That on both sides

Here it is again, the fake symmetry. Let’s split the difference! You don’t believe in god, I do believe in god, it’s basically the same thing only one is no and the other is yes. Right? Right? Both are just guesses. Both are just a hunch. Both are a toss-up either way. Both are equally reasonable and equally unreasonable. Right? Right? Right? Great, let’s go have a beer.

This time it’s Francis Spufford, writing in August 2012, via the latest Jesus and Mo.

Spufford’s Dear Atheists:

Allow me to annoy you with the prospect of mutual respect between believers and atheists. The basis for it would be simple: that on both sides, we hold to positions for which by definition there cannot be any evidence. We believe there is a God. You believe there isn’t one. Meanwhile, nobody knows, nobody can know, whether He exists or not, it not being a matter susceptible to proof or disproof.

No. No no no no no no no no.

The fact that something is not susceptible to proof or disproof does not mean it is unknowable. I know some things I did yesterday, which are not susceptible to proof or disproof. I know some thoughts I had today, which are not susceptible to proof or disproof. Multiply those by infinity and you have a tiny fraction of the things that are knowable without being susceptible to proof or disproof.

Notice the jump Spufford makes, from “for which by definition there cannot be any evidence” to “it not being a matter susceptible to proof or disproof.” Evidence is not the same thing as proof.

There is a lot of evidence that there is not a god of the kind described in normal monotheistic holy books and sermons. There is precious little (if any) evidence that there is such a god.

It’s true that nobody knows for certain that a god doesn’t exist, just as nobody knows for certain that we’re not just part of a vast computer simulation run by mice. But knowing for certain isn’t the real issue. The real issue is what we have better reasons to believe as opposed to worse reasons to believe.

The wafflers need to be called out on this every damn time they say it.


  1. says

    Allow me to annoy you with the prospect of mutual respect between believers and atheists.

    The only reason we find this “prospect” annoying, is because that’s all it is — an empty promise that people like Spufford will never lift a finger to fulfil.

    As for whether or not we can “prove” there is no god, I’d say that, for all practical purposes, we’ve disproven the existence of gods just as conclusively as we’ve disproven the existence of zombies: no one’s ever seen one, and none of our current knowledge of the Universe indicates it’s possible for them to exist at all. End of story.

  2. screechymonkey says

    nobody knows for certain that we’re not just part of a vast computer simulation run by mice

    Indeed. Not even an android with a brain the size of a planet could know that.

  3. michaelraymer says

    It’s odd this has to be pointed out constantly because it’s an old concept. This is basically the Russell’s teapot argument, right? There aren’t similar camps of believers and non-believers for every possible thing that can’t be proven. It’s also similar to the “Dragon in my garage” bit by Carl Sagan – if the dragon is cunningly undetectable by science, how is it any different than a dragon that is not there? I can concede to believers that there could possibly exist a god that doesn’t interact with the universe in any measurable way – but this is different from non-existent god how? And the idea that this “well, you can’t disprove it” line of reasoning somehow strengthens the absurd mythologies of any individual religion is ridiculous. It doesn’t suddenly make those absurd beliefs respectable. Oh, I can’t disprove god exists, so yes, your wafer must be Jesus. That’s obviously where they want to take this line of reasoning but it will never get them there.

  4. says

    Yes it is odd, yes it is the same as those and others. But the reason it has to be pointed out constantly is that people keep using the bogus agnosticism dodge because it’s convenient. As I mentioned in a post last week, Cara Santa Maria used it in her talk at the CFI Summit. It was a good talk, and I liked it, and I was impressed by her, but she did use that equivocation and I do wish atheists would stop doing that.

  5. says

    We believe there is a God. You believe there isn’t one. Meanwhile, nobody knows, nobody can know, whether He exists or not, it not being a matter susceptible to proof or disproof.

    Spufford certainly seems to know for certain that his god is a ‘He’…

    I’ll get me coat. kthxbai.

  6. says

    The set of all propositions that *might* be true, in that they can be coherently stated* and have not yet been empirically falsified, is immense — probably infinite**, in fact. The set of propositions that actually are true, while doubtless also large, is no more than a tiny subset of that. It follows that the chance of any random existence-proposition being true is infinitesimal.

