Ideas & Philosophy — 14 April 2012
Atheism in the dock

Uthman Badar

The high priests of New Atheism are in town, subjecting us to more of the same. The faithful have responded to the fatuous bus posters to gather at the (not-so-global) Atheist convention, taking place in the same country twice in three years, with the stated purpose of ‘celebrating reason’. An admirable pursuit.

It is difficult to understand, I must confess, what those who define themselves by a negation will be celebrating. Atheism, as a negating proposition, does not carry the onus of proof, but equally does not have anything to offer except critique of the positive assertions of others. Perhaps this is being passed off as a celebration of reason?

Of course, everyone knows that finding fault with the positions of others is the easiest of tasks, particularly when you feel no need to offer an alternative. Critique in the context of presenting a stronger alternative is the difficult task that truly reveals the calibre of one’s reason.

There is a patent inanity in defining oneself in negation of an idea, as opposed to defining oneself in affirmation of an idea. Imagine being an ‘acommunist’ or ‘asocialist’, instead of being a capitalist, or being an ‘aliberal’ instead of being a conservative. Sound silly? Well it is. But it does make life easy. All you have to do is find fault with the ideas you define yourself in opposition to, and sit back making claims to a higher rationality. If ever asked to provide an alternative to what you find so objectionable, all you have to do is remind the questioner that the onus of proof is not on you. And it isn’t. The onus of proof is on the one who asserts.

As for the onus of reasonableness, if you will, that’s a different story. Any idea is proposed in order to answer an underlying question or solve a problem. Negating that idea is only to object to its being the right answer. It does not answer the question or solve the problem. Providing an alternative answer does.

Theism answers the fundamental questions about the reality of the world in which we find ourselves, recognising that nothing contingent, finite and dependent can account for its own existence, and that an infinite series of such things can not be the source or basis of its being. Atheism, in turn, merely negates the given answer (on fallacious grounds, as demonstrated elsewhere), but fails to answer the question. Why do contingent beings exists? What is the reality of the universe? Is it created? Is it the source of its own existence? Or it is eternal, having always existed?

Thus far, there is little by way of rigorous answers, and more by way of ideology – unsubstantiated on its own merits – being passed as science.

Dr. Lawrence Krauss, for example, an American theoretical physicist and one of the main items at the convention, notes in an article he wrote last year that it is hard to think of a grander claim than the existence of a divine being. Clearly, this is a matter of opinion. An opinion based on a bias in favour of the natural against the supernatural. An opinion which prejudices the conclusion before the inquiry is even made. In the same article, he wrote, “…in science when one is trying to explain and predict data, one tries to explore all possible physical causes for some effect before resorting to the supernatural.”

Yet one should not ‘resort’ to anything when undertaking sincere inquiry. Rather, one follows the evidence and affirms that which it leads to, and in doing so, to preference natural explanations over supernatural ones is ideology plain and simple, and reveals the materialist and naturalist underpinning of much of modern science. There is no rational reason why the supernatural should be a last resort. The ‘supernatural’, after all, is simply that which is extra-spatial and extra-temporal, that is, beyond space and time, which define the natural world.

Ideology being passed as science is noticed in cosmology too. An editorial in the New Scientist from January this year notes, “Over the years [cosmologists] have tried on several different models of the universe that dodge the need for a beginning while still requiring a big bang” [emphasis mine].

Expressing similar sentiments, Stephen Hawking, at a symposium convened earlier this year to honour his 70th birthday, said about this beginning of the universe, “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.”

Lisa Grossman, reporting in the New Scientist on a paper presented at that very meeting, wrote, “…[It] suggests that the universe is not eternal, resurrecting the thorny question of how to kick-start the cosmos without the hand of a supernatural creator.”

Note how the question is not ‘what is the origin of the universe?’, but rather ‘how do we kick-start the universe without the hand of a supernatural creator?’

As for where ideology is not being passed as science, Atheism faces immense problems in answering the aforementioned fundamental questions and the assertions made, implicit if not explicit, lead to absurd conclusions.

Negating the existence of God leaves only two options with respect to the origins of the universe – either it is eternal or it came from nothing. But is the universe eternal? Can an infinite regress of temporal causes actually exist? Even presuming it can, on what grounds would you ignore the bulk of modern astrophysical evidence that points to an absolute beginning?

Or did the universe come from nothing? Can something come from nothing? An absurd proposition, in order to get around which the new trick is to re-define ‘nothing’. Dr. Lawrence Krauss – with whom I had the opportunity to contest these ideas at a forum at the ANU in Canberra this week – is the latest proponent of this disingenuous re-definition, whereby nothing becomes something but keeps the label of ‘nothing’.

