Can Atheism Be Justified?

skeptic's only, justified, athiest

In October, I started conducting interviews in the “free speech zone” at the University of Missouri. I sit at a table with a sign inviting “Skeptics Only” to come and talk about why they are skeptical about God or religion, and I offer them $5 for their time. A line of waiting interviewees often forms next to the table. Some aren’t even interested in the $5! Some sound justified in their views, and some struggle to articulate the reasons for their skepticism.

Ironically, an atheist friend inspired me to try this. Anthony Magnabosco, a nationally-known practitioner of “Street Epistemology,” runs a YouTube channel with 28,000 followers. He expertly engages in Socratic conversation with people, encouraging them to re-examine the reasons for their most deeply-held beliefs. While I disagree with him about God, I applaud how he models friendly conversation about religion and other touchy subjects.

Pleasant Surprises

believe, belief, think, rationalThe biggest surprise has been people’s candor and willingness to have their story filmed and put on YouTube. I was also pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness and depth I heard in many of their responses. Some point to Christians behaving badly as evidence against the faith. Some bring up perceived conflicts between science and faith. Others suggest that a loving God would not allow good people to suffer. These can serve as justifications for atheism.

Some atheists and skeptics, in an effort to gain an edge in the debate about God, will insist that they don’t need to offer support for their view. But nearly all the people I’ve interviewed can offer coherent reasons for their disbelief. I think this is how any rational person ought to respond. Whatever your position is on God, you ought to have a rationally justified basis for that position. You ought to have reasons for your view. Otherwise, it’s no different than blind faith.

A Real-life Example

In the video below, Lacey raises several legitimate reasons for her skepticism.

  • Religion often seems to conflict with science.
  • Christians fail to live up to the ethic of Jesus.
  • Good people suffer for no apparent reason.

Based on her experience and reasoning, she seems quite justified in her rejection of the Christian faith. Her “total evidence” can be construed to point in the opposite direction. But she also seems open to acquiring new evidence and re-thinking her conclusions. This openness further demonstrates her rationality and intellectual virtue.

resurrection, justifiedI probed for further thoughts on a few points she made. For example, if we take bad Christians as evidence against Christianity, shouldn’t we also take good Christians as evidence in its favor? And if we reject the resurrection account, then what alternative explanation do we have for the data (e.g., empty tomb, resurrection appearances, changed lives, etc.)?


I think, given a certain set of total evidence, atheism can be rationally justified. We all possess a different set of total evidence, which makes it difficult to compare our conclusions. What is rational for me may not be rational for you. But openness to hearing one another can help improve our set of total evidence, which may mean revising our beliefs. Do you agree?

Stephen Hawking, Philosophy, and Theism, Part 2

hawking, authority, testimony, science, physicsMy second “official” podcast  (on Stephen Hawking) is now available on iTunes! Here’s the iTunes link. If you don’t have iTunes, you can listen on Sound Cloud. Feedback on the podcast, including production features, is welcome.

I continue my interview with Dr. Kenny Boyce, Asst. Prof. of Philosophy at the University of Missouri. This episode focuses on the work of Stephen Hawking, who passed away on March 14, and the implications of his work for philosophy and theology.

In part 2, we focus on three main topics, all centered around the epistemology of science. First, we discuss the difference between realism and anti-realism in science and how this affects arguments for or against God. Second, we explore whether science can say anything about the evidence for God. Third, we talk about the “god of the gaps” objection to theism that is commonly raised by skeptics.

This one is a bit longer than the first, and I still have enough material left over for another podcast! We’ll see if it ends up becoming Part 3.

Thank you Dr. Kenny Boyce!!!!

Kenny Boyce

Dr. Boyce (the one on the right.)

Kenny’s website.


