Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


The Argument | The Refutation

The Argument Back to Top

Following on from the argument that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of God, it is sometimes asserted (both by theists and particularly by agnostics) that the claims of atheism are negated by the idea that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, and that asserting the non-existence of something without any hard evidence is just an argument from ignorance.

It is alleged that asserting non-existence in the absence of evidence is the equivalent of an argument like the following: although I have no evidence that my dog can fly, you have no evidence that my dog can not fly; therefore, I am justified in believing that my dog can fly.

The Refutation Back to Top

Although the oft-quoted phrase “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” seems self-evident at first sight, on closer inspection it is not quite so obvious. Consider, for example, the question of whether there is any butter in my fridge: if we do not actually look in the fridge the absence of evidence clearly does not amount to evidence of absence of butter; if, however, we DO look in the fridge and see that there is no butter in it, then we have the best possible evidence of the absence of butter.
We cannot prove that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He is very, very improbable indeed.
- Richard Dawkins (1991)

The important consideration here is that an atheist does not believe with complete certainty that God does not exist given the apparent lack of evidence, only that this is more likely to imply that God does not exist. Although not definitive proof, it is just one more source of evidence to add to all the others. Unfortunately, we are not given any indication by theists of where to look for God, and which fridge to open.

Furthermore, the assertion that God does not exist is qualitatively different from the assertion that my dog can fly. This is because a flying dog is the sort of thing that can be supported with evidence (if a dog could fly, we would expect to find evidence of the dog zooming through the skies, for example), whereas one would actually expect a non-existent thing to produce no evidence whatsoever. Thus, in the case of non-existence, the absence of evidence is exactly what we would expect to observe.

In the absence of any good evidence to believe possible but outlandish claims like “the Pope is really a robot” or “we are all living in a virtual reality machine”, we rightly disbelieve them rather than just suspending judgement and remaining agnostic on the matter. There is no reason to treat the existence of an unseen but all-powerful god who single-handedly created the whole universe any differently. And, once again, it should be stressed that the burden of proof is on the theists to prove their extraordinary claim.

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