What Dr. Krauss does, in his new book, is to describe the quantum vacuum as ‘nothing’, and then appeal to the modern findings of quantum mechanics – the rigour of whose mathematical structures is only matched by the highly-speculative nature of their interpretation as to real-world implications (but never mind that) – to suggest that the origins of the universe may be this type of ‘nothing’.

Evidently, this is nonsense. The word ‘nothing’ in the English language is a term of universal negation, meaning ‘not anything’. It cannot be given as a label to something. The quantum vacuum is, excuse the double negative, not nothing. The quantum vacuum has properties. It comprises of space and energy. It fluctuates. It is subject to laws and the equations of quantum field theory. It has properties that are describable, predictable and falsifiable. It is definitely something.

So if the universe is not eternal and could not have come from nothing, the atheist is left with naught but to acknowledge that he or she is without explanation, but not without the faith in science and its ability to possibly provide an explanation at some point in the future. Fine. But is not a reasonable explanation, even if not absolutely conclusive in your mind, better than no explanation?

Negating the existence of God also leaves the atheist with little choice but to adopt secularism and humanism, which are affirmative propositions, requiring positive substantiation, of which nothing rigorous has been presented.

In the end, Atheism asserts that human beings are just accidental by-products of matter plus time plus chance, who have evolved on an iota of dust lost in a hostile and mindless universe, doomed to eventually perish. A doomed race in a dying universe, no more significant – except for any significance we conjure up for our hapless selves – than a swarm of mosquitoes or flies.

The rational extension of this, one would imagine, would be do whatever you want! Make the most of a short and meaningless existence. Yet, by some leap of faith, atheists still assert the need to be good, to act morally, and to hold global conventions trying to convince others of atheism.

One would expect that the high priests of New Atheism preach, at these conventions, a worldly salvation gained through the embrace of noble lies by which people can overcome the meaninglessness of their lives. But no, pretending there is no issue is too enticing an easy way out.

Predictable, perhaps, that those clumsy about rational validation would rather ignore the rational extensions of their ideas. Then again, everything about New Atheism is rather predictable. Be as it may, these are some of questions and issues faced by Atheism, particularly the ‘new’ garden variety, which demand answers if indeed its proponents have anything to do with reason, the empty celebration of which is evidently easier than its proper use. Will the answers be forthcoming? We’re all ears, but we’re certainly not holding our breath.


This article is published here

Uthman Badar is the media representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia. He is a student of the Islamic sciences, and is completing a PhD in Economics at the University of Western Sydney. He can be followed on Twitter @UthmanB or Facebook.


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(11) Readers Comments

  1. “Atheism, as a negating proposition, does not carry the onus of proof”

    No Philosopher would agree to such a proposition, you can prove all types of negatives, you can prove Dinosaurs don’t exist, you can prove that there are no Muslims in the US senate, etc.

    And Well read Atheist do understand this, this is why they use the “problem of evil” to argue against God’s existence.

    I suggest to the people interested to read or watch on YT the works of Dr. William Lane Craig, to get a better understanding of this false proposition put forward by Atheist…

    • Some negative propositions being able to be proven does not mean that the onus of proof is on the one who negates. It is on the one who asserts. This is well-known in logic and philosophy.

      Even Islamically, the Prophet (saw) said, “Evidence is upon the one who makes the claim…” (al-bayyinatu ‘ala al-mud’ai). This is in the legal context, but the principle is the same.

  2. Your piece contains so many unfounded and unproven statements that it is difficult to know where to begin. For example, you state “Can something come from nothing? An absurd proposition, …” and yet you offer no falsifiable evidence for the assumption behind the question. By abandoning the principle of “nothing can be said to exist unless it can be attributed to falsifiable evidence”, you discredit every advance ever made by science, including the benefits to your own health of modern food production, and the Internet by which you have posted your piece – a most peculiar form of nihilism, the very thing of which you accuse atheists.

    • Hi secular,

      Can you provide falsifiable evidence for “nothing can be said to exist unless it can be attributed to falsifiable evidence”?

  3. I am amused by the religious and their ramblings, and their continued denial of science.

    I am here writing this article now, because of science, I’m typing it out on an electronic keyboard, viewing it on an illuminated screen where the letters appear, it then travels via wi-fi (an Australian invention, thankyou CSIRO… who worked out how to make wi-fi work during research into black holes) to my router… a device which can pipe digital data down a phoneline, it then travels by cable and arrives at the other end only a few seconds after it left.

    All that is due to science, including the discovery of electricity on which it all runs.

    And I am here courtesy of medical science which stopped my cancer in 2005, Had I had the Pope, Several Bishops and a few Priests hovering over my bed, praying for my recovery, I would most certainly not be here to type positive or negative remarks, at all.

