The Burden Is Heavy, But It’s Not Mine To Bear

The Burden Is Heavy, But It’s Not Mine To Bear

So says the atheist, and, indeed, so says the theist. There is a God; there is no God. Frequently the argument—of who needs to provide the proof—ends with both parties feeling victorious (at least in the sense that their argument was superior). This odd state is possible, I think, partly because of the subtleties of the argument involved and partly because both parties are, in fact, correct. I will endeavour to unravel some of the said subtleties and explain my point of view as a late-starter atheist (including disbelievers’ obsession with the fantastical; from ceramics in space, to colourful and unseeable horned horses, to carbohydrated terrors of the sky—I’ll curb my desire to wittily describe leprechauns and fairies, lest I lose you to sub-par humour).

Let me forge ahead instead and make it difficult for myself by admitting that it takes faith to believe that there is no God, and any person who makes such a claim must be able to substantiate the position. One of the little tricks that atheists perform is to argue that we, in fact, do not make a positive assertion of belief. Atheism is, by definition, the disbelief—the lack of belief—in a God or Gods. The theist makes the claim; they should provide the proof.  This is a perfectly valid argument—as I will demonstrate—but atheism rejects all claims of Gods. No matter how crafty I try to be, I cannot satisfactorily convince myself there is a noteworthy difference between disbelieving all Gods and believing there is no God. Trying to establish a difference is to accept the unpopular condition of being a fence-sitter. Why pussyfoot around what you believe in?

I’ll don an everyday atheist’s hat and argue that there are two reasons why we believe that there is not a prime mover: the obvious first is the lack of scientific evidence and the second is the growing scientific understanding of our universe, particularly the insights into our origin (both cosmological and anthropological). However, to accept these as valid reasons we require faith in the scientific method (by which we try to understand everything) and—perhaps more importantly—we require faith in the scientific community (whom we trust to interpret our reality using science that is often beyond the comprehension of the layman—to which I must ascribe myself). A sceptic must question everything and doubting science is essential, but I am inclined to give it the benefit.

It is reasonable—even effortless—to have faith in the scientific method because it has endured an extended baptism of fire, and the model itself is reviewed and improved to be even more infallible and unbiased; it remains our best way to understand our reality and to determine what is likely to be true or false. Consider for a moment what a gargantuan—if not futile—task it will be to justify not trusting the scientific method. Likewise, one does not lose any sleep over investing trust in the scientific community because scientists are by nature fiercely competitive and submit to brutal peer-review. The process and people might be fallible on occasion, but one is again confident that errors and biases are detected and addressed. The exception proves the rule comes to mind.

A fallacy commonly committed is to draw a parallel—generously phrased—between an atheist and theist’s faith. It takes more faith to be an atheist is an oft-used phrasing. I personally do not find degrees of faith particularly useful. Faith is the complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Believers completely trust in their God; disbelievers completely trust in science. How can one have degrees of complete trust? It’s more pragmatic to evaluate the reasons why you have faith in someone or something. Are they good reasons or are they bad reasons? That is what is important, surely? I am satisfied that my faith in science is justified because my reasons are thought through and make sense. I accept as confirmation the fact that the brilliant minds of our time—almost uniformity—embrace and partake in the wonders of science. Let us not pretend that the two faiths are on equal footing.

There is hardly a more studied and debated mystery than how we came to be. Science offers an open invitation to God, but he has failed to show-face. Why God would choose to excel at Hide and Seek is worth contemplating; either he’s a bit of a bastard, or there is only one player in the game. What we do know is that the gaps are closing and God would have to pull out all the stops to remain undiscovered. The conclusion of scientists—again almost uniformly—is that the existence of a God—especially an intervening one—is unlikely to the point of being irrelevant. It is hoping to win the lottery ten times in a row.

You see, atheists have already met their burden of proof. Yet theists persist with the common defence that we cannot disprove God. No, we can’t. Do we need to? No. Absolute truth must be discarded as useless in the world we live in, lest we start babbling that nothing can truly be known. Practically, if something is overwhelmingly unlikely, it is false (I’m not willing to build my life around the hope to win the lottery). You can bet on two things, when you hear this weak rebuttal. Firstly, the theist did not get the point and secondly, the atheist does not need to bear the burden of proof.

Unlike the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, a great many theists do not recognise the absurdity of their claim. The irony is that they have no trouble calling out rival faiths on their absurdities. Nonetheless, it is difficult to get this point across and that is why atheists resort to the fantastical. It is not to belittle, to offend or to annoy the theist—okay, sometimes to annoy—but rather to make them question what they might take for granted. It is extraordinary to claim that there is a personal God, but the theist goes even beyond this, and fearlessly steps over the line. They continue to insist that they hold the default position and that it must—not only—be respected, but adopted by other people. They believe this to the point that acts of prejudice and cruelty are often justified, if not celebrated. It is this arrogance that motivates atheists to speak out.

