By an atheist, I mean a person who stands behind the following two propositions.

P1: It is irrational to believe without empirical evidence. Hence, it is irrational to believe in God.

P2: Established scientific theories are well-tested and most likely a true representation of the real world.

Now, imagine an atheist who is not a scientist themselves. Naturally, we are talking about the majority of atheists here. In this particular case, is it not obvious that standing behind both propositions leads to hypocrisy?

If the atheist can believe in some complicated law of thermodynamics, without themselves having studied the evidence or, hell, even bloody understood what the law is actually saying, then this doesn't seem to square with the first proposition, i.e. that it is irrational to believe without empirical evidence.

And yet, that is exactly what almost all atheists do. They take scientists on their word, without actually having any clue what the theory is actually saying and how it was actually tested. I mean, pick any random atheist who proclaims to believe in, say ... the Big Bang theory, and ask them for a single piece of evidence for the teory. Most of them will not be able to provide a single answer on the spot. Even if they do manage to conjure up something that sounds vaguely intelligent, that'll just be a recitation of something they read in some popular-science book or something. It won't be evidence they've themselves studied and understand.

So, in that case, are all atheists (who aren't scientists) hypocrites?

Important: I am obviously not saying that the scientific theories are NOT well-tested or that we SHOULDN'T believe in them. They ARE well-tested and if one studies them, one OUGHT to be convinced by the evidence. All I am saying is that somebody who has NOT studied them, should NOT believe in the theories IF they simultaneously want to pretend those of faith are irrational.

  • 3
    We believe in God. We do not believe in scientific theories. We use scientific theories to build bridges, to analyze DNA, to land on Mars and on many many other useful and interesting "applications". No on ever landed on Mars only preaching. So, the two "domains" are quite different. Of course, we do this because we believe that rational and empirical researches can help us to understand (some portion) of the world (physical, biological, social, etc.) we are living in. Apr 16, 2018 at 15:18
  • Building bridges is not an exercise in truth, as any engineer could tell you: it is an exercise in appropriate risk-taking. The most obvious example to me is what kind of a storm a particular drainage system can handle, with the storm's intensity characterized by how many years you would wait, on average, to witness. The project selects an appropriate level, be it 25-year, 50-year, 100-year, etc. and builds the project: not irrational (as we heard in the PSE question "Is it irrational to take a risk?" (philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/50823/… ). Apr 16, 2018 at 16:53
  • P1 looks like an argument, not a proposition
    – Bram28
    Apr 16, 2018 at 17:15
  • I think you have a point. All the same, it seems sensible to believe that physicists are trustworthy when it comes to testing their own theories and know better than the rest of us what works and what doesn't. This is not the same as trusting a bunch of atheists to tell us about God. It would be hypocritical under the circumstances given above to believe atheism is true,but not to suspect it might be. The real hypocrisy may be otherwise scholarly atheists who have not studied metaphysics or religion and do not understand what they are opposing. .
    – user20253
    Apr 16, 2018 at 17:59
  • I'm no scientist, but I've met a few. The good ones all will tell you not to regard scientific theories as truth. Theories are models of reality. You can ask whether a theory is valid or not (i.e., does it still agree with all the latest observations), But it's more interesting to ask whether the theory is insightful (i.e., did it predict real phenomena that had not previously been observed.) Newton's theory of gravitation, for example, now is known not to completely agree with reality--it is no longer valid--but it revealed many new and useful facts about how the universe works. Apr 16, 2018 at 18:34

3 Answers 3


It is irrational to believe without empirical evidence.

I think this is the crux of the confusion. Even in science, it is not irrational to believe without empirical evidence. Future predictions are common in science and, more or less by definition, they cannot have empirical evidence (having not yet occurred).

As such, scientists tend to believe in things that are consistent with empirical evidence. An established theory is simply one that has been shown to be consistent in a significant number of scenarios over an extended period of time.

Now, as we're talking about God, I would rephrase this first sentence as follows:

It is irrational to believe in something that has never exhibited empirical evidence nor is there any reason to believe it will ever exhibit empirical evidence in the future.

I don't see why you'd need to be a working scientist to agree with this statement. Nor, in fact, do you need to believe in the truth of all scientific theories. What you would need to do is disbelieve theories that contradict all the empirical evidence available to us. That's a somewhat lower bar in my opinion.


You left out the rest:

P3: If scientific theories are valid then supporting evidence should exist that does not require specialized study and experience to understand.

P4: If a scientific theory does not have supporting evidence that a lay person can understand then that theory is probably not relevant to me.

Let's see how this works now.

You might not understand thermodynamics but you can confirm that statements about calories, heating and air conditioning capacity, and insulation all seem correct. Everyone knows that hot food gets cold and ice melts. There are many routine confirmations of these principles.

You might not understand electromagnetic theory, but you can use a radio or microwave oven. You can look at weather radar and a wireless router or cell phone.

You might not understand the speed of light but you can see that speed and distance can be measured with radar or a laser. You can see that GPS works.

You might not understand DNA but you can see that DNA identification does work and that genetic diseases can be identified in utero.

You might not understand metallurgy but you can probably tell the difference between stainless steel, spring steel, and mild steel.

You might not understand force/distance ratios in mechanics but you probably understand using a pulley or shifting gears in a vehicle.

You might not understand aerodynamics but you can see aircraft flying everyday.

You might never have looked at bacteria in a microscope but you probably understand food spoilage.

You might not understand semi-conductors or digital logic but you probably use a computer or cell phone.

You might not understand string theory or know what a top quark is, but these theories probably have no effect on your daily life.


Yes, atheism and theism fall under the same umbrella. It's possible for an atheist to act just like a theist but under a different alias.

The reason why people might blindly accept a certain dogma without doubt, is the universal common instinct for reality*** or truth in the human nature. This instinct is not a instinct that pushes you to know the truth as it may seem(1), but it's an instinct to be aware of the truth(2). To make this clear, if we define this instinct by (1) , therefore the chance for somebody to change his view on some concept will be 50:50 depending on the evidence. But if we to define this instinct by (2) , this will explain why most people choose to stick to and justify their views when their views become threatened (unless you are adopting a view called change-whenever-you-can).

By the way, i'm referring to atheism as stand-alone concept not just the lack of belief, which seems to be the case in your question because a nil can't be in-question.

***William James: "Mankind's common instinct for reality has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism."

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