The Reformed Epistemologist wants you to think that theism and atheism are on the same epistemic grounds. That is, theism is just as rational as atheism because it is properly basic. A properly basic belief can be rationally held without evidential argumentation given it is grounded by a pragmatic functionality. In other words, if you grew up in a theistic community, you are epistemically warranted to believe whatever you want provided you can cope well and your belief isn’t easily knocked down by argumentation. Ultimately, the Reformed Epistemologist wants you to think that both atheism and theism, being propositionally counter to each other, are more or less taken on faith.This post concerns an intuition pump I’ve been thinking about for many years, but never tried to write down, that argues against this thesis. I will essentially argue against the Reformed Epistemologist by claiming that atheism is the epistemic default for the ideally educated person.
First, let us imagine an incredibly intelligent human being, ignorant of all possible knowledge concerning the history of religion, but capable of extraordinarily rapid learning. If we put her to the task of learning everything there is to know about the history of religion, what would she have to say about the epistemic status of a supreme being? Through a hypothetical time-portal, she would have at her finger tips all possible knowledge about the evolutionary development of religion. She would watch a lifeless, dead world, inhospitable to life and forsaken by God, spring into organic activity through chemical necessity. She would watch our genetic heritage crawl through time at a glacial pace, struggling for life but developing intelligence and technology slowly over time. As we edged closer to the dawn of historical consciousness, our ideal scholar would watch how our ancestors brains lighted up with divine commands in roughly the same way schizophrenics experience it today.
Indeed, our ideal scholar, studying the history of religion, would simultaneously discover the birth of schizophrenia and command hallucinations wherein humans experience external voices with authoritarian personalities issuing admonitory commands and critical judgement. I have never experienced such hallucinations, but I imagine the effect on a Paleolithic human would be momentous. Let us not immediately scoff at such a notion lest we forget the Bible and religious history in general is littered with references to hearing the awesome voice of God in quite a literal fashion.
But aren’t I rigging the game by assuming that the root of religion is hallucinatory, and thus natural? I reply, if the game is rigged, then so is reality itself. For if our ideal scholar was to spread out before her mind all the spits and spurts of religious development in all the various cultures of our world, she would see a vast sea of schizoidal behavior coupled with context-dependent ritual and myth. She would see the birth of ancestor worship, witchcraft, oracles, divining, animism, shamanism, goddess worship, steward-gods, Hinduism, Buddhism, Greek and Roman polytheism, Judaism, Islam, Gnosticism, Christianity (and all its schisms), Mormonism, cult worship, occultism, Scientology, etc.
Imagine our scholar looking at ALL that, at all the cultural complexity, all the historical twists and turns, at the social construction of divine being, of the priesthood and middle men, at the shamans, the trickery, deception, ignorance, bigotry, xenophobia, psychological and physical torture, indoctrination, cultural determinism, etc. Can anyone seriously entertain the intuition that our scholar would think it necessary to introduce a divine agent as an explanatory hypothesis for any of that history? Could we not, in principle, account for everything in naturalistic, atheistic terms? Could we not plainly see how it was humans who created God and not the over way around?
Coming back to Reformed Epistemology then, can we give a conclusion regarding the supposedly equal epistemic status of theism and atheism? We assumed before that the atheist was simply the propositional opposite of the theist. The theist says “I know there is a God” and the atheist says “I know there is no God.” Right? Wrong. The most logically consistent atheist will never make a positive claim about the existence of God. On the contrary, the negative atheist simply says “I lack a belief in God for various reasons.” This is not a dogmatic position. Even if our ideal scholar looked at all the evidence for and against God’s existence, studied the history of religion, and said “The evidence is inconclusive; I make no decision” she would be an atheist given she lacks a positive belief in God on account of the evidence being inconclusive. The negative atheist position is thus the epistemic default from the standpoint of cultural ignorance. And if the ideally educated person would be atheistic, then the Reformed Epistemologist’s trump card of “pragmatic functionality” is useless in light of historical consciousness.