternative to reconciling the two views and simply reject one of them: either deny that evil and suffering are objectively real (and struggle to explain why they certainly seem to be) or to reject the idea of a Creator (and struggle to come up with an alternative explanation for complexity and function).

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

Why does SETI look for patterns in radio signals from outer space? It's because they know that it's a sign of intelligent life. What if we found something on Mars that resembled a tool but was made from an unknown substance for an unknown purpose? It doesn't matter if we can discern the purpose or not. It doesn't matter that we've never seen such a thing before. Such a discovery would prompt headlines that we've discovered evidence for intelligent live on Mars.

And my point of this post is to explore if atheism is the reasonable, “default” belief. When we see design and purpose, the first assumption is always to assume a creator. The quotes I've provided from Dawkins attest to the fact that design and purpose are visible everywhere in the creation. He even said it cries out for an explanation. Why then, in only this case, do atheists withhold judgment about the existence of a Creator?

If secular scientists are willing to believe intelligent aliens are behind patterns in radio signals but refuse to believe a Creator is behind the design and purpose evident in DNA, that's up to them. I'm saying it's not the more reasonable position. It's more like special pleading.

God bless!!


Steven J. said...

As I recall (and I have been apprised of the treacherous and self-serving nature of memory), right after I posted my reply I thought "what if he brings up SETI?" The answer, of course, was obvious: SETI is one step beyond inferring a human builder from a log cabin. Here, we are inferring organisms that are not human, but are like humans in many respects: constrained by the same laws of physics, using senses similar or analogous to our own and minds with abilities and limitations like ours. Basically, SETI is looking for the sorts of signals we would send into space. SETI is not seeking -- scientists would have no idea how to reliably or repeatably seek -- supernatural intelligent agents or agents whose motives and methods were incomprehensible to us.

A similar argument obtains with regard to your unidentified tool. I should note that we recognize tools by two things: their similarities to known tools, and marks of manufacture, from seams on molded products to chip marks on flint projectile points. A tool whose purpose was entirely obscure to us might well not be recognized as a tool at all (unless it contained parts we recognized as, e.g. circuits or gears, i.e. parts that resembled parts of things known to be manufactured).

Not everyone agrees with Dawkins that life looks designed or purposeful. I'm not sure Dawkins entirely agrees with Dawkins; as a writer he has an interest in crafting topic sentences that catch readers' attention and provoke their further interest.

With regard to either log cabins or alien tools, we know that intelligent organisms exist. We know that multiple species, some only recently discovered and many, presumably, still undiscovered, exist here on Earth. It is not an extravagant flight of fancy to suppose that intelligent organisms might exist elsewhere in the universe, on the same general principle that the existence of birds does not preclude bats. It is a bolder hypothesis to suppose that there exist one or more intelligent designers unconstrained by the laws of physics or the need for any explanation for his existence. Indeed, it seems to me that to treat the two hypotheses as equally reasonable is itself special pleading.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I think you're missing the forest for the trees. SETI, of course, is the search for extra terrestrial “intelligence.” We probably would not understand an alien language but we, hopefully, could identify a pattern and patterns are signs of intelligence.

We recognize created things because they possess the characteristics of design and purpose. Even if we cannot fully understand the purpose, it's not usually difficult to see that something was intelligently designed. Stones strewn randomly on a beach were probably deposited naturally. Stones stacked in the shape of a pyramid were arranged intentionally. I may not know why someone arranged them in that pattern but the pattern demonstrates intelligence.

Finally, I agree with you that we are adept at spotting design because we compare unknown patterns to things we've created. I'm not exactly sure how that helps your argument. A single cell shows design and purpose to a degree that we are not able to duplicate. We sometimes even try to build machines that mimic biological organisms. The man-made machines are seldom as practical and efficient as the original design.

Thank you for your comments. God bless!!