I don’t need a theory of everything to be an atheist

I hope everyone had a good weekend.

After what appears to be a couple of false starts, the robin in my back yard has established a very nice nest. I’ll post some pictures soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to say a few words about a rather strange misconception held by some religious people. The misconception is that in order for the atheist to justify her naturalistic worldview, she must offer a complete and scientifically vetted theory of how every person, species, planetary body, and even the universe itself, came into being.

This simply isn’t correct. The only thing required to justify a naturalistic worldview is the lack of evidence for gods. If there is no evidence for the existence of gods, then there is no reason to adopt a theistic worldview, and naturalism is the only alternative.

I suspect the misconception arises because of the believer’s starting assumptions. If I don’t have enough information about how the universe (or anything else) began, some theists would say that my default assumption should be that God created these things. However, this default assumption is problematic. The main problem is that assumptions are usually based on some sort of prior experience, and this one isn’t.

Consider the following analogy. I cook mashed potatoes for dinner once a week or so. If I then go to a restaurant and order mashed potatoes, I make the assumption that these potatoes were prepared in a similar manner to the mashed potatoes I make at home. I assume that someone in the kitchen chopped some potatoes into small pieces, boiled them in water, mashed them up with an appropriate tool, and maybe added some butter and salt. And I may even be wrong about this, since it’s possible to buy fake mashed potatoes (just add water! Uggh…)

The problem with using theism as a default assumption is that we have no prior experience of theistic creation to justify this choice. We’ve never seen plants and animals being created by a god. We’ve never seen planets and galaxies and universes created by a god.  The choice of a theistic baseline is therefore arbitrary – it’s not based on any prior indication that it might be true.

A naturalistic baseline is not, however, arbitrary. We see animals giving birth to new animals all the time, without the intervention of gods. We have good evidence that planets formed from planetary disks, which in turn condensed from stellar nebulae, etc., etc.

In other words, our knowledge of nature as it currently stands is enough to warrant a default assumption of naturalism, even if we don’t yet know every single detail behind the origin of the things we see around us. So, in the absence of positive evidence for gods, we must fall back on naturalism – the only worldview we know has worked in the past.

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