    I assert that, but for the historical-cultural weight attached to the “god” idea, there is no reason to treat it as more probable than any other random proposition. Ergo, the default position should not be “can’t say either way, therefore give them equal weight”, but dismiss the god-hypothesis with prejudice until its advocates have provided significant evidence in its favour (all evidence to provided to date having been found deficient) to warrant taking it seriously.

    * I’ll grant for the sake of this discussion that some god hypotheses may be coherent.
    ** I’ll let someone else worry about which order of aleph-number it might be.

  7. Gordon Willis says

    Well, of course, we were created by mice, with a view to performing vivisection so that at some point we will unwittingly create an Ubermaus which will be the apotheosis of mousehood and justify all the pain and misery that mice have endured at our hands. And all mice will be redeemed and live forever in bliss in the supernal mousehole where they will eat from 144 different cheeses and squeak praises to the Ubermaus for ever and ever and ever and…

    Sorry, I think I just had a vision. But I know in my heart, you see, and obviously, though you might not believe, that doesn’t mean it’s not true, so it could well be, and I think you should be very respectful to me, because the mice have planned some very nasty experiments for anyone who isn’t because we’re trying to be nice you’re always so horrid and we’re really nice, you know, and we respect you all, really, except for the ungodly, for they are like the chaff which…. Really!

  8. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    The problem – well, one of them – with this is that its belied by believers’ actual actions; they pray in the hope that their god will act, they accept their god performs miracles, and they have a holy book that’s filled with examples of their god interacting with people. As it is, all this argument is good for is deism – which makes it a particularly dishonest move on the part of the vast majority of people who like to bring it up, because they’re almost always Christians.

  9. Shatterface says

    Spufford’s Red Plenty is a brilliant exploration of how intelligent people can cling to discredited belief systems they have an ideological commitment to in spite of the overwhelming evidence that it is harmful to themselves and others.

    It’s a damn shame he can’t turn that incisiveness on himself.

  10. maddog1129 says

    The problem for me lies in a different area … what is meant by “respect”?
    I fully respect everyone’s right to decide as their intellect and conscience guide them in reaching conclusions on the question of whether/which god/gods/goddess/goddesses exist, and the proper behaviors attendant on such conscientious belief. But I don’t find equal respect emanating from those who reach theistic conclusions toward those whose intellect and conscience guide them to conclude there is no such thing as god/gods/goddess/goddesses. You show me, in real concrete behavioral terms, what you mean by “respect,” and then I’ll let you know if I think you are mutually respecting me as much as I am respecting you.

  11. Gordon Willis says

    Well, I think you are right, maddog. The respect doesn’t work both ways. They curse us, then they complain we don’t respect them, then they claim to respect us and demand our respect for them in return. They want our respect, so they pretend to respect us. They do nothing of the sort. They think that if we respected them they would be able to continue making their outrageous demands.

  12. Ysanne says

    I’m impressed at how nicely worded you could put “We don’t know for sure if there’s some kind of god, but it’s dead certain and well evidenced that the specific version you believe in was made up by people.”

  13. brianpansky says

    more about “respect”

    when did voicing and advocating positions about truth claims (did a historic event occur? does a particular thing exist?) become not respectful? not all people who call for “respect” bar say that doing that is disrespectful, but a lot of the time it seems that they do.

    it’s also a hidden violence that religion commits against the believers: making it painful to discuss and reason normally about what is true (again about did a historic event occur, does a particular thing exist etc). i recall this back when i was a believer…

  14. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Spufford did turn up at J&M with a single comment to ‘clarify’ his position (scare quotes because I don’t think that muddying the water counts as clarification), but seems reluctant to defend his ideas.
    Maybe it’s because the thourough going-over his word salad received over there made him realise that it probably wasn’t such a great idea to write a book defending religion by admitting that it’s all in the mind, and since realisation hit he’s been too busy doing an impression of Munch’s The Scream to respond just yet.
    Then again, it’s possible that the J&M commentariat killed his idea, but, like a second-rate tribute act to his hero JC, Spufford’ll return to show us the errors of our ways after three days.
    But we’re not holding our breath.

  15. Al Dente says

    Spufford and his fellow Sophistimacated Theologists™ may believe in a deist deity who hangs around in the background, not doing much of anything. However most Christians believe in an old geezer with flowing white beard who answers prayers (when he feels like it), decides who wins “the big game” at the local school, and has an unhealthy fascination with teenagers masturbating.

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