Do Atheists exist?

Most of my readers wonder why I go on so much about atheism. Most likely, you are one of them. Bear with me while I write my very last post on atheism. Then I am done.

Maybe you fit into one of the following categories?

  1. I have never questioned the existence of God. Why would I?
  2. There’s no proof that God exists, but there is no proof that God does not exist. The only rational position is don’t know.
  3. Who cares? It makes no difference anyway.

I can’t answer #1. If you are happy with your beliefs then may your God bless you. The truth is important to me but I don’t feel any need to change your mind. I am always happy to discuss it with you though 🙂

To you, I quote Steven Weinberg from his essay, A Designer Universe:

One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.

The #2s moved me to post today. As far as I know, no one is claiming to have proof that there are no Gods. We need to get that straight because the discussion usually starts “XXXX has claimed to have 100% proof that God does not exist” where XXXX is a famous atheist like Richard Dawkins or an insignificant one like myself. As far as I can tell, Dawkins has never made that claim. I am fairly sure I haven’t either.

So, goes argument #2, if you have no proof, you must say “I don’t know”.

Every domain has it’s own standard of evidence. Some domains like mathematics or formal logic accept only 100% proof. The legal system makes do with beyond a reasonable doubt. Science is somewhere in between. No one has proven the laws of motion or gravity or thermodynamics or Archimedes’ Principle but – unless we discover something fundamentally new about the world – I will continue to believe that when a body is partially or totally submerged in a fluid, the upthrust on the body equals the weight of displaced fluid. You are welcome to your rationally sound “I don’t know”, just don’t design any ships for me.

I do believe in agnostics. There are plenty of people who have not really thought about it. You might be one of them but I am not. When you do get around to thinking about it , read Bertrand Russell’s Is there a God?

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

My position is Russell’s,

My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true. Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

But why, ask the #3s, should I care? Why is God’s non-existence any more important than Russell’s Celestial Teapot? For an unbeliever, you might say, you care an awful lot about something that does not exist.

I go on about it because, as Dawkins reminds us,

…unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.

Look. I don’t believe that atheists are a great persecuted minority. This is not the great civil-right struggle of the 21st century. I don’t mind that the Boy Scouts of America don’t accept people like me or my children – I think it’s silly, but I don’t expect them to change their policies for my sake. It bothers me a bit that stuff like this happens…but, if we keep our guard up, those people are not yet a threat to democracy.

What Dennett and Dawkins et al. are doing is a little consciousness-raising, that’s all. They (and I) want the #1s to know that there are actually quite a lot of us. They especially want the undeclared atheists – the atheists hiding in closets because they think they are alone in their disbelief. It’ll be easier once we are all wearing our Scarlet Letters.

I leave you with PZ Myers,

You don’t have to be 100% certain to be able to dismiss the rantings of bearded prophets as lacking grounds for concern. We usually develop an intellectual discriminatory filter that allows us to screen out the silly threats from the real ones; religion is a massive perforation in that sensible screen that encourages people to ignore evidence and accept Imaginary Improbabilities as Inarguable Inevitabilities. Rejecting it should be regarded as an important issue of self-defense.

That’s it. I am done.

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Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

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