Atheism: A Null Hypothesis on God

It’s funny, but I realized that when I talk about myself in relationship to atheists I often sound like a post-civil-rights white person trying to minimize the gap between myself and another group.

I don’t have anything personally against atheists.

Some of my best friends are atheists.

I even like Ricky Gervais. He’s an atheist, you know.

All of this aside, I have tried in vain over the years to understand atheism. I’ve written about it several times, and whenever I do, I get a bucket of responses from atheists. And of course if I’m ever feeling disconnected from my non-believing brothers and sisters, I really have to go no further than the comment board on the Huffington Post (it seems they have quite a fascination with my articles there).

Try as I may to get atheism, I still don’t. I do, however, see where agnostics are coming from. In fact, I identify myself quite often as a Christian agnostic. This from the website, Infidels.org on the origin of the word:

“Thomas Henry Huxley invented the word agnostic in the Spring of 1869…Huxley first used the word agnostic at a party at James Knowles’s house on Clapham Common prior to the formation of the Metaphysical Society…He [Huxley] took it from St. Paul’s mention of the altar to ‘the Unknown God.’”

The actual Greek roots of the word, “a-gnosis” means, “without knowledge.” Basically, Huxley asserted that he didn’t feel he had sufficient understanding either way to say with certainty that God does or does not exist. And really, if we consider the centrality of faith in the context of the metaphysical, no one KNOWS that God exists, or else they would have no need for faith. I understand that some will say their faith is so strong that it feels to them like certitude, but that is different than truly knowing.

There’s also the notion of “deep knowing,” which some people claim supersedes the vagueness of agnosticism. But again, in considering the actual etymology of the word, the type of knowledge Huxley is talking about is a cerebral, intellectual knowledge, not a gut feeling, regardless of the strength of conviction.

So by this definition, we’re all agnostic, really.

And that’s why I struggle to understand atheism.

Etymologically, atheism has similar Greek roots to agnosticism, coming from the words “a-theos” which means “no God” or “without God.” This implies the same kind of certitude that a religious fundamentalist might claim is arguing they “know without any doubt that God exists.” Based on what? Either of you? There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of God. Especially when we can’t even nail down what exactly it is we’re talking about.

For some, God is an anthropomorphic “other.” For others, as philosopher John D. Caputo suggests, it’s not that God exists as some independent metaphysical entity, but rather God “insists, so that the rest of creation might exist.”

Put another way, God is the impetus, the spark, the divine breath, the “inspiration,” if you will from which all the rest of creation finds meaning. But God is not to be found “elsewhere.” It’s more like light in that way, conspiring with the physical world to create something that makes sense. Yet to borrow a scientific concept, when you’re seeing an object, what you’re actually seeing is the light, or more specifically, the result of the interaction between the light and the observed object.

But you don’t see the thing itself; you see the light. But the light is the means by which we find meaning in all that we see.

Pretty amazing understanding of God if you ask me. But how do you measure it? How do you prove it? Or disprove it?

One of the cornerstones of science is the scientific method, which is the process by which phenomena are understood and measured based on observable data. And I can see why someone who leans heavily on the scientific method would say that, since the idea of God is not directly observable in the ways defined by the scientific method, it’s a non-issue.

But here’s the thing. At one time, atomic particles were not observable, given the instruments at our disposal. Neither was dark matter. Or gravity, for that matter, which still cannot be directly observed: only measured as it affects other objects. It’s not a “thing” that can be pinned down.

Sound familiar?

I respect the process and constraints of the scientific method. It has been critical to so much of the advancement we’ve made as a species. but to say that even science is entirely constrained by the scientific method is to ignore the creative imagination required to stretch the boundaries, to imagine what might be, beyond what is now understood to be. It’s this kind of imagination that pushes humanity to create new tools that have allowed us to observe things we never knew existed before.

But all of those things – and I’d argue, much more we’ve yet to discover – have been a part of creation, despite out inability to observe or even conceive of them. Making room for those possibilities, seem, to me, to be at the heart of science as much as the rigorous processes defined by the scientific method.

