In Defense of Atheism and Against Agnosticism: A Response to Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting recently posted an article to the NY Times philosophy column “The Stone” in which he had this to say:

Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism.

I’m quite familiar with these “agnosticism is more rational than atheism” arguments. I usually find the proponents of these arguments to be insufferable in their quest to prove agnosticism a superior philosophy to that of atheism, a more “juvenile” or “arrogant” position put forward only by the philosophically naive (Dawkins, etc).

Gutting seems to suggest that because sensible people report some kind of direct awareness of a divine being and because theologians have found ways of rationalizing these experiences, this lends credence to the supposition that agnosticism is the preferable stance insofar as we can’t “reject the [supernatural] hypothesis out of hand”. But this begs the question against the possibility of giving an overwhelming empirical explanation of exactly why and how religious hallucinations are possible.

Let’s say we have two competing explanations of the religious experience of “direct awareness of a divine being”. The first explanation is based on a naturalistic metaphysics. It starts from the expansion of the universe, the formation of stars, galaxies, planets, organisms, mammals, apes, and humans, etc. It tells this story in exquisite detail, with all the gory details filled in how the brain evolved over time. At some point in history, a side effect of human brain evolution was the advent of auditory hallucination wherein we experienced our dead ancestors, friends, deities, and demons talking to us. The naturalistic explanation thus explains the origin of “divine awareness” in terms of how the hallucination of divine authorities projected from the subconscious mind had some kind of adaptive power. Scientists are now able to experimentally induce the experience of a “divine being” by magnetically stimulating certain parts of the temporal cortex with a so-called “God Helmet“.

The second explanation is the supernatural explanation, which suggests that the best explanation of why we seem to experience immaterial realities and impossible experiences of divine beings is that there actually are divine beings and immaterial realities. Think about the logic of this for a second. This would be like saying the best explanation of why dreams are magical is that dreams actually are magical, as opposed to simply being the result of the brain being in an altered state of consciousness. It substitutes complete explanatory power for zero explanatory power. We can induce subjective experience of supernatural entities with magnetic stimulation, but the best explanation of what actually causes the experiences is that there actually are supernatural entities? Unless someone can put forward a non question-begging argument as to why induced experiences are different than “real” divine experiences, the supernaturalistic explanation seems to simply fly in the face of the well established  rationality of scientific metaphysics.

Philosophers seem to think that religious experiences are based on logical speculations about necessary beings. On the contrary, the first gods were crude auditory hallucinations. Look at the book of Amos. God is experienced as a thunderous booming voice:

“The LORD roars from Zion

and thunders from Jerusalem;

the pastures of the shepherds dry up,

and the top of Carmel withers.”

If you look at the subjective reports of these “direct experiences of divinity” and compare them with the reports of schizophrenic auditory verbal hallucination, the similarities are striking. For example, 20 year old schizophrenic Tobas reports:

I felt the Lord in me. This is when the voices began. At first they were only whispers, but then louder, but still soft. It was Jesus speaking to me. He would tell me what to do and ask me questions. Jesus would speak to me alone and no one else. Then I became a backslider. The Devil started talking to me. (He was unable to imitate the voice of the Devil) The devil told me bad things. He told me to kill myself. The Devil just wouldn’t leave me alone because I was a backslider.

These are the experiential grounds for Gutting’s “preference” for agnosticism. What are we supposed to make of the prevalence of auditory hallucinations in nonpsychotics, of the prevalence of hallucinated playmates in childhood, of the prevalence of voice hearing in the homeless and even in nonverbals? Naturalistic metaphysics theoretically has an explanation for all of this. Supernatural explanations of such phenomena barely make sense and certainly aren’t capable of producing theories such that prediction and control of the phenomena become possible (as with naturalistic metaphysics).

I have one last point. Gutting says:

It follows that [atheists] have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God.

Gutting makes a familiar move here against the atheist. He makes it such that the atheist is said to “deny” the existence of God, that is, to say “there is no God and I am 100%” positive of this because of such and such arguments”. This is not my understanding of atheism. I am, strictly speaking, an agnostic atheist. That is, someone who lacks a belief in god (a-theist) but does not claim “there is no God and I am sure of it”. For all I know, Deism is an open possibility. But I can’t think of a good reason why the pathetic scribblings of human theologians and metaphysicians would accurately represent anything about this supposed Deist-God that exists “outside” the natural universe. In this respect, we can say that agnostic atheism is the “preferred” stance for all possible gods, but given the naturalistic explanation of human religious experience, atheism is preferable in respect to particular deities hallucinated by the faithful. And moreover, since agnostic atheism is itself a properly respectable a-theism (lacking all positive endorsement of the claim “supernatural deities exist”), we can say that atheism in general is preferable over agnosticism.



Filed under Atheism, Philosophy

10 responses to “In Defense of Atheism and Against Agnosticism: A Response to Gary Gutting

  1. Jimmy Castellano

    Agnosticism makes more sense because of the fact that our very existence is impossible. When you consider that fact that matter cannot be created or destroyed, yet at some point it must have happened. The fact that something from nothing is not possible for my mind to conceive, yet as I sit here I know it happened makes me feel that a “god” of some sort may be possible, but at the same time it is not provable. If I had to pick I would say there is no GOD, but I’m not 100% sure therefore I am agnostic.

