Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Burden Is Heavy, But It’s Not Mine To Bear

So says the atheist, and, indeed, so says the theist. There is a God; there is no
God. Frequently the argument—of who needs to provide the proof—ends with both parties feeling victorious (at least in the sense that their argument was superior). This odd state is possible, I think, partly because of the subtleties of the argument involved and partly because both parties are, in fact, correct. I will endeavour to unravel some of the said subtleties and explain my point of view as a late-starter atheist (including disbelievers’ obsession with the fantastical; from ceramics in space, to colourful and unseeable horned horses, to carbohydrated terrors of the sky—I’ll curb my desire to wittily describe leprechauns and fairies, lest I lose you to sub-par humour).

Let me forge ahead instead and make it difficult for myself by admitting that it takes faith to believe that there is no God, and any person who makes such a claim must be able to substantiate the position. One of the little tricks that atheists perform is to argue that we, in fact, do not make a positive assertion of belief. Atheism is, by definition, the disbelief—the lack of belief—in a God or Gods. The theist makes the claim; they should provide the proof. This is a perfectly valid argument—as I will demonstrate—but atheism rejects all claims of Gods. No matter how crafty I try to be, I cannot satisfactorily convince myself there is a noteworthy difference between disbelieving all Gods and believing there is no God. Trying to establish a difference is to accept the unpopular condition of being a fence-sitter. Why pussyfoot around what you believe in?

I’ll don an everyday atheist’s hat and argue that there are two reasons why we believe that there is not a prime mover: the obvious first is the lack of scientific evidence and the second is the growing scientific understanding of our universe, particularly the insights into our origin (both cosmological and anthropological). However, to accept these as valid reasons we require faith in the scientific method (by which we try to understand everything) and—perhaps more importantly—we require faith in the scientific community (whom we trust to interpret our reality using science that is often beyond the comprehension of the layman—to which I must ascribe myself). A sceptic must question everything and doubting science is essential, but I am inclined to give it the benefit.

It is reasonable—even effortless—to have faith in the scientific method because it has endured an extended baptism of fire, and the model itself is reviewed and improved to be even more infallible and unbiased; it remains our best way to understand our reality and to determine what is likely to be true or false. Consider for a moment what a gargantuan—if not futile—task it will be to justify not trusting the scientific method. Likewise, one does not lose any sleep over investing trust in the scientific community because scientists are by nature fiercely competitive and submit to brutal peer-review. The process and people might be fallible on occasion, but one is again confident that errors and biases are detected and addressed. The exception proves the rule comes to mind.

A fallacy commonly committed is to draw a parallel—generously phrased—between an atheist and theist’s faith. It takes more faith to be an atheist is an oft-used phrasing. I personally do not find degrees of faith particularly useful. Faith is the complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Believers completely trust in their God; disbelievers completely trust in science. How can one have degrees of complete trust? It’s more pragmatic to evaluate the reasons why you have faith in someone or something. Are they good reasons or are they bad reasons? That is what is important, surely? I am satisfied that my faith in science is justified because my reasons are thought through and make sense. I accept as confirmation the fact that the brilliant minds of our time—almost uniformity—embrace and partake in the wonders of science. Let us not pretend that the two faiths are on equal footing.

There is hardly a more studied and debated mystery than how we came to be. Science offers an open invitation to God, but he has failed to show-face. Why God would choose to excel at Hide and Seek is worth contemplating; either he’s a bit of a bastard, or there is only one player in the game. What we do know is that the gaps are closing and God would have to pull out all the stops to remain undiscovered. The conclusion of scientists—again almost uniformly—is that the existence of a God—especially an intervening one—is unlikely to the point of being irrelevant. It is hoping to win the lottery ten times in a row.

You see, atheists have already met their burden of proof. Yet theists persist with the common defence that we cannot disprove God. No, we can’t. Do we need to? No. Absolute truth must be discarded as useless in the world we live in, lest we start babbling that nothing can truly be known. Practically, if something is overwhelmingly unlikely, it is false (I’m not willing to build my life around the hope to win the lottery). You can bet on two things, when you hear this weak rebuttal. Firstly, the theist did not get the point and secondly, the atheist does not need to bear the burden of proof.

Unlike the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, a great many theists do not recognise the absurdity of their claim. The irony is that they have no trouble calling out rival faiths on their absurdities. Nonetheless, it is difficult to get this point across and that is why atheists resort to the fantastical. It is not to belittle, to offend or to annoy the theist—okay, sometimes to annoy—but rather to make them question what they might take for granted. It is extraordinary to claim that there is a personal God, but the theist goes even beyond this, and fearlessly steps over the line. They continue to insist that they hold the default position and that it must—not only—be respected, but adopted by other people. They believe this to the point that acts of prejudice and cruelty are often justified, if not celebrated. It is this arrogance that motivates atheists to speak out.

Given the knowledge we have gained, the modern theist’s God is no different from ancient Thor, no more compelling than Bigfoot and no more believable than a teacup orbiting the sun. The atheist’s argument—that theists need to prove their claims—is perhaps best communicated through the silly discourse between my imaginary friends, Christopher and Richard:

“There’s a unicorn in this box,” says Richard. “It has changed my life.”

“Really!?” says Christopher, looking around for hidden cameras. “Show me.”

“You can’t see it, it’s invisible.”

“Oh. How do you know it’s there?” Christopher asks tentatively.

“It talks to me.”

“Okay…” Christopher, now a little scared, can’t resist asking, “What does it say?”

“That it is pink and that it loves me and that I must worship it,” Richard says with a straight face.

“Err. What evidence do you have to know that this is true? It seems, well, a bit improbable, a bit crazy,” Christopher says stupefied. “You must be under a misapprehension. Perhaps you’ve been in the sun for too long?”

“You don’t believe me!?”

“Why should I!? I can’t see it. I can’t hear it. It doesn’t look like you can prove it, and your testimony is, quite frankly, questionable.”

“Well, you can’t disprove it,” Richard says dismissively.

Let me regurgitate in the hope that all nutrients are digested. I hope it goes down better the second time around, if only because it’s shorter. Atheists have a burden of proof, but it has already been met. This has nothing to do with theists’ responsibility to justify their beliefs that are contradictory to reality and frequently cause harm. *Gulp* Yum.

I’ll conclude with this thought: The theist’s most compelling evidence is the subjective experience of peace and happiness—hardly exclusive to any one faith. I am relieved that I do not have to carry that heavy a burden.

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