Criticism, Knowledge, and Authority

Learning about informal logical fallacies turns young philosophy students into gun-slinging logic vigilantes. I love how this comic (courtesy of Existential Comics) portrays the phenomenon.

fallacy man, authority, belief fallacy man, authority, belief

But, as Alexander Pope wrote, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” In his Essay on Criticism, Pope critiques the critics, warning them of trying to evaluate beyond their skill. The essay (written in verse) holds great wisdom, well-worth the hour it might take to read through. One takeaway is this: if you plan to engage in criticism of a view, be sure you know what you’re talking about. Otherwise your photo may end up on Wikipedia’s Dunning-Kruger Effect  page. “Drink deep, or taste not the Peirian spring.”

The Appeal To Authority

hawking, authority, testimony, scienceOne of the fallacies mentioned above that gets frequent abuse is the “appeal to authority.” Those who have only sipped at the Peirian Spring misunderstand this concept, and so make two common errors: 1) they accuse others of it falsely, and 2) they become oblivious to their own appeals to authority. Let me illustrate a little.

Fallacious appeal to authority:  Brett claims that beer causes Alzheimer’s Disease. Conrad replies, “That’s silly.” Brett says, “My friend, Dr. Swanson, said it. Therefore, it’s true.”

Legitimate appeal to authority: Mark claims that black holes emit radiation. Kenny says, “But nothing can escape from a black hole.” Mark retorts, “Stephen Hawking has argued powerfully for this and talks about it in his book, A Brief History of Time.” 

What’s the difference? For one, Stephan Hawking clearly satisfies any reasonable criteria for being a legitimate expert on black holes. It is not at all clear that Dr. Swanson is an expert on Alzheimer’s. Conrad may not even know who Dr. Swanson is.  Second, Brett bases his argument solely on the word (hearsay) of Dr. Swanson, while Mark offers at least one checkable resource. Third, Brett fashions his argument in deductive form. But an argument from authority should take inductive form, i.e., the evidence from authority does not guarantee the conclusion–it only makes it more likely to be true.   A fourth mistake sometimes made in appeals to authority, though not in this case, is when someone misquotes or misrepresents an expert.

We All Do It

court room, testimonyThe bottom line is: we all rely on legitimate appeals to authority, and rightly so. Testimony (information transmitted to us from other persons, as in court) acts as one of at least five sources of knowledge (inference, memory, perception, and consciousness being the others). I simply cannot help but rely on the words of other people to help me form my beliefs about the world, like when my daughter tells me she is at a friend’s house. And I especially rely on those who have expertise in various areas: scientists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc.

But I still need to treat authority carefully. When I decide whether to believe something I read or hear, I should make sure I know the source. Not all sources — people, publications, websites–are created equal. I would check to see whether the writer/speaker is an expert or is quoting an expert. And I still use reason and background knowledge to filter the expert’s claims. I address some of these ideas in this 2 minute clip from a talk at the University of Missouri Skeptics Club:

(You can see this video, “Responsible Believing,” in it’s entirety here.)

 A Final Paraklesis

pipe, health, authority, testimony(I like the Greek word ‘paraklesis’ because it can mean both “encouragement” and “exhortation.”) Sometimes extra caution is required. I may take risks, at times, with my own health–like when I indulge in pipe-smoking. But I should think twice about the health risks when recommending such things to others. Similarly, I am sometimes negligent with my epistemic health–like believing something without sufficient consideration. But I try to exercise extra caution and care when conveying ideas (teaching, writing, speaking, using social media), based on authority, to others. Take an extra moment to ask, before you post or assert something based on authority,

  • Is the authority legitimate? (not always an easy question)
  • If the issue is controversial, have I portrayed it as one-sided by only quoting one expert?
  • Is the authority an expert in the relevant field?
  • Did I accept this expert’s word uncritically, or have I checked it out?
  • Have I represented the authority accurately?

And before you draw your fallacy six-gun and dispense epistemic justice on someone, ask whether they might be making an appropriate appeal to authority.

Is Science Better than Faith?

faith trust GodWays of Knowing?