Given the knowledge we have gained, the modern theist’s God is no different from ancient Thor, no more compelling than Bigfoot and no more believable than a teacup orbiting the sun. The atheist’s argument—that theists need to prove their claims—is perhaps best communicated through the silly discourse between my imaginary friends, Christopher and Richard:

“There’s a unicorn in this box,” says Richard. “It has changed my life.”

“Really!?” says Christopher, looking around for hidden cameras. “Show me.”

“You can’t see it, it’s invisible.”

“Oh. How do you know it’s there?” Christopher asks tentatively.

“It talks to me.”

“Okay…” Christopher, now a little scared, can’t resist asking, “What does it say?”

“That it is pink and that it loves me and that I must worship it,” Richard says with a straight face.

“Err. What evidence do you have to know that this is true? It seems, well, a bit improbable, a bit crazy,” Christopher says stupefied. “You must be under a misapprehension. Perhaps you’ve been in the sun for too long?”

“You don’t believe me!?”

“Why should I!? I can’t see it. I can’t hear it. It doesn’t look like you can prove it, and your testimony is, quite frankly, questionable.”

“Well, you can’t disprove it,” Richard says dismissively.

Let me regurgitate in the hope that all nutrients are digested. I hope it goes down better the second time around, if only because it’s shorter. Atheists have a burden of proof, but it has already been met. This has nothing to do with theists’ responsibility to justify their beliefs that are contradictory to reality and frequently cause harm. *Gulp* Yum.

I’ll conclude with this thought: The theist’s most compelling evidence is the subjective experience of peace and happiness—hardly exclusive to any one faith. I am relieved that I do not have to carry that heavy a burden.


27 responses »

  1. I think the question of faith can be tackled by considering relative probabilities. One does not need an ‘absolute faith’ in science to treat scientific knowledge as the best working assumption. We all know that science is faliible in its parts even if we are convinced the process as a whole is sound.

    But we also know that the tools and checks science brings to bear make scientific conclusions evidence-based and likely to be true or at least reflective of the truth. So as a working assumption one can value a scientific conclusion as much more likely to hold truth than one with no measurable, verifiable evidence to support it. This is not absolute faith in science, just a position on the odds from where you stand.

    However, I really don’t think the science vs theology issue is relevant, and in your piece above it entirely hinges on the assumption that there is no tangible difference between lack of belief and positive disbelief.

    I think there is a huge difference in actuality, and philosophically. While I very much consider myself to be an atheist, I can quite happily entertain the notion of a creator (some thing that intentionally caused the start of the universe), or that we live in a created simulation or some other scenario where the universe has been helped along its way. However, there is only the scantiest evidence to support any of these notions at present so I have no reason to take a position (and if I did it would only be one of likelihood, rather than absolute faith). But this is a completely different position to avowing positively that no gods could possibly exist. That position would be irrational and unscientific.

    One thing I can be almost totally sure about, however, is that the personal god of the Bible/Koran/Torah does not exist. One only needs to look to those books, and their inherent contradictions (especially of perfection and omnipotence vs spite, flawed creation and material inconsistencies) to know those gods are impossible.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jim. I have considered your position and I cannot really fault your reasoning. In fact I share it for the most part.

      My usage of the word noteworthy to describe the difference was calculated. I recognise that there is a difference, but I’ll maintain that the effort to motivate the difference is significant is not useful. Of course, we entertain the idea that there could be a creator, and if evidence is discovered we will change our views. But, as you said, there is not currently any evidence to support it. The important question to me is this: do we think it that it is likely that that evidence will be discovered to prove a creator (I’d be interested to get your thoughts on that). I’d argue that most atheists would say that it is unlikely enough to discount and consider as false. This boils down to believing that there is no God, in my opinion. I don’t think that is irrational or unscientific; absolute certainty was never claimed.

      This article was not a really about science vs theology, nor do I think it entirely hinged on my assessment that there is not a significant difference between lack of belief and positive disbelief. My point, ultimately, is that both atheists and theists have beliefs that require substantiation.

      But I’m interested to explore this point more; in another blog post perhaps. It’s great to get feedback.

      • I really should have started by saying that I accept almost all of the reasoning in your piece, and think it was a very nice bit of writing to boot.

        I’m still, from a personal perspective, going to stick on the issue of there being a practical equivalence between ‘no belief’ and ‘positive disbelief’, although I do accept that this is not always the case with some people, and perhaps in some types of argument.

