Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Atheism, conviction and certainty

A theme that appears with some regularity is the charge that atheists are absolutely certain there is no god. I suppose there are a few atheists who really are absolutely certain there is no god, but I haven't met a single one... and I know a lot of atheists. The hardest, most "militant" atheists I know (and I'm one of them) explicitly and vociferously disclaim certainty. I'm not certain even about the conceptions of God that are logically impossible or obviously contradicted by experience: my deduction might be faulty; my experiences might be hallucinatory.

I am however convinced that there's no god, at least according to the usual notions of god, the "invisible man in the sky" sorts of conceptions that billions of people believe. I'm convinced in precisely the same sense that I'm convinced that humans and apes (and humans and bananas) evolved from a common ancestor. I'm convinced in precisely the same sense that I'm convinced the universe is about 15 billion years old, that things (near the surface of the Earth) fall when you drop them, that airplanes can indeed fly. I'm convinced: I'm persuaded by the evidence I have and the arguments I've heard that no god exists. Give me more evidence or different arguments, and I might change my mind. I don't really expect additional evidence or arguments to change my mind — I've been doing this whole atheism thing for a long time — but I've been surprised before and I'm sure I'll be surprised again.

Not just theists and agnostics but also other atheists have argued with me that we cannot and should not say we are convinced, that we know there is no god, because we cannot be absolutely certain there is no god. But I'm puzzled* by this position: in no other endeavor**, not even mathematics, is absolute certainty a prerequisite for a legitimate claim of knowledge. Am I convinced that Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity are true? Yes. Am I absolutely certain that no other theory will come along to supplant them as Relativity supplanted Newtonian Mechanics. Of course not. So what's so special about god that we need absolute certainty to claim the knowledge that no god exists?

*I'm not really puzzled, I'm just trying to be nice. Don't worry: it won't last.
**Well, maybe philosophy, but philosophers are just bullshit artists slightly more sophisticated than theologians.

(The flip side of this fallacy is the theists' claim that they cannot supply atheists' demands for absolute certainty about claims of a god's existence or properties. We do not demand absolute certainty. We'd like to see a case made beyond a reasonable doubt, but at this point I'd settle for probable cause or even reasonable suspicion.)

If you personally are not convinced that no god exists, then you're not convinced. I'm happy to discuss the issue with you in a friendly way. But what irks me is the argument (unless you're a big-ess Skeptic or epistemic nihilist who believes we can't know anything) that just because I am convinced that no god exists it is necessarily the case that I am being in some sense dogmatic or committing some grave epistemic error. It might happen to be the case that I am indeed dogmatic, but you have to look at the details of my actual position to discover that: you cannot tell that I am being dogmatic just because I'm an atheist.

Part of the problem is, of course, that theologians and apologists have been trying to obfuscate the issue, mostly arguing (when you cut through the bullshit) that the existence or nonexistence of god is not something that can be scientifically known. OK, ha ha, you got me: I admit that I don't know that a god whose existence or nonexistence cannot be scientifically known does not actually exist. But so what? If you have some other means of knowing whether or not such a god exists, please clue me in. And I do mean knowing; simply choosing to believe one way or another is not knowledge. If there's no way at all of actually knowing, then who cares? I just don't care that a god might be hiding behind my couch, or that invisible fairies are pushing everything towards the center of the Earth.

The problem is that every day I read this or that atrocity against human well-being and happiness — atrocities that shock my conscience to the core — being not just perpetrated but proudly perpetrated by people in name of their god. It's not just the "newsworthy" atrocities — acid in a young girl's face, the murder of an abortion doctor, the rape of a child — it's the systematic and persistent efforts of so many religious people to marginalize, oppress and exploit some large segment of the population: heretics, foreigners, homosexuals, and of course women.

All of this would be irrelevant if it were true that a god actually existed. The truth is the truth; nuclear physics is still true even if it means we can incinerate tens of thousands in a heartbeat; it's still true even if we annihilate the entire terrestrial biosphere in a nuclear holocaust.

But it's not true. There is no god. We're on our own, a microscopic speck of life in an indifferent universe that cares nothing for our happiness or our survival. Bullshit in the service of good is still bullshit; the defense of bullshit in the service of good equally defends that bullshit in the service of evil.

I'm an atheist: I'm not buying the bullshit. If you want to buy the bullshit, well, that's your problem, not mine. And fuck you! if you demand that I buy the bullshit just so you don't feel bad about your reliance on infantile fantasies.

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