How much should atheists know?

While I am by no means an expert, I do enjoy thinking about epistemological issues.  A few weeks ago, I started writing a series of posts on epistemology, appropriately entitled, “How do you know?”  It’s a theme I haven’t quite exhausted, as I’m not tired of thinking about it yet.  For the last week or so, I’ve been discussing similar issues with a couple of nice atheists over at my friend Mike’s blog. Mike started off the discussion with a post asking, “How much religion do we have to study?”, referring to how much atheists have to know about religion before they can proclaim the non-existence of God.

It’s a valid question, I think.  And, I have 2 answers, at the moment:

  1. None. You can choose not to believe in God at any time, even in a completely uninformed state.
  2. Enough to be intellectually honest.

I’m serious about both answers. Concerning answer #1, I think it is perfectly valid to simply not want to believe in God.  I am not about to tell my friend Mike or the others at his blog that they can’t be atheists. That would be silly. You can be an atheist simply because you don’t want to believe that there’s any type of god who you might need to answer to. In fact, I suspect that’s the type of atheism we usually see.  They’re probably not the ones who join atheist organizations and wear t-shirts with a big scarlet A on them, but they’re out there, quietly not believing in God.

Now, if you’re Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, you’d better have something besides pompous idiotic rantings to back up your position. Even if you’re just some commenter on a blog, you’d better be ready to be intellectually honest and discuss your statements.  I think it’s fair to challenge blanket assertions like, “there’s no evidence for the existence of God.”  Seriously, anyone can say that. For some, it’s possibly the atheist version of “positive confession.” It certainly sounds authoritative, and most of the time, it probably goes unchallenged. But, what does it mean?

This is where the discussion on Mike’s blog ended up, with me asking for definitions of evidence and proof. “No evidence …”  What are they talking about?  What if I were to maintain that there’s no evidence for evolution (like some crazies might do).  Of course there’s evidence.  The question is not whether or not there’s evidence, but whether or not someone accepts the evidence as sufficient enough to conclude that it’s true. Of course, I am using the term in the legal sense, not with any implication that evidence equals proof.  Webster’s first definition for evidence is “an outward sign; indication.”  The 2nd definition is “something that furnishes proof.”

Now, proof is another matter entirely.  Can we ever prove anything?  My contention is that no, we can never really prove anything. We can only provide enough evidence or information for someone to choose to believe something. Belief is always a choice.  Even to believe that 2+2=4 is a choice, to some extent. However, mathematical and logical proofs are probably the only things that we can say are proven, by the respective laws of math and logic.  Every belief represents a decision – a Kierkegaardian leap, as it were – from collected information (including emotions, etc.) to that belief.

If we are to say that something has been proven to us, I think all we are saying is that we have sufficient information in order to make a certain leap to a belief.  What is proof, then, differs from person to person, and from decision to decision. If we are predisposed to not believing in God (for any number of reasons), I think the level of information necessary to believe in God is much higher than that necessary for the same individual to believe in no God. To be fair, the opposite would be true for someone who is more open to a belief in God.  Star Trek‘s Spock is about the only person I can think of who could possibly evaluate every decision equally. Of course, I am oversimplifying a number of things, but that’s the only possible way to deal with the issue in a blog post.

Peter (1 Peter 3:15-16) admonishes Christians to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience…”  This is what I try to do, and hopefully do it with gentleness and respect.  All I ask of atheists is that they do the same with respect to their position.

Now, I’d like to see both Christians and atheists better educated in their respective beliefs, as there’s just a whole lot of ignorance going on. But, that’s a subject for another time.

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