Sapient Nature

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Is Atheism Just Another Faith?

Please don't say atheism is the scientific or logical stance.
Dave Niose
This post is a response to Rebutting more outlandish statements about atheists by David Niose

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

My recent post has attracted considerably more attention than I expected--over 150 comments (at last count) and even a repartee by David Niose. Although I am sorry that my post was offensive to some atheists (and I apologize for that), I am happy that we are at least having this debate. If it is at all conceivable, believe me when I say that my intention is not to insult anyone.

Before I address some of the objections to my thesis--that even hardcore atheists will start praying to God under a sufficiently high level of stress--I would like to state that I am not really a believer in God. More precisely, I do not believe in the kind of God that is typically depicted in most religions, as a somewhat egotistical and even vengeful entity. I should also state that, like most atheists, I believe that religion has overall been a more divisive and harmful force than it has been a unifying and beneficial one. If forced to pick a category to which I belong, I would pick agnostic rather than "believer." In other words, I am really more closely aligned to atheists than I am to the religious.

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That said, I would like to now offer my responses to the five major categories of comments/criticisms that my post generated:

1. You don't offer any scientific evidence in support of your thesis.

As I acknowledged in some of my responses to the comments, my post wasn't meant to provide irrevocable proof for my proposition. Rather, it was meant to make people wonder about the possibility that beliefs about God--like any other beliefs--are susceptible to revisions based on life circumstances in which one finds oneself. As I am sure most of you can appreciate, the "no atheists in foxholes" hypothesis is not easy to test in a controlled laboratory setting. For obvious (and valid) reasons, the human subjects committee would not approve such an experiment. However, what we do know from one experiment (conducted in the 1960s) on obedience by Stanley Milgram (see all three parts, starting with this video) is that people can do crazy things, things that they would never think they were capable of doing, when they are under a sufficiently high level of stress. (In the case of Milgram's experiments, participants were put under stress by ordering them to obey authority, and they delivered electric shocks to people.)

More directly relevant to our focus are studies in the area of Terror Management Theory (TMT). In a nutshell, TMT suggests that the terror evoked by the fear of death causes people to embrace symbolic systems, such as cultural norms, mores, religious beliefs, etc. According to TMT, the more the terror, the greater the reliance on the symbolic crutches, including religious beliefs. One study showed, for example that, after being reminded of death, Christians rated fellow-Christians more favorably than they rated Jews and vice versa. Ask yourself: If being subject to terror can prompt a religious person to become even more religious and fundamentalist, couldn't it push an atheist to change the confidence with which they hold their views about God (i.e., either push them to become even more confident that God doesn't exist, or push them towards believing in God)? (If you continue to believe that your position as an atheist is set in stone, please revisit this question after reading the rest of this post.)

2. Far from making one believe in God, stress has made me an atheist.

A significant proportion of the respondents said that, contrary to what I proposed, stress eventually lead them to embrace atheism. This is not necessarily a rebuttal of my overarching thesis, which is that people's opinions and beliefs are unstable. As I wrote in the last paragraph of my original post, "Extrapolated to the topic of God: This means that no one is a complete atheist or, for that matter, a complete believer in God."

Think about it: If stress converted you from a believer to an atheist, what is the guarantee that it won't do the reverse again in the future?

3. It is logical and scientific to be an atheist.

This was, by far, the most prevalent counter-argument against my position: that from a logical, rational and scientific viewpoint, it doesn't make sense to believe in God. By extension, those with this viewpoint felt that atheists wouldn't succumb to believing in God--no matter the level of stress-- since belief in God "doesn't make logical sense" and "it is scientific to not believe in God."

Perhaps the most cogent articulation of this view was made by Brett, who cited atheist philosopher Michael Martin. According to Martin, one is justified in not believing a claim if (a) it has been subject to extensive study; (b) there is no direct evidence supporting it; and (c) it is the sort of claim that, if it were true, would clearly have available evidence to support it.

Brett claimed that the topic of God had been put to rigorous scientific study. I am not aware of these studies, but I will take Brett's word for it. However, I am not sure that I agree with him that there is no direct evidence supporting the existence of God. I will offer two arguments in support of my proposition. The first argument is linked to the well-established phenomenon of placebo effects. We all know that a person stands a better chance of being cured by a pill--even a sugar pill--if he believes that the pill will cure him. Now, why couldn't the placebo effect apply to the concept of God? Specifically, isn't it possible that you will directly experience God if you believe that God exists but not if you don't?

Many of you may think of the hypothesis I have just articulated as being "non-scientific." But think about it: Is it any more non-scientific than the placebo effect hypothesis? What the placebo effect hypothesis (and more generally, self-fulfilling prophecies) says is that there is no such thing as one objective reality: your reality depends, in significant part, on your perceptions of what is real. If you believe that a pill will cure you, it will. Likewise, if you believe a God exists, then you will see proof that God exists.

