The author and aphorist G.K. Chesterton once wrote
“When people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.”
Did you like that? If so, beware. It’s a human failing to mistake glibness for insight, and Chesterton’s is certainly glib. It’s also nonsense.
In my experience, atheists — people who have carefully assessed the evidence for a god and found that evidence insufficient — are parsimonious rather than profligate in choosing their beliefs. They certainly don’t believe in “anything”.
Pressed for a list of my own beliefs, I would come up with at most two: I believe in the power of empirical evidence and that logic based on that evidence leads to truth. I trace this odd selection back to my secondary education.
It was Euclid who did it and his Prophet was my maths master. (I went to grammar school in 1950s England where the diminutive of mathematics was plural and teachers were chosen for their mastery of a subject.) The foundation of Euclid’s elements of geometry, as expounded by the aptly named Mr. Bliss, is a list of basic uncontroversial concepts. Armed only with these empirical bricks and the cement of logic, Euclid builds the impressive edifice of geometry. The Egyptians and pre-Euclid Greeks knew that the tangent to a circle meets the radius at a right angle; they could employ Pythagoras theorem to compute the lengths of side of a right triangle. But Euclid proved Pythagoras and he did it using minimal evidence but copious amounts of logic. It was the parsimony that seduced me.
Two practical rules of thought stressed by Mr. Bliss and Euclid have stayed with me.
1) Don’t believe that two things are the same just because they look alike. Prove it.
2) Don’t believe in a proposition simply because you like it. Prove it.
The “anythings” I do not believe in
Some of the things I do not believe in may surprise my friends. Of course, the list contains some woo beliefs such as astrology, alien abductions, ghosts, telepathy, and the effectiveness of homeopathy, acupuncture and bloodletting. People who believe in such fairy stories do so out of wish fulfillment rather than reason. Such people also tend to believe in god, which should have given Chesterton second thoughts.
But what about the surprises?
Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection is the best explanation yet for the diversity of life. It’s a strong, valid scientific theory, tested and retested for 150 years. But like all scientific theories (including gravitation, atomic theory and continental drift) it is tentative and open to modification and perhaps falsification.
(It is revealing that creationists and advocates of “Intelligent Design” refer to biologists who use evolution in their work as “Darwinists”, as though acceptance of evolution is just another belief system. This is because such proponents are stuck in superficial belief systems. Belief to them is malleable, arbitrary and — this is lethal — essential. They have the science backwards. They have chosen to believe in a creator and desperately rummage around for evidence to support that belief.)
Controlled, randomized, double-blind clinical trials. These are the best ways of finding out whether a new treatment or drug actually works. A treatment that is found ineffective by a well-constructed trial should be shelved. That is why purveyors of alternative medicine dismiss such trials.
But I don’t believe in them. They are the best thing we have for evaluating treatments, but someone may eventually come up with something better.
God. I don’t believe there is no god. Just as I don’t believe there is. I can’t say. This does not make me an agnostic, who would say there is no way of establishing the existence of god. There may be. So I call myself an atheist in the sense that I oppose (the “a-” in atheist) theism. I may change my mind about that and wind up and agnostic.
Another Chesterton trick
Chesterton is the author of another aphorism that yields nicely to analysis.
“If there were no God, there would be no atheists.”
It’s the sort of quote a believer will use to wrap up an argument with an atheist. But a bit of examination reveals the trick.
Chesterton wants you to use a bit of logic to expand this into a syllogism.
No God implies no atheists
There are atheists
Therefore God exists
The logic is all fine and dandy. But the initial premise is wrong. Even if there were no god, there would still be theists. And that would breed atheists (as it has done). So “If there were no God, there would be no atheists” is simply not true.
What Chesterton has done here is to direct your attention to the syllogism, thus diverting you from examining the premise itself. This is admirably clever, but it is still a trick.