Just what does it mean to be an atheist?  Richard Dawkins proposed a sliding scale of theistic probability:

  1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: "I do not believe, I know."
  2. De Facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. "I don't know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there."
  3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. "I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God."
  4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent.  "God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable."
  5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. "I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be skeptical."
  6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. "I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."
  7. Strong atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one."

        I, like Dawkins, would describe myself as a 6.9 on this scale.  Why am I not a 7?  Because evidence can always change a thinking person's mind.  There is no evidence for God, and there is no way to falsify the proposition that such a thing exists.  But unfalsifiability is not the test of a good argument.  It is the hallmark of a conspicuously weak argument.  The religious apologist's argumentum ad ignorantiam is wearisome.  It is not upon the atheist to disprove a supernatural claim.  The burden of proof rests with those who assert the extraordinary claim that there is a deity.  The fact that we can not disprove that the universe was set in motion by delicious, extra-dimensional, cream-filled, sapient chocolate cupcakes of ineffable power and wisdom does not prove the proposition.   

        I am willing to entertain the possibility that gods exist inasmuch as I entertain the possibility that fairies exist, which is to say that I think it highly improbable.  However, if overwhelming, objectively-verifiable scientific evidence were to start pouring in for gods or fairies, I would revise my opinion.  I am not 100% certain there is no deity, but then I am not 100% certain that I see the same color of blue as others do.  I am not a global skeptic however.  100% certainty is not necessary to be sufficiently certain about some propositions. Global skeptics will dismiss notions of real or true because we can not be 100% certain that what we perceive as reality is indeed an accurate representation of what is actually there in the universe.  But then, universal skepticism is absolutely useless; it is anathema to the inquisitive mind, for if we dismiss any notion of true or real, then we dismiss the whole epistemological enterprise. A position of global skepticism might make it easier to accommodate the fatuous claims of cultural or epistemological relativism, but this is not an "anything goes" world. Some things can be sufficiently known. Knowledge can often mean the difference between life and death, e.g., giving a sick child life-saving antibiotics instead of blood-letting, administering leeches, or offering propitiations to a character from mythology. As for the God hypothesis, Stenger may have been right when he said that absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence when the evidence should be there but is not.

             And even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, a deistic god, how would we get from that to the petty, vindictive, all-too-human theistic gods we have invented in our brief history on this planet?  As for Christ, I find the story decidedly unoriginal, perhaps even consciously modeled on Socrates.

         I believe Hitchens once tried to get the term "anti-theist" into currency to distinguish himself from atheists who wished there were a god but just couldn't see any reason to believe in such a thing. Hitchens went one step further, maintaining that not only is there no evidence for a god, neither would he wish there to be one. The idea of living in a divine police state, an Orwellian world where one could be punished for "thought crime," did not appeal to him. I think it fair to say that he had the Judeo-Christian god in mind, and I sympathized with him.

         "[Religious belief] is a totalitarian belief.  It is the wish to be a slave.  It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you - who must, indeed, subject you - to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life - I say, of your life - before you're born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you're dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true?  Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate?  I've been to North Korea.  It has a dead man as its president, Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party and head of the army. He's not head of the state.  That office belongs to his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. It's a necrocracy, a thanatocracy.  It's one short of a trinity I might add.  The son is the reincarnation of the father.  It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved.  But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea!"  (Christopher Hitchens)

         We know so little about the universe still.  But I do not exalt in the mysterious, rather I see new areas to explore.  We may eventually find the Grand Unified Theorem, or we may find that the horizon is ever-receding.  Professor Hawking suggested in "A Brief History of Time" that for the moment, though we have several theories to explain phenomena at different levels, we may still be optimistic yet that we will arrive at a grand theorem.  Regardless, it can not be denied that we have made an astonishing amount of progress in science in the past few hundred years.  I submit that engaging our cognitive faculties in an honest attempt to understand our universe is preferable to ceding our reason to the authority of others or a collection of Stone Age myths.

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Comment by Idaho Spud on July 6, 2012 at 1:32pm

The first atheist book I read was The God Delusion, and it was a huge factor in why I became a firm atheist.  That's why it surprised me to hear Dawkins say in that book that "I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 --"  

I'm not just leaning towards 7, I'm almost there at 6.99999999999999999999999999 -- but practically speaking, I live my life as if I were a 7.

Comment by Steph S. on July 5, 2012 at 10:22pm
I suppose I'm a 7 - great blog!
Comment by James Yount on July 4, 2012 at 3:15pm

Yes, I find the Deist much more believable than any of the so called personal gods. Benjamin Franklin was once asked his opinion on god. He replied that it was the same opinion he had on nature. When inquired for clarification he said that neither could be personal.  That is the only reason I'm a 6. There exists, for me, a possibility that there is some unseen creative force that initiated this whole petri dish. Maybe the clockmaker god is true. One that set the gears in motion then allowed the whole thing to run on its own from that point, idk. It really makes no difference in how I live my life, because either there is no god or god takes no interest in our affairs. 

I like Marcus Aurelius' philosophy on the subject, "Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 4, 2012 at 12:52pm

Wyatt...very well thought out and expressed.  I guess I'm a 7 -- no evidence whatsoever, and there's been plenty of time for it to be found.  I beling to the spaghetti-monster-teacup school of thought: we can argue for the (non)existence of anything we can think up, but without evidence, we're just blowing smoke.

Dispassionate Creator God is so much more palatable that the gods people have created in their own image.  I cannot fathom how one can believe in both.

 

Comment by Anthony Jones on July 3, 2012 at 8:36pm
Brilliant
Comment by Wyatt on July 2, 2012 at 9:13pm
I have found that Dawkins' "The God Delusion" covers all of the salient points on this particular theme. It's quite comprehensive. Hitchens' "God is Not Great" is a wildly entertaining read. Harris' book is one long appeal to reason. They're all good books. I am currently working my way through Dawkins' books on science. He is first and foremost a scientist, and he has done a lot to contribute to public understanding. I am also working through Hawking, Penrose, and Greene. I have a love for science in general, and I would be rather happy if humanity would set aside various conflicting stone age myths and concentrate on the task of saving this "pale blue dot" that we call our home. Perhaps we may one day yet travel to the stars, but we have to survive our petty grievances to get there.
Comment by James Yount on July 2, 2012 at 8:46pm

When I was religious, I started as a Christian and then leaned more towards Judaism. Christianity judges people on their thoughts, ie if you've lusted in your heart, you are guilty of adultery....... Judaism says that you're not guilty of a crime/sin until you've acted upon it. That was one of the reasons I started to lean towards Judaism, before I gave the whole thing up do to scriptural conflicts and unjustifiable acts by the bible god (ie genocide).  That being said, I consider myself a de facto atheist like Dawkins, or an agnostic atheist as it has been defined elsewhere. Thank you for the blog. I've heard Dawkins on this subject, but it's nice to have it laid out so nicely.

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