I am really, really frustrated by the spineless unwillingness of my fellow atheists to just say simply, clearly, and without qualification that god does not exist. Period. End of story. Not worth debating. Drop the mic.
Instead, most are agnostic atheists who have followed the misguided lead of Richard Dawkins. Like him, they feel incessantly compelled to show how reasonable they are by pointing out that “of course scientists cannot say for certain that god does not exist” or “we can only say that god probably does not exist.” Even rabid, angry atheist “firebrand” David Silverman appends his comments with the same expected declaration of reasonableness.
The British Humanist Association did a now famous series of bus ads which said “there’s probably no god” (see here). Organizer Ariane Sherine defended the use of the word “probably” by invoking Dawkins:
There’s another reason I’m keen on the “probably”: it means the slogan is more accurate, as even though there’s no scientific evidence at all for God’s existence, it’s also impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist (or that anything doesn’t). As Richard Dawkins states in The God Delusion, saying “there’s no God” is taking a “faith” position. He writes: “Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist”.
I do understand some of the motivations behind this. First and foremost we atheists over-compensate out of fear of being called dogmatic. And we are cowered into sissy-talk to avoid the criticism that we too rely upon faith in the end. Finally, we are buffaloed into believing that a good scientist must be “open-minded” (agnostic) about everything.
Look, whenever you need to judge the reasonableness of any statement regarding god, just substitute “Easter Bunny.” It is neither dogmatic nor an expression of faith to state with absolute certainty that the Easter Bunny does not exist. You are not a bad scientist if you dismiss the Easter Bunny hypothesis out of hand. Quite the opposite, a good scientist is not a gullible scientist and good science does not require the suspension of rational thinking. A good scientist does in fact reject fundamentally implausible propositions out of hand. A good scientist does not acknowledge any possibility that perpetual motion machines might exist or that one might be able to chemically change lead into gold or that god might exist.
Although Dawkins has done a huge amount of good, this is one place where his tremendous influence has greatly undermined the cause not only of atheists but of rational thought. It does not show reasonableness to entertain unreasonable ideas and it is not enlightened to give any measure of credulity to absurd propositions.
This idea that “we cannot know anything with absolute certainty” may make for a stimulating discussion in a Philosophy 101 class, but science is built upon the foundational bedrock that we can indeed know the cosmos with certainty. Might we actually be hooked up to The Matrix being fed a simulated reality while we lie in suspended animation in a huge alien complex? Maybe, and that’s actually more plausible than granting any shred of doubt as to whether god exists. But we do not feel coerced into acknowledging that the idea we are all sleeping in The Matrix is a real possibility. Maybe when The Matrix becomes our next religious mass delusion, Richard Dawkins will feel compelled to point out that he cannot be certain it is not true.
Many argue that expressing this uncertainty is merely intellectual honesty. However it is not insignificant that no one goes to such great lengths to append this caveat to other absurd propositions. I have never heard anyone take pains to point out that “of course we cannot be certain that suicide bombers will not be greeted by 77 virgins.” We apply this only to our own Christian god proposition. And that is because this is not a principled expression of general intellectual integrity. This is a matter of showing a particular undeserved deference to our own preferred delusion. Our exceptional application of this disclaimer gives it disproportionate weight and distinction.
This is not just an academic nitpick. Repeating the meaningless truism that we cannot know anything with certainty in the context of our belief in god is highly counterproductive. When you say it, most listeners only hear “even you atheists have doubt,” and “even Richard Dawkins acknowledges that we cannot know for sure that god does not exist,” and “even David Silverman admits that we could be right.” Christians turn this language back against us with great success. Most believers or even impressionable fence-sitters are not impressed by Richard Dawkins philosophical honesty. They’re more like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber with Richard Dawkins playing the role of Mary Swanson.
Lloyd Christmas: What are the chances of a guy like you and a girl like me? One in a thousand?
Mary Swanson: Um, more like one in a million.
Lloyd Christmas: “So you’re telling there’s a chance then! YAAAY!!”
Mary should have simply said “no chance whatsoever – not gonna happen!” So come on atheists, stop being namby-pamby agnostics already. We can say with absolute certainty that pigs cannot fly and we can say with equal certainty that god does not exist. We can say this because there has never been any evidentiary proof of god when we should expect to see some, and there is no logical inference anyone can make based upon what we do observe to suggest he might exist in the way we might postulate a form of life on a distant planet or an evolutionary descendent in our far future.
I am an Absolute Atheist and proud of it. Does that make me arrogant? Well if it is arrogant to claim certainty that the Easter Bunny does not exist, call me arrogant. The day any legitimate evidence of an Easter Bunny is credibly reported, I’ll change my mind. Wait, I take that back. Even that qualification imparts way too much undeserved legitimacy to the beliefs of the Church of the Holy Easter Bunny.
