I do my best to try and see all sides of an argument, and as such try to regularly read the blogs of religious folks. Even if I don’t believe in a viewpoint, it should still be respected for having importance to someone else. And it’s for this very reason that I would like to clear up a few misconceptions about atheism.
1. I recently read an assertion that “atheists must maintain that it is impossible for God to exist.” First of all, it’s not really scientifically correct to ever assert that something is impossible. We talk about probability in science, but absolutes almost never. But more to the point, this idea is a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism is. Atheists in general don’t assert that it’s impossible for God to exist; we assert that there is currently no evidence or proof to support that existence of a god. There is a huge difference.
2. Contrary to popular belief, it does not require faith to be an atheist. This is one of the more popular tropes in the religious camp, and it’s predicated again on absolutes. I don’t fault religious people for using this argument, because they live in a world of absolutes: God definitely exists, or rather it’s impossible for him not to exist. Of course they extend this same logic to the atheist. But again, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of atheism. The faith argument is only true if you’re a) dealing with an absolute, and b) if you’re dealing with something for which there is no evidence. In the case of atheism, we deal with what is probable, not what is impossible, and the evidence that we can see and test.
I’ve described it like this in the past: suppose I have a penny and I flip it twice. The first time I get a heads, and then when I flip it the second time I get another. I then assert that the third flip will result in a tails. Does this assertion require some degree of faith? After all, I can’t see the future, I don’t know what the next result will be. Despite this, I would argue that my assertion doesn’t need any faith, and the reason why is probability. The chances of getting a third heads on the next flip is 1/2×1/2×1/2 or 12.5%. The probability of getting a tails is still 50%. Therefore there is nothing at all unreasonable about asserting that the next flip will be a tails. There is no evidence that makes the existence of God more probable than his nonexistence, or put another way, it is not unreasonable to disbelieve something for which there is no evidence.
3. Atheism is not a philosophy. Atheism is simply a disbelief in a deity in light of a distinct lack of testable evidence. There’s no statement about morality wrapped up in there. I believe that there is a scientific basis for morality and ethics, and that all morals and ethics can be derived from logic instead of the divine, but atheism does not inform that assertion. Atheism is not for arriving at a set of morals or ethics.
4. I am not an atheist out of spite. Even though I was raised Catholic, I didn’t become an atheist because I felt betrayed or mistreated somehow. Saying that people become atheists because they hate God is like saying that people are religious because they hate science–it just isn’t true. I also didn’t become an atheist because I’m on a mission to prove that God doesn’t exist or anything like that. You can’t force someone to believe in something (or conversely to not believe in something)–you can only give them information and let them digest it at their own pace in their own way. Some people will look at evidence and reevaluate their values quickly, others slowly, and still some not at all. This isn’t the fault of science, atheism, or religion, but human biology and psychology.
Similarly, I don’t hope that religious people are wrong about everything. I don’t believe their narrative, but that’s not an emotional disbelief. My atheism is based in the objective, and as such my feelings toward the whole subject of God are entirely neutral. In my heart of hearts I don’t secretly wish that the religious are wrong and that someday I can hold it over their heads. I’m not driven by a need to be right, a need to exert control over others, or a need to generate some sort of feelings. My atheism is a byproduct of science, and the use of science is for understanding the world around us.
Remember probability. As a scientist, I have to acknowledge that I can’t disprove that a god exists. Saying that there is no evidence to support the existence of a god isn’t a definitive statement; it’s a statement rooted in the present. It says nothing about the future. It’s entirely possible that at some point in the future we will be able to directly observe God. Or that science will indirectly prove He exists. We can talk about how probable that is, but that’s an entirely different post. Atheists don’t think it’s very probable, but that doesn’t inherently make it impossible. As a scientist, if next week or year or century the evidence strongly indicated the existence of God, or God made himself directly known to us, that would be the new paradigm. But until that happens, as an atheist, I only have the evidence that we have observed so far, which in my evaluation points to God being an improbability.
I hope that clears a few things up.