Atheism and Evidence: Self-Defense Against Belief?

I’m in a Facebook dialogue today (visible to friends) with an atheist, Spencer Hawkins, who says,

The methods of science and history are not able to verify supernatural causation…. It is possible that these historical claims are all true, yet some other God exists, leaving the metaphysical claims of Christianity false…. the central problem that I have is an epistemological one: there is no reliable procedure to either confirm or disconfirm claims of supernatural causation.

Demanding Incontrovertible Evidence

Here’s what I think I see going on there. My discussion with Spencer is still underway, and I don’t know if my conclusions here will have anything to do with him, even though he’s the one who got me thinking along these lines. I’m pretty sure I see it in other atheists, at any rate. It looks like this:

  1. “There is no reliable procedure to confirm or disconfirm,” therefore Spencer chooses not to believe.
  2. Again, “It is possible” that some other cause could explain miracles, even if they happened, according to Spencer.
  3. Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and Peter Boghossian have said they would not consider it conclusive evidence for God if the stars all realigned themselves to say in everyone’s own language, “I am God, believe in me.” Boghossian says, “It could be a delusion.”
  4. Dawkins and Boghossian have also said the same thing about the return of Christ, if it happened: not enough evidence.
  5. The common watchword among atheists is skepticism, an attitude of withholding belief where there is any possibility of other explanations.
  6. Finally and perhaps most significantly, atheism is “not a belief,” according to many atheists. It’s a lack of belief in God or gods.

Atheism, then, is (often) an intentional withholding of belief because of a perceived insufficiency of evidence. It’s a version  of W. K. Clifford’s dictum: “It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”*

My question is whether this is a form of self-defense against belief in God. I’ll get to that question presently; first I have to put some more pieces in place.

Not Caring Much At All About Incontrovertible Evidence

Clifford’s claim is hard to take seriously, and as it turns out, atheists apply it very selectively. Consider these other claims, none of which has sufficient evidence to prove it true:

  1. A pre-born human is not a person, at least not to the degree that killing it amounts to a moral fault.
  2. Gay marriage is right and good for all.
  3. The children of same-sex couples experience lifelong life outcomes that are as socially and emotionally healthy as children of man-woman marriages.
  4. Governmental policies are an effective vehicle for expressing compassion.

It’s possible that arguments for God are wrong, so atheists typically say they don’t believe in God. It’s possible that arguments for abortion are wrong, and atheists commonly support abortion. How does this make sense? So what’s going on with this selective insistence on sufficient evidence?

Clues To the Inconsistency

Let’s see if a pair of prominent atheists can give us some clue. First, Thomas Nagel, who wrote in The Last Word:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

Nagel concedes many of the chief arguments for God, yet he won’t believe. Aldous Huxley wrote,

I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; and consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning – the Christian meaning, they insisted – of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.

This is remarkably consistent with what Paul the Apostle wrote in Romans 1:18 about “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Whether Nagel and Huxley actively suppress the truth may be open to debate. What’s not debatable is that their approach to truth is strongly influenced by their anti-God preferences. They’ve decided not to believe in God, not primarily for rational reasons, but perhaps first of all because they prefer that there be no God.

Atheism and Evidence: Self-Defense Against Belief?

Finally I reach the part where I’m ready to move toward the question in the title of this post. It’s based one the picture this seems to be adding up to. Atheists’ insist on applying Clifford’s dictum to God. This fits perfectly with their commonly expressed moral preferences. They don’t apply it to the moral questions I gave as examples above. This supports the same end: it allows them to continue to hold on to the same moral preferences. There’s no consistency in the use of Clifford’s dictum.

Based on the above we have a whole series of pieces before us. Lt’s try to put them in place.

  1. Atheists apply Clifford’s dictum to God, but not to other questions where it seems like it should also apply.
  2. Apparently, then, Clifford’s dictum isn’t a universal principle, even for those who claim to live by it.
  3. Still there may be some principle that explains why atheists would give honor to Clifford’s dictum, as if it were one of their criteria for choosing what to believe or not to believer.
  4. One possible version of #3 might be this:
    Clifford’s Dictum could, in principle, act as a form of quasi-logical/psychological self-defense against belief in God. That could explain why atheists claim to honor it as a principle, even though the claim is demonstrably false.

The evidence seems to support that conclusion. I’m sure atheists would agree, so I’m inviting them to let us know there’s a better explanation. What would that explanation be? What principle tells you when to insist on nearly incontrovertible evidence for one thing, but not to worry much about it for others?

*Not every atheist would put it in those words, and they’re welcome to explain to me their preferred way of looking at evidence. I’ll be talking in terms of Clifford’s dictum for now, though, for convenience’s sake if nothing else.

Note: I re-wrote the final section and edited the headline a few hours after publishing the first version of this post.