I appreciate your position here, but I also think it depends on how one is defining god. For example, I can easily equate the Christian god with the Easter Bunny. In fact, every god I have ever heard of I can go ahead and lump them in as well. Easy. I know they are no more real than a magical bunny, and I suspect most atheists would agree with me. Humans don’t know anything about god, so how could any of it be right? It is true that it isn’t stated plainly enough, and perhaps that would bring more satisfaction.
The uncertainty for me starts with the thought that if all those gods are imaginary, then what is god anyway? It leaves god as an undefined thing. At what point do we label something god? I don’t know. Maybe never. Maybe as our definitions disappear the word itself disappears. Or maybe god does exist, but it holds no meaning to anyone (if even to itself). Maybe someday science will redefine god into something I can accept. Do I doubt it? Yes. Can I rule it out absolutely? No. I have a hard time claiming absolute disbelief in something I cannot even define, so that is where I find the agnostic part of my atheism.
Is this a comfort to theists? Well, no. I’m a horrible atheist any way you look at it. But maybe it will be a comfort for you 🙂
LAD, to say “Maybe someday science will redefine god into something I can accept” is simply to be willing to redefine god into anything that might exist. That is circular logic because god cannot be redefined however we choose. Even our most generic definition of god has specific measurable properties. God is not a banana. God is not love. God is not the universe. God is an intelligent entity that has and can when it chooses impact our lives. Even our most nebulous definition still entails claims and attributes that we can test and validate against reality.
You say to me “there is a monster under my bed.” A monster is not just anything. A monster is a creature that can if it chooses give you bad dreams or pull you under. I do more than sufficient research to demonstrate that there is nothing your bed capable of such action and show that none of your stories of the monster prove to be true.
It would then be ridiculous for anyone to hold out any possibility whatsoever, no matter how infinitesimally small that a monster actually exists under your bed. The only rational conclusion would be that you are simply delusional, period. It would not be reasonable to continue to rationalize that maybe someday science will redefine the monster under the bed as something we can accept.
In fairness, that was just one thing I listed as example of the list of questions one might ask that leads us to wonder how we define god. I don’t believe it. And we could indeed argue about the rules of defining god, and only atheists would do that. Who cares? But look, let’s pick our battles-because we agree. My position is that I am certain that no god introduced to me so far could possibly exist, and that I sincerely doubt any future concept of god brought to me will exist, either. I believe that is clear enough. It’s just as offensive to theists, I assure you…. and I think you and I both know what I mean when I say “sincerely doubt.”
Is it the extra asshole emphasis you are looking for? I enjoy co-existing nicely with others (not everyone’s cup of tea, I know) so I don’t want to say, “only a delusional fool would believe any form of god could possibly exist!” If I say, “and I know no future concept exists” would that feel better? Maybe that’s true, and maybe I’m just a diehard romantic for the unknown. I used to be a theist, you know, so the concept of not knowing things is still new and exciting! I used to know everything, after all. Very boring.
So maybe I don’t wish to make eternal stances on ideas that haven’t even been brought to the table yet. Maybe I want to wonder about things a little longer and play nice with others. It allows me to be far more influential. And is it really that big of a deal? I bet you could find it in your heart to live with that 🙂
I admit that I frequently find myself acknowledging that I do not know that there is no god. I do this, not to concede that I see this as being a likelihood in any sense, but to be fair about my position: I do not em that there is no god, but likewise, you don’t know that there is one.
I think you have a valid point though. Perhaps it is unfair that we feel pressed to be ‘fair’ about this in our arguing. No I do not know that there are no magical garden fairies in my yard, but I can’t see anyone ever pressing me to acknowledge that.
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Jon, your point is an extremely important and insightful addition to this discussion. We all hear an almost unlimited number of ridiculous assertions all the time. We do not feel compelled or coerced into explicitly proclaiming that “of course I cannot say for certain that it is not true” to each one of those. We ONLY do this for the god assertion. This alone makes it quite different from just some general philosophical caveat. The mere fact that we point it out with regard to god and not all those other things conveys a particularly powerful and totally undeserved level of doubt in the certainty that god does not actually exist. Thanks so much for making this point!
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I read this column in the NYC Atheists newsletter. I didn’t realize it was fanned by Dawkins, but I’ve been arguing that agnostic atheism makes no sense, either. You’re not arguing for absolute atheism, I think, but gnostic atheism.
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Hey thanks for that comment. Yes, it’s totally fair to refer to it as gnostic atheism. I mostly use the term absolute because it feels fresher and less dated. Also, it directly rejects the current commonly levelled criticism of being “absolutist” if one claims that god does not exist.
Yes, an excellent column – good points, essential, and winning on all counts. Agnosticism- a position that there’s an equal chance to there being no “divinity” that tomorrow we wake up to find “God” on all our TV channels, directing us to all go down to the river and stand in line.
50/50 as to both chances, or something like that, as Dawkins so bizarrely postulates. How much more evidence does he need that it ain’t gonna happen?