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Can a skeptic believe in God?

Premises regarding skepticism:
A skeptic bases belief upon evidence and reason. He or she uses critical inquiry—the scientific method—to examine claimed phenomena. A skeptic holds beliefs provisionally, rather than absolutely, accepting that new evidence and reason may be found to require a revision in beliefs.

Premises regarding theism:
Belief in a god—theism—is belief in an absolute. Belief in god is also usually considered a matter of faith, rather than of the evaluation of evidence.

A skeptic cannot be a theist.

Despite this logic however, many skeptics are also believers in God. Many are atheists, but not all.

How can this be so? Are the believing skeptics just bad skeptics? Or are we missing something in the logic that seems to lead to the equation skepticism = atheism?

To find an answer to this perplexing mystery, let’s look, as good skeptics do, at the evidence and reasoning concerning belief in God. We’ll start with the reasoning.

Arguments for God

Over the centuries, numerous argument have been put forward both for and against the existence of God.  Here are a few of the standard pro-God arguments:

• The cosmological argument (the first-cause argument)
• The teleological argument (the argument from design)
• The ontological arguments (arguments from being)
• The argument from perfection
• The argument from authority
• The argument from the existence of morality
• The argument from miracles
• Divine revelation
• The will to believe

Some of these arguments have had their day and have disappeared.

Others have changed their form over the years. The teleological argument we know better today as the argument from design. It holds that the world seems too well designed for having been a chance event—a superior intelligence must have designed it. This was once perceived as a very strong argument, but in the past two centuries it has been blunted by theories of biological and cosmological evolution which show that natural processes can be pretty good designers too. The argument has had to become more sophisticated in the past century and survives in two forms. On one hand, some scientifically minded believers have pointed to the fine balance of forces and precisely accurate natural laws that allow life to exist in the universe as evidence of God’s handiwork. On the other hand, we have the Intelligent Design people arguing that natural selkection  may have created some things but couldn’t have created everything we see in biology, such as the human eye, and so God must have had a hand in our creation.

All of these pro-God arguments though have been debated endlessly over the years. They all have their atheistic answers, and their counter-arguments, and counter-counter-arguments, and so on.

What has become clear though is that none of these arguments clearly carry the day. There does not seem to be an irrefutable logical case to be made for the existence of God.

Yet billions of people—including lots of very smart, logical people—have believed and continue to believe in God.

Obviously, it is not the logical arguments that convinced most of them. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I used to be a sinner, but once I heard the ontological argument, I was saved”?

Perhaps a few people have been so affected. But we can probably agree it usually doesn’t work that way. It seems unlikely to account for most believers.
These theistic arguments have been used, I submit, mainly to bolster the belief of those who already believed, or as part of the general intellectual superstructure that supports a community with an existing religious orientation.

Arguments against God

Now let’s look at some the standard arguments on the other side, the atheist side, to see if there are any knock-out arguments that compel disbelief in the existence of God:

• The problem of evil
• The problem of human suffering
• The argument from poor design
• The incompatibility of God’s attributes
• The failure of prophecies
• Scientific explanation
• Psychological explanation
• Sociological explanation

A notable feature of most such arguments is that they are generally negative. Many of them are aimed at countering already stated arguments in favour of God’s existence. Or they are trying to argue against particular kinds of gods, particular characteristics of God, or particular claims for Gods. Or they are trying to explain why people believe in God, as if that explanation invalidates the belief itself.

Again, looking over all these arguments, I seriously doubt many people have had their minds changed by them. For one thing, each of these arguments has a strong answer from the theist side, answers that even an atheist could guess at.

In my experience, these are the kinds of arguments that atheists tell each other. Atheists go on about how ridiculous it is to believe a loving God would allow children to die of horrible diseases. They rant about how both sides in wars claim God is on their side. They deride superstition and the power of churches.

But they have little success in using these points to win over believers. Rarely have I heard of a believer being turned to atheism by argument alone. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I used to go to church and worship God, but once I heard the scientific explanation of how the universe evolved from the Big Bang, I became an atheist”?

We do occasionally witness people falling away from faith because of personal disillusionment—say, for example, after the death of a child leads them to question “How could a loving god have allowed this?”. But this is usually due to a personal situation having an emotional impact on them, rather than due to the rational argument on its own changing their minds.

The never-ending story

In summary, both sides have heard all the arguments. Both sides have their answers. And almost no one is convinced to switch by the arguments alone.

I’m not saying rational arguments cannot be effective under the right circumstances. At certain historical junctures or at certain points in peoples’ lives, they may be looking for a new way to see the world. And, over time, like water dripping on a rock, some rational arguments may have a cumulative effect. But it’s usually not the rational argument itself that does all the work of sudden conversion in the examples I’ve seen.