  2. Gary Williams

    I don’t understand why “matter” had to have a beginning. This doesn’t seem to be a logical requirement. Theoretically speaking, a model of matter wherein it has always been around makes just as much sense (if not more sense) as a model of matter wherein it at some point “popped” into existence out of nothing. The theist claims that the Big Bang points to a “first cause”, but for all we know, there was simply another universe before ours, and another universe before that, and so on, ad infinitum. This is a logical possibility just as much as the possibility that the big bang was the “beginning” of matter. If the theist is willing to allow for the possibility of an entity which never “began” to exist (God), then they must also allow for the possibility of matter itself not having a beginning either.

    • Jimmy Castellano

      There are only two choices….either all matter that is always was or first there was nothing then there was something. Both in my opinion are impossible yet I know that one of the two did occur. If I had to pick one of the two I would pick first there was nothing then there was something. How it happened I know not. No human being that has ever lived has the answer therefore all religion is false hope. I choose to take an agnostic position because I just don’t know.

  3. I have a simple question. In your text, you (implicitly) equated religious awareness with schizophrenia (or, in the very least, put them in some common ground). Does that mean that the +4 billion people in the world who profess some kind of faith are (close to) schizophrenics?

    • Gary Williams

      Daniel, I would wager that religious people are only close to schizophrenics if they have verbal hallucinations. The average religious person probably doesn’t hear voices, so I wouldn’t consider all religious people to necessarily have schizophrenic symptoms. But the foundational experiences of religious prophets hearing the voices of gods is closely related to the development of schizophrenia.

      • But if those religious people are not (close to being) schizophrenic, then their testimony is not necessarily tainted. If there are other grounds, besides their testimony, to holding the belief in a deity (for example, metaphysical arguments), then this at least makes the agnostic position Gutting was arguing for more sensible. In other words, if there is reasonable testimony regarding the existence of a deity, and if there is also some rational argumentation supporting this claim, then it may be that there is something going at least for agnosticism after all.

  4. Clayton

    Hey Gary! The internet allows this frequent debate of ours to continue across state lines!

    I just had a question about your response to Daniel. Do you think (or maybe know) that nontheistic religions like Buddhism have fewer auditory hallucinations? If there is no God to be speaking to them (though there might be a notion of ancestor spirits or something, but this experience ought to lack the kind of “bigness” that a God experience normally has), do you think this would result in relatively few religious prophets of the sort you’re talking about here? And, if so, where do you place nontheistic religions like Buddhism? They seem fundamentally different in their origins, but they still have a notion of the supernatural. I don’t have strong opinions about this, I was just curious about your thoughts.

    P.S. Glad to hear about your paper being accepted, congratulations!

  5. Gary Williams

    Hey Clayton, it’s good to hear from you! I hope all is well.

    You ask some good questions, though ones that I am not sure I can answer adequately. The question of whether Buddhist have less auditory hallucinations is an empirical question, and I just don’t really know without doing some further research. I do know though that some researchers have investigated the Chinese “Shi corpse/personator” ceremony and found striking features of bicamerality. You say these types of experience lack “bigness” but I think this is up for debate. The people who actually hallucinate the ancestor spirits usually go into deep, dissociative trance states and as far as I know, this is a fairly big experiential phenomena insofar as depth of dissociation goes.

    I do think though that Buddhism, especially that of Zen Buddhism and derivations thereof, represents a distinct class of religious practice. They seem to focus much more on contemplative mindfulness rather than any ritualistic induction or doctrinal incantation of supernatural deities. However, there is a similarity between rituals to induce auditory hallucination and meditative rituals insofar as they both strive for an altered state of consciousness for the sake of deeper cosmological wisdom.

  6. Hey Gary,

    Interesting thoughts. I can’t help but wonder if you aren’t stacking the deck a bit by drawing a sharp distinction between atheism and theism or between the natural and the supernatural. What of vitalist metaphysics á la Bergson or Deleuze and Deleuze/Guattari? What of dues sive natura? Isn’t there a sense in which one can speak of the Absolute or of totality or multiplicity or a number of other possible large-scale signifiers as “god” but without the metaphysical baggage of “the supernatural”? Shoot, even Feuerbach was not inclined to call himself an “atheist.”

    Of course, the latter would not fit into any orthodox matrix of theology. But it could signpost a way beyond the terse bifurcations that are replete in religious discussions today, leaving room for robust accounts of immanence that are always excessive and transcendent (in a relative sense). And it could also prevent the tendency for drab materialism and determinism.

  7. Charles

    I’ve always thought that the most helpful position to take is one where one says that there is definitely no god. I can’t and won’t prove this position, but will take it to provide a proper logical device for those who wish to disprove it. Atheism as target, if you will. Seems like a reasonable assumption and is falsifiable in theory.

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