Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?
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Is there any possible evidence that would persuade atheists out of our atheism?
And if not -- does that make our atheism close-minded and dogmatic?
There's been an interesting debate lately in the atheist blogosphere. (The media will no doubt point to it as a sign of a terrible schism in the so-called New Atheist movement; but really, it's been a very friendly and civil conversation so far, among people who are fundamentally allies.) The debate revolves around whether there's any possible evidence that could convince atheists to change their minds...and if not, whether that makes their atheism an unshakable article of faith rather than a reasonable, evidence-based conclusion.
PZ Myers, of the famed Pharyngula blog (almost certainly the most widely read of all atheist blogs), recently asserted that he had made up his mind. The case for atheism was just too devastating, and at this point, no possible evidence could ever convince him that any religion was correct. Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution Is True, the book and the blog) has expressed strong disagreement. He thinks atheism is falsifiable -- and he thinks that it should be. If there is no possible evidence that would convince us God was real, he argues, not even the most wildly ludicrous hypothetical chain of events you could dream up, then atheists really would be just as close-minded as believers claim.
I've written at length about how atheism is, and should be, falsifiable. I've even gone out on a limb, in this very publication, about what exact evidence would persuade me that God was real. And after reading Myers and Coyne and a whole lot of other atheists in this debate, and after thinking about it at some length, I've reached two conclusions:
1) I don't agree with PZ.
2) I think PZ makes some seriously important points.
I don't ultimately agree with him, but the questions he raises are making me rethink my position on this question.
Let's get the first bit out of the way. I think PZ is wrong. It seems, uncharacteristically for him, like he's not getting the rules of the game. I think he's focusing too much on existing religions, gods that people currently believe in, and on whether any of those could ever provide any evidence that would persuade him. Yes, atheists pretty much agree that no existing religion has a shred of decent evidence to support it. That's why we're atheists. If we thought any religion had supported itself with decent evidence, we'd accept that religion. That's not the game. The game isn't, "What religion that currently exists could convince you that it was right?" The game is, "What hypothetical made-up religion could convince you that it was right?"
Or, to put it another way: We're talking counter-factuals. We understand that the universe, as it is now, is overwhelming in its evidence for atheism and materialism, and against any kind of deity or supernatural realm. We get that. We're talking about alternative universes. We're asking, "What would the world look like if there were a god or gods?"
And, in pointing out how vastly different that world would be from the one we actually live in, we're not just making a stronger argument for our position. We're not even just making our position falsifiable, and thus making it philosophically stronger. We're making our position rhetorically stronger. In my debates with religious believers, I've found the "What would convince you that you were mistaken?" gun to be invaluable. When I can point out that I'm willing to consider the evidence for religion, but that no possible evidence could convince them that they were mistaken -- and that they therefore aren't arguing in good faith -- it can be very effective in getting believers to re-examine their beliefs. And it shuts down the "It's so close-minded of you to come to a provisional conclusion about religion based on the best available evidence" canard very effectively.