In my graduate studies, I learned that every time you formed a hypothesis (God is), you were also required to develop a null hypothesis that says the opposite of your hypothesis (God isn’t). Keep in mind that there are no “facts” in science, but rather hypotheses (educated guesses) and theories (hypotheses that have been supported by science, but that may ultimately be disproved). Now, I’m not a scientists, but it makes perfect sense within this model to have the “null hypothesis” that God doesn’t exist.

However, to leap from that to certitude of God’s non-existence is to violate the principles of the scientific method, isn’t it? Even Aristotle conceded that the boundaries of science prohibited it from testing certain metaphysical phenomena such as the existence of God.

It seems to me, to paraphrase Paul (like Huxley), that we risk becoming that which we hate in staking claims of certainty on either side of this issue. In pushing back primarily against religious fundamentalism, atheism risks embracing the very fundamentalism it resists. And in doing so, it abandons the very principles of science it claims as the basis for non-belief.

I can work with a null hypothesis on the existence of God. There’s room for dialogue. It creates space for creative imagination on both sides, whereas fundamentalism of any stripe seeks to draw lines of distinction (ie, division) and to stem conversation for the purpose of “being right.”

I don’t know if God exists. You don’t know if God doesn’t exist. But if scientists can not only coexist on both sides of a hypothesis, but even use that difference to promote progress, it seems we can and should apply similar principles to the public forum.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280183233 Jerry Wilson

    The author seems to misunderstand what an atheist is. Although there are some atheists that will dogmatically insist that God does not exist, I believe those are in the minority. Sometimes the rhetoric spewing from a rabid atheist might sound like certitude, but in most cases they are not internally certain.

    If you look at the word, atheist, like he does, it actually means something a little different. First of all, theism is not a synonym for God but for a belief in God. The prefix “a’” means without. So an atheist is a person without a belief in a god. That doesn’t mean they are certain that there is no god. If I asked someone, “Do you believe in God?” and if they answered “yes” then they are a theist. But if they answer anything else, including “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” then they have no belief in God, therefore they are not a theist. The word for “not a theist” is atheist, by definition. So if you understand that an atheist is a person who simply has no belief in God, but perhaps has not totally ruled out the possibility, then you will better be able to wrap your brain around why someone can claim to be an atheist.

    Some might say that this is actually the definition of an agnostic. But, while atheism means without a belief in god, agnosticism means without a knowledge of God. Since no one at all has a knowledge of God, no matter what they believe, then everybody is, by definition, an agnostic. People who use the term simply are those who admit they don’t know.
    Taking it further, though, using the methods of science, there is no way to prove that God does not exist. But the scientific method uses inductive reasoning, which means that even though most theories can never be proven 100%, one can collect so much evidence in support of a theory that it is treated, for all practical purposes, as a fact. When one hypothesizes the existence of God, and especially a specific god with certain personality traits, then the empirical evidence in support of this hypothesis is so scarce, even non-existent, that it can be completely ignored as a possibility. Thus, although God has not been disproved, he is relegated to the extremely unlikely to exist pile and forgotten about, that is until some fundamentalist waves him in your face again. 

  • Digital Cuttlefish

    It’s actually quite simple. Atheism is the privative category, the “none of the above” left over after all belief communities are accounted for. Non-christians are “heathens” (includes muslims and jews, as well as atheists). Non-muslims are infidels or kafir (includes jews and christians, as well as atheists). Non-jews are called gentiles or goyim (includes christians and muslims, as well as atheists). There may well be words for people who are not believers in the norse pantheon, or the greek or egyptian or indian gods, but I don’t know them. Only one word applies to those who choose “none of the above”: atheist. It does not have to be an active rejection–I doubt that christians even think to actively reject the gods of thousands of other faiths, since all they have to do is believe their own–atheists simply do not believe in a god or gods.

  • Tony Maguire

    Just as you identify yourself as a Christian agnostic (believe but don’t know there’s a god), I would identify myself as an agnostic atheist (don’t believe and don’t know).   I think most atheists feel this way.  I don’t know that there are no gods (lets not forget there is a multitude to consider).  I also can’t know with 100% certainty that there is no such thing as leprechauns or the tooth fairy.  I find the belief in gods just as absurd.

