One of the more tiresome parts of being an atheist is having to deal with preachers who drag out the old apologetic cliches and convince themselves that they’re being clever. Just so is this piece from one Rev. Eric Strachan:
[I] like to ask every atheist, “What percentage of the total knowledge that one could possibly acquire do you think you have?”
Interestingly, most answer around five per cent or thereabout. “Think again,” I say. “It’s more likely to be around .05 per cent!”
I then like to ask every atheist, “Do you think in the 99.95 per cent of knowledge that you don’t have, there could exist the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ?”
Like Pascal’s Wager, this argument turns up often in Christian apologetics, so I thought I’d write a detailed answer to it.
In the strict logical sense, yes, it’s true that our knowledge encompasses only a small fraction of all the facts there are to know about the universe, and it’s true that the existence of a god might be one of those unknown facts. It’s also true, by that very same reasoning, that there might be leprechauns, dragons, unicorns, goblins, centaurs, fairies and Santa Claus. But that doesn’t mean we have positive reason to believe in the existence of any of those beings. There’s a vast set of facts that we don’t possess, but since that set might contain absolutely anything, it’s pointless to base our lives on speculation about its contents. That’s why, as a general rule, we should believe only those propositions for which we have supporting evidence. We should and must make our decisions on the basis of what we do know, rather than what we don’t.
But there’s a larger fallacy in this argument, which is shown in the above quote with beautiful clarity. This fallacy is that the people making it are never just asking us to allow for the theoretical possibility of a god unknown to humanity somewhere in the far reaches of the universe. They are always asking us to believe in a very specific notion of God – a god whose personality, wants and desires they claim to know, and whom they believe has intervened actively in human history. In short, they themselves believe that God’s existence lies not within the sphere of our ignorance, but the sphere of our knowledge.
The question is, how did they come by those beliefs? How can theists possibly hold such a specific, detailed conception of God, unless some fact somewhere within the 1% or less of things we do know gives them a justification for it? And if that’s the case, they should be able to show us that fact so we can examine it ourselves. If they can’t do this, or if the facts they propose don’t stand up to scrutiny, then we are within our rights to dismiss their belief as unfounded and arbitrary. We are atheists precisely because all the god claims that we have so far surveyed have not stood up to this examination. Of course, we reserve the option to change our minds in the future if we find one that does – but given the repeated failures of these claims in the past, we rightly consider that unlikely.
Evidence is the golden thread that links belief to truth. It’s the only reliable way to choose one belief in particular out of the vast and limitless ocean of possible beliefs, and to do so with confidence that the belief we choose will accurately represent the way the world truly is. If that evidence is not there, or if it’s insufficient to bear the weight placed upon it, then that golden thread is severed and the belief is ungrounded, arbitrary. And considering how many possible beliefs there are, and the infinitesimal percentage of them that accurately represent the world, it’s all but certain that an arbitrarily chosen belief is false. Asking a person to believe on such an arbitrary basis as faith is merely an invitation to be wrong. We atheists believe that one’s worldview should be more solidly grounded than that.