Just what does it mean to be an atheist?  Richard Dawkins proposed a sliding scale of theistic probability:

  1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: "I do not believe, I know."
  2. De Facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. "I don't know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there."
  3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. "I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God."
  4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent.  "God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable."
  5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. "I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be skeptical."
  6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. "I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."
  7. Strong atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one."

        I, like Dawkins, would describe myself as a 6.9 on this scale.  Why am I not a 7?  Because evidence can always change a thinking person's mind.  There is no evidence for God, and there is no way to falsify the proposition that such a thing exists.  But unfalsifiability is not the test of a good argument.  It is the hallmark of a conspicuously weak argument.  The religious apologist's argumentum ad ignorantiam is wearisome.  It is not upon the atheist to disprove a supernatural claim.  The burden of proof rests with those who assert the extraordinary claim that there is a deity.  The fact that we can not disprove that the universe was set in motion by delicious, extra-dimensional, cream-filled, sapient chocolate cupcakes of ineffable power and wisdom does not prove the proposition.   

        I am willing to entertain the possibility that gods exist inasmuch as I entertain the possibility that fairies exist, which is to say that I think it highly improbable.  However, if overwhelming, objectively-verifiable scientific evidence were to start pouring in for gods or fairies, I would revise my opinion.  I am not 100% certain there is no deity, but then I am not 100% certain that I see the same color of blue as others do.  I am not a global skeptic however.  100% certainty is not necessary to be sufficiently certain about some propositions. Global skeptics will dismiss notions of real or true because we can not be 100% certain that what we perceive as reality is indeed an accurate representation of what is actually there in the universe.  But then, universal skepticism is absolutely useless; it is anathema to the inquisitive mind, for if we dismiss any notion of true or real, then we dismiss the whole epistemological enterprise. A position of global skepticism might make it easier to accommodate the fatuous claims of cultural or epistemological relativism, but this is not an "anything goes" world. Some things can be sufficiently known. Knowledge can often mean the difference between life and death, e.g., giving a sick child life-saving antibiotics instead of blood-letting, administering leeches, or offering propitiations to a character from mythology. As for the God hypothesis, Stenger may have been right when he said that absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence when the evidence should be there but is not.

             And even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, a deistic god, how would we get from that to the petty, vindictive, all-too-human theistic gods we have invented in our brief history on this planet?  As for Christ, I find the story decidedly unoriginal, perhaps even consciously modeled on Socrates.

         I believe Hitchens once tried to get the term "anti-theist" into currency to distinguish himself from atheists who wished there were a god but just couldn't see any reason to believe in such a thing. Hitchens went one step further, maintaining that not only is there no evidence for a god, neither would he wish there to be one. The idea of living in a divine police state, an Orwellian world where one could be punished for "thought crime," did not appeal to him. I think it fair to say that he had the Judeo-Christian god in mind, and I sympathized with him.

         "[Religious belief] is a totalitarian belief.  It is the wish to be a slave.  It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you - who must, indeed, subject you - to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life - I say, of your life - before you're born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you're dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true?  Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate?  I've been to North Korea.  It has a dead man as its president, Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party and head of the army. He's not head of the state.  That office belongs to his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. It's a necrocracy, a thanatocracy.  It's one short of a trinity I might add.  The son is the reincarnation of the father.  It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved.  But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea!"  (Christopher Hitchens)

         We know so little about the universe still.  But I do not exalt in the mysterious, rather I see new areas to explore.  We may eventually find the Grand Unified Theorem, or we may find that the horizon is ever-receding.  Professor Hawking suggested in "A Brief History of Time" that for the moment, though we have several theories to explain phenomena at different levels, we may still be optimistic yet that we will arrive at a grand theorem.  Regardless, it can not be denied that we have made an astonishing amount of progress in science in the past few hundred years.  I submit that engaging our cognitive faculties in an honest attempt to understand our universe is preferable to ceding our reason to the authority of others or a collection of Stone Age myths.

