By Michael Hawkins
One of the common complaints raised by theists comes from the phrase “There’s probably no God” as one way to describe atheistic thought. This runs counter to the caricatures of atheists out there that says atheism automatically equals absolute certainty that no gods exist. To many it sounds more like agnosticism and doesn’t quite fit into their notion of what an atheism actually believes (or, rather, doesn’t believe).
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins actually spends more time than should be necessary on the point of how to define atheism. He creates a 7 point scale where a “1” is an absolute believer, someone with no doubt in the existence of God, and a “7” is the polar opposite, an absolutely certain atheist. In the middle are varying levels of belief or disbelief. Dawkins places himself as a “6”, describing himself as nearly certain there are no gods, but allowing for their possibility, however slim that may be. This is how a huge swath of atheists also describe themselves. (It’s at the root of some of the messages being put out on the atheist bus campaigns around the world, in fact.)
The complaint to this is the belief that atheism means absolute certainty. What requires this? The word means “without theism”. That does not imply certainty of what is true, but rather a degree of certainty of what is not true. In modern connotations, the term includes a rejection of deism and usually anything supernatural. But, still, how does this rise to become certainty?
Many people, for whatever reason, insist that any lack of certainty thus equals agnosticism. There are two issues with this. First, no, it doesn’t. Atheism, again, does not require certainty. Second, the only way one can arrive at this conclusion is to use the modern connotations of atheism. The problem comes when the connotations of agnosticism are then ignored, ever so conveniently. That is, the fact that atheism is usually taken to mean a complete rejection of all things supernatural is employed, but then the fact that agnosticism is usually taken to mean a 50/50 uncertainty is ignored. This is why Dawkins needed his scale. Few people are right in the middle (“4”). Most people lean one way or the other. In fact, it has to be hoped a majority of people do not categorize themselves as “1”, pretending as if they’re absolutely certain of their God’s existence. Everyone should have doubt; the lack of it is a mark of fundamentalism.
In essence, the argument that atheism is absolute certainty is a blatantly dishonest one. If the term means absolute certainty, then it cannot be ignored that agnosticism usually means a perfect middle ground. It is bad form to ground an argument in cherry-picked connotations; in this case, demanding a self-proclaimed atheist call himself “agnostic” due to a lack of 100% certainty is weak because the common notion of a 50/50 split for agnostics is being ignored – clearly the self-proclaimed atheist is not 50/50 on the existence of gods, no matter what label one wishes to use. This would be like demanding that anyone who says unicorns are possible must also believe the mythical beasts have a 50/50 shot of existing. Of course unicorns are possible – and everyone should acknowledge that fact – but they are exceedingly unlikely and for that reason no one believes in them. And more importantly, there is not a shred of evidence for their existence. This does not make anyone agnostic towards unicorns except in the strictest, most semantic, most useless sense.
Importantly, this goes beyond a mere game of semantics. Anyone who has bothered to debate religion with an atheist present knows full well that any show of uncertainty will gladden the heart of any nearby theist. This should not be so. The ability to say “Yes, I might be wrong” and “No, I cannot be positive” is an admirable one. (And, in fact, more theists recognize this than are likely being given credit here.)
But more germane to the issue is that any scientifically inclined atheist is an atheist based upon the availability of evidence – and there is no evidence for any god. Anywhere. Ever. There’s faith – the very antithesis of evidence – and there are (very) vaguely internally consistent texts written by the few elite, literate farmers mulling around thousands of years ago, but there is no evidence. It is on that point that the atheist mind turns. Of course (!) there is the possibility of evidence for gods. No reasonable atheist is going to deny that. The problem is just that no one has been able to produce any of it yet. Without evidence, it is unreasonable to declare knowledge on a subject; equally, it is unreasonable to declare certainty even with evidence. (And that needs some parsing.)
There are two sorts of certainty: there’s the philosophical and then there’s the practical. The philosophical is where the atheist (and hopefully the more reasonable theist) allows for a lack of certainty. There’s just no way to know some things, is there? But the practical is where the term atheism, even with a number of its modern connotations, comes in. There is as much evidence for gods as there is for celestial teapots, but no one is about to declare themselves uncertain about the non-existence of floating cookware in space. It would be impractical and nonsensical.
Let’s do away with these old canards and caricatures and move forward with a mutual and honest understanding.