But why is this? Why don’t these rational arguments convince people?

There are emotional, logical, psychological and sociological reasons you could put forward why reason does not prevail. But I’d like to point out another factor. One of the main reasons why logical arguments don’t work may be that the two camps—the believers and the non-believers—approach them with entirely different points of reference.

Consider an argument that is used on both sides, the First Cause argument. It often goes something like this.

Theist: If there’s no God, then what created the world? Everything must have some cause.
Atheist: But if everything has a cause and God created the world, then what caused God?
Theist: God is eternal. He has no cause.
Atheist: If God can be eternal, then the world can be eternal too. The universe can have no ultimate cause. Therefore there is no need for God as the first cause.

And so the atheists have won the debate.

Or so they think. For the funny thing is, the theists go away from this kind of argument thinking that they’ve won.

The believers don’t conceive of God as being part of everything that is the world. They see God as both outside and enveloping the world—transcending the world. So when they say everything has a cause, they don’t mean to include God in that “everything”. God is beyond causation. When you say to them that God too must have a cause, that is obviously wrong to them. And when you say the world could exist without a cause, that too is obvious nonsense. In their minds they’ve forced the atheist to retreat to a ridiculous position and thus shown atheism to be nonsensical.

Now to atheists, it seems like special pleading to say God is not part of everything that’s been created. “Everything” means EVERYTHING. When you say everything has a cause, you can’t except God, or whatever you want, from that rule. You can’t say, “God created everything but God was not created.”

But is it really so crazy to do so?

The theist’s statement is reminiscent of various paradoxes that philosophy and mathematics have had to deal with. You may have heard of the liar’s paradox or the paradox of the set that includes all sets that are not members of themselves. Another version is Bertrand Russell’s famous barber’s paradox which goes like this: A town barber puts a sign in his window boasting, “I shave all the men, and no others, who do not shave themselves.” Does the barber shave himself?

These really are difficult puzzles to sort out and have been argued about for centuries. The most widely accepted solution today, usually expressed in terms of set theory, seems to be that we cannot make such statements and expect to be able to apply them to everything. We cannot create the set of “all the men who do not shave themselves and are shaved by the barber” and then see whether the barber fits into it. Rather a set is built by grouping together certain things and then seeing what defines them as belonging to the set. This way you would never end up with such a self-contradictory set.

Returning to our theist-atheist debate, at first glance it seems that the statement “God created everything but God was not created” is a similar kind of paradox outlawed by modern set theory. One could not create a set by grouping items together and then finding the group consists of “everything and not God”. But sophisticated true believers need not be fazed by this. They can say that such a group is exactly what we have found. The modern notion of set theory could be used to support, not disprove, their claim. For we find ourselves in the world as it is, a world of everything and God. So what if this offends ultra-rationalists?

Another tact they may point out is that supposedly paradoxical statements do not create such problems in everyday life. If someone in real life (outside of Philosophy classes, that is) were to confess to me “Everything I say is a lie”, I would immediately realize they did not include that very statement in their claim. If I saw in real life such a barber’s sign as in Russell paradox, my rational world would not be rocked, but instead I’d assume that he was exempting himself from the rule. (Or that the barber was a woman, of course). Similarly when the theist says, “God created everything”, God is being excepted. God is being excepted because He is different from everything else in the universe. He is beyond natural causation.

It might also be pointed out that the believers have a slight advantage over the non-believers in resolving the first-cause debate. If there is a uncaused first cause of our world, wouldn’t it more likely be something that is very different in nature from the things in our world. If there must be an uncaused cause, would it more likely be something natural or something outside our normal reality?

Actually I would still vote for something natural, but I can see why human intuitions would favour the extra-natural solution.

The atheists cannot apply the same logic to the universe creating itself in the First Cause argument, as theists can with God creating himself, since atheists (at least the ones we are concerned about here) seek only natural causes and cannot assign characteristics beyond our rationality to the universe, as theists can with God.

You may or may not balk at this reasoning—and I don’t entirely accept it myself—but at least it shows how very problematic rational arguments can become when they deal with cosmic questions such as “how did everything begin?”, “how could something come out of nothing?”, and so on.

In any case, after the First Cause argument takes place, neither the believer nor the non-believer has convinced the other that there is or is not a God. Each is left with showing only that their side is possibly right. Neither side has demonstrated that its arguments eliminate the opponent’s position.

There are no knock-out punches. Both sides come away with thinking they’re right, or at least they could be right.

