Atheism IS irrational. There, I said it. I said it because challenging the rationality of atheism has been a hot topic recently, including appearing as a Big Question over at Templeton, and in an interview over at the NY Times. The former has a clever juxtaposition of scientific evidence regarding human tendencies worthy of consideration, mixed with Templeton’s characteristic (and correct) plea for humility. The latter is an interview with a prominent Christian Philosopher, and some good points are made. But, there is still a bit more to be said. So, to be more specific: Atheism is demonstrably, certainly, and definitively irrational… If, by “atheism”, you mean an assertion of absolute certainty that there is no God or gods; what my friend Peter would refer to as his “Gnostic Atheism”. I don’t know anyone who claims to be this form of atheist who would not agree that the final step to Gnosticism is at least a bit irrational.
However, there are 100% rational versions of atheism as well; not agnosticism, full atheism. One is the result of the same rational process that leads me to assert that there are no living dinosaurs on earth today. That may seem like a strange analogy to some, but only a few hundred years ago, there were many who were convinced that dinosaurs, full-sized mega-reptiles, were around somewhere, just waiting to be discovered. They believed that, because of the quite rational postulate that no species ever went extinct, as all species were specially created by God, and had an unending function to serve. Those people knew full well that fossils existed, and that some fossils represented species unseen in their land. However, they believed that the species they knew only through fossils were out there, in some yet “undiscovered” part of the world. Yes, I am saying that people who believed we would find still-living dinosaurs were rational, and some of today’s atheists are not.
You see, the idea that all species remained somewhere on earth was a scientific hypothesis, a hypothesis that demanded investigation. And, given the extent of European knowledge at the time, it was certainly possible that people holding this belief would be shown correct one day. Given the number of new species being discovered through exploration, and the amount of the earth that was yet unexplored, it was reasonable to believe that some land would be found that contained species matching all known bones, a "Land of the Lost". This fueled exploration, collecting, cataloging: Science! Good, solid science. Of course, the sought-for land was never found, and at this point the earth is pretty much out of unexplored areas big enough to hide large dinosaurs. Like many good scientific hypotheses, this one was wrong. As a result of those investigations, arguments that were perfectly reasonable 300 years ago, cannot be seriously considered by a rational person today.
The belief that dinosaurs would be found is not an anomalous blip in history. Many, many, many, good scientific hypotheses were made that were predicated upon the existence of God, and the literal truth of the bible. One by one they have proven wrong. Either it has been shown that the posited phenomenon does not exist, or it has been shown that there is no need to posit God as a special cause of the phenomenon in question. At some point, it became reasonable to judge that the core tenants leading to those hypotheses was wrong. That is not to say there are not more hypotheses left to be tested, and it certainly is not to say that people who still investigating those hypothesis are lacking. It is merely to point out one of the perfectly rational ways in which a person could decide to be an atheist: through an appeal to a perceived preponderance of evidence.
“Evidence?” you say, “A pox on you and your evidence. The basis of my belief in God is FAITH, and faith needs no evidence!” Suit yourself, I reply, but that is an incredibly weird basis for belief, and is a very, very, very modern view. The “man of faith” 300 years ago would have found such a claim very strange. For him, evidence of God was all around us. God explained daily occurrences, and hypotheses based on belief in God panned out. Whether those tests were good by modern standards is a non-issue, they were as good as any of the tests from the early days of science that we now view with approval. Spontaneous generation happened! Rainbows appeared! Sicknesses were healed, droughts ended, victories achieved! The list goes on. The faith of our ancestors was not “blind faith”, it was confidence in a decision built up through experience, just as one develops and firms faith in the reliability of a friend.
Many have implied, given a lack of conclusive evidence in either direction, that agnosticism might be rational, whereas atheism is not. However, I am certainly not trying to make an argument for agnosticism. While I am arguing against claims of absolute knowledge, I am not claiming that anyone should plead ignorance. While there are times when a person could rightly judge that there is insufficient evidence with which to form an opinion on some matter, this is not one of those times. William James tells us that we should be most concerned with forced, living, momentous decisions. Roughly speaking, these are decisions where it is difficult or impossible to be neutral, where there is a possibility of our going in either direction, and where the decision has genuine consequences for how we live our lives. In such situations, James argues, sitting on the fence is akin is denying the importance of the issue. Or, to put it another way, if the issue is indeed important, then failing to make a choice might well be the least rational option available.
While it is true that there is a growing number of people, the so-called “nones”, for whom the question of God bears little importance, I think that blasé attitude is hard to hold if you have a good sense of history. It is also hard to hold if you have a good sense of the pretexts that underlie many of the most-heated debates in our modern society. Though I have my suspicions about large-scale organized religions, I consider it virtuous that we live in a world in which some people believe in things that I do not particularly believe in, and that includes our living in a world in which people believe in various deities. I dislike the notion of “blind faith” for or against any topic, but I have no problem with faith itself. It is essential that we often decide to believe in things when only partial evidence is available, and the lives of other people involve very different experiences than my life. Just as it is rational to be atheistic given a life filled with certain experiences, it is rational to be religious given a life filled with different experiences, and in many lives both choices could prove rational. Thus I have no problem with people who have faith in the existence of Vishnu and Ganesh, the Trinity, the Pantheon, or the Anunnaki. I have no problem with people engaging in an honest search for evidence that might support their beliefs―whether it be concrete, abstract, experimental, experiential, or evidence in any other form. I have no problem with it, because I have faith that such a process does, in the long run, lead to the truth. You can’t get any more rational than that.