Over the last few days I’ve been reading through Dan Barker’s book Godless. I thought it only fair to do so after writing a critique of a few sentences. I plan to write a review of the book in the next week or so. Not to give things away, but I can say both that the book is a good read and is well worth picking up, and that I can find things to disagree with on most pages. And in this article I want to offer a brief response to another one of those many things.
In the passage in question, Barker offers the following rebuff to theists who suggest their theism is rational based on the evidences they provide for theism:
“if they are suggesting that I must agree that it is okay for them to accept the so-called evidences, I can’t do that. None of the ‘evidences’ proves a supernatural being, so those who continue to believe are acting irrationally.” (Godless, 90)
Oh, there is so much to talk about here! We need to start by wrapping our brains around Dan Barker’s extraordinarily bold thesis. According to that thesis, theists are irrational because they fail to provide proofs for God, where a “proof” is presumably a deductively valid argument with universally compelling premises.
Wow. That’s a high bar.
But wait, does Barker have a proof (i.e. a deductively valid argument with universally compelling premises) for atheism? I’m not sure. I haven’t finished the book yet. But I’m getting pretty far into it and I haven’t seen one yet, not even close.
So let’s consider the unthinkable. What if (gasp!) Barker doesn’t have a proof for atheism? What then? Does it follow that his atheistic belief is irrational?
If not, why does Barker pick on the theist? Isn’t it a bit hypocritical to place epistemic deontological obligations on others you yourself cannot meet?
Perhaps Barker will say that proofs are only required for existential beliefs, not in the withholding of existential beliefs. But who says? Why think that?
Don’t bother answering that. Instead, I’ll provide three reasons to reject Barker’s claim outright.
First, demanding a proof of all positive existential claims would entail that the idealist, and indeed the solipsist, are rational for withholding belief in the external world and other minds. Meanwhile, it would also follow that the rest of us are irrational in believing in such things until we can provide a proof to persuade the idealist and solipsist to abandon their doubt. This is a reductio if ever I saw one.
Second, this claim misses the crucial point that disbelief in one entity entails belief in another. The solipsist who disbelieves in other minds believes in a mind that can create its own reality de novo. That’s an extraordinary thing to believe in. The idealist who disbelieves in the external world believes in a world of mental substances alone which can create a matrix of simulated material reality. That’s an extraordinary thing to believe in. The atheist who disbelieves in God believes in a dysteleological world of self-organizing material existence. If I do say so myself, that’s also an extraordinary thing to believe in. So right back atcha’ Dan!
Third, it is deeply confused to think the matter of justifying truth claims is limited to positive existential claims. The real matter of justification extends to any truth claim at all, not just positive existential claims. And by the way, that includes the matter of Dan Barker’s own justification for claiming that theism is irrational barring a proof for God’s existence.