I’m an atheist and my wife is a Christian church pastor. For the purposes of this series, I call her “RevMo.”
When RevMo and I first began dating, I was aware that she believed in Christianity, but there was little emphasis on church going. I soon learned that she had previously tried to become a pastor and gone through Seminary, but it didn’t work out. I was still an angry, young atheist who would often tease her about religion. Eventually she told me that she didn’t appreciate it, so I stopped. It would be several years, a wedding and a move across the country until she began going to church again.
She would attend with her mother, and their pastor soon learned that she had her M.Div. (Masters of Divinity degree) and could be a “Pulpit Supply.” This meant that when their pastor was away on a Sunday that RevMo could do the pastoral duties and provide the sermon. After a while, she came home on a Sunday after church and told me she wanted to continue her journey to become a pastor.
I decided to support her endeavors, but I was still angry at religion. I was always comfortable discussing my disbelief. I could even say I was “Religious” about it. I was 100% positive that there were no gods, especially the Judeo-Christian creator God. I had not read any books about atheism yet, nor studied much philosophy. But through a lot of thought and some discussions with believers and non-believers, my thinking began to shift.
When I was thirteen years old, I had joined a Youth Group in my home town and became “born again.” I actively chose not to question my faith. The questions just built and built in my brain, so by the time I was fifteen, I hit a boiling point. Once I began letting myself think about those questions, it was a matter of weeks before I realized I didn’t believe any of it. I thought it through for years and found other ideas about the nature of the Universe that comforted me. I can’t call them “beliefs” and they changed constantly. Plus none of them were based on any kind of empirical evidence.
Once my focus switched to evidence based thinking, I quit considering any kind of philosophy. I stopped thinking about it all together. This may have contributed to my anger at religion, which was beyond those times when people cause harm to each other over religious beliefs.
So I began running through it in my head and reading about it. That was when I first discovered the “Dawkins Scale,” which was created by evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. The scale is set one through seven where a one is for someone who believes in a god or gods unequivocally. A seven is for those who are absolutely sure that there cannot be gods.
The scale is easy to read and understand. And we can all find where our beliefs lie on the scale, even if it’s between two options. For example, one friend told be she was a 5.5, and another said he was a 3.5. When RevMo and I got married, I was definitely a seven. There are those who assume that an atheist must have an active disbelief in all gods, just as I did, in order to fit the label of “atheist.” But it’s far simpler. Anyone who lacks belief in any gods is atheist, whether it’s active or passive.
It was also at this time that a friend asked me if I specifically identified as an atheist. I said, “Not necessarily. I fit the definition of an atheist. I identify as a skeptic.” I am skeptical of any and all notions put forth without empirical evidence. And that was when my position on the scale shifted from a seven to a 6.9999999. It may appear to be a minor change, but for me it was a revelation.
There are still people who tell me that this mindset makes me agnostic and not atheist, but that remains incorrect. It’s narrow thinking. I was even told this in the comments of a piece I wrote here on Patheos, even though I had written about it specifically. I expect it to happen again this time because I’m covering a lot of ground and some will skim and miss this part.
The word “Agnostic” can be either an adjective or a noun without changing the spelling. I use it as an adjective to describe and modify the kind of atheist I am.
Anyone who has never been brought up to believe in a god, or somehow grew up in a corner of the world that religion does not touch, is atheist. This is why it’s almost unfair that there has to be a term for it. I see it as a default setting. My cat is atheist. She doesn’t actively disbelieve in any gods either.
I’m open about my atheism with most people, but when RevMo became the pastor of her church, I decided to only slowly talk about it with a few trusted members. It has been nearly four years now, so most if not all of them know, and almost none seem to have a problem with it. There are a few who have asked me questions, simply because they don’t understand. Then again, I’m an atheist married to a pastor, which is rare. If I weren’t me, I’d have a few questions too. Heck, I am me, and I still have questions.
On occasion, I’m asked specifically how I can disprove God. The short answer is that I can’t. The longer answer comes in two parts. The first being that I don’t have an active disbelief. Instead I have a passive lack of belief. I look at the empirical evidence for gods, of which there is none, and see no reason to believe. The second part is a far more complicated philosophical discussion about proof and disproof. Ultimately, it is the believer who is making a claim, and therefore has the burden of proof.
All religions require faith, which is to say, “a belief despite a lack of evidence.” Faith becomes a necessary and praise-worthy tenet and something a believer is told to be proud of. For a skeptic like me, faith has no value. When a religious believer makes the statement, “My God is real and you can’t disprove it,” I say that believer is right, at least about the second part. When a claim is made, the burden of proof is on the claimant, not the listener.
If there was any evidence for a god, the believer would no longer require faith. However, since there isn’t, there is no way for the listener who denies the claim to disseminate evidence against the the statment. Without evidence, there is no way to prove or disprove the claim. So instead we look at common philosophical parlance.