Life in the Matrix

Skeptics however rely not only on logic but also on empirical research. What we see, hear, smell, touch and taste—either directly or indirectly with instruments. In a word: evidence.

However, on the question of the existence of God, there is no evidence either way. This lack of evidence is actually the atheist’s strongest asset.

The French mathematician and astronomer Laplace is supposed to have once shown Napoleon his treatise on celestial mechanics. Napoleon noted to Laplace that in all the wheeling of planets and moons and suns, Laplace hadn’t mentioned the role of God. Laplace’s reply: “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

After all is said about God and religion and first causes and evil and morality, the bottom line is that we do not need the concept of God for any immediate practical purpose. We certainly do not need it for science at this time.

“We have no need for that hypothesis” is a perfect skeptical position that we apply to all kinds of other claimed phenomena. I have seen no convincing evidence that the Loch Ness monster exists, so I don’t believe in the Loch Ness monster. There is no evidence that aliens have abducted my neighbours, so I don’t believe my neighbours are being beamed up by ETs. Lack of evidence, plus lack of convincing argument either pro and con, should by default result in a lack of belief.

There are several variations on this position in science and philosophy, not just as applied to the existence of God but as applied to all sorts of hypotheses or claimed phenomena.

• Most people know Occam’s Razor as “the simplest answer is usually the right one”. It is also called the principle of parsimony and is better expressed as “the simplest explanation that covers all the evidence is the one that should be adopted”. The original formulation of this famous rule is that one should not multiply entities needlessly. Applying this to God, we find there is no need to introduce the entity God as this entity is not needed to explain anything. We can explain the world more simply without God, therefore we do not need God in our explanation for the world.

• “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is the famous maxim that skeptics cite. If you are presented with an extraordinary claim, according to this rule of thumb, you should demand clear evidence supporting it before you accept it. The existence of a supernatural being like God would be extraordinary some people think, so we should require very good evidence before believing such a thing. Since there is no such evidence, we should

Logical positivism and verificationism hold that only statements that are verifiable by appeal to either experience or reason are meaningful and therefore worthy of consideration. No statement about the existence of God can be verified by experience or reason and therefore it is a meaningless issue.

Falsifiability, usually associated with philosopher Karl Popper, says only claims that can in principle be found false are scientific. A theory like “Life is a dream” may be interesting but it’s not scientific because there is no way it can be proven that life is not a dream. You could say the same of the claim “There is a God”. No way to disprove it, so not a scientific issue.

But note that something else is in common to all these guidelines, which would purportedly rule out questions of God’s existence; they do not determine ultimate truth or reality. These are rules of thumb to show the likely most successful way to go about considering various claims. The guidelines do not prove anything on their own.

For instance, extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence to support them do sometimes turn out to be valid after all. Think of such great scientific advances as the Copernican system of the planets revolving about the sun, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Einstein’s theories of relativity. These ideas all once seemed extraordinary, but in the years before the extraordinary evidence was found to support these extraordinary claims, these claims were still true, were they not? Two thousand years before Copernicus, a few individuals theorized that the earth went around the sun. They were right, of course, despite the lack of evidence to support them at the time.

Or consider string theory, the latest set of ideas being proposed to succeed relativity and quantum mechanics as the most profound explanation of how our universe works. So far there is no known test to determine whether string theory is valid. In fact—and this is disturbing—string theory may be in principle incapable of empirical confirmation. It may be impossible to test this idea about the basic structure of our physical world (although string theorists argue about this).

String theory may not only bypass the “extraordinary evidence” rule, but applying the standards of logical positivism, verificationism and falsifiability may also indicate it is meaningless or unscientific. Yet string theory must be either right or wrong. So these guidelines do not determine what is really true about the world—in this case, perhaps missing some very basic and far-reaching truths about the world.

Think of all the other things most of us believe that would not pass these tests of evidence and reason. That our loved ones love us. That it is wrong to murder our loved ones. That our loved ones, or anyone else for that matter, have minds. These are assumptions we all operate on every day, yet they have been notoriously difficult to prove by argument or evidence for several millennia.

We don’t even have a test to determine that we are not dreaming right this instant. We don’t have a test to determine our entire lives have not been illusory. Yet we tend to think that we are awake and our lives are meaningful, despite the lack of empirical evidence one way or the other.

So if science cannot present evidence for its theories about the basis of our universe’s existence and if we cannot even test the basic things we take for granted as being true every day, is it fair to demand these kind of proofs about a religion’s hypothesis about what it also considers a basic fact of our existence—namely, God as creator?

Saying we don’t need God as an hypothesis, or saying there is no evidence for His existence, is not the same as saying there is no God.