I have an atheist friend, Anthony, who does interviews on college campuses, asking students about their religious beliefs. He skillfully engages in Socratic dialogue, asking them about why they believe what they do and helping them identify flaws in their reasoning. When people mention “faith,” he frequently asks a question like this, “Do you think faith is a reliable way of coming to know things?” Anthony thinks of faith as a “way of knowing” in contrast to other ways, like science. Science uses evidence derived from observation, experimentation, etc. to test new ideas, where as the “faith-way” simply uses feelings, intuitions or positive-thinking; evidence need not apply. Put this way, science and faith are two radically different, and somewhat opposed, approaches to discovering truth.

Defining Faith

Is this really what faith is? Ask ten religious believers what faith is, and you’ll get twelve definitions. Certainly one (or more) of them will sound a lot like what Anthony hears in his interviews. But taking polls isn’t the best way to determine truth. Defining (Christian) faith should start with the Bible and the great minds who have written on this over the centuries. But rather than launch into a survey of these sources, I’ll offer my best take based on my own study of them:

Faith is trusting in what you have good reason to believe is true. [1]

faith falling trustFor example, I’ve done “trust falls” with others on a number of occasions. Usually, they work like this. You are told that persons X and Y will stand behind you and catch you when you fall backward. You know persons X and Y well enough — they are reliable and strong enough to catch you. They’re clearly right behind you. But then you face forward with arms crossed, and you struggle to force yourself to fall freely backward. You can’t see their arms extending to catch you. Your instinct of self-protection shouts, “Don’t fall backward! You’ll hurt yourself!” But you have every reason to rationally believe that you won’t crack your skull on the floor. If someone asked you, “Do you believe they will catch you?” you would most likely answer, “Yes.” But trusting means letting yourself fall. This illustrates faith very well.

Faith On Level Ground

So given this definition, is faith somehow inferior to science? I don’t think so. First off, on this view, faith isn’t a way of knowing, it is a way of living. Trusting is a behavior–a behavior based on what you believe. I don’t come to know things “by faith,” I live “by faith.” Faith without works is dead, as St. James says. This understanding of faith follows the narrative of the New Testament much more closely.

chemistry lab faith trust scienceSecond, faith and science actually share some significant qualities. Scientists base beliefs on good reasons. Moreover, they often place their trust in those beliefs. A chemist in a lab believes that mixing certain chemicals will produce a certain reaction. Furthermore, she trusts that her equipment is safe and reliable–she willingly mixes the chemicals. An astronomer believes the stars and planets are in such-and-such a position because he has seen it through his telescope. And he demonstrates trust in his equipment and findings by publishing them in a journal. Scientists trust the process of scientific inquiry, meaning that they believe, for good reasons, that it is reliable, and they demonstrate this trust by using the process and acting according to their findings. So, scientists employ “faith” in much the same way that Christians do, on my view.

No doubt, some of you will object to my definition of faith and insist that faith must be essentially irrational, which fits more comfortably into your narrative of “faith against science.” Or some may argue that faith is some kind of spiritual phenomenon, divorced from the process of reason, and cannot be compared to scientific knowledge. But I hope most can see the logic and elegance of what I have proposed.

faith trust God


If I’m right, or close to right, about the nature of Christian faith, then there’s no reason to think that science stands in a superior position, epistemically or in any other sense. Belief in God and belief in quantum particles come about in much the same way, even if the kinds of evidence are different. Faith in God, however, may be special in that it is not merely the result of a human decision to trust. Some theologians think that we can’t overcome our reluctance to take that “trust fall” with God without Supernatural assistance. In this sense, it may be superior to the “faith” of science, which is merely the product of fallible human reason and psychology.

[1] Hebrews 11:1 is the classic passage, and I like the Latin translation: “est autem fides sperandorum substantia rerum argumentum non parentum.” The Latin uses the term ‘argumentum’ to suggest that faith is that which persuades us of what we cannot perceive with our senses, or as Thayer’s Greek lexicon puts it, “that by which invisible things are proved.” This is reminiscent of science–it is how human beings discovered things like atoms and otherwise invisible celestial bodies.