The Absolute Reasonableness of Absolute Uncertainty

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.

Atheism is Not a Religion

By Michael Hawkins

Despite popular belief, there is actually hardly anything which links atheists together.

It has become all too common to claim that atheism is a religion. This usually acts as a purely rhetorical tool to use against atheists. The implication is if there is agreement that something must be true (and there usually is), and all things are religion, then some religion must be true. It’s a form of false equivalence, like a creationist claiming that evolution and creationism are equally valid ways of looking at the (obvious) evidence.

Consider for a moment that there are approximately 14 million Jews in the world. The lobbying and political power of this group is owed in large part to the organizing principle of religion (not to mention a devastating past). But contrast this with the 350 million or so atheists (1.2 billion if you consider “non-believers”). There is little to no organizing power behind atheism. The reason is simply that atheism does not offer a system of belief.

Behind Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are central beliefs. First there is the Abrahamic God. From that follow a number of dogmas and various collections of doctrine which act to centralize belief. The same is true of all religion with substitution for specific god(s).

Atheism only has one common thread holding people together – the lack of belief in any deities. Nothing specific follows from this. Some atheists find religion to be a bad thing, others don’t. Some find that monetary success is the most important thing, others don’t. Some find that family comes before all else, others don’t.

If it were enough to say that statements on the existence of God define something as religion, then the deistic and (most) agnostics would be religious. The statements “the creator is hands-off” and “maybe” constitute claims about the existence of God. All belief, except perhaps the most strict “I don’t know” agnostic waffling, would then be religious in its nature. At best this is a confusion with metaphysics. At worst, it’s just a political and rhetorical ploy to pull atheism down to the lowly level of religion.

Fundamentally, that’s what this is all about. Call atheism a religion, and the claim by many – but not all – atheists that all religion is wrong is conveniently side-stepped. If everything is religious in essence, and something has to be right (sorry nihilists), then atheism becomes a whole lot easier to dismiss as just another wrong religion.

So of course atheism does not display any of the defining characteristics of religion – no more than clear displays any of the characteristics of colors. But there is a silver lining here. The implication that something is lost in atheism when it is deemed a religion actually has some appeal. While I cannot speak for the non-unified, disparate beliefs of any fellow atheists, the notion that there is something negative about religion seems nothing less than perfectly fitting.

Those Darned Militant Atheists!

By Michael Hawkins

It has become almost a cliché to call an atheist “militant”. But it’s a term of derision which has no connection to reality.

The reasoning behind calling an atheist militant has nothing to do with what any particular atheist has said. It’s a term intended to trivialize and distract from whatever substance is being offered. This is a routine trick of theists and those sympathetic to religion (or, if sympathetic to faith and atheist, “faitheists”, as Jerry Coyne has dubbed them).

Of course, this goes beyond atheism. Negroes were uppity in the mid-20th century (and still are if you go far enough south). The homos are only being dramatic. The women-folk were just hysterical when they were fighting for their right to vote. The routine is a tired one.

But there’s more than trivialization that acts as the common thread to all these examples. It’s also the fact that the minorities in each and every case happen to be right. Blacks deserve equal rights. No good arguments exist against gay “rights” (which are really just the rights of all people – not the privileges of straight people). Women, too, deserve equal rights. And atheists, while maintaining rights largely thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s foresight, are right that there is no good evidence for the existence of anything supernatural.

Should, however, an atheist list out why belief in God is not well supported, or should he respond to arguments that purport to show otherwise, the discussion always devolves into the atheist being militant. PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Victor Stenger, Bertrand Russell – they all have substantial points that they make. And each one has been called militant (or, more often to his own curse, “strident”, for Dawkins) far more frequently than not.

In truth, the meaning of militancy is diminished when it is implored as a mere tool for political rhetoric and answer-avoidance. The Christian who shoots an abortion doctor is militant. The Muslim who bombs a café is militant. The Jew who demands, on religious principle, that an entire group leaves an entire area is militant.

The atheist who says all that is dangerous and false is not militant.