If what I have just articulated isn't convincing, consider another argument: most of us are wedded to the scientific approach to figuring out what to believe. What we don't recognize is that the scientific approach can itself have some limits (similar to how mathematics has its own limits; see Godel's theorem). In particular, the scientific approach is heavily reliant on logic, and more fundamentally, on thoughts. What if a certain reality could only be perceived if one weren't thinking? Applying it to the present topic, what if God only reveals himself/herself to you when your cognitive system is not engaged?

I am not heavily into meditation, but most mediators I know, especially the ones who have been practicing it for a long time, tell me that they routinely experience a certain sense of "spiritual awakening," which produces an emotional state akin to the emotional state of elevation when they meditate. In such a state, it is possible to experience a certain sense of connectedness and a "peace that transcends all understanding" (to quote Jesus). One recognizes, in this state, that we are all from the same "source," the Universal Intelligence. When one experiences this state, one has received direct and personal evidence of this intelligence, and most meditators I know wouldn't object to referring to this intelligence as God. So, this is not an "egotistical" or "separatist" God, but a God that is truly omnipresent and omniscient.

In sum, I think the feeling that most people (especially those of a scientific bent of mind) have, namely, that there is no evidence for the existence of God, may not be fully valid. I urge those of you who hold this view to ask yourself: Have you been truly open-minded to receiving evidence for the existence of God, or have you made up your mind, instead, that God simply doesn't exist? Also, ask yourself: Have you really tried to silence your mind and experience the state of "no thought" that so many spiritualists talk about? If not, how can you speak to whether God can be experienced (or not) in that "no mind" state?

4. The burden of proof lies on the theist, not on the atheist.

Another prevalent objection to my post was that it isn't necessary to prove that God doesn't exist in order to be an atheist; it is sufficient to realize that there is no proof that God does exist. In other words, to a lot of atheists, the burden of proof lies on the theist, not on the atheist. They argue that, just as one wouldn't believe in Big Foot or in Flying Spaghetti Saucers, one wouldn't believe in God.

I can understand this point of view and have only two (relatively minor) comments. First, technically, if you are open--even if only slightly--to the idea that, if proof were to come along that God exists, you would believe in God, I would categorize you as more of an agnostic than an atheist. Second, notice that for a lot of personal and experiential phenomena (and God is one such, I think), there is no proof that will convince others of what you have experienced. For example, for someone who has never experienced love, you can't convince them that love exists and that it is possible to be so un-self-centered so as to be willing to give your own life for the sake of another. The feeling of elevation, of spiritual connectivity, and the experience of God may be similar: just because you haven't experienced it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

5. Belief in God is divisive and leads to Holy Wars.

This final criticism seems to make the implicit assumption that I am trying to propagate belief in God. This is not true. As I mentioned earlier, I am really agnostic, and in any case, the larger point of my post is that beliefs are unstable and malleable. Atheists can turn into believers under stress, just as the opposite can happen.

Having said that, let me turn to something fascinating that I have observed as a sub-text in many comments: it seems to me that the atheists are really coming from a very good place in subscribing to atheism. Just as David Niose so frequently associates atheism with humanism (which, by the way, is a spurious connection to make--and perhaps even insulting to people like Mother Teresa), I think most atheists assume that the only (or the most reliable) way to make the world a better place is to divest everyone of the belief in God. This view is intriguing, and I tend to think that the world would, in fact, be a better place if there were no religion. However, if your reason for choosing to be an atheist is strategic (meant to promote world peace), then recognize it as such, and say so. Don't say that it is "scientific" or "logical" to be an atheist, or that there is "proof" that God doesn't exist or that the burden of proof lies on the theists.

I find it fascinating that many atheists, who are otherwise good, smart, thinkers and objective/scientific in many other domains, have so little clarity in distinguishing these two conceptually distinct reasons for why it is that they have chosen to be an atheist. It is this confusion that leads to the umbrage that many have taken to my post. If you think about it carefully, the "no atheist in foxholes" hypothesis is actually more damning to believers than it is to atheists, for what it suggests is that believers have faith in God for self-centered (security) reasons, not because they have "true faith."

To an atheist who is absolutely secure in his position that God doesn't exist, the idea that there are people out there (including you) who could change their minds about God shouldn't feel threatening. At worst, it should come across as a hypothesis that doesn't apply to you, and at best, it should be taken as an insight worthy of consideration and reflection. It certainly shouldn't be taken as an allegation of weakness, since coping with the stress of life through revising one's original stance is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of being a normal and healthy human. And a sapient human recognizes the truth of the following statement: If you never change your mind, are you sure you have a mind?

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

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