        When you ask whether I think there is likely to ever be evidence of a creator, I’d answer no. But I’d also say that we know so little about the origins and nature of the universe that it would be silly to jump to any conclusions – as any conclusions would be based on insufficient, or even a total absence of, evidence. It’s one thing to draw a probablistic conclusion based on evidence, but quite another to simply make a gut call with no information.

        What I’m talking about here is pre-big-bang, beyond the event horizon, whether the universe has a holographic/algorithmic nature, mutiverses etc. And all I am saying is that when it is not possible to comprehend the variables, it is uneccesarily limiting to discount anything.

        Of course I still see the concept of any sort of ‘personal god’ in the human tradition as being vanishingly improbable to the point of it not being worthy of consideration, but our understanding of the origins of the universe are not sufficient to totally discount the possibility of some sort of sentience having been involved in some way. But not any more likely that any of the other billions of possibilities.

        NB. It was only the one point about comparing science and religion that I said hinged on the equivalence of ‘no belief’ and ‘non-belief’, and I’m 90-95% in agreement with your piece.

  2. Why no review of history of our fetish gods? Is it not also ‘proof’ that we evo chimps spread out from our original African home and developed our myriad gods/religions/cultures/languages along the way? We are like puppies who are outgrowing the c::ollar we put on ourselves but is now choking the life out of our need/desire to advance’ when I was a child I thot and acted as a child’s now time to grow up or die/go species extinct!

    • It’s not included because it’s not pertinent to the burden of proof discussion. This was not about proving or disproving either side’s belief, but rather the responsibilities involved by having them.

      The origin of religion and our inclination to believe in a higher power is a somewhat larger topic to tackle. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins devotes some excellent chapters on this.

  3. This article was definitely well written. Better than anything that I could have come up with. Let me first point out that I disagree with your point that believing in no god is the same as disbelief. For me, when it comes to religion, faith is the blind trust in something despite heavy objective evidence to the contrary. Science lacks the second part of the definition, and therefore, in my opinion, does not qualify as a faith. Therefore, I am not believing in science to be true, but I can actually go and do the research myself and come to similar conclusions. A second note, you discussed several times the burden of proof carried by science, but you did not necessarily discuss what you meant or how it has been met. Although I can extrapolate for the most part what you meant, I think it would be helpful to your argument to state this explicitly. Once again it was a good article, a good read to wake up to.

    • Thank you, that’s useful feedback.

      Regarding your first objection, I’ll refer you to my comment made to Mr Houghton, who has a similar opinion.

      If there is anything I’ve learned from all the feedback: it is worth defining faith/trust from both the believer and disbeliever’s point of view. It seems like my argument (that it’s more practical to evaluate the reasons why we have faith (trust) in someone or something), has played second fiddle to atheists’ concern about the word faith.

      • From, faith is defined as the belief in something without proof. Trust is, “reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing.” Therefore, I trust scientists and science, I would not say that is faith. They provide strong evidence, strong proof, by the scientific method in order to justify their claims. That is why I say atheism requires no faith.

      • From Faith: complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

        I don’t absolutely agree with your conclusion, but I take your point, though. I think I’ll write a post about it at some point.

    • You can’t disprove it!

      Also, you read over the adjective imaginary when I introduced my friends.

      I appreciate your pingback response to my post. It summarises the overall feedback to my post very well. I’ll probably write a follow-up post with some clarifications and things I’ve learned.

      • I may have skipped over the adjective for the sake of giggling to myself a little.

        I like your post, but I like the fact that you’ve written something you know people with disagree with more. It makes the discussion a little more interesting.

      • I know, and it was a worthwhile giggle:)

        Thanks, I’m glad you picked up on that. I wrote it for atheists just as much as I did for theists. It is tricky to engage both (I hope I did that) and my usage of the word faith is calculated. A lot of the responses were predictable, but I’ve learned some things.

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  6. Awesome post! I don’t think many theists are aware that since they make a positive claim on the existence of gods it’s their duty to show evidence that such a god, if they manage to define it, exists.

  7. I’m enjoying reading the posts on your blog so far. There are, indeed, positive arguments that can be made in favour of atheism, and I’ll hopefully post a few of them on my blog soon. As you pointed out, we’ve already met our burden of proof in a certain way by pointing out logical inconsistencies in theism, such as the fact that an intervening god has not been observed, which accentuates the idea that the existence of a god is unlikely (as you mentioned).

  8. I do not think it requires faith to say there are no gods. It is merely an observation. As an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy for many, many years, if a god does show up and manifest appropriately, I will then believe. But, so far, I see no gods . . . so far. Tain’t a belief, just an observation.

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