    You’ve lost the case, argue as much as you like, but you and all the other dinosaurs time is over, you have no proof of anything you utter, you despise science and yet you have the utter gall to use it to spread your tripe and your bigotry.

    I’m finished with the lot of you.

    • I think you have identified the ultimate flaw in every fundy’s position: they are all too keen to exploit the benefits of science, while at the same time denying its fundamental tenets. At best, such people are total imbeciles, at worst, such people are evil wretches who deserve to be disposed of in oubliettes.

      • @secular Oz & Wolf Rankin,

        The author made his point eloquently and is not criticizing science-you have obviously missed his point! He makes the distinction between science and ideology positing itself as science-which frankly is a genuine concern and a widely used form of deception. As a scientist myself I am very aware of when this takes place. For years we were taught that Neaderthals were “missing link” which pictures of half ape and half human creatures drawn into texts books. Then modern science gave the opportunity to sequence the Neaderthal genome which showed that they were as human as us and indeed that we carry their genes!

    • Wolfie,

      You obviously did not read the article. No where in it is there a denial of science.

  4. Mr Badar,

    I’m interested in your claims regarding the nature of negation and its status regarding the onus of proof. Or, more precisely, you appear to argue that atheism is of a lesser status than theism due to its emergence of our a negativity, that is, as an opposition to God. I would argue that theism itself it a kind of negation; it emerges as a response to the finitude experienced by all human beings. The history of negation, as Sartre explores at the beginning of Being and nothingness, holds a special status in philosophical understandings, such as Hegel’s dialectical movement of Spirit as a process of overcoming negation. All that I’m trying to iterate is that negation should not be seen as any more or less of a form of argument: it is via negation that existence is defined, that God is defined and so forth. Oppositions exist as definitive tools, among other things. That God is eternal is negatived against the finitude of human existence.

    In any case, my point is solely that theism is not inherently true, nor does it automatically lay claim to the Truth of existence and non-existence simply because you characterise it as an affirmation and not a negation. If there is something that is unknown, and surely not even the most solemnly religious person can claim that life’s mysteries, and death’s mysteries for that matter, are a known quantity, then one cannot simply posit an “affirmation,” as you call it, as the answer to the mysteries. Further, I do not believe that it is accurate to take this quasi-affirmation and privilege it in such a way that the very criticisms which seek to derail it are deemed unworthy due to their negativity. It is not necessary to posit an alternative to a question in order to show an answer false.

    I could probably continue much further and deeper, but I shall bid you adieu.

    I must say that I do admire your attempts to develop reasonable answers to such difficult issues. If I may leave you with a question: if there was a logically valid and sound argument that disproved theism, would you accede to its reason?

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment.

      It seems you have misread the argument.

      I did not argue that theism is superior or true simply because it is an affirmation, nor that atheism is of lesser status simply because it is a negation. This would be a silly argument.

      Rather, I tried to show is that atheism, as a negation, does not provide the answers to the underlying questions (reality of the world, origins, etc). Thus, whilst the onus of proof is not on it to prove that theism is wrong, the ‘onus of reasonableness’ is on it to provide answers to those questions or else to acknowledge that they do not have answers, and in this latter case to accept that a reasonable explanation, even if not conclusive in one’s mind, is better than no explanation.

      The broader objective of the article was to highlight the many problems atheism faces, even as a negating proposition. Of course, showing that atheism faces problems does not equate to theism being right. The intent of this piece was not to validate theism, but to critique atheism. I trust you appreciate the difference.

      As to developing reasonable answers of these issues, these answers were developed centuries ago by Muslim scholars as early as the 9th century, and others since.

      As to your question, yes I would accede to reason. But this is very much a hypothetical, since having studied these matters deeply, I know that theism is proven by deductive arguments that benefit certainty; hence it is not possible for it to be disproven.

      • Mr Badar,

        I agree with you entirely that atheism has many problems; the most dramatic being the ontological hole in the floor left by modernity. I frequently feel that the central thesis of atheism arises from the displaced “faith” component to religious belief and the cathexis towards science. This is an impoverished view of the world.

        As far as the history of Islamic thought goes, what does one have to say about the Incoherence of the Philosophers? To the best of my knowledge, there is a fundamental flaw in any religious belief that seeks to be grounded in reason in that all religious belief is just that, a belief system that is grounded in certain (and frequently unexplored) assumptions regarding the universe. In any case, the questions generated from such discussions do not have an answer because they cannot be answered. How one chooses to plaster over the hole is up for grabs. This ideological terrain has not yet been conquered, and probably never will be. The form of the argument, the creation ex nihilo, is extremely problematic in itself.

        Good luck with all your endeavours, religious debate requires intellect and passion, not blindness and zealots.

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