Why Strict Atheism Is Unscientific

By Ross Pomeroy

Do you believe in God?

If a cadre of outspoken, strong atheists wrote a litmus test for scientists, that might very well be question #1.

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"Scientists, if you're not an atheist, you're not doing science right," PZ Myers -- a well-known blogger, biology professor and atheist -- regularly preaches.

But if this is true, then as many as half of scientists are doing science wrong. A 2009 study from the Pew Research Center polled members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Fifty-one percent of respondents reported a belief in a higher power. Does this mean that it's too late for science? Has religion already pillaged the minds of researchers worldwide? No, of course it hasn't.

"It seems to me that we as a society have lately been caught in this false dichotomy where it's either God as the guy with the beard on the cloud or nothing at all," neuroscientist David Eagleman told Discovery News.

Staunch atheists often falsely characterize followers of religion as being "all-in" with their beliefs, opining that they ascribe to the whole creationist, woo-y shebang. "Where's your evidence?" atheists mockingly question. "You can't prove that God exists!" they accuse (correctly). Yet, hypocritically, strict atheists are guilty of the exact same crime: belief without evidence.

"We know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism. [But] we know way too much to commit to any particular religious story," Eagleman said.

Just as it's a leap of faith for a religious person to assert that God incontrovertibly exists, it's an equally large leap for a strict atheist to declare, without question, that God does not exist. As Carl Sagan eloquently explained:

"An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed".

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As this statement applies to science, so does it apply to religion. History is replete with signs that an all-powerful deity may not exist, but such substantiation is nowhere near tantamount to proof -- especially, as Albert Einstein said, in a universe as incomprehensibly vast as our own:

"The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly."

Ultimately, the key is not to be swayed to one extreme or the other -- fundamentalist religion or strict atheism -- but to walk a reasoned middle path. Eagleman believes that path is "possibilianism," the concept of holding multiple beliefs or hypotheses whilst exploring new ideas.

"The goal is to avoid committing to any particular story," Eagleman told Discovery News, "whether that's religious fundamentalism or strict atheism. The goal of possibilianism is to retain the wonder that drives us all into science in the first place and to avoid acting as though we know the answers to things we can't possibly know at the moment."

Strict atheists do the world an incredible service by promoting the scientific method, skepticism, and critical thinking. But they do a disservice by campaigning against religion or touting -- as pure truth -- the non-existence of God, for those actions (especially the latter) are just as unscientific as a blind belief in all aspects of religion.

This summer, a worldwide poll showed that atheism is on the rise and religiosity is on the decline. It is my hope that these "New Atheists" and agnostics won't narrowly focus on denigrating religion, but will instead focus on encouraging open-mindedness and discouraging fundamentalism.

That would surely make the world a more enlightened place.

Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor of RealClearScience. Follow him on Twitter @SteRoPo.

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