By Mathew Goldstein
Over a year ago, Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and the monthly "Skeptic" columnist for Scientific American, wrote a short article on skeptic blog titled ARE YOU AN ATHEIST OR AGNOSTIC? To his credit, he has openly identified himself as an atheist for many years, although he prefers to label himself as a skeptic. However, his initial argument for atheism is actually a weaker argument for non-theism. Furthermore, he first claims that it is not possible to have positive evidence for atheism and then he contradicts himself by claiming that we have positive evidence for atheism.
Michael Shermer points out that "we act as if there is a God or as if there is no God, so by default we must make a choice, if not intellectually then at least behaviorally." This is true in the sense that we must choose to worship, pray to, or otherwise obey the instructions allegedly provided by, a God. But people can believe that God has not given them instructions, isn't asking or seeking to be worshipped, doesn't respond to prayers, etc. Such people believe in a non-personal God, so they aren't theists. They are deists. Michael Shermer defines such deists as atheists because they live their life as if there is no God. It is more accurate to call them non-theists.
Michael Shermer then emphasizes that it is untenable to assert that a God does not exist. He says, parenthetically, that "you cannot prove a negative." This is false. Sure, it is difficult to "prove" that something doesn't exist, but that doesn't mean that evidence never can speak against an existence claim. We have evidences that flying pigs and talking donkeys do not exist, never have existed, and never will exist. To believe that such creatures exist is unreasonable precisely because they are counter evidenced.
He then says that, as skeptics, we should "not believe a knowledge claim until sufficient evidence is presented." I agree with Michael Shermer here that skepticism is the correct approach. But he is wrong to assert that atheism is tenable only when it "withholds belief in God for lack of evidence." His argument that the only choices are between an untenable certainty that there is no God and a tenable withholding of belief in a God creates a false dichotomy. A tenable third choice is to actively believe that there are no gods on the grounds that the weight of the overall available evidences favors the no God conclusion. Michael Shermer makes bad excuses for refusing to even consider this possibility. It should be obvious that we all actively believe that many existence claims asserted by many different people are false, which is why we call them fictions.
What isn't so obvious is why God existence claims can only have supporting evidences when other existence claims can also have opposing evidences. Michael Shermer surely knows enough about biology, physics, and sociology to know that our universe appears to operate on a strictly materialistic basis, yet apparently he won't admit that this is evidence against an immaterial mind and immaterial, willful agent. Or maybe he is unwilling to acknowledge that evidence against immaterial minds and willful agents is evidence against gods? Does anyone believe in an entirely materialistic God that operates entirely within the laws of physics? No one should because such a naturalistic "God" is completely superfluous.
Note that Michael Shermer could also argue that it is untenable to assert that a God does exist, and that "you cannot prove a positive." Whatever evidence there is for a god, Michael Shermer the skeptic could point out that this same evidence could be interpreted as being produced by aliens with advanced technology who are intent on fooling us. Lots of people get diverted by this misdirected notion that we require proof to properly justify our beliefs (even though in practice these same people hold many beliefs without this unreasonable and impossible "proof" standard). They argue that we cannot prove one way, or the other way, or both ways, and then they insist that we must stop there and withhold judgement. But it makes no sense to stop there without evaluating what, if anything, the evidences say, since evidences can favor one conclusion over others. There is a word for this "there can be no proof, end of story" stance: It is a cop-out.
Michael Shermer concludes his argument by saying: "I do not know that there is no God, but I do not believe in God, and have good reasons to think that the concept of God is socially and psychologically constructed." This then becomes an inducement to read his book titled The Believing Brain in which he presents "extensive evidence to demonstrate quite positively that humans created gods and not vice versa." So Michael Shermer does assert that there are empirical evidences that gods are fictions after all. He isn't merely withholding belief for lack of evidence, he is saying there are positive evidences against. So why didn't he acknowledge from the beginning that the evidences can go either way and there are evidences against?
I think Shermer is an atheist rather than a non-theist. But he isn’t allowing his atheism to shine through. He is hiding his atheism behind his skepticism and a non-theistic ‘I don’t believe’ stance. Maybe he lacks the self-confidence to defend a more assertive “I believe there are no gods” stance. Atheism is 100% defensible on a straightforward weight of the overall evidence foundation.