I am acquainted with a retired philosophy professor (“RPP”) who frequently makes some surprising (and very doubtful) philosophical claims, among them is his explanation of why people become atheists.
The RPP has stated the following:
“ In my opinion, the problem of gratuitous suffering is the main reason why we have atheists in the world today. Though there are many defenses for the benevolence of a God, none of them seem convincing to a neutral student of the issue. This particular incoherence in the God-belief –I have found — has convinced nearly every atheist with whom I have discussed the issue as foremost in the reasons they are atheists (or, at least, agnostics). The philosophical incoherence in the problem of gratuitous suffering is the bottom line and if they cannot be answered, then one should be an atheist.”
In short, our RPP argues that the problem of evil is the main reason for a person to become an atheist. The problem is one of reconciling the reality of a benevolent God with the fact of evil and suffering in the world.
Notice the assumption behind these contentions: Atheists originally considered that a God was real, but became skeptical because that God’s reality could not be reconciled with gratuitous suffering in the world. This in turn assumes that not many atheists started out as non-believers.
Both assumptions are false. Many (if not most) atheists come from a secular background (family of non-believers) and have never had to contend with the theological problem of evil in their personal thinking.
Furthermore, the RPP has also denied the direct claims by non-theists concerning the history and basis for their own philosophy of non-belief. In reply to a couple of science teachers (Charles and Sam), who stated that they came to atheism by way of their work in the sciences, the RPP replied as follows:
“ I think you are mistaken about yourself. I still suspect that the majority of well-trained scientists disbelieve mostly because of the problem of evil and suffering in the world. Their disbelief can’t be for scientific reasons, since God is beyond scientific investigation.”
Surprisingly, the RPP assumes that he knows better than the other person what that other person is thinking. “You’re mistaken about yourself”: but I know what motivated your move to atheism. This pretense hardly is worth criticizing. Surely individual scientists can arrive at their disbelieve by a variety of routes; and when they support their disbelief, surely some reasons they give could arise from their scientific work. Why claim that Charles and Sam are mistaken about this? Does the RPP know more about their history then they know themselves? Does he know how exactly they would justify their non-theistic view?
No, of course he doesn’t. He only pretends to know.
But something else also stands out as confused thinking on the part of the RPP. He states,
“scientists’ disbelief cannot be based on scientific reasons, because God is beyond scientific investigation”.
At the very least, the statement that ’God is beyond scientific investigation’ needs to be clarified. It suggests a reality, namely God, who is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. But this begs the question by suggesting that there really is such an entity. Does the RPP mean to imply this?
An alternative reading is that you mean that the issue of the reality of a deity is beyond scientific investigation. Here the RPP is right in the sense that ‘ God’ is not the subject of any of the sciences, although belief in God can be (e.g. anthropology).
But this fact does not give him grounds for you categorical claim regarding scientists’ recounting of how they arrived at an atheistic or agnostic view. Moreover, the RPP cannot justify his categorical claim that “God is beyond scientific investigation” if we understand by “God” the “belief in God.” The latter is what is relevant to a person’s perspective on reality and the belief in a deity is surely subject to scientific investigation.
Another related point is that our RPP does not sufficiently distinguish between justification of a belief and origin of a belief. These are two different things: One answers the question: How would you justify your conclusion that God does not exist? The other answers a different question: How did you come to disbelief in a God?
One is a question concerns the way you would justify and argue for your disbelief in God. Sometimes this is referred to as the logical problem; what argument can you give in support of your belief (in our case, for your disbelief).
The other question concerns the process or history by which you came to believe or disbelieve as you do. What events, experiences, interactions, lessons brought you to where you stand today?
If I believe in God, the way that I might rationally defend this belief differs from the story I would tell when relating how I came to believe. These two need not be related at all, although in some cases they can be related.
If I try to rationally justify my disbelief in any deity, I might offer premises from a variety of sources, including the relevant sciences, history, philosophy, and observations of how the human world works. In short, I would offer an extended argument, maybe in essay form.
If I try to recount the path that led me to my position of disbelief, I will offer something like a narrative history experiences and events that brought me to disbelieving in any deity. But in doing this I would not be advancing an argument. I would merely be telling a story, an his-story, if you like.
Regardless of which sense we apply the question of the basis for non-belief in a deity, the RPP has no grounds for his view that only the theological problem of evil stands behind the atheist’s denial of the reality of a deity.