The late Christopher Hitchens wrote:
“What Can Be Asserted Without Evidence Can Be Dismissed Without Evidence”?
One reason that people have for being non-believers in God is a lack of evidence to support belief in God. This is obviously a different thing than positive evidence against something. The burden of proof, as they say, is on the claimant. Many times I have talked about evidence with theists and non-theists and always we return to the issue of faith. A theist must have faith that their god is the true one despite a lack of supporting evidence. An atheist may dismiss the theist’s claims because the evidence is weak or, at the very least, unreliable.
I would suggest that we must start from the presumption of disbelief. I do not believe in unicorns, dragons, cosmic teapots, talking animals and a whole plethora of others things not because I have evidence that they do not exist but because I have no evidence that they do. The same holds true for belief in gods of any kind. Furthermore Christians feel precisely the same way about Odin, Ra, Quetzalcoatl, Oghma and all the other gods that human beings have believed in throughout history.
There are reasonable objections to this. People accept many things as true without insisting on good evidence and even in the face of contradictory evidence sometimes. I accept that a coin toss will have exactly a 50% chance of landing heads or tails even when I’ve managed to throw ten heads in a row. Empirical evidence suggests the coin will land heads on each toss but I do not accept this because I know that this is simply a statistical abnormality.
Sometimes the evidence to prove a point is very complicated or difficult to understand. Nobody expects you to understand how to read DNA to appreciate that it contains the building blocks of living things encoded within it. Sometimes claims are not intuitive and seem to work against reason. The speed of light is fixed in a vacuum. If you were to sit at the head of a beam of light while light travelled towards you it would arrive at the speed of light and not twice the speed of light as you’d expect if you were sitting on a baseball heading towards another. This is counter intuitive but nevertheless true. Many of the “truths” of complex science are based on “evidence” that follows a convoluted chain of reasoning. The Theory of Evolution itself is not provable in the classical sense but is simply the most reasonable path that the evidence suggests. Good evidence supports it but does not provide absolute certainty. Good evidence serves to make it highly probable.
A key problem that I have with claims of theists is with the issue of authority. A scientist can demonstrate their logic through experimentation, an economist through modelling. Reliable authority is claimed by a good success record. We trust the conclusions of science because the conclusions are good in general and can be implemented in helpful ways and are supported by evidence. Scientists are good authorities who can “show their working” and freely allow others to repeat their tests and draw their own conclusions. When scientists are wrong they do change their minds. Perhaps not right away but when their position is untenable they have a mechanism in place to change tack.
Theologians are not such good authorities. No mechanism exists for changing tack. Members of the same religion disagree, sometimes violently. There is no possible way to test the assertions of one faction. The evidence for their claims are vague or missing. Sometimes these claims are logically consistent or based on intuition or popular assent but there is not evidence, good, testable, repeatable evidence, that supports the claims. Even the claims of probability that some science relies upon (abiogenesis, Big Bang theory, chaos theory) are open to refute with evidence. Probability works if it is the best you have based on the evidence but the evidence isn’t sufficient even to make God probable.
There is, of course, a counter argument to this. Perhaps the presumption of atheism is false. We can accept that unicorns, dragons and cosmic teapots don’t exist based on lack of evidence but why should this be true for God? Shouldn’t the atheist make the case that God does not exist before claiming disbelief? Isn’t the position of agnosticism intellectually more honesty? How should we go about putting a reasonable mechanism in place to test our reason in this situation?
We should apply both assumptions to an untestable idea. Space aliens or the Loch Ness Monster for example. What do we imagine that an alien or Nessie is? What constitutes an alien life form visiting our world or a prehistoric suvivor living in a near frozen in-land lake? What is our idea of these things? Then we try to find evidence that supports these ideas.
As an unbeliever it is not up to me come up with the idea of what God is and find evidence for it. It is up to the theist to define God in testable terms and present evidence to support the idea. If it were up to me I could simply define God as a great, bearded man who lives on top of the dome of the sky and then claim that he does not exist because the sky is not a solid firmament for God to walk upon. This would be unreasonable and more than a little rude. I must work with the definition provided to me and then counter the claims of evidence with new interpretations or better evidence.
The theist, in short, must provide an idea of what constitutes God and provide support for having reasons to hold to this idea. Failure to do so leaves God as an incoherent ideal, a half formed concept that could feasible fit any definition, even a changeable one, ever shifting to escape the attacks of evidence and reason. This is intolerable for an honest explorer. We must have something to work from if we are to make sense of an idea. If there is no sense to the word “God” then there can be no God.
I originally wrote this for Off The Map – Atheist in 2009 as part of a series explaining why I lacked belief in gods.