Realistic Limits and Truthfulness

I’m watching the debate between Michael Shermer and Alister McGrath, and people are discussing this, in how a need for something doesn’t necessarily pertain to the truthfulness of it. How do you respond to that and the truthfulness of it? Also the notion that Atheism isn’t a “belief” and doesn’t have the burden of proof.

I’d like to know how people here individually respond to this so that I can get insight.

When ‘atheism’ means lack of belief in deities, then it is not a “belief” by definition. That should be obvious. This is the atheism I know and that characterizes me and the vast majority of my unbelieving friends. Only when ‘atheism’ means an assertion of non-existence of deities could one even coherently argue that it’s a “belief.” But it certainly doesn’t have a “burden of proof.” Google “Russell’s teapot” for the argument there.


From my perspective, atheists are a diverse lot. From personal experience as a theist, atheists generally profess an absence of belief and do not indulge in arguments regarding religious belief in God. There are those however, who are aggressively against faith and belief in God, and these are, imo anti-theists (although they may also be anti-Christian, often stemming from some personal experience).

Thus those who are atheists of the first category are not interested in debating matters of faith, and show an absence of belief in the sense that religion speaks of faith in God. Since they do not have a position to argue, they do not have a burden of proof.

Those that seek to argue against God and faith are different in their views (from atheists as I described) and I feel they do have a burden of proof.


Sort of gets back the question of “what is truth?” I am enough of a modernist to believe there are absolutes in what is factual true and what is not, yet feel that on moral matters, there is a standard beyond human construct which is ultimate truth, and ultimate good and evili thought both speakers did a good job of making their case, but the hole in Shermers idea of evil as being that which causes suffering of sentient beings is that often the same act may relieve the suffering of hunger in one but cause pain and suffering to another.
As to your question regarding the needs and truthiness, I cannot answer. I missed most of the opening presentations due to a phone call. I can onlysay we have to differentiate needs from wants. And wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so.


I gave a rather lengthy response over on the other thread titled “Debate reminder

But for here and now, I can appreciate and agree with what Stephen and GJDS said above. In the latter’s last statement that the more aggressively assertive atheists have a burden of proof (not the burden of proof) – I think that was well-stated.

Shermer represented his side well, I thought. That atheists simply would like to see evidence. Among all of us who claim to be thinkers, who shouldn’t agree with that? We just disagree on the extent of what qualifies as legitimate evidence.


This could also explain the discrepancies that one sees in polls of religious belief. In almost all of the Pew Forum surveys, for instance, the number of atheists is very small, just 3.1%, but “nothing in particular” is 15.8% and “unaffiliated” is 22.8%. The data

Those who self-report as “atheist” are far outnumbered by those who don’t give religion much thought because they don’t see how it has any impact on their lives, which I believe is the majority of the “unaffiliated” group. And among my friends who do claim the label “atheist,” they certainly do not feel any “burden of proof” upon them. Obviously, if I wish them to change their minds, the burden of proof is upon me.


We discuss this occasionally in our humanist community, wondering about the extent to which currently intense stigma attached to the words ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’ affects how people self-identify. It has to be an influence, but who knows how big. It could be that many/most of the ‘nones,’ upon somewhat brief reflection, would self-identify as atheists in the sense that they don’t believe that gods exist. I tend to agree with you that it is more likely that most fall into your “don’t give religion much thought” category. But my experience, gleaned in the midst of a not-necessarily-typical scientific community, suggests that many people seem at the outset to be in that category because they are exercising discretion in a religious society and don’t discuss their beliefs about gods except in the context of an established relationship. I have been regularly surprised to discover that real atheism is common in my peer group. Again, I would never claim that there is anything normal about my peer group. :nerd:


Here is another fascinating study by the secular humanist group CFI on Secular Identity among College Students. The entire article is worth reading, but here are a couple of paragraphs on self-identifying as atheist:

In order to ascertain their worldview, we also asked students to choose whether they would describe themselves as Religious, Spiritual, or Secular. The Secular were a heartening 28 percent of the total, only slightly less than Religious (32 percent) and Spiritual (32 percent). Nevertheless, there were more Nones (33 percent) than Seculars (28 percent) among these students. The Nones split 70 percent Secular to 30 percent Spiritual. This meant that 70 percent of the Secular worldview group was composed of Nones and 32 percent of the Spirituals were Nones. Why this discrepancy? It appears to reflect the plurality of females among the respondents—women who self-describe as Nones tend to avoid the Secular label and prefer to identify as Spiritual.