99-percent atheists

Some rational theists say the existence of God does have evidence or reason on its side, . It has passed some public or personal test for them. It is meaningful to them on some level to talk of God’s existence. God is an hypothesis they think they do need in their understanding of how the world works.

In this short space I’m not about to argue over their evidence. The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, some skeptical theists hold that such evidence exists. And this is all anyone needs to be a skeptic—to hold beliefs on the basis of evidence and reason.

Skepticism is not a set of beliefs that must be held or actions that must be taken. Skepticism is a method. Like science, it’s a time-proven approach to considering beliefs and practices. It gives people the tools to decide for themselves what to believe or not to believe, what to do or not to do.

Here’s an analogy.

Suppose someone asks you to explain what democracy in Canada means. A possible answer you might give is “Well, in Canada we get to choose who runs our government.” Another answer is, “Every few years in Canada we elect Liberals or Conservatives to form the government”.

Both of these answers may be true. But one is about the process—the method—the democratic election. The other is about a possible result of that method. For some people the democratic process leads them to certain conclusions and they vote for a particular party.

With skepticism, our method based on evidence and reason considers questions of ghosts, aliens, alternative medicine, miracles, gods, etc. Our goal is not to debunk all these claims but to consider the evidence for them. Some people using our methods come to hold very confident views on these issues. Most, if not all, of us have come to deny the existence of ghosts, for instance. Many of us have also come to disbelieve, or be confirmed in our disbelief, in gods. Others are confirmed in their theistic beliefs. But what binds us all as skeptics is the method, our acceptance of evidence and reason as an approach to all claims.

To ask “why aren’t all skeptical people atheists?” is like asking “Why aren’t all democratic people Liberals?”

As an atheist I’m willing to stay up all night arguing with fellow skeptics that the evidence and reason should lead them to disbelieve in God. But I know religious skeptics who would stay up all night to argue their side on the basis of evidence and reason too.

As a skeptic I am also aware of the inconclusiveness of arguments on both sides, as already discussed here. I am also aware of the obligation of skeptics to always keep an open mind for new evidence or reason.

For these reasons I do not consider myself a 100-percent atheist. I’m a 99-percent atheist.

Maybe 99.5 or 99.99999 percent.

(I have no way of measuring this accurately of course. Just use whatever figure you think indicates great confidence in atheism while keeping a tiny part of the mind open for potential contrary information.)

This is no different from other positions we skeptics hold on all sorts of extraordinary claims.

We’re pretty sure there is no Loch Ness monster since there is no persuasive evidence and there is lots of inductive reasoning that would make it unlikely such a creature of that size could survive in the loch. So I’m 99 percent sure (maybe 99.5 or 99.999 percent) there is no such animal. If they drain the entire loch and don’t find it, I’ll get up to as close to 100 percent sure as possible.

Have aliens ever visited earth? A more reasonable question, no evidence for it, some good arguments against it, the limiting speed of light and so on. So, maybe I’m 80 percent sure aliens haven’t visited earth.

Do aliens regularly beam up earthlings today to study their reproductive organs? A farfetched claim, no evidence for it, lots of evidence debunking such claims, lots of reasoning against it. So, 99 percent sure it doesn’t happen.

I would hope that those skeptics who believe in God also keep an open mind about what they believe, though I cannot speak for them, and that does not affect my own beliefs.

In a way, this may seem to be an escape clause for us.

Suppose today the sky should open up and God appear, revealing Himself once and for all to the world. Or suppose a group of credible scientists were to announce that looking deeply into space they have found disturbing evidence that an all-powerful intelligent being resides there and seems to be manipulating the laws of the universe.

If either of those unlikely events were to occur today, I and other atheistic skeptics would still be skeptics tomorrow. Why wouldn’t we be? We’d never said the existence of God was impossible. We’d only said there was no evidence for it and thus no reason to believe in it. Now apparently we have the evidence and thus reason to believe.

Our approach to basing belief on evidence and reason would still be valid. Our willingness to wait for evidence would have been rewarded. We could then move ahead with beliefs that were supported by the evidence.

Skepticism is not about holding a set of beliefs —“there are no aliens, there is no God, etc.”—that we defend against all contrary claims. It’s about holding provisional beliefs based on available evidence and reason.

Believers in God may meet the general requirements of skepticism by holding that beliefs should be based on evidence and reason wherever they are available.

Not that there is such a requirement or creed to which one must swear an oath of allegiance in order to be considered a member of the skeptical movement in good standing. We’re a movement to encourage widespread use of the scientific method and critical inquiry, not to demand agreement on every point on pain of excommunication.

We’re not, after all, a religion. sildenafilcitrateotc – read more at

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