I’ve introduced five points of dogma that I accept – three claims about the nature of reality and two values. Now I’m going to discuss three things that may seem to be dogmatic (I hold them fairly strongly and openly) but are, in fact, derived from the other points and from personal experience. These are things that critics of skepticism and atheism often assert are basic beliefs – points of faith – but that I don’t think qualify.
a. How to reason.
I try to follow the laws of logic and mathematics when I reason from evidence to belief, or from one set of beliefs to something new. I have heard it said that a firm adherence to reason and math is a kind of blind faith. (eg, here)
This is of course nonsense. I did not arbitrarily choose to believe that 2+2=4. I learned it through experience. In other words, it is a natural consequence of applying two of my basic beliefs: that truth matters, and that the inductive principle holds.
I know there are those who argue for some sort of ontological primacy of logical and mathematical rules. I am not qualified to judge on that, but whatever the ultimate nature of reason, I as a finite being have had to learn the rules by experience. So, epistemologically, I believe in reason, and understand reason, by applying my empirical foundation.
People may disagree about what is reasonable, but if they are pursuing understanding in good faith, those disagreements will diminish the more they discuss and learn. Disagreements indicate failures of understanding, not arbitrary individual freedom about how to “do” math and logic.
So the rules of how to reason are not basic dogma, but the product of thinking and acting on even more basic principles.
b. The methods and conclusions of science.
The whole point of science is that it’s a way of applying certain basic principles (such as valuing truth, accepting the inductive principle, and assuming a comprehensible universe). This is true not only of the conclusions of science, but also of its methods (which have been developed by the same process).
All of the methods and conclusions of science are open to question. If someone can offer reasoning or evidence that overrides the reasoning and evidence used to establish a scientific claim in the first place, then we will revise or abandon that claim.
So no part of science is dogmatically-held – it is the product of applying basic principles as rigorously as we can.
There is a particular point here that I want to make more explicitly, because I often see it arising in religious reactions against scientific conclusions. This is the claim that scientists assume materialism – the claim that only material things exist. Materialism is like atheism: it can either mean an active rejection of the alternative, or simply a lack of commitment to the alternative. Science requires that we only consider causes and effects that can, in principle, be observed. That is, we consider material causes and effects. It does not require a belief that this is all there is. It’s just that, as a process based on observation, science can only ever, even in principle, deal with observable things. This is “methodological materialism”, and it is not dogmatic – it is simply a recognition of the proper scope of application for the tools of science.
It seems to me that most supernatural claims of religious believers are, under scientific definitions, material. That is, they would (if the beliefs are true) produce observable effects. It is on this basis that many scientists reject supernatural claims: they have been tested where possible, and they have failed. This too is not dogmatic – it is a reasoned response to the evidence put forth.
For me, and for any atheist I’ve ever talked to or heard speak on this point, atheism is not a starting point. We reason our way to it. Many of us even choose an alternative label (such as “humanist”) or no label at all, rather than identify as “atheist”, because atheism simply isn’t that important to us. It is just one conclusion among thousands that we have drawn using the principles that are truly at the foundation of our worldview.
We try to be open to revising this conclusion in the face of relevant reasoning and evidence. I do not know how you could argue me out of my belief that people matter, or the inductive principle should be followed. But I do know how you could start to persuade me that my atheism is in error. For example, you could bring evidence of miracles, or demonstrate the superiority of a particular religious ethic. Or you could identify points in my reasoning to atheism that are invalid.
It’s a high bar, because the claims of religions are so extravagant. But it is conceivable.
I am happy to say that most religious believers I’ve talked to have accepted that I do not hold my atheism as a dogmatic belief, either right away or after some friendly discussion. (See the comments on the second post in this series for an ongoing exchange on this very topic!)
Next, I will describe some extra beliefs that seem to be held by religious people.