    The scientific theory involves making an hypothesis that is supported by evidence and then testing said hypothesis.  The “evidence” for the  god hypothesis is very weak.   Throughout history gods were used to explain several naturally occurring phenomena that we now fully understand.   We still have much to discover.  To quote Neil DeGrass Tyson (scientist), “If that is how you want to invoke your evidence of God, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.”

    • Ione

      I agree with this. Defining an atheist to be someone absolutely certain that God doesn’t exist would exclude the likes of Bertrand Russel and Richard Dawkins.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    But here’s the thing. At one time, atomic particles were not observable,
    given the instruments at our disposal. Neither was dark matter. Or
    gravity, for that matter, which still cannot be directly observed: only
    measured as it affects other objects. It’s not a “thing” that can be
    pinned down.

    So some day maybe you’ll invent a God-ometer and be able to demonstrate the existence of God, even indirectly. Get back to us when that happens. In the meantime, theists have been touting God as an explanation for natural phenomena for millenia. Gods, either directly or though agents (angels and demons) caused rain and earthquakes, caused human illness, kept the planets  in their paths, created all the “kinds” of animals and plants, etc. In the light of scientific advancement, the God hypothesis has failed in all those instances. Any vague, numinous, unknowable God-residue is not a justified conclusion from the available evidence, it is the only portion of that earlier God-soaked worldview which has been eliminated.

    You may say we are throwing out the baby with the bath water; my response to that would be: show me the ****ing baby!

    If you want to insist on strict agnosticism in the case of God, then to be consistent, you should also be agnostic about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, leprechauns, etc. After all, no has proven that leprechauns do not exist. Get rid of the double standard, the special pleading for your particular deity.

    • Christian Piatt

      posting sarcastic comments is one thing one someone’s persona blog. I can handle that. Posting the same comment three times is a little much.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    But here’s the thing. At one time, atomic particles were not observable,
    given the instruments at our disposal. Neither was dark matter. Or
    gravity, for that matter, which still cannot be directly observed: only
    measured as it affects other objects. It’s not a “thing” that can be
    pinned down.

    So some day maybe you’ll invent a God-ometer and be able to demonstrate the existence of God, even indirectly. Get back to us when that happens. You can’t call us close-minded for not accepting the convincing evidence you have failed to present.

     In the meantime, theists have been touting God as an explanation for numerous phenomena for millenia. Gods, either directly or though agents (angels and demons) caused rain and earthquakes, caused human illness, kept the planets  in their paths, created all the “kinds” of animals and plants, etc. In the light of scientific advancement, the God hypothesis has failed in all those instances. Any vague, numinous, unknowable God-residue is not a justified conclusion from the available evidence, it is the only portion of that earlier God-soaked worldview which has been eliminated. It is you clinging to a conclusion when all the supporting arguments have been kicked out from underneath it.

    You may say we are throwing out the baby with the bath water; my response to that would be: show me the ****ing baby!

    If you want to insist on strict agnosticism in the case of God, then to be consistent, you should also be agnostic about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Thor, leprechauns, etc. Get rid of the double standard, the special pleading for your particular deity.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    But here’s the thing. At one time, atomic particles were not observable,
    given the instruments at our disposal. Neither was dark matter. Or
    gravity, for that matter, which still cannot be directly observed: only
    measured as it affects other objects. It’s not a “thing” that can be
    pinned down.

    So some day maybe you’ll invent a God-ometer and be able to demonstrate the existence of God, even indirectly. Get back to us when that happens. You can’t call us close-minded for not accepting the convincing evidence you have failed to present.

     In the meantime, theists have been touting God as an explanation for numerous phenomena for millenia. Gods, either directly or though agents (angels and demons) caused rain and earthquakes, caused human illness, kept the planets  in their paths, created all the “kinds” of animals and plants, etc. In the light of scientific advancement, the God hypothesis has failed in all those instances. Any vague, numinous, unknowable God-residue is not a justified conclusion from the available evidence, it is the only portion of that earlier God-soaked worldview which has been eliminated. It is you clinging to a conclusion when all the supporting arguments have been kicked out from underneath it.

