Open for Debate

I am an atheist

I am an atheist.  That is, I believe that God does not exist.  I don’t make a point of telling people this (except when I’m writing a philosophical piece like this), but when I do tell people this, I get strong, often accusing reactions.  People challenge my moral character (“So you don’t believe in right or wrong?”), my amiability (“I hope you’re not one of those militant atheists?”), and my motives (“Are you trying to undermine my faith?”).  Such reactions are irritating, and occasionally disturbing (why would I want to undermine your faith?), but in some ways they bother me less than the challenges that focus on my reasonableness:

  • “How could you possibly know? You can’t prove a negative, you know.”
  • “Don’t you mean you’re an agnostic? That’s what I
  • “You probably think that only idiots believe.”

Comments like these are evoked (or provoked) by the topic of atheism, but the challenges they raise involve epistemological issues that are quite general.  Outside of the context of religion, I don’t think that many people would endorse the epistemological positions that these remarks presuppose.

Consider the “truism” that you can’t prove a negative.  In non-religious contexts, no one believes this.  Adults deny the existence of Santa Claus all the time, and generally without censure. (Exception: if you tell your kids the truth about the man in red, you’ll be called a bad parent.)  Now it might be argued that because Santa Claus is an impossible being, one can prove that he doesn’t exist.  But to do so, you need to assume some general empirical facts about the world, facts about distances and maximum speeds and the poor aerodynamics of reindeer.  The fact is that genuine proofs – conclusions validly drawn from self-evident premises – don’t exist outside the realm of logic and mathematics.  What we expect in the way of backing for knowledge claims in ordinary life is justification – reasons to believe.  To the extent that these reasons involve sensory experience – that is, things we’ve seen, heard, felt, touched, smelled or tasted – they provide something less than certainty.  But that doesn’t prevent us from claiming to know things like where we live, who the president of the United States is, what color we’ve painted the dining room and so forth.

Once we recognize that proof is an impossible standard, we can see that there’s no in-principle difference between the justification of negative and positive existence claims.  Both require evidence if we claim to know them, and both must be evaluated in the context other of our other rational beliefs.  Consider the matter of whether King Arthur really existed.  According to Jason Urbanus, writing in the January/February issue of Archaeology, this is a “contentious question [that] has divided both scholars and enthusiasts for centuries.”

But Urbanus himself thinks that the Arthur of legend is mythical.  He explains that there is only one historical text – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain — that even mentions a British monarch named “Arthur.”  But that text says nothing about Camelot, a Round Table, or knights thereof, and the book itself was deemed unreliable by Geoffrey’s own contemporaries.  There is, moreover, no archaeological evidence that such a person as Arthur ever existed, even at his reputed birth place, Tintagel Castle.

Now this brings up the notorious question whether “absence of evidence” constitutes “evidence of absence.”  The answer to the question is “sometimes.”   Here again, everything depends on the hypothesis under consideration and the assumptions that form the background of inquiry.  The fact that I cannot see one is excellent evidence, in Massachusetts, that there is no elephant around.  If the animal in question were a fox, or if I lived in Kenya, it would be a different story.  I cannot be sure that there is no elephant, but I can be extremely well justified in believing there isn’t.

But let’s turn to the second challenge.  Why am I so determined to say that God doesn’t exist; why don’t I say instead that God might not exist, or that I don’t know whether God exists?  Why do I insist on being an atheist, rather than an agnostic?  Well, it’s because the question whether God exists has been settled to my satisfaction.  (And why is my satisfaction all that’s necessary?  Because I am the one who is deciding what to believe.)  I claim to know that God doesn’t exist because I have excellent reasons and arguments against his existence, and because none of the arguments that are put forward in favor of his existence are any good.  To say that I’m an agnostic would be to say that I’m undecided, and I’m not.  There are plenty of things that I am agnostic about: whether string theory is true, whether the Game of Thrones spin-offs will be any good, and whether you burn more fat if you exercise before breakfast.  I have no idea about the first thing, a somewhat warranted opinion about the second, and a bit of evidence (courtesy of the New York Times) about the third.  But the existence of God is different.  I am completely confident about that.

This brings us to the third challenge (already broached): who the hell do I think I am?  Better minds than mine have concluded that God does exist – what makes me think my evidence and arguments are better than theirs?  This challenge is a version of what is being called, in the epistemology literature, the problem of peer disagreement.  It goes like this: suppose that you find yourself in a disagreement with another person (an “epistemic peer”)  who is a) just as smart as you are and b) acquainted with all the same evidence and arguments that you are acquainted with.  What should you do if you discover that the two of you disagree about something?  Flying in the face of thousands of pages worth of philosophical disputation, I think the answer to this question is easy.  The answer is: it depends.  (The alert reader will have seen this coming.)  That is, I contend that there is no general answer to this question.  There are certainly cases where the discovery that I disagree with someone who has roughly the same smarts as me and the same evidence that I do ought to make me reconsider my position – those are cases where the best explanation for our disagreement is that one of us has made a mistake, but where there’s no evidence that it’s one of us rather than the other.  But there are other cases where I ought to stand my ground: if, by my calculations, the tip at the restaurant ought to be $12.50, while my colleague (just as smart as me, just as knowledgeable about arithmetic) comes up with the amount of $768.40, I have excellent reason to think that they are the one who is wrong.  It is always, or ought to be, data that someone disagrees with me, but it should also be an open question what explains the data.  Maybe, despite our having roughly the same information, there are a few crucial facts that I have that you don’t.  And then there’s the fact that “intelligence” is pretty context-dependent.  People can be very intelligent and very well-informed, yet still have their blind spots.  For that matter, people can be very intelligent in one domain and total idiots in another.

But I don’t have to think that anyone who disagrees with me in the matter of religion is a total idiot, or even a partial one.  In general, I don’t have ready explanations for the disagreements I have with my theist friends – in one or two cases, I have a hypothesis — but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong to think that I’m right and they’re wrong.  And of course, they think they’re right, and I’m wrong.  So it goes.

In closing, let me just note that, while it’s true that there are lots of people smarter than me who believe in God, it’s also true, probably, that there are lots of people smarter than you who don’t.


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