The New Atheism: Where’s The Evidence?
by Michael Antony
“A wise man,” wrote Hume, “proportions his belief to the evidence.” This is a formulation of evidentialism – the view that a belief is rational or justified if and only if it is supported by one’s evidence. A more generalized version of evidentialism covers beliefs with various degrees of confidence, as well as other ‘doxastic attitudes’ such as disbelief, doubt and suspension of judgment (doxa is Greek for belief or opinion). It states that the rational or justified attitude to adopt with respect to a claim or proposition is the attitude that fits one’s evidence. Although evidentialism is much harder to clarify and defend than it might seem, there is no denying its prima facie reasonableness.
Evidentialism plays a key role in attacks against religious belief by the New Atheists, as it did for Hume. Belief in the existence of God or other divine realities is criticized on the ground that there is no good evidence for it. Echoing Carl Sagan and Laplace before him, we are told that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and we are assured that there is nothing of the sort when it comes to the divine. The upshot is that religious belief must be judged irrational, epistemically unjustified, or intellectually illegitimate, and it should be rejected. As Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying, “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
But what of the New Atheists’ atheism – their belief that there is no god or other divine reality? According to evidentialism, that belief (with whatever degree of confidence it is held) also requires evidence in order to be rational. However, the New Atheists tend not to worry much about providing evidence. Although they sometimes offer arguments – ‘the problem of evil’, Dawkins’ ‘Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit’ in The God Delusion, and a few others – overall, those arguments play a minor role in their attacks. Far more central is their repeated insistence that because religious belief lacks evidence, it is irrational and so should be abandoned.
The question I wish to ask is this: How can the New Atheists employ evidentialist principles to argue that religious belief is irrational if they are unwilling to apply those same principles to atheism? If the New Atheists’ atheism is not evidence-based, as Hitchens implies in the above quotation, doesn’t evidentialism entail that atheism is itself irrational or epistemically unjustified? The answer is ‘Yes’; at least if evidentialism is interpreted in the standard way. So it appears that the New Atheists need some fix for evidentialism – a kind of ‘theoretical plug-in’ – which legitimizes their atheism in the absence of evidence. They also seem to be aware of this, since they offer several reasons why atheism requires no evidential support. I will discuss five of the most commonly-offered reasons, and argue that none of them succeed. At the end I will gesture toward what I believe is the right way to view matters…
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