Let’s talk about not believing in God.
Atheists often frame their position as a simple lack of a belief; they don’t take the active, affirmative, assertive position that theists do, don’t make any direct claim, and simply don’t hold the positive position that “God exists”.
I’ve written before about why the extent to which some atheists take this feels like an unnecessary cop-out.
Atheists should totally be making positive claims. Part of the reason why many are reluctant to do so, is because of an implicit idea that “belief” is a binary thing, something you either have or you don’t.
Christians believe the claim that “God exists”, and atheists don’t. Some atheists might conversely believe the claim “God does not exist”, but many deny holding any such position, and define their own godlessness as a kind of belieflessness. It’s not that they don’t believe in anything – we often have to remind people of our strongly held convictions in favour of love, truth, beauty, cheesecake, and the basic goodness of humanity – but when it comes to God, we simply don’t buy it, and are otherwise keeping out of the argument.
I don’t think this holds up. I think that the usual ways we describe belief are necessarily short-hand for a more complex set of ideas, and that we can afford to start being clearer in our positive declarations.
As an analogue, let’s say I’ve flipped a coin but not yet revealed the result. Do you “believe” that it’s landed on heads?
Assuming you have no improbable insider knowledge about the coin or my tossing abilities (steady), you haven’t a clue which way it’s landed. So, I guess you “lack the belief” that it’s landed heads. And you lack the equivalent belief that it’s fallen on tails. It’s not that you disbelieve either option – they’re both possible, and wouldn’t be especially surprising.
Now let’s say I’ve rolled a fair six-sided die, and am also temporarily hiding the results. What beliefs do you have about the number that’s showing? Presumably you lack each individual belief in its landing on any given number – but it seems like this is true in a different way from the coin-toss. In that first case, if you’d arbitrarily picked one option to guess at, it would’ve been no big deal whether you’d been right or wrong. With the die, if you randomly picked the right one, you’d be a little more impressed. On seeing what number it landed on, you’ve now adopted one particular belief you formerly lacked, just like with the coin – and yet this feels like a bigger deal.
Let’s step it up again. I’ve got a lottery ticket here for last night’s £7,000,000 jackpot. It’s either a winner or a loser, but I’m not telling you any of the numbers on it. Clearly you’d expect some evidence if I wanted to convince you it’s a winning ticket. But do you simply “lack the belief” that I’ve won the lottery, just like you “lacked the belief” that my coin had landed on heads (or tails)? Or are you actually pretty sure I haven’t won?
I’d argue that you’re easily justified in believing I’ve not become a millionaire overnight. The evidence in favour of the idea is so slight, and the odds against it so great, that it seems like a hypothesis worth ignoring. (Even before you consider the odds that I’m lying about having a ticket in the first place. Which I am.)
Now, you might change your mind later, when I invite you round for tea and diamonds in my new gold house, but for now, you’re safe assuming that I haven’t won the lottery. It’s not dogmatic to work with that assumption; it doesn’t imply you’re unwilling to be persuaded by evidence. But come on, clearly I haven’t won the lottery. Frankly, you should be quite content telling me “James, you have not won the lottery”. We’d all understand what you meant. If you can’t make that positive assertion now, then I don’t know when declaring anything to be true is ever going to be possible.
It may seem as if it’s incompatible with acknowledging the possibility that you might be wrong – this possibility can be calculated precisely, after all. But the fact is, we don’t append the phrase “to a reasonably high degree of probability, barring the arrival of any further evidence” to the end of every other sentence we utter. When we have conversations with each other, there’s generally a subtext of “I am not absolutely and immutably 100% certain that this is the case, it is simply the most appropriate conclusion I am able to draw and it seems strongly likely, but I will be willing to reconsider if there’s a good reason why I should do so” to most of what we’re saying.
I don’t “believe” that any given flipped coin has landed on heads or tails. But I can put a probability of 50% on either outcome, which says something more useful than just “I lack belief in any direction”.
With a six-sided die, the probability is 1/6 each way. Is it fair to say “I believe it hasn’t landed on 6”, since I believe the odds are 5/6 against that outcome? Probably not, but I don’t think it matters. If you understand the numbers I’ve placed on each possible outcome, you understand what I believe.
I don’t believe an asteroid is going to crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. Further, I believe an asteroid will not crash into the Earth tomorrow and wipe out humanity. I believe this more strongly then any of the other examples so far. How strongly? It’s hard to put an exact number on it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong somewhere on the scale of increasingly improbable things. In this case, just saying “it’s not going to happen” is a useful short-hand way to get my point across, without going into a lengthy spiel about percentages and Bayesian priors. It gets the gist of my position across in a manner I think most of my audience will understand.
There is no God.
Does that mean I think God’s existence is less probable than, say, flipping a coin and getting ten heads in a row? Would I be more surprised to meet Jesus after I die than to roll a string of double-sixes throughout an entire game of Monopoly? Whether or not I have an exact numerical value for my god-belief, these are the terms we should be thinking in. Not that there’s simply a thing called belief which some people possess and I lack and that’s the end of it.
So can we agree that a flat denial of God’s existence is not dogmatic and unfounded now, please? Can we accept all the implied background understanding that goes along with other conversations about the things we believe? Can we maintain useful phrases like “does not exist” without burying them under a mound of tentative qualifications each and every time, when we all know damn well that Carl Sagan’s garage is a dragon-free zone?
And could we stop acting as if being sure you’re right about certain things makes you an inflexible ideological bad guy, regardless of how reasonable it is to be strongly convinced of your position?
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