Atheism and the Need for Certainty

Atheists often criticise Christians for claiming undue certainty in their beliefs. Religious fervour can indeed carry doubtful propositions too far, force-fitting matters that properly belong in the realm of faith into the realm of knowledge.

 

Such over-reaching zeal is not peculiar to religious people, however. The human mind seems to be hard-wired with a craving for certainty. In fact, atheism might be accounted for more than any other position by the human need for certainty. The religious zealot, passionate for his faith and traditions, finds his counterpoint in the atheistic iconoclast.

 

Atheism offers two kinds of certainty. Firstly, atheists are usually content to limit themselves to belief in those things that are within the reach of the sciences. The atheist places his trust in that which is demonstrable and falsifiable – a limited sphere, but one of maximal certainty.

 

The second kind of certainty is less obvious. Belief lies between ignorance and knowledge. It is more certain than ignorance, but less so than genuine knowledge. By definition, then, atheism is able to pour doubt upon belief. Doubt is not very hard to achieve, after all. Atheism itself claims only to be a negation, rather than having positive statements that might be similarly open to direct criticism. So, for the atheist, all other belief systems yield themselves to criticism and doubt from which his own system is nearly exempt. Being certain of the comparative doubtfulness of every other belief system is a feeling very much like confirmation of one’s own beliefs.

 

So atheism achieves a level of certainty by reclassifying faith as superstition. Indeed, those of us who are Christians have to come to terms with uncertainties that need to be bridged by faith. But on the other hand, one wonders whether sacrificing all of the risky, untidy, magnificent promises of scripture at the altar of such a certainty is really worth it?

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6 thoughts on “Atheism and the Need for Certainty

  1. Tauriq Moosa says:

    Glad I found you Pastor P. I completely and utterly disagree with you (there’s a surprise) and would ask that you read my blog entitled ‘Atheism Defined’ in my blog (marchofunreason.wordpress.com). In terms of negation, it is simply semantics here. We also classify ourselves, as AC Grayling is attempting to stress, as naturalists. Christians, like yourselves, my therefore call yourselves ‘supernaturalists’. Dennett and others have ‘hinted’ at using ‘Brights’ like gays, and for believers to use ‘Supers’. Simply semantics and words that may be altered to cater for whatever system is the topic of focus. Write back in response and let me know.

    Kind regards and best wishes

    Tauriq

  2. Jordan Pickering says:

    You certainly put the ‘fun’ in ‘marchofunreason’. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

    Could you be more specific about what you disagree with and why? I’m struggling to search for blogs effectively on wordpress (help me out here if there is some technique I’m missing), so I only managed to find your Stalin-related ‘Atheism Defined’ post, and it’s very long. I’m not sure precisely to what you refer.

    It does seem as if when I say, ‘atheism has positive belief x’, you say, ‘atheism is just a negation’, and when I say ‘atheism is a negation’, you say ‘we classify ourselves as positive belief x (in this case naturalists)’. Am I missing the point somewhere?

    And I’m not too sure I like being called a Super. I’m to much a fan of The Incredibles… ‘When everyone is super… no-one will be!’

  3. Jordan Pickering says:

    Also, naturalism is covered (albeit inadequately) in my statement about the first kind of certainty, which is certainty in that which is proved through science. That presupposes that science has the reach to uncover truth about everything that is truly important, which is a belief that only the naturalist can hold.

  4. Chris Lawrence says:

    There’s quite a lot in this article which I would go along with, but then it seems to go off in a direction where I’m not sure I agree. There are many different kinds of believer & many different kinds of non-believer, so of course it’s a bit risky to generalise.

    Apologies for the tedious approach, but I thought I’d work through the article statement by statement:

    ‘Atheists often criticise Christians for claiming undue certainty in their beliefs’: Happy with that. In fact it is hard to counter William Clifford’s (1877) principle that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ William James tried, & failed dismally.

    ‘Religious fervour can indeed carry doubtful propositions too far…’: Happy with that too.

    ‘…force-fitting matters that properly belong in the realm of faith into the realm of knowledge’: Hmm… not sure I understand how to identify what kinds of things properly belong in the ‘realm of faith’ & what kinds of things properly belong in the ‘realm of knowledge’. This matters, because if each domain has its own proper objects, & they don’t overlap, then there can’t be much real argument between them.

    ‘Such over-reaching zeal is not peculiar to religious people, however’: OK. ‘The human mind seems to be hard-wired with a craving for certainty’: Yes & no. Current evolutionary psychology seems to take the view that yes human cognition has to operate with truth, but only up to a point. We seem to be hard-wired with natural-kind categories, ‘folk physics’, ‘folk psychology’ etc which work very well (& correspond with the way the world is) much of the time, but its accuracy & correspondence have been determined by survival. I need to be 100% certain that that berry is edible rather than deadly poisonous, but I don’t need to know the exact number of wolves who are chasing me. If I stopped to count them I’d be dead. I agree though that there’s a self-reflective need for certainty which goes much further than this, and could perhaps derive from the highly sophisticated social instincts & calculations relating to trust.