Identification patterns are changing, and young males seem to be much more willing than older generations to adopt the atheist or agnostic label. As a result, around 28 percent of those in the Secular worldview group self-identified as atheists and agnostics. This might be seen as progress, but figure 1 shows that when asked a theological question about the divine, just 77 percent of the Secular group provided atheistic or agnostic responses. Again we find a discrepancy, this time over the atheist self-designation: What does it mean when 42 percent of Seculars provide an atheistic response to a God question but only 12 percent self-identify as atheists on a religion question?

I think you are right about exercising discretion until you know someone. In our society, some very religious people will “shun” an atheist, and some will feel compelled to “witness” to them, which easily devolves from friendly debate into bitter argument. In most contexts, better to keep your opinions to yourself until you know how a person might react. It’s what my atheist friends do, and probably what I would do in their shoes. This also figures into the above stat on young males. They’re not tired of confrontation yet. Haha

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I think it depends on what the Atheist asserts.

It is one thing to say that you think the Baptists are wrong. Or that the Christians are wrong. Or even that the Monotheists are wrong.

But when an atheist says that Theism of any kind is “a negative influence on humanity”, this where I am comfortable saying: “Not really.” I agree that zealotry is a negative aspect of any religion… or of Atheism.

But for the great bulk of humanity, modest adherence to Theism fills a god-shaped hole in the mind, whether the God-shaped hole was put there by God or by biology.… or both!


Well, obviously, but the conversation isn’t about assertions by atheists about religion.

The question of truth has been with us, well, forever. This in itself requires discussion. For example, if the truth is based on observations and tests (and the absence of data for the mythical dragon in the garage), then I feel that all humanity would have embraced it by now - science has been around for some time.

As pointed out, any truth claim requires a personal judgement by the person making that claim. We then need to understand what is subjective, which gets us to what type of a person makes the judgement. At the risk of exaggeration, Stalin believed his approach to power was true, and observations support such a claim. Yet reasonable people would regard Stalin a murderous thug … and we can find many examples that show the difference between people who do good, and those who do evil. Claiming that observation is sufficient to establish truth is an wrong claim.

I was intrigued by his (or Sagan’s, I guess) “mythical dragon” story, which was new to me. But I think it still suffers the same widespread misconception of a traveling trickster demiurge scooting around the universe trying to stay hidden from us. It’s imagining God as another Zeus or Zeus 2.0 that runs around wanting to be a hidden explanation for some things but not others. Shermer seemed to realize (half-heartedly and somewhat dismissively at another point in the talk) that this isn’t what Christians think about God, but then this dragon story I think demonstrated (for that moment anyway) a relapse back into exactly that kind of caricatured straw man approach.

Agreed. But this is ever present in the mind of Theists. And I just wanted to cover that point.
You folks can resume your regularly scheduled programming … :smiley:

This is the crux of the matter - if we imagine a god, than Christianity proper simply dismisses such a god outright. If atheists cannot understand this, I cannot see how a question, let alone a debate, can be presented to any reasonable person of whatever persuasion.

I think you’re on the wrong thread, Mervin

My apologies if this would more appropriately be placed elsewhere! I was responding to GJDS when he brought up the mythical dragon as it pertains to observations and truth. If this thread has moved on from the topic of limits and truthfulness, then I confess I haven’t followed as close as I should. Things do seem split between the debate thread and here, but if that is a problem, moderators can do what they will.

I never did thank you for making me aware of that link, BTW. Thank you!


You are very welcome, and I’m glad you liked it. Sometimes we need a breath of fresh air.

Far as we know, for the first 10,000 years of history, the null case was that there are gods. Atheism is the antithesis to the thesis. The concept precedes the negation of the concept.

The null case has always been “indistinguishable from no gods” (which is not the same as “no gods”). There wouldn’t be an “indistinguishable from no gods” position without people making the positive claim that gods exist which makes the “indistinguishable from no gods” position the null case. It would be a bit strange to not believe in Huttribongos if no one believes in Huttribongos to begin with. It would also be a bit strange to say that the mere mention of believing in Huttribongos makes their existence an unassailable truth until proven otherwise.

To use another example, we could look at the claim that cigarettes cause cancer. The positive case would be a statistically significant (p<0.05) correlation between higher cancer rates and smoking. The null hypothesis would be the lack of a statistical correlation which indicates that the data is indistinguishable from random distribution of cancer rates between the smoking and non-smoking groups. It is important to point out that it is still possible for smoking to cause cancer even if the null hypothesis is supported. All the statistics can tell us is if there is a detectable difference between the groups.

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My favorite Bible verses are “What is truth?” and “I’m going fishing.” Theoretically, it is entertaining to argue about theology and philosophy. Pragmatically, never telling lies in writing or under oath has saved me from a world of trouble. The exception to the rule is the little box that claims “I have read the above statement” at the end of online documents.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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