A friendly debate has come up between the atheists Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers. The question under debate is, “Can atheism be proven wrong?” On the one hand, Jerry Coyne has argued that his atheism is, and should be, capable of being defeated by evidence. On the other hand, PZ Myers has argued that religious claims are incoherent, and so it’s pointless trying to refute them in that way. Even if seemingly divine events did happen, we could explain them as hallucinations, or of the intervention of aliens — there’s no need to talk about God.
On behalf of Team Coyne, Greta Christina has argued that Myers is right to say that religious claims are bullshit, but that Coyne is right to insist that atheism can be defeated by evidence. However, on behalf of Team Myers, Diaphanitas has argued that Christina has missed the point: if you think that religious claims are incoherent, then you can’t think that they can be defeated by the evidence. In order for a claim to be capable of being defeated by evidence, it has to be a coherent claim in the first place. (Edit: Or, at least, that’s the cliff’s notes version. I’m going to be a naughty blogger by not giving more of a summary than that. If you’re interested in the full conversation, click the links above.)
I’ll argue that Christina is right, hoping to score points for Team Coyne, and hopefully be the hero to capture Team Myers’s filthy squid-adorned flag. Specifically, I’ll be arguing against some of Diaphanitas’s core claims. (I’ll avoid the stuff about NOMA, because I want to avoid complaints of tl;dr.) In other words, some interpretations of atheism and theism can both be shown to be wrong according to the evidence, and that’s the only point worth making.
The sticking point between Christina and Diaphanitas is what I’ll call “the semantic principle of bullshit”. Since religious claims on the whole do not hold themselves to common standards of evidence, we have to say that religious sentences are epistemically unstable. Hence, they’re not the sorts of things that can or should be evaluated in terms of evidence.
And it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, the principle of bullshit is correct — religious sentences, when taken on the whole, don’t know whether they’re coming or going. (It doesn’t matter to my argument if you don’t agree; you can just assume it for the sake of seeing my point.) Since atheism is the rejection of theism, endorsements of atheism have an equally small burden. As Hitchens says: “What can be asserted without evidence, can be rejected without evidence.”
Unlike Diaphanitas, I don’t think the principle of bullshit makes any difference to Christina’s point. For bullshit claims can be plausibly interpreted in a literal way, if our aim is to understand the intentions and beliefs of some mainstream religious persons. It seems to me that the only way to defeat a bullshit claim is for us to round up all of the most plausible interpretations of the claim, and then show how each interpretation is false. Hence, you have to refute every plausible use of the sentence: by treating it as a God Hypothesis, and then as an allegory, and then as an expression of self-assertion, and so on.
So that will mean that eventually atheists will have to get around to showing that the best explanation of the evidence does not include reference to any Gods, and hence theistic claims are improbable. In other words: atheists will have to make the argument that Richard Dawkins makes in the first half of the God Delusion (or something like it). And to the extent that you’re arguing in terms of facts, you must also think of yourself as open to criticism on the basis of the evidence. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t mean that atheists like Coyne and Christina are “obsessed with the evidence”. It means that they insist that the examination of the evidence is essential when you’re in the business of interpreting sober, factual claims. If that’s an obsession, it’s a healthy one, as Diaphanitas admits.
So where’s the beef? Evidently, it has something to do with paradigms.
Diaphanitas thinks that evidence plays a limited role in the history of science (and hence, presumably, an even more limited role in the history of atheism and religion). For Diaphanitas, Thomas Kuhn‘s historiography of science is the best way of understanding the relationship between evidence and scientific change.
The spectre of Thomas Kuhn rises often, but it really needs to behave itself when it does. For while it’s true that Kuhn thought that a change in worldview involved a kind of “conversion” or “theory choice”, it’s also true that Kuhn argued that “objectivity ought to analyzable in terms of criteria like accuracy and consistency”. On my reading of Kuhn, these virtues were necessary for scientific practice, though not sufficient. If this means Kuhn was “begging the doxastic question”, then let’s also blame him for getting us to care so much about accuracy.
Diaphanitas, like Kuhn, wants to say that we’re doing more than just consulting the evidence — we’re making a choice, too. That’s fine — but it’s also a very weak claim, and it is consistent with the idea that evidence has to play a central role in scientific inquiry (and factual discourse). To my knowledge, there is nothing in Kuhn that helps us to say that religious claims in the 21st century world are plausible candidate explanations of the evidence. (As survivors of the Great Lisbon Earthquake could tell us, the Argument from Design is simply not consistent with the evidence.) And when you argue in favor of the Abrahamic God using the Argument from Design, you are committing yourself to a kind of game that involves checking the facts — those are the rules that the proponents of the Watchmaker God are committed to. In that sense, contrary to Diaphanitas’s claim, the naturalist and the Watchmaker God are “in the same playing field”. They’re both responsive to the evidence.
Still, Myers and Diaphanitas are correct in the following sense. If the principle of bullshit is right, then that means that it is wrong to think that religious claims must be read as expressions of a kind of unique content. So, any theists who say “The Bible is just an allegory” are wrong, and any who say “The Bible must be taken literally” are wrong too. It’s either one, and more besides. The argumentative atheist has to use the shotgun method, taking aim at one interpretation after the other.
The moral of the story is this. Just because religious claims are unstable, doesn’t mean that the uses of the claims have to be up in the air. One use of religious claims involves the Argument from Design; and the argument from design is perfectly coherent, perfectly stable, and perfectly worthless. Hence, any atheism concerned with the Abrahamic Watchmaker God is supported on the basis of the evidence. If evidence turned the other way — e.g., if a credible argument could be made that the problem of evil was just a pseudo-problem — then the only responsible option for a Watchmaker critic would be to reconsider their atheism.
*Edited for clarity.