Why the Atheist “Argument from Diversity” is Fallacious


Note: This graphic is included only because I find it funny.

Stated simply, the atheist argument from diversity is essentially that religions contradict each other, and therefore its highly likely that no religion is true. I have a huge problem with this: A religion is not merely true or false. Religions are collections of ideas and doctrines. Any one of those can be false without invalidating the others. The statement would be true if all religions were fundamentalist, but they are not.

The conclusion drawn is usually something like the one on the page I linked above: “The best explanation for the fact that different religions believe different things about God and the universe is that religion and God are human constructs that do not correspond to any metaphysical reality.” I don’t see how this follows. Let me explain:

Think of the religious experience (and by this I mean what people experience via meditation, prayer, chanting, ritual, etc., as paranormal states of being) as a phenomenon, and of the different religions as theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon. When a scientist has multiple theories that conflict, his first thought is not “this must not be a real phenomenon”. No, it is to determine which theory best fits the facts. If no theory fits the facts, the scientist will not discard the facts as false. Rather, he will take his best theory and try to come up with a new theory that explains the facts that contradict that theory.

When the bizarre behavior of matter at the quantum level was first theorized, there were those, including Einstein, who doubted the theory. Scientists did not discard quantum theory. Instead, they designed experiments to confirm or refute it. Now, we believe that particles of matter exist as probability spaces, and that the act of observing a particle collapses its probability space into an exact location.

Discarding God (or at least the experience of God that people have when engaging in religious activities) because the current theory doesn’t perfectly explain the phenomenon would be akin to Galileo saying that, because none of the theories in his time adequately explained the behaviors of the planets, therefore the night sky must be mere illusion.

Of all the atheists I’ve come across, Sam Harris seems the most rational. He admits the spiritual experience. He doesn’t claim to have the answer. He prefers a secular approach to exploring the spiritual experience. This is a scientific approach to the religious experience. It allows one to confront the obvious wrongs in religion without discarding something true and valuable in the process.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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7 Responses to Why the Atheist “Argument from Diversity” is Fallacious

  1. essiep says:

    That meme states a very silly definition of atheism. Such a string of ideas doesn’t represent what actual atheists think.

  2. Freja says:

    As stated above, the meme that you’ve added sets off this article as a very one-sided argument and is already a misinterpretation of what atheists believe. Atheists do not have to be scientists either, atheism is about religion whereas science is a field of knowledge.

    Anyhow, your analogy is flawed. To be a scientific claim, one has to be able to give evidence for a phenomenon that is objective, non-biased and can be falsified (ie. repeated in the exact same conditions by others). None of this is possible with religion as it is subjective, biased and a personal experience. Thus comparing it to Galileo’s experiments or experiments revolving around quantum physics is already a step in the wrong direction.

    Personal experiences and anecdotes should also not be mixed up with ‘facts’, they are personal accounts that cannot be disproved as opposed to quantifiable and measurable factors that we can manipulate for an experiment.

    However, I do understand the point you are making: Just because there are many claims for the ‘truth’, does not mean that all these claims are false. However it is not a matter of true and false, it is a matter of not being able to prove either situation because of the nature of religious claims. It is an argument that undermines the idea in many religions that there is only ‘one true religion’. Each religion makes a series of claims and statements and if you were to look at all the religions in the world, very few of these statements would match. However what makes this different to the case with science is that these are built on faith, not fact. They are also absolute claims and science cannot claim to make any absolute claims. Thus since we are unable to gather evidence for or against any of these religious claims, they can be disregarded as unscientific and for many that will mean that they cannot be debated as it cannot be refuted. It doesn’t disprove a god or spirituality but it does mean that religions cannot claim to be ‘right’ or ‘more right’ than another religion and if no religion can claim to be right, then why subscribe to one at all?

    • jimbelton says:

      The meme is a joke, much as including the meme “How dare you do what I predestined you to do” was a joke about determinism. As for the article, I think you misunderstand what I’m saying. I don’t believe that any religion is “true”. The religious experience is subjective, but it is not based on faith. Anyone can experience altered states of consciousness through meditation. Science already makes absolute claims about the phenomenon based on EKG, PET, and MRI studies. As for science only applying to the objective, what about mathematics? Much of it is a completely subjective mental world. What about String Theory? Totally subjective, at this point. Naturalists can dogmatically state that there is nothing that can’t be explained by the objective world all they want, but science has yet to prove anything of the sort. Is the religious experience likely to be supernatural? It seems unlikely if you base your estimate on past precedents, but I can’t see how anyone could be more than agnostic at this point. Even Dawkins said that, on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 was belief in a god and 7 was certainty that there wasn’t one, he was a 6. It’s hard to quantify, but I’m personally somewhere greater than 50% sure that I have experienced something supernatural (though not necessarily a god). If you have never practiced meditation, I suggest you read Sam Harris’s book “Waking Up”, and then go and have your own spiritual experience. Afterward, you may, like Harris, remain convinced that it is a natural experience. Perhaps, you’ll come to doubt this, as I have. And just maybe, like Eben Alexander, you’ll have an experience that leaves you 100% convinced that there is a god.

      • Freja says:

        I realize it’s a joke but it doesn’t exactly set the article off on a particularly respectful tone. Anyway, that’s besides the point.

        I understand you may not personally believe that any one religion is the ‘true religion’, however this is what the argument against diversity is arguing against. Hence why I said above that personal experiences aren’t included in this argument: Even if the argument against diversity is correct, it does not disprove the existence of the supernatural or divinities, it is set out to undermine religions themselves.

        I also did not state that spiritual experience was based on faith but that religion itself is based on faith. Please do not misrepresent my arguments.

        On top of that scientists cannot make absolute claims on anything because of the very nature of science. Scientists can only claim to know what is false and the closest thing we have to the truth before someone comes up with a better explanation for our data and that will replace the previous explanation if it is accepted. I am a biologist, not a mathematician so I do not consider maths as a part of the natural sciences which I am aware of but it is the tool we use to understand the world around us. And if a mathematician makes a theory, even if it cannot be observed in reality, he has to back up it up with proof before it’s accepted- thus it can’t be subjective if others can follow how he reached that conclusion and he demonstrates how he attained his conclusion.

        I also did not say I was a gnostic atheist, I too agree with Dawkins on that statement he made. And I whether or not I will someday believe in a deity or in the supernatural has little to do with the argument against diversity or your criticism of it, so I don’t see how it’s relevant to bring it up.

      • jimbelton says:

        I think that we are in agreement that the “argument from diversity” does not hold much water as an argument for atheism. Rather, it attacks religious doctrine. My problem with it is that it is held up as a solid argument for atheism (for example, by Hitchens).

  3. Pingback: Freja’s Question and Maslow’s Hierarchy | Jim's Jumbler

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