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Comment by Wyatt on December 20, 2012 at 10:24am
Future, well said. By mere accident of birth a child may be indoctrinated into Christianity, Scientology, Jainism, etc. If a child is lucky, his or her parents will forgo indoctrination in favor of education and intellectual honesty.
Comment by Future on December 20, 2012 at 8:47am

The geographic nature of religion, in combination with each version's obstinacy for legitimacy, is religion's most self defeating aspect.  One's potential for embracing faith in god(s) seems to be a random setting buried in the DNA, but which doctrine to follow is almost purely a function of the geography and environment one is immersed in.  That fact alone takes the legitimacy right out of the equation.

Comment by Wyatt on December 20, 2012 at 7:09am
James, that seems a reasonable approach. Of all the many religions in the world none can put forth even a jot of evidence that its particular superhero exists. What's more, most of these religions are mutually exclusive. They can't all be right. And we have no need for the epistemology of our ancient ancestors. They looked out at the natural order uncomprehending and attempted to frame the universe in terms of intentional agents; it was our first attempt at understanding. But we can now explain natural phenomenon sufficiently without needing to invoke a super-powered father figure in the sky or a disembodied mind, etc.
Comment by James Kz on December 20, 2012 at 4:55am

I do not hold any version of Deism to me more accurate than any other religion. Deism also has zero evidence for its claims.

Since I base what I believe on what I have learned, what others have learned, or demonstrable evidence (I believe that I live in Nebraska because it is printed on my cheques, I believe evolution is the most accurate representation of how life differentiated itself on Earth, I believe my wife loves me because all her actions have so indicated it).

Any of those propositions could be overturned (well, not the Nebraska one) should new evidence come forth, thus in theory I could believe in some version of a god (whether deism or any of ten thousand other theologies), but there should be strong evidence first.

Comment by Wyatt on December 20, 2012 at 4:39am
Thank you for the kind words Bianka!
Comment by James Yount on July 9, 2012 at 1:34am

I don't know, but Europe might have been able to avoid the Crusades and the Inquisitions...

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 8, 2012 at 11:02am

PS. on Marcus Aurelius - one of my favorite philosophers.  I often wonder how history would have unfolded after 310 AD if the Roman Emperor were a rational M.A. type who refused to make Christianity the state religion and regarded it as just another nutty Middle Eastern sect.

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 7, 2012 at 10:51am

Nap, you are my kind of atheist.  Ther unquestioned respect that religion gets makes me sick and angry.  Newspapers report that Jews are celebrating Passover, but nowhere (as proper journalism requires) is there a counter-statement from a secular organization that there is no evidence for the events in question.

I'd love to see atheists rally round a political candidate who calls out religion for the BS it is and promises to revoke its tax-exempt status and reduce its effect on American society and, especially, politics.  Anybody?  Anybody?  Bueller?

I hope everybody on A/N reads Wyatt's original post.  Food for thought and ammo for argument.

Comment by Idaho Spud on July 6, 2012 at 1:32pm

The first atheist book I read was The God Delusion, and it was a huge factor in why I became a firm atheist.  That's why it surprised me to hear Dawkins say in that book that "I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 --"  

I'm not just leaning towards 7, I'm almost there at 6.99999999999999999999999999 -- but practically speaking, I live my life as if I were a 7.

Comment by James Yount on July 4, 2012 at 3:15pm

Yes, I find the Deist much more believable than any of the so called personal gods. Benjamin Franklin was once asked his opinion on god. He replied that it was the same opinion he had on nature. When inquired for clarification he said that neither could be personal.  That is the only reason I'm a 6. There exists, for me, a possibility that there is some unseen creative force that initiated this whole petri dish. Maybe the clockmaker god is true. One that set the gears in motion then allowed the whole thing to run on its own from that point, idk. It really makes no difference in how I live my life, because either there is no god or god takes no interest in our affairs. 

I like Marcus Aurelius' philosophy on the subject, "Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”



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