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


The Argument | The Refutation

The Argument Back to Top

It is argued that the atheist position is inherently contradictory and logically incoherent, because it is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove a negative. Absolute negatives are notoriously hard to prove, and omniscience would be required to definitively know that there is no God anywhere in the universe. If such an omniscient being did exist, then it would be God, and the contrary would be proven.

Furthermore, God is essentially non-detectable and so, by his very nature, cannot be proven to exist or not to exist.

The Refutation Back to Top

Contrary to the popular belief that it is impossible to prove a negative, it IS in fact possible to prove some negatives. We can prove, for example, that a square circle or a married bachelor does not exist because it is a logical impossibility. We can prove that there are no blue marbles in a particular box by opening the box and observing that all the marbles in it are green. However, what people are getting at with reference to the existence of God is that an exhaustive search for such a being throughout the whole universe is impractical, so it is not possible to demonstrate his existence in an empirical way.

The Apostle John clearly states in his Gospel, “No man has seen God at any time” (nothwithstanding various inconsistencies in the Old Testament) and God himself claims in Exodus that, “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live”. Indeed, it seems that he deliberately hides himself, and some theists have tried to justify this on the grounds that a too palpable God would unduly coerce people into being good, thus taking away their free will and moral freedom (a rather shaky and tortuous argument to say the least). Additionally, the whole concept and definition of God is left deliberately vague so as to make his discovery even more unlikely.
I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose.
- Clarence Darrow (1930)

So, it is probably true that it is technically impossible to empirically prove a negative of this nature. In the same way, it is impossible to prove the non-existence of the tooth fairy, the invisible pink unicorn or the flying spaghetti monster or any number of other unlikely objects or phenomena (like Bertrand Russell’s example of a china teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars). But that absence of proof does not in any way constitute a positive proof of the existence of these fantastic creatures. Nor does it even imply that they have a 50% probability of being true (the assumption that the middle position between two extremes must be correct simply because it is the middle position is known as the "fallacy of the mean"). Just in passing, so ubiquitous has the example of the flying spaghetti monster become in recent years that there is now even a Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (also known as Pastafarianism), and an Austrian atheist recently won the legal right to wear a pasta strainer on his head on his passport photo out of respect for his "religion". For a hilarious exposé of the claims of religions, see Bobby Henderson's book "The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster".

It all comes back, however, to the dictum of Carl Sagan/Pierre-Simon Laplace that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The claim that “God exists”, even though he has never been seen and cannot be perceived in the normal way, is definitely an extraordinary claim, so the burden of proof is firmly on the believer to provide some equally extraordinary evidence, whereas the non-believer is under no obligation to provide a proof of non-existence.

If it is argued that God is essentially non-detectable, it must therefore be the case that he does not interact with our universe in any way. In that case, it is of no importance whether such a being exists or not, but such a being cannot anyway be the active, loving, caring God he is usually described to be. If God interacts with our universe in any meaningful way, the effects of his interaction must be measurable and therefore detectable.

Putting all of that aside, though, the argument misrepresents what atheism actually is: atheism does not necessarily mean claiming that "there is no God anywhere in the universe"; it is merely a label for simply not believing in any gods, whether or not their existence can be empirically disproved.

Interestingly, the primary criticism of atheism in its strong form comes, not from theists, but from agnostics, who contend that there are insufficient grounds to assert authoritatively that any supreme being does not exist, and from ignostics, who take the theological non-cognitivist position that the very question of the existence of God is meaningless or not defined well enough to allow one to take a meaningful position.

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