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Is belief in God illogical?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on January 16, 2009

I was reading on of my regularly subscribed blogs when the writer posed a seemingly simple question: Is belief in God illogical? My initial, automatic response was hell yeah, but then after that initial outburst of self righteous overconfidence I got to thinking. My initial answer just did not sound right for whatever reason. After  a little bit of thought and reflection I have changed my answer. My answer now is no.

Belief is a funny thing. Every day, in our lives, we do and say things based on certain unsubstantiated beliefs. Have you ever told an acquaintance that you’ll see them later? How do you know you will? How do you know you will be alive long enough to see them later? You don’t! But you still in a sense believe you will, even though you have no evidence upon which to base that belief. That’s not to advocate starting to qualify every statement we make with words like “probably” , “hopefully” and such, no sir!  That’s just to point out that we all have beliefs that we do not question. We cannot question every belief we hold, lest we spend every waking minute checking and double checking every thing. I believe my spouse is faithful but the only way to be sure is for me to be with them, ahem follow them, every minute.

What I have tried to describe in this short paragraph is the fundamental difference between belief and knowledge. They’re two different things, even though in common parlance sometimes they are used interchangeably. Many times people will say “I know X to be true” when in fact they simply mean they believe X to be true, such as in my previous fidelity example. Many people will say that they know their spouse is faithful when in fact they really mean they believe their spouse is faithful.

Now let’s get back to the God issue. Here we need to be careful with the distinction between the two words. Knowledge is based on evidence, belief need not be. You cannot claim to know if the evidence is not on your side, but you can claim to believe. And the believer will commonly fall on the above trap of confusing the word believe with the word know, unbeknown to them. I truly believe (haha) that when a believer goes around saying how they know there is a God, they really mean they deeply believe said God exists. And that is not illogical.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is one of my favorite quotes. I don’t remember who said it, but I like to use it all the time to remind myself that saying “X is not backed up by the evidence” is not the same as saying that “X will never turn out to be true”. I feel we are in the same position with God. I think there is no evidence to support the hypothesis of the monotheistic God. But I also think that there is no damning evidence against him, especially given how the religious keep moving the goal post and keep redefining God in order to explain away every new argument against his existence, but that’s a topic for another post.

The idea of God as a supernatural being with all sorts of magical powers is not ridiculous in my eyes. It is not impossible either. We cannot say that in this Universe God is an impossibility. There are many impossibilities that we have claimed in our history which have later turned out to be true, so I think we must learn that history lesson and be very careful with the word impossible. But that’s not to say anything in favor of God though. Even though he’s not impossible, given what we’ve seen so far, given the evidence presented to us so far, he seems very very very improbable.

Nevertheless, there is nothing illogical in believing in something which is highly unlikely. Furthermore, there are varying standards of evidence. We skeptics, I like to believe, have higher standards when it comes to evidence than the religious. But that does not change the fact that the religious are quite convinced that there is plenty of evidence in support of the God Hypothesis. Take a look at the latest debate you had about God and you will see that in most cases it’s a debate about the quality of the evidence presented. IDers say that the Intelligent Designer must exist because of irreducible complexity. They present irreducible complexity as evidence of design. Real scientists argue that irreducible complecity is not evidence, but a philosophical argument at best (also a logical fallacy known as argument from ignorance). At heart this is an issue about the evidence itself. Assuming sound logic, with the same set of facts similar conclusions should follow. But if we don’t agree on the facts to begin with we are destined to disagree.

So to sum up, believing something for which you think there is enough evidence obviously is not illogical. Believing something for which there is a mountain of contradictory evidence is. I think religious people think they belong to the first group, thus in their eyes belief in God is more than justified. I also think that many atheists think that religious people belong to the second group, thus making them question the logic of such belief. I further think that this difference is mostly due to the varying standards of acceptable evidence that the two groups are employing. As such I don’t find belief in God illogical. I think it is the wrong conclusion to reach, based on the evidence so far, but being wrong does not necessarily imply being illogical. After this short reflection I’m still a proud atheist. I still don’t believe in God, but I don’t think I would be a moron if I did.

