Does atheism generate predictions about the world?

By ‘atheism’, I mean what is commonly referred to as ‘strong atheism’. Strong atheism is the position that gods do not exist. Specifically, strong atheism can also be local. In other words, classical strong atheism is the denial of classical/traditional theism. And classical/traditional theism is the position that there exists a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. Therefore, ‘classical atheism’ denies that such a God exists.

One might think that the negation of theism (~T) does not by itself generate predictions about reality. That might be true to an extent, but atheism is a disjunction of positions. For example, metaphysical naturalism is one form of atheism, so naturalism entails that God does not exist (~T). And clearly, metaphysical naturalism does generate predictions about reality. Therefore, one can generate predictions from specific forms of atheism, and specific forms of atheism are atheism (even though atheism itself isn’t identical to it’s specific forms, like naturalism)

To be clear, not all atheists are strong atheists. And, not all atheists are naturalists. But naturalism is atheism, even though atheism isn’t necessarily naturalism. However, many atheists are naturalists, and many atheists do have a world view.

Also, when I compare something like naturalism to theism, I’m not even saying that naturalism is true. Like all world views and metaphysical views, I’m skeptical of naturalism to some degree. Rather, I bring in naturalism to show how certain world views perform poorly, given the data. Thus, I’m utilizing naturalism as a hypothesis to show that certain world views are certainly false, very probably false, or probably false. However, I will say that I find metaphysical naturalism to be plausible.

Thus, when someone says something like, “evil is not surprising on the no-God hypothesis”, they might very well mean something like, “evil isn’t surprising on the hypothesis that natural things are the only thing that exist” or “evil isn’t surprising on the hypothesis that there aren’t any supernatural beings that are good.” Heck, one could argue that evil is more expected on deism or pantheism than on classical theism.

Not to mention, when one is arguing that evil is evidence against God, they are obviously including things like “the universe exists” in our background knowledge.


9 thoughts on “Does atheism generate predictions about the world?

  1. I don’t even think even strong atheism makes predictions. Just because I see no evidence for gods does not mean there aren’t any. I just think turning fairy tales into “reality” is not a likely source of new knowledge. I am not absolutely sure that gods do not exist, I just think the probability is vanishingly small. The evidence is that weak.

    If we look to nature and find things that are “outside” of nature, doesn’t that bring them inside? Anything outside of time and space has no dimensions and cannot change or process information, so claiming something is there is more than a bit strange. Still, there is plenty to learn, I just don’t think the claims have anything to them, other that trying to hid a god where it cannot be found.

  2. Whether or not strong atheism makes predictions seems to depend entirely on the theism that it denies.

    As you point out, we often make background assumptions without thinking about them. If we assume we have all the required facts to conclude that God would eliminate (what we see as) evil if He could, then theism makes predictions. The corresponding flavor of atheism predicts that the theist’s predictions will turn out to be false.

    Other flavors of theism argue that we do not understand God, we do not have all the required facts, and that when seen in a larger context — that of an infinite intelligence — what we see as evil might not be evil at all. It might be unpleasant, but on balance not evil. That kind of theism does not make specific predictions about events in the world, at least none to which it attaches a high degree of certainty. Its corresponding flavor of atheism, likewise, would not make any predictions.

    1. What is the significance of such a belief, then? There is nothing to prevent it, but there is also no justification for it.
      Such a God is what it is.
      The difference between inscrutable and merely mysterious, is immense, and the argument you advance is an argument for an inscrutable God – one who not only permits the holocaust for an unknown reason, but also one which is not just playing its cards close to the vest.
      It can’t, in principle, explain why.

      1. Certain concepts and beliefs are part of the foundational descriptions by which we interpret the world. They are the eyeglasses through which we see everything else. But if we need eyeglasses to see — by analogy with needing systems of belief to understand — then the only way we can see our own eyeglasses is by putting on a different pair of eyeglasses to look at them. Theism is part of a foundational description of the world through which theists interpret everything else. Such a description must account for all of the same observations as any other foundational description. As such descriptions encompass more and more observations to account for more and more of reality, they end up resembling each other more than they did at the beginning.

        It’s impossible to explain *anything* in terms of *nothing*. We always have to start with certain foundational concepts and assumptions that we treat as not requiring explanation. Both Bertrand Russell and Thomas Reid (who is unfairly neglected) grappled with that problem.

      2. Meh. This will get complicated pretty quick. Elements of our reflective consciousness can’t be, to borrow one of Plantinga’s favorite phrases, properly basic. That would include concepts and beliefs, as they are commonly understood. Such things are more or less reliable, rather than strictly true.
        In the interest of brevity, I would ask how the belief in an inscrutable God differs, in principle, from Solipsism. Nothing stops me from claiming Solipsism, because one of my key tenets will be that the world must be as it is if the world is entirely my concept.
        By the same token, nothing changes when I adopt the solipsistic viewpoint.
        The claim of impenetrable necessity would seem to apply to a world with an inscrutable God as well. This is what I mean.

      3. Then here’s the short version: When we talk about things that we can neither verify nor falsify empirically — in other words, they have no practical effect on *what happens* in the world, because if they did, then we could verify or falsify them — such beliefs are justified pragmatically. They amount to a way of looking at and feeling about the world, often coupled with commitments to behave in particular ways.

        At the end of the day, believing in God means (according to me) that we assume the world is basically good, that it makes a difference what we do and how we live, and that we should try to live consistently with that basic and ineffable goodness we sense in the world. It does not imply that bad things never happen: it implies our commitment to persevere in spite of bad things and to try to find or make as much goodness as we can.

  3. What is evil, anyway? Any mass destruction of human beings is of great benefit to the planet as a whole. What adversely affects one creature is usually of benefit to another. It takes real stupidity, accompanied by a massively misplaced ego, to imagine that the whole complexity of everything was laid on purely as a backdrop for humanity.

    1. Sean’s making unprovable assumptions all over the place. That in itself is not a criticism: there’s no way to avoid making such assumptions in discussing theology. The problem is that he either doesn’t think he’s making such assumptions, or he thinks that they can be proven scientifically. He’s a smart enough guy, for sure, but dogmatism seems to be no respecter of intelligence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s