Atheism, Denial and Acknowledgement

Karen Johnston claimed that “atheists acknowledge the existence of God by denying it.” Most atheists would reject this claim on the grounds that we can deny that certain ideas refer to anything real. For instance, we can deny that there are any purple unicorns that shoot lasers out of their eyes and fly faster than the speed of light in any area of the Earth.  They do not need to exist for us to make this denial. In fact, we can validly make this denial precisely because they do not exist.

Hearing this, Karen replied that “because you have described these mythical purple unicorns, they exist! If only in your mind.” I agreed, but suggested that the theist claim is that God exists in a greater sense than the unicorn; not only in our minds, but beyond them too, independently of us and our thoughts. The atheists agree that we have an idea of God, but disagree that that idea refers to anything beyond the idea itself.

Karen further suggested that “based on your statement all those things we cannot prove the existence of do not exist. Does a dog have to prove to you he can smell the fox which you cannot see? I deny the fox is there based on my limited perception…the dog, however, knows he is. Atheists have to talk about a “god” of some sort to deny it, therefore the ‘idea’ or concept of god exists somewhere to refute, if only in their minds.”

My response to this objection, however, was that most atheists I know don’t claim that if they cannot prove something exists, then it doesn’t exist. They make the more modest claim that we can only claim to know something exists if we have valid evidence that it does. 

For instance, I can know the fox is likely to be there even though I cannot see it because I understand the way a dog’s sensory system works, the way it can trace scents, the way it behaves when it is on the trace of a fox’s scent, etc. I have strong evidence and reasons to believe there is a fox there even if I can’t see it until the dog brings me to it.

Atheists claim that the case of the fox is not like the case of God; for them, we do not have strong evidence or reasons to believe there is a God and can account for things well enough without this, for them, strange thesis.

“Atheists have to talk about a “god” of some sort to deny it, therefore the ‘idea’ or concept of god exists somewhere to refute, if only in their minds.” Most atheists would agree with this statement. They all agree that humans have a concept of God, which has been given certain definitions by various human cultures. Their position, however, is that this ‘God’ concept is just an idea; it doesn’t refer to anything real.

Hearing  this, Karen asked “ideas are not real? Love? Compassion? Honesty? All ideas, qualities, etc. My point about the fox is this: we aren’t asking the dog to prove it. You disseminate the dogs actions to indicate a fox and base your assumption upon knowledge you have of the dog’s sensory system. This is fine, but let’s back up. Assume you know nothing of the dog’s abilities and he can talk and tell you the fox is there. Do you believe him? Most atheists are enamored of their proofs and constructs of the mind. For every proof in a court of law, a good attorney can find their own expert to refute. Belief, as Swami Om has pointed out, requires holding on. Atheists hold onto a belief there is no god until someone can prove otherwise. In all their discussions, the idea of God is central. So my idea is more or less the same, because I cannot prove it. We argue in circles, brother, when we discuss beliefs. In all my discussions with atheists, they always get angry when coming to this point and start shouting ‘prove it’. My answer: look in the mirror at the miracle of yourself and explain to me why you have life and that reflection is merely a reflection.”

She offered a great deal to which I could respond here, so I took it in steps, beginning by suggesting that ideas have some degree of reality, but something that exists not only as an idea, but also as a corresponding state of affairs in the universe outside the idea has more reality to it. For instance, I can have a crazy idea of a banana composed entirely of fire. It is true that I do have such an idea, so the idea must have some degree of presence, but it is not as real as ordinary fire and bananas, which I have both ideas of, and countless physical examples of in the world beyond my thoughts. For atheists, the “God” idea is more like the fire banana than the real fire or bananas.

Love, compassion, and honesty” are also not mere ideas. They refer to actual states of feeling and systems of behavior of which we have a great deal of evidence over the thousands of years of human history. We have many examples of honest words and actions, of loving words and actions, of compassionate words and actions. So we have good reasons to believe they are real, not only as ideas, but as referring to actual states of affairs in the universe.

Assume you know nothing of the dog’s abilities and he can talk and tell you the fox is there.” If that is the case, then I can go with him and check to see if he’s right. If he is, I’ll acknowledge his ability to track it down. If he isn’t, I won’t say that he doesn’t have that power, I’ll only reserve judgment until I have more reason or evidence to believe in it.

Atheists hold onto a belief there is no god until someone can prove otherwise. In all their discussions, the idea of God is central.” There is a lot of variety in the extent to which people within the vast category of ‘atheists’ hod on to this belief. Some take it as a dogma, almost like the Christian belief in God; others see it as a working hypothesis, like all other hypotheses, which is subject to change in the light of better evidence. I think the first way of relating to the belief is less wise and justified than the other; it goes beyond what we know, beyond our experience, beyond our evidence, and beyond our strong reasons.

My answer: look in the mirror at the miracle of yourself and explain to me why you have life and that reflection is merely a reflection.” Their answer is likely to be because of the entire astrophysical and evolutionary history of the universe in general and the earth in particular on the one hand, and, for the matter of the reflection, the optics of reflective surfaces. They ground this answer in a wide body of evidence and scientific theories that have stood up to experimental testing and mathematical analysis.

Karen’s response to this was to say “oh, so atheists have proof of the ‘entire astrophysical and evolutionary history of the universe” lol….wow.” To this I replied: No, they don’t. But they have the powerful, though incomplete and provisional theories and bodies of evidence of which contemporary science is currently aware. There is some humility in this position; it involves sticking to what we know for now, but keeping that open and subject to change in the light of better evidence or arguments.

Science has revealed a great deal and we now know a lot more than we did before, but for everything we do know, there are trillions and trillions of things we don’t know, countless multitudes of new things to discover… the universe is inexhaustible.

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