How important to atheism is the difference between absolute confidence and a fragment of uncertainty?
How important is the difference between the statement, “I think some gods are hypothetically possible, but I think they’re wildly implausible and there’s no good reason to think they exist, and unless I see some better evidence I’m going to conclude that they don’t exist”… and the statement, “I am 100% convinced that there is no God or gods”?
As regular readers know, I’ve been doing an Atheist Meme of the Day project on Facebook. (BTW, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!) Yesterday I posted the following meme:
We can acknowledge that something is hypothetically possible, and still reject it in any practical sense if it’s implausible, unsupported by any good evidence, and inconsistent with what we know about the world. Including God or the supernatural.
And it sparked a debate with an atheist who insisted that no god was even hypothetically possible, and that she was 100% certain of the non-existence of any god. A position I found myself opposing almost as passionately and stubbornly as I oppose religious beliefs.
Why do I think this difference is important? Why do I think it’s important for atheists to acknowledge that — as wildly implausible as it is, as utterly unsupported as it is by any good evidence, as thoroughly inconsistent as it is with everything we know about how the world works — at least some God hypotheses are hypothetically possible? Is there any practical difference between being 99.9999% sure that there is no God… and being 100% sure?
I think there is.
For one thing: When atheists claim they can be 100% sure God does not exist, it gives theists — especially progressive and moderate theists — a big piece of ammunition. “See!” they can say. “Atheists are just as dogmatic as hard-core believers! They claim to have 100% certainty about something we can never be certain about! Atheism is just as much an article of faith as religion!”
More importantly: I think “We can’t be 100% sure that there is no God, but we can be sure enough” is a much, much stronger argument than “I am 100% sure that there is no God.”
“We can’t be 100% sure, but we can be sure enough” puts the God hypotheses squarely into the category of any other hypothesis that’s theoretically possible but wildly implausible. It removes the question of God’s existence or lack thereof from a simple matter of opinion or faith, and projects it into the realm of real-world hypotheses: hypotheses that are always provisional, always subject to change if new evidence appears, but that we’re nevertheless willing to accept if the evidence supports them — and willing to reject if the evidence doesn’t.
In other words: It nudges believers into seeing their belief as just one more hypothesis about the world… one that, when you look carefully, isn’t very likely. It lifts the ridiculous burden of proving that atheism is 100% definitely right from atheists… and puts the burden of showing why religious belief is probably right onto believers. It pushes religious belief out of the lofty realm of “You can’t prove this, you shouldn’t expect to prove this, this is special and beyond our powers to comprehend, that’s why we need faith”… and into the down-to-earth realm of “This is a claim about how the world works and why it is the way it is — what reasons do we have to think it’s probably true?”
A realm where it doesn’t stand a chance.
And that is hugely powerful. Much, much more powerful than expressing atheism as simply one more opinion in a sea of opinions. The more we can get people to see religion as simply another hypothesis about the world, the more rapidly it’s going to dwindle.
Finally — and maybe most importantly of all –
I think it’s true.
I think it’s true that we can’t be 100% absolutely certain that there is no God.
Yes, there are some specific God hypotheses that are logically contradictory, and therefore impossible. (I’d argue that the all- knowing, all-powerful, all-good God who nonetheless causes great suffering and permits evil to flourish is one of them.) But many religious beliefs are textbook cases of unfalsifiable hypotheses: hypotheses that can’t be proven or disproven one way or the other. Invisible visions, inaudible voices, intangible beings, a final proof that happens after people die… all of that adds up to a big fat set of moving goalposts, beliefs that we have no evidence for but that, by their very nature, can’t be disproven with absolute certainty.
And yes, I agree that, in any useful or interesting or important sense, the possiblity that God might exist is so remote as to be… well, useless and uninteresting and unimportant. In any practical sense, I feel entirely confident in rejecting religious belief. This debate about whether atheism is 99.9999% probably true or 100% definitely true is entirely theoretical. But sometimes theory matters. And given the 99.9999% probability that we’re right, I don’t see any reason to insist on a 100% theoretical certainty that we can’t have.
I mean, it is hypothetically possible that there is a God who communicates through imprecise prophets and will punish or reward us in an invisible world after we die based on how well we followed his vague, contradictory instructions. It is hypothetically possible that the fossil record was placed there by the Devil to tempt us (or by God to test our faith). It is hypothetically possible that gravity is caused by the Flying Spaghetti Monster holding us down with His invisible noodly appendages. It is hypothetically possible that we’re living in the Matrix, and everything we experience is a maliciously induced hallucination. We have absolutely no reason to think any of that is the case… but we can’t disprove it with absolute 100% certainty. That’s true.
And I care about what’s true.
The whole reason I became an atheist is that I care about what’s true. The whole reason I became an atheist is that I think reality trumps everything. Reality, by definition, is far more important than any of our opinions about it. And it’s a lot more interesting to boot. I became an atheist because I cared about reality, more than I cared about being comforted by my spiritual beliefs… or about being right.
I became an atheist because I care about what’s true.
And if we can be models for caring about what’s true more than we care about absolute certainty that our opinion is right, then I think we’re far more likely to make atheism a force to be reckoned with.