Evidence and Atheism

Time and again I've heard people say that they don't believe in God because they think there is insufficient evidence for His existence. If the person saying this is an atheist (one who thinks that God doesn't exist, that 'God exists' is a false statement), then they imply that they do have enough evidence for their atheism. Clearly, if we reject belief in God due to (alleged) insufficient evidence, then we would be irrational to accept atheism, if the evidence for God's non-existence were similarly insufficient. It would be a radical inconsistency. If theistic belief requires evidence, so must atheistic belief. If we have no evidence either way, then the logical conclusion would be agnosticism; an agnostic being one who doesn't know what to believe on the issue of God's existence. In this short article I do not present any evidence for God, I just want to point out the logic of atheism. And the logic of atheism, it seems to me, makes atheism is very difficult to defend.

So if theism requires evidence, atheism does too. But how would one go about collecting evidence for atheism? This question raises a host of problems, because atheism consists essentially of what philosophers call a negative existential, a statement to the effect that a certain thing does not exist. Consider the negative existential, "There are no white ravens." How would one prove this statement to be true? Unless it were somehow part of the meaning of the word raven that ravens must be black or non-white (just as it is part of the meaning of bachelor that bachelors are unmarried), then it will be a long and arduous task. What we would have to do is to find every single raven in the world and check its colour. This is because the statement "There are no white ravens" is logically equivalent to "Every raven is such that it isn't white." and indeed to "Every single thing that exists is not a white raven." Therefore, to know with certainty that there are no white ravens one would have to know of each thing that exists, that it is not a white raven. In a similar way, the statement "There is no God" is logically equivalent to "For anything that exists, that thing is not God." How could we ever know enough to assert anything about everything that exists? It would amount to a claim about knowing all the causes of all the things we see, and don't see, around us in the world. What follows from this? It would seem to follow that to know with certainty that God doesn't exist, one must have infinite knowledge. But all infinite knowledge must be derived from God. So if anyone has infinite knowledge, then God exists; but if no-one has infinite knowledge, then we cannot know that God doesn't exist. Either way atheism is left unsupported.

Allow me to make one more point. It is a point about the amount of evidence required to warrant certain conclusions. Some conclusions require more evidence than others. If someone puts two cups of coffee in front of you and says that to one he added sugar and to the other he added salt, then, since the consequences of getting the salty drink wouldn't be too bad, you don't need a huge amount of evidence in order to make your choice. However, if to one cup he added sugar while adding cyanide to the other, then you would want to have much more evidence before you make your choice. What are the possibilities when choosing to believe that God doesn't exist? If the Christian is right, then life beyond the grave is connected with trust in God, and it is difficult to see how an atheist could be truly said to trust in God. So, if the Christian is right, then the atheist is making what could be a very costly error. But if the atheist is right, the Christian's error is not nearly so costly. This was exactly Pascal's point in his wager, "should a man be in error in supposing the Christian religion to be true, he could not be a loser by mistake. But how irreparable is his loss, and how inescapable is his danger should he err in supposing it to be false." Given that such high risks are attached to atheistic belief, the position needs a huge amount of evidence before it should be accepted ... the margin for error is virtually nil. The Indian philosopher, Ravi Zacharias, puts it well when he says, "All judgements bring with them a margin of error. But no judgement ought to carry with it the potential for so irretrievable a loss that every possible gain is unworthy of merit. The atheist makes precisely such a hazardous judgement. It is an all-or-nothing gamble of himself, thrust into the slot machine of life. It is a faith beyond the scope of reason."

Neither this, nor any of the above, is an argument for belief in God, rather it is an argument for being wary of atheism. The more logical position would seem to be agnosticism. But the true agnostic is open to the evidence for God's existence, are you?

The cyanide in the coffee example is due to Steve Makin of Sheffield University.