    ‘In fact, atheism might be accounted for more than any other position by the human need for certainty’: OK, but again I think it’s certainty about whether the direction or the thought process is completely trustworthy. So it’s not so much a need to be 100% certain that x is y, but a need to understand how much I can trust my belief that x is y.

    ‘The religious zealot, passionate for his faith and traditions, finds his counterpoint in the atheistic iconoclast’: Not sure where this is going. As I understand it, a ‘religious zealot’ believes overwhelmingly strongly in a particular set of positive religious tenets, eg that a specific god or set of gods and/or other supernatural entities actually exist, that they have specific attributes & exert specific influences on the world & its inhabitants… etc. By ‘overwhelmingly strongly’ I mean that if a potential belief came up which conflicted with the religious tenets, the religious tenets would generally win – that’s what being a zealot is all about. An ‘atheistic iconoclast’ on the other hand would I guess be someone who casts systematic doubt on what believers believe, and only believes things where the belief can be justified. Unclear what the point of ‘counterpoint’ is here (apologies to Aldous Huxley). If the claim is that the ‘atheistic iconoclast’ is somehow guilty of an equivalent ‘over-reaching zeal’ this would need more substantiation? The only real parallel I can see between the ‘religious zealot’ & the ‘atheistic iconoclast’ is that they share an interest in the debate. Not everyone cares as much as these two do.

    ‘Atheism offers two kinds of certainty’: OK, but I would say the atheist is ultimately just someone who is not prepared to be more certain than he or she ought to be. ‘Firstly, atheists are usually content to limit themselves to belief in those things that are within the reach of the sciences’: OK, but science just is the domain of justifiable & falsifiable beliefs. It’s not a choice.

    ‘The atheist places his trust in that which is demonstrable and falsifiable – a limited sphere, but one of maximal certainty’: This seems an odd way of
    saying something very simple. To ‘trust’ what is ‘demonstrable and falsifiable’ is just to acknowledge that it is demonstrable and falsifiable. If this is a ‘limited sphere’, what is left outside it – the undemonstrable & the unfalsifiable? But if something is undemonstrable how do you know anything about it? And if it is unfalsifiable, how can there be progress of any kind – even in something like theology? Something that is unfalsifiable is not something which has not yet been falsified, but something which it is impossible to falsify. Are we really claiming that religious beliefs are unfalsifiable like ‘2+2=4’? Or are they unfalsifiable in their own unique way, because they are just what’s left after all the falsifiable beliefs have been progressively falsified?

    And it could be misleading to describe the ‘demonstrable and falsifiable’ sphere as one of ‘maximal certainty’. A better description might be that of a sphere enjoying (or suffering from) the highest, most exacting criteria for certainty – and therefore one where certainty is least likely: one could just as accurately call it a sphere of ‘minimal certainty’?

    ‘The second kind of certainty is less obvious’: OK. ‘Belief lies between ignorance and knowledge’: Hmm… if this implies a kind of scalar continuum this could also be misleading. See next comment.

    ‘It is more certain than ignorance, but less so than genuine knowledge.’ The word ‘certain’ seems to be used ambiguously here. Let’s say x is an actual or potential false belief:

    x.1 I do not know whether x [ignorance?]

    x.2 I am fairly certain that x [partial certainty?]

    x.3 I am 100% certain that x [maximal certainty?]

    If by ‘greater certainty’ we mean ‘closer to knowledge’, then of the three statements x.1 is closest to knowledge and x.3 is furthest away. But from the speaker’s perspective x.3 expresses greatest certainty.

    In the case of an actual or potential true belief, y, the pattern is different and the ambiguity is obscured:

    y.1 I do not know whether y

    y.2 I am fairly certain that y

    y.3 I am 100% certain that y

    y.4 I know that y.

    Because y is true, the speaker’s increasingcertainty from y.1 to y.4 follows the scale where increasing certainty = increasing proximity to knowledge.

    Note that in the case of a false belief there is no equivalent to y.4: x.4 below is self-contradictory, as to know something implies it is true:

    x.4 I know that x [contradiction!]

    ‘…By definition, then, atheism is able to pour doubt upon belief’: OK, but I’m not sure I understand the ‘By definition’. ‘Doubt is not very hard to achieve, after all’: Maybe, maybe not. People have lost their lives as a result of expressing their doubts, as they have from expressing their faith. If you mean intellectually hard, then again I would have said the analytical thought which gave rise to the Enlightenment was a towering achievement, as was Socratic dialectic.

    ‘Atheism itself claims only to be a negation, rather than having positive statements that might be similarly open to direct criticism’: Here is where it’s risky to generalise as to what ‘atheism’ or ‘atheists’ do or do not claim. If atheism = ‘doing without god’, then yes this a position defined negatively. But different atheists will take their atheism in different directions, eg as seeing it as part & parcel of an evolutionary/biological perspective on the world, or in exploring alternative foundations for ethics – both of which might include positive statements which are not only ‘similarly open to direct criticism’ but they would be open to criticism precisely because they would be demonstrable &/or falsifiable.

