This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
Note: I am now, once again, re-thinking this question, and am planning to write more about it soon. I think that I’m still basically standing by my position, which is that atheism both can and should be falsifiable. But I am reconsidering the question of what the word “god” even means, and whether the term can be defined in a way that is both coherent and non-trivial. So this piece is not my final word on the subject: it’s still a work in progress.
And if not — does that make our atheism close-minded and dogmatic?
There’s been an interesting debate lately in the atheist blogosphere. (The media will no doubt point to it as a sign of a terrible schism in the so-called New Atheist movement; but really, it’s been a very friendly and civil conversation so far, among people who are fundamentally allies.) The debate revolves around whether there’s any possible evidence that could convince atheists to change their minds… and if not, whether that makes their atheism an unshakable article of faith rather than a reasonable, evidence-based conclusion.
I’ve written at length about how atheism is, and should be, falsifiable. I’ve even gone out on a limb, in this very blog, about what exact evidence would persuade me that God was real. And after reading Myers and Coyne and a whole lot of other atheists in this debate, and after thinking about it at some length, I’ve reached two conclusions:
1) I don’t agree with PZ.
2) I think PZ makes some seriously important points.
I don’t ultimately agree with him, but the questions he raises are making me re-think my position on this question.
Or, to put it another way: We’re talking counter-factuals. We understand that the universe, as it is now, is overwhelming in its evidence for atheism and materialism, and against any kind of deity or supernatural realm. We get that. We’re talking about alternative universes. We’re asking, “What would the world look like if there were a god or gods?”
So it’s frustrating to see one of the most prominent atheists undercut that tactic, and give the “Atheists are close-minded” brigade ammunition. (I don’t think the PR point is the most important one — if I were persuaded that PZ’s position was philosophically sound, I’d stand by it even if it made atheists look bad and made our debates harder — but since I think that philosophical soundness and good PR do dovetail in this case, I think the PR angle is worth pointing out.)
But PZ makes some important points here. In thinking over my disagreement with him, I’ve had to seriously re-think my own position on this question.
And I think the most important point he makes is this:
Religion has to do more than come up with some good evidence for its hypothesis.
It has to come up with a coherent hypothesis in the first place.
And thus far, religion has completely failed to do this.
Religions haven’t just failed to support their assorted hypotheses with good, solid, carefully gathered, rigorously tested evidence. They’ve failed to come up with hypotheses that are even worth subjecting to testing. They’ve failed to come up with hypotheses that are worth the paper they’re printed on.
And when I ask religious believers who aren’t theologians to define what exactly they believe, they almost always evade the question. They point to the existence of “sophisticated modern theology,” without actually explaining what any of this theology says, much less why they believe it. They resort to vagueness, equivocation, excuses for why they shouldn’t have to answer the question. In some cases, they get outright hostile at my unmitigated temerity to ask.
So in order to persuade me that it was probably true, a religion would have to do more than just provide some decent evidence for its hypothesis. It would have to provide a decent hypothesis in the first place. It would have to provide a hypothesis that explains existing evidence, makes accurate predictions about future events, can be tested, can have those tests replicated, is consistent with what we already know (or provides a better explanation for it than existing theories), and is internally consistent.
What’s more: This hypothesis would have to do more than just explain whatever new evidence might appear to support it.
It would have to explain the utter lack of good supporting evidence in the past.
It would have to explain why, in thousands and thousands and thousands of years of human history, supernatural explanations of unexplained phenomena have never once panned out… and a natural explanation has always, always, always turned out to be right.
Now — and here, again, is a point I think PZ is missing — the fact that religion has utterly failed to do this in thousands of years doesn’t mean that it never, ever could. I could imagine, for instance, a malevolent trickster god, who’s deliberately hidden all traces of his existence from us for hundreds of thousands of years… but who today, just to screw with us, has decided to show his existence: by healing amputees, by moving Earth into Pluto’s orbit without anyone getting chilly, by writing his name in the sky in letters 100 feet tall in every language known to humanity, by making all members of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, alone among all other religions, healthy and wealthy and successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
That’s clearly not a god who’s posited by any religion I know about. Not even the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. But he’s hypothetically possible. And if this series of events happened, I would change my mind about my atheism, and I would accept this god’s existence. I wouldn’t necessarily worship him — I’d probably conclude that he was a jerk, and I’d only worship him out of purely self-interested fear of getting smacked down — but I’d conclude that he was real.
And they’ll have a point. You could argue, as I do, that in the face of a sudden, massive onslaught of the violations of known physical laws — and in the face of a clear verbal message saying, “Yes, I am Loki pulling all this crap, I really am a god, so make with the burnt offerings already” — the god hypothesis would be the most reasonable and parsimonious one. But you could also argue that the space alien hypothesis would be the most reasonable and parsimonious. After all, we know that physical life and technology exist; we don’t know that supernatural beings exist. And when it comes to conflicts between natural and supernatural explanations of unexplained phenomena… well, again. in all of human history, natural explanations have won that fight time after time. Natural explanations have an entirely unbeaten, millennia- old record over supernatural ones. They should always be our go-to choice.
Making it completely unlike any God hypotheses I’m aware of.
Do I think my atheism could hypothetically be mistaken? Sure. I’ve already stated what kind of evidence would persuade me out of my atheism: I’ve gone out on that limb, and I stand by that limb. On that limb. Whatever. I still think atheism is falsifiable — and I still think it ought to be falsifiable. I think it makes our atheism more philosophically sound. (Not to mention better able to stand up in a fight.)
But to persuade me that my atheism was false, I’d have to see more than just evidence for the religion hypothesis. I’d have to see a religion hypothesis that was coherent. I’d have to see a religion hypothesis that was testable, capable of making useful predictions, not shot through with internal inconsistencies and logical contradictions. I’d have to see a religion hypothesis that was worthy of the name “hypothesis.” And I’d have to see a religion hypothesis that explained, not only any new evidence that seemed to support it, but the complete lack of good evidence supporting it for the thousands and thousands of years before now.
Rejecting religion isn’t an unquestioned axiom. Rejecting religion is a conclusion, based on an overwhelmingly mountainous pile of unignorable evidence. And even for those atheists who are now totally convinced that this conclusion is correct, it’s still a conclusion. It’s not that atheism isn’t falsifiable. It’s that thousands of years of history have utterly failed to falsify it.
It could still happen. The trickster god could still show his 900-foot face and wow us all.
But I’m not holding my breath.