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beliefs on trial

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Assuming that you’re a “free thinker”, who has avoided or escaped the effects of childhood indoctrination in the religion of your parents or country (a whole ‘nother topic), and is free to decide what to believe or not: imagine it’s a trial, and you are the judge, who has to make a decision based on the evidence.

If you adhere to standards of evidence that would hold up in court, that leads you directly to agnosticism, which started with Thomas Huxley’s ideas: “the foundation of morality is to have done, once and for all, with lying; to give up pretending to believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibilities of knowledge.”

It’s a good place to start, but there’s some dispute about the “possibilities of knowledge”, what is knowable and unknowable. Huxley viewed religion as “beyond”, which is similar to the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) proposed by the late Stephen Jay Gould. Richard Dawkins, however, strongly disagreed with Gould on this, and in The God Delusion maintains that theories about the existence of gods are theories about reality, to be subjected to the same scientific scrutiny as any theory would be.

Compare the following two statements:

  • “I do not believe that there are any gods”
  • “I believe that there are no gods”

The difference should be clear:

  • the first could be called agnostic or atheistic, depending on who writes the definition. Going back to the Greek “A Theos”, which translates to “No Theism”, I’d say it fits both definitions.
  • the second is the “hard atheism” stance, which I don’t agree with, because it assumes knowledge of the entire universe throughout its existence. Huxley – who coined the term “agnosticism” – hit the nail on the head in my opinion. Some dictionaries define atheism by this measure.

Now compare the following two statements:

  • “I do not act as if there are any gods watching me”
  • “I act as if there are no gods watching me”

The difference is not as clear, is it? I can say both those things about myself. This is to illustrate how philosophy doesn’t always translate in to the real world as neatly as we might think. So, philosophically, I could use either term to describe myself, but the “catchphrase” I came up with is think agnostic, act atheist.

I think far too much is made of the differences between agnosticism and atheism as philosophies. In this case, the differences between the two last-mentioned statements positions are no real obstacle to deciding how to live your life, on a practical basis.

One problem I see is when religious believers attack atheists with the assumption that they are “hard atheists”, based on simplistic definitions offered by their religious leaders, or even dictionaries (which are themselves a reflection of their time). The reality of modern atheism is far more subtle than that.

How many “hard atheists” (by the second definition) are there, anyway, and do you really need to make such a “statement of belief” to call yourself atheist? The “popular atheists”, from what I’ve read of their work, don’t fit that description. Dawkins in particular is happy to say “I could be wrong”, and so does Sam Harris.

Yet, far too often “allowing for the possibility of gods” is seen as a loophole to exploit, as if the person who says that is just waiting for someone to come along and convince them. Even when a person has an open mind, in a general long-term sense, getting them to adopt a religious belief requires evidence. Simply telling someone “you’re wrong” won’t work, because those are just words, written by people, and they express a view of reality, not reality itself.

This is why I say: think like a judge, or a defense attorney, when it comes to evaluating evidence, starting with what is and is not evidence in the strict sense. To be blunt:

  • What you or someone else saw is not evidence.
  • It’s totally convincing to you, and it changed your life, but it’s not evidence.
  • What someone wrote down is not evidence. (The medium on which something was written can be evidence, but calling it evidence does not make the written words true.)
  • Even when the source is a famous person, known for good works, trusted and believed by millions: it’s not evidence.

The word for all that is testimony, and that does not carry the weight of evidence in a court of law, for very good reasons. As any experienced judge or attorney will tell you: people can, and do, say anything to push their particular views or protect themselves, hence the emphasis on evidence that stands up regardless of human testimony.

Without that, and the freedom to decide without coercion (no tampering with the jury, please), I could not be confident in making a fair and valid decision; so I need to be strict in upholding my standards of evidence against expedience . To leave it up to chance, or “common practice”, or inertia, would be negligence on my part; an abrogation of my rights as a thinking human being, or my responsibilities as a judge in the matter before the court: is religious belief justifiable, based on the available evidence? The verdict, in this court, is a resounding No.

Written by brian t

April 26, 2007 at 5:11 pm

Posted in atheism, religion

2 Responses

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  1. This is a great blog, Brian, but I’m confused about one thing. Why do you claim that testimony is not evidence in a court of law? I can assure you, as a qualified, though no-longer-practising, lawywer with a fair bit of experiece in courtrooms, that witness evidence, or testimony, is perfectly acceptable in a court of law. Indeed, testimony can be very powerful evidence.

    What is not acceptable is opinion evidence from a non-expert. If someone said, “I felt a sensation like thick honey sliding down my neck”, that might be perfectly good evidence for something, if it were somehow relevant to a factual matter in dispute in a case. So would, “I saw Jones fire the gun.” What would not be acceptable would be: “I felt a sensation like thick honey sliding down the back of my neck, so God was obviously trying to communicate with me.” The second half of the latter statement is an opinion, and no judge would accept anyone as being able to have an expert opinion on something like that. Of course, although it can’t be evidence as to the existence of God – not as far as a court would be concerned – it might be evidence of something else, such as the speaker’s sanity or lack thereof.

    Russell Blackford

    June 15, 2007 at 5:53 am

  2. I guess I should have used the word “opinion”, then, but I still say that you can not come to a reliable conclusion from testimony alone. I’m not talking about what happens in a typical court in any given country, but an idealized court run on solid ethical principles.

    Using your example: if saying “I saw Jones fire the gun” was the only evidence against Jones, would any judge convict Jones? I certainly hope not. The defense would have obvious grounds for appeal, and the papers would be splashing “miscarriage of justice” on the headlines.

    We’re talking about changing the direction of someone’s life here, and for something this important, testimony alone really won’t do the job, in my (idealistic) opinion.

    brian t

    June 15, 2007 at 8:04 am


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