Reimagining the Conceptual Foundation of Atheism

The_ThinkerInevitably, in any discussion with those critical of atheism, you’ll hear “You can’t prove there’s no God, therefore atheism is not logically supportable.”

Here’s the counter: There’s this thought experiment we’ve been conducting for the past three centuries or so, the thought experiment of “What if everything works by completely natural laws and forces, with no capricious supernatural superbeings involved?”

It doesn’t matter whether or not the supernatural superbeings exist! We just decided to see what we could come up with if we assumed they didn’t. It was a trial run regarding a certain way of thinking.

That thought experiment, science, has paid off in practically everything you see around you. Not one object in my modern house, no part of our cellphones or computers or cars, nothing in modern medicine, depends on belief in gods for its existence, and in fact, could not have been created (and demonstrably was not created) by people operating solely on faith. It turns out that the thought experiment of science returned massive benefits, things never before seen, or possible, in the thousands of years before we tried it.

Atheism is this same type of thought experiment, a trial run of “IF WE ASSUME no gods exist … How would society look? How would government work? What would morality be like? How would we relate to each other? And … is it possible that by assuming this we might see the same massive benefits socially as we got scientifically?”

You don’t have to prove there’s no God to be an atheist. Atheism is a thought experiment, and every atheist — every person! — is perfectly justified in performing it. The goal of this thought experiment is not rock-solid proof of the non-existence of gods. In fact, that question is virtually irrelevant. The goal is to see what social and cultural benefits we can obtain from postulating that we live in a world devoid of mystical forces. A world where the things HUMANS do and think is the main deciding factor in eventual outcomes.

Just as it was with science, the result of this experiment might be off the charts of anything we’ve seen until now.

  • Jo Jerome

    Excellent, to the point. I often struggle with “How do I respond to X succinctly, yet effectively?” You’ve just handed me a new tool. ;-)

  • Mick

    I like that argument. It’s a good one.

  • MNb

    “You can’t prove there’s no God, therefore atheism is not logically supportable.”
    is the same as

    “You can’t prove you will always fall downward when you jump off a bridge, hence Newtons Laws are not logically supportable.”
    Still precious few people are going to try.

  • friv 5

    Scientific research and what can help us a lot in life. We all recognize that.

  • ahermit

    I think I’m trying to say the same thing when I describe myself as ‘agnostic in my approach to knowledge and therefore an atheist for all practical purposes.”

  • MNb

    No, I think you missed two points.
    “You can’t prove there’s no God,”
    Define “proof”. Because I think Herman Philipse in God in the Age of Science has proven that there is no god in the philosophical meaning of the word.
    Also the argument when used by theists is usually dishonest. You can’t prove (if “proof” has still the same meaning; theists are very good at altering meaning of a word without making this clear) there is a god either. So the default position according to this argument should be agnosticism. Indeed I started out as an agnost when I was 13 or 14.

    • Michael Enquist


      Thanks for pointing out this book. I’m going to read it soon.

      I have never felt comfortable with the “you can’t prove a negative” argument in any discussion, not just the non-existence of god(s).

      The easy way out is this:
      1. You can’t prove a negative!
      2. Prove it!

      I would say that we have been conducting the experiment of god-free societies for quite some time, at least since the Enlightenment.

      The legal systems of the US, countries in western Europe, Japan and China, to name a few, do not rely on religion. No jury in those countries is ever told to pray to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence. To be sure, the jurors may pray on their own, just as scientists may believe they are learning about god, but the system does not rely on the existence of a deity to operate. Neither does our governmental process. We elect Congress and the President without looking at a goat’s entrails or sacrificing our first born on altars or any of the methodologies used in the past to ask gods about who should lead. The >system< of electing and appointing government officials, and of writing laws and carrying them out is rational, even if the people who are involved are not.

      • Hank Fox

        As I say in my own book (Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith), you can prove a negative. For instance, I can prove there’s no Batman.

        You start by defining what you mean — for instance, the guy who lives in Gotham City and dresses up as a bat doesn’t exist because Gotham City doesn’t exist. There is no billionaire Bruce Wayne, and he doesn’t have an ex-circus performer ward named Dick Grayson, or a butler named Alfred Pennyworth.

        There is no Batman anywhere in the universe, and never has been, because the DEFINITION of Batman contains these verifiably fictional details.

        Only half jokingly, I also say I can prove there’s no God … but the proof only works on people who are already open-minded and rational.

        • Agni Ashwin

          It’s true that there is no Gotham City…on Earth.

          • no santa

            Actually, there is a Gotham…a little town in southwestern Wisconsin. But not Gotham City, Just Gotham. At the junction of hwy 60 and cnty JJ

  • TheSquirrel

    I’ve always found that line of argument infuriating. “You can’t prove God DOESN’T exist!” I openly acknowledge that some form of god COULD conceivably exist, but, what, because I can’t prove he doesn’t that somehow makes it more likely that he does? Excuses for the non-existence of proof supporting their claim doesn’t make it any better, either.
    Really, someone tries this line on me I give them one, maybe two sentences to try and show them why it’s a stupid thing to say, and after that I let them go. You can’t have a rational discussion with an irrational person.