    You may say we are throwing out the baby with the bath water; my response to that would be: show me the ****ing baby!

    If you want to insist on strict agnosticism in the case of God, then to be consistent, you should also be agnostic about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Thor, leprechauns, etc. Get rid of the double standard, the special pleading for your particular deity.

  • Brazenlucidity

    It seems you’re having problems with implicit/explicit and strong/weak atheism. I’m an atheist concerning god/gods as well as faeries. If you want to split hairs to create a controversy I guess that’s your right. Sure, call me an agnostic if that makes you feel better. The fact is, if 80% of the populace were attempting to get its morality from what faeries want, you’d probably come out as an afaeryist. I suspect you’d roll your eyes at anyone claiming that “But you would change your mind if evidence were shown, right? So you really are agnostic to faeries.” It’s a useless and needless point. Atheist equals non-theist. Since I currently don’t believe there’s a god, that’s what I am. Claiming otherwise isn’t very honest.

    Should I ask that you claim the title of a-non-theist? How absurd. The only reason the term atheist exists is because theism is the predominant view currently. Like climate-change denier exists because it’s the predominant view of scientists that the climate is changing.

    Hope this clears some things up for ya.

  • Brazenlucidity

    For the record, I’m pretty active in atheist groups, including spending some time with a few big names in the movement. I know of no atheist who has said “God cannot exist.” If that’s your definition of atheism, then, well, nope. Not many atheists around, nor a-unicornists, or a-elvists, etc. Again, I fail to see the relavence here. No offense.

  • Dana69

    Love your
    attempt at creating a strawman then trying to destroy the argument. Bravo!! You
    can’t comprehend how someone could not make the “leap of faith,” and
    simply accept god in all his glory without a scintilla of evidence. And you
    base this on the fact that at some point we “could not observe atomic particles”.

    Interestingly,
    when one creates a hypothesis, they engage in a process to try and confirm
    such. Which is why we have physical proof of that nebulous “atomic particle”
    hypothesized; and is now a fact.

    You have admitted
    there is no fact / proof of god. What you created was a hypothesis of god, but
    it seems that this hypothesis is not subject to the process of proving as it
    must be accepted on “faith”. Where is thinking being supposed to go
    with that deadend?

    There has been
    some well-crafted responses correcting your attempt at slanting a view then
    arguing against such.

    There is a
    difference (semantics aside) between thinking there is a god & believing
    there is a god, or believing you can’t know (which is weird). How can one know
    they can’t know. This is circular.

    Sorry you can’t
    “grasp” the essentials of non-belief……I guess your agnostic
    regarding atheists. i.e. You CAN’T know why we don’t believe.

    Regards,

    Dana

  • Anonymous

    Christian,

    You wrote’  “So by this definition, we’re all agnostic, really.”

    Now consider the following syllogisms.
     
    P1- Agnosticism about God is to be without knowledge of God
    P2 – Where knowledge is defined as justified true belief; To be without knowledge of God is to be without justified true belief in God
    C -Therefore Agnosticism about God is to be without justified true belief in God
     
    P1 – Agnosticism is to be without justified true belief in God
    P2 – Without justified true belief in God is a subset of non-belief in God
    C – Therefore Agnosticism about god is a subset of non-belief in God
     
    P1 – Atheism is non-belief in God
    P2 – Agnosticism is a subset of non-belief in God
    C – Therefore Agnosticism is a subset of Atheism
     
    Or to put another way, all Agnostics are Atheists. Which means we are all atheists! Now are you not surprised?

  • http://twitter.com/Erirdar Ilverin Curunethir

    Then surely we should also use the null hypothesis as regards to unicorns and dragons.

  • Steve Greene

    Sam to Tom: “Do you believe in a god?”

    Tom: “No, I don’t.”

    Sam: “Then you’re an atheist, because you don’t believe in a god.”

    That’s how complex it is to understand atheism.

    If you want to call the trees casting their seed on the wind “God”, be my guest – but if you want to pretend poetic metaphor and ontological, empirical claims about reality are the same thing, then you’re just being dense.


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