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6 Responses

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  1. shamelesslyatheist said, on January 16, 2009 at 5:04 PM

    I don’t think I can agree. Is it correct to reject the null hypothesis (i.e., the nonexistence of a god) in the absence of evidence? I don’t think so. While it is indeed true that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, this does not absolve those that claim the existence of a god or gods from the burden of proof. The burden of proof can come only from those making a claim to reject the null hypothesis. The only rational position to take in the case where there is no reason to reject it is to maintain that there is no god. Thus, it is indeed irrational to believe in god or anything else for which we have no evidence for.

    In essence you are apologizing for those who would believe in Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot.

  2. Skepdude said, on January 16, 2009 at 5:54 PM

    Well, this goes back to my point about varying degrees of “evidence”. It is only irrational to insist on something while at the same time agreeing that the evidence points somewhere else. But most religious people honestly think there is plenty of evidence to support the God Hypothesis. They have low standards for evidence, sure but having low standards for evidence is not illogical.

    I don’t mean to apologize for them, I think they’re wrong and they’re being too lax with what they consider evidence. But I don’t find the idea of a God illogical.

  3. shamelesslyatheist said, on January 16, 2009 at 9:16 PM

    Ah, but I have another great quote from Carl Sagan that I often use: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Relaxing requirements, rather than making them more stringent, runs counter to this, and by any measure the existence of a god or gods is indeed extraordinary. I just don’t find believing in something without good evidence to be rational. That doesn’t make it wrong, but if the belief is correct, it is only by accident and not something to pat oneself on the back for.

    I know where you are coming from, that we are required by intellectual honesty to not negate the possibility of gods (Dawkins does this as well), but believers are making an absolute claim without evidence and I do indeed think this is irrational. Otherwise, one can believe in an infinite number unfalsifiable things (though I think the Abrahamic god is quite falsifiable and Vic Stenger does a good job in looking at the various properties of such a god and how our knowledge base rules out each).

  4. Skepdude said, on January 16, 2009 at 9:31 PM

    Yes but that’s my point exactly. You say “believers are making an absolute claim without evidence” and I agree that they don’t have good evidence, but they THINK the evidence is more than satisfactory. We have an issue with their evidence, yes sure, but from their point of view as long as they think the evidence is satisfactory then their belief is not illogical.

    It is not illogical to believe something when you think you have the evidence, regardless if it turns out that the evidence is right or wrong. The act of believing depends on how much you trust the evidence. The process of evaluating the evidence is a separate process.

    That’s why I brought up the faithfulness scenario. I do not follow my wife around, so really I am lacking the evidence that she is being faithful. Nevertheless, based on other evidence I have, I believe she is. You may disagree with me that my “other evidence” is not good enough. Fine. But if I judge it to be good enough, then my belief is not illogical. Now if that evidence pointed to unfaithfulness and I insisted on believing that she’s faithful, that would be illogical. Does that clarify my position?

    Bottom line this is what I think:

    1-If you think the evidence is satisfactory, belief is not illogical.

    2-If you think there is no evidence either way, you should withhold the judgemetn.

    3-If you think the evidence goes against the belief, but insist on believing nevertheless, you are being illogical.

    That is why the discussion almost all the time moves to the evidence itself. Think about ID and irreducible complexity. IR is evidence and that is what gets discussed. If you accept the IR argument you have to be an IDer, that conclusion would be the only logical position, no?

  5. shamelesslyatheist said, on January 16, 2009 at 10:57 PM

    I see your point. The three points of your bottom line are completely reasonable. But skepticism shouldn’t be just applied to the conclusion, as whether or not the evidence is good evidence and meets a reasonable standard is itself a conclusion. And one that most believers don’t (probably more accurate to say, won’t) consider. The trick is to create the standard first, then dispassionately test the evidence to see if it meets the standard. People quite often don’t get that, which is why there are UFOlogists etc.

    Oh, and I get the feeling someone has given you that ‘How do you know you love your wife?’ question…

  6. Skepdude said, on January 17, 2009 at 1:36 AM

    No no, no one has questioned my wifes affection. I just thought it would make a good comparison to clear up my point.

    And just to be clear I am not advocating not applying skepticism to the evidence. Of course everything must be questioned. But here I was simply taking about one aspect, the belief itself and trying to understand how is it that religious people maintain their beliefs.

    I think it is important for us skeptics to stay humble and not get into the frame of mind where we start thinking we have a monopoly on logic and reason, because we’re all fallible. That’s all. Thanks for the comments.

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