    ‘So, for the atheist, all other belief systems yield themselves to criticism and doubt from which his own system is nearly exempt’: What is this saying? There are many different believers & many different non-believers. But at a really simple level we could say a believer is someone who might say: ‘I believe there is a god, and my belief is undemonstrable & unfalsifiable’; and a non-believer is someone who cannot believe on that sort of basis. The non-believer doesn’t have a ‘system’, just a set of criteria by which potential beliefs are to be judged. But those criteria are just the same criteria anyone else (including believers) would apply in non-religious contexts. Would a believer board a plane if its only safety check was undemonstrable & unfalsifiable?

    ‘Being certain of the comparative doubtfulness of every other belief system is a feeling very much like confirmation of one’s own beliefs’: But what is meant by ‘every other belief system’? Someone could believe in absolute human rights, or complete equality for all, or in the free market, or in the eventual triumph of communism, or in the efficacy of meditation, or of prayer, or of yoga. An ‘atheist’ does not pour doubt on all these beliefs. It is a particular kind of belief – eg an unverifiable belief that a supernatural entity possessing specific attributes actually exists. That ‘atheist’ doesn’t actually have a belief to be confirmed or otherwise, except a belief in the applicability of particular criteria, which a believer chooses not to adopt.

    ‘So atheism achieves a level of certainty by reclassifying faith as superstition’: Do not agree. This says it is the atheist’s reclassification of faith as superstition which gives the atheist his or her certainty. The atheist’s ‘certainty’ is only that of not holding an unjustified belief. That comes first, and may be the only thing that comes. The atheist may reclassify faith as superstition or reclassify it as something else or not reclassify it at all.

    ‘Indeed, those of us who are Christians have to come to terms with uncertainties that need to be bridged by faith: OK. Maybe there are atheists who come to terms with equivalent uncertainties but cannot bring themselves to bridge them by faith?

    ‘But on the other hand, one wonders whether sacrificing all of the risky, untidy, magnificent promises of scripture at the altar of such a certainty is really worth it?’: Here is the rub. Is there an implication that these ‘risky, untidy, magnificent promises’ have some intrinsic goodness or ethical worth? That ultimately is what I reject. I do not reject these ‘risky, untidy, magnificent promises’ because my craving for certainty, for not believing something false, overrides anything that might draw me to these promises. I reject them because I see no ethical value in them, to compensate for the negative ethical value of holding an unjustified belief.

  5. Jordan Pickering says:

    Chris

    Thanks so much for the time you’ve devoted to this. You make some points that would certainly make me want to tighten up what I’ve written. I was trying to be brief, but perhaps unwisely so.

    I think, in the broad, that your criticisms are so intently focussed on the details that you might be missing the gist of what I’ve written.

    For instance, the point that I made about faith being the middle ground between ignorance and certainty (knowledge) is directly from Plato (though not a ground-breaking idea), because we believe something with reason, but not with sufficient reason to call it knowledge. This being the case, belief is by definition doubtful in comparison with knowledge. Hence it is easy to point out reasons for doubt about any beliefs, because doubt is necessarily involved (or else it is called knowledge). I’m merely arguing that the atheist is too committed to knowledge as the only meaningful category.

    I liked your plane idea: “Would a believer board a plane if its only safety check was undemonstrable & unfalsifiable?”

    I think that you make a valid point as long as there is the option of road or rail or staying put. I think though (and Pascal’s Wager is about this) that the question of God’s existence might be doubtful, but it is essential that you make a call, even on less than certain evidence.

  6. Chris Lawrence says:

    And thanks for the feedback! I certainly agree I was being very granular. I think though that sometimes moves which seem legitimate from a distance become less so in close-up. I’m not a believer but I have a lot of respect for believers: my intent was literally to see where I agreed & where I didn’t, & why.

    Yes I thought it was Plato. Theaetetus? But I’m fairly sure he was exploring whether ‘knowledge = true belief’, & then the more sophisticated ‘knowledge = true belief with an account (logos)’. My point was merely that belief isn’t necessarily true belief, & if the belief is false it makes all the difference in the world. A false belief isn’t the middle ground between ignorance and knowledge, it’s the other side of ignorance.

    If faith takes priority over certainty, there is a risk that although the believer knows the belief is not certain (is not knowledge), he or she may not truly address the possibility that the belief might be false, because faith prevents or distorts or downplays it.

    My problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it purports to be free of presuppositions but is in fact full of them. It only ‘works’ with a god with a particular set of attributes – eg rewarding belief, punishing non-belief, & turning a blind eye to gambling.

    If you get a moment I’d really welcome feedback on my own site (thinkingmakesitso.wordpress.com).

    Thanks again!

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