I often see this quote from atheist writer and speaker Christopher Hitchens on atheist websites and social media pages: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without Evidence.” He was paraphrasing an ancient Latin proverb: “Quod gratis asseritur gratis negatur,” which means “What is freely asserted is freely deserted.”
I argued this statement with RevMo’s Uncle several years ago. I wish he were still alive so he could come on to the comments section and counter what I’m about to say. He was a biology professor who accepted evolution, but still subscribed to the notion of “Intelligent Design.” He claimed to have evidence that the Universe must require an intelligent creator. To which I responded with a little snark, “That’s great. Present your evidence in a paper and have it peer reviewed.” If he could do it, he would probably win a Nobel Prize.He had no evidence to back his claim that the Universe required a creator. I could use the same logic to claim that this creator must have required a creator. And that this creator’s creator required a creator. And so on. Eventually we would have to accept that time and space are infinite because it’s impossible to reach back far enough to find an original creator of creators. We both agreed that the Universe had a beginning and would have an end. It’s complicated. He understood what I was saying, but he stuck to his belief anyway.
When someone makes a claim, the onus of proof falls upon him or her. It never falls on the person who rejects the claim. So I offer two analogies to illustrate this practice. The first is the classic “Russel’s Teapot.” And the second is my own that I made off the top of my head many years before I began studying philosophy.
Russell’s Teapot came from the mind of mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. During the early days of the space race, well before a human set foot on the moon, Russell showed that proof must come from the claimant by way of an hypothetical conundrum.
He posited that there is a small teapot in orbit around our Sun, somewhere between the orbits of the Earth and Mars. It had been there for a long time, and certainly longer than humans had been able to sent anything into space. He then invited himself to be disproven for his claim.
Let’s pretend this was a claim in the future instead of today, or even 1958 when he first came up with it. With some simple geometry, we know that Earth is approximately 93 million miles from our star. And Mars is about 142 million miles from the Sun. When “A” is the area “r” is that radius and we use we simply need to subtract the area of Mars’s Orbit to that of Earth’s using πr².
π142² = 48 Trillion Miles. π93² = 27 Trillion Miles.
Subtract and we’re looking at 21,000,000,000,000 square miles of space for a teapot that is less than a foot long.
Let’s forget that the solar system is not two dimensional and it’s actually a much bigger area we’re looking at once we realize we don’t know how far North or South we’re adding. Conservatively, let’s just add three zeroes and make it 21 Quadrillion cubical miles. But then we also have to remember that this hypothetical teapot is moving in orbit, so scanning one portion at a time for this tiny object won’t work either. It has to all be scanned at once.
All this just to disprove a claim. It’s impossible. Only if the teapot is actually real and happens to be found can it be proven. But if it’s not real, it’s impossible by any standard for it to be disproven. So even if a few billion people believed there was a teapot in orbit between Earth and Mars, but couldn’t offer evidence to back the claim, would you choose to believe it just because so many others do?
Then we come to my own analogy. Long before I read any philosophy, married RevMo, or even realized I was an agnostic atheist, I was asked by a close friend if I could disprove his god. Since I’m a huge comic book fan, especially Superman, I put my notions into those terms.
I said, “What if I told you that I can fly like Superman. I can just take flight under my own power and soar around the world faster than the speed of sound. But instead of showing you I can do it, which would be easy since I know I can, I’m going to force you to come up with proof that I can’t do it.”
If I could go back in time 20 years, I’d tell my younger self “You’re on the right track. Keep going.”
I offered no evidence to back up my claim. And there’s no evidence for someone who doesn’t believe me to prove me wrong. Is it fair to ask someone to prove the claimant wrong when he or she can’t or won’t produce evidence to disseminate?
Let’s assume there’s an omnipotent, omniscient God. Which is to say the all-knowing and all-powerful God from the big three world religions. He/she/it would have the ability to prove itself or at least offer some evidence of its supernatural existence. And by “Supernatural” I mean outside observable nature.
No one can disprove Russell’s Teapot.
No one can disprove that I can fly like Superman.
No one can disprove that the Universe was created by a god.
And here’s the point where I might lose a few of my fellow atheists.
As I described earlier, I switched from being a Seven on the “Dawkins Scale” to being a 6.99999999. I’m still a skeptic. I still see no reason to believe in any supernatural beings like gods. I simply find calling myself a seven to be philosophically untenable.
Being agnostic about atheism or theism is more than simply saying “I don’t know.” It’s saying “There are some things in the Universe we cannot and never will know.” I would even argue that those on the Dawkins Scale who identify as a one or a seven, which is to say they claim to know that there is or is not a god or gods, are in fact also agnostic, even if they claim to be gnostic. Gnostic means “with knowledge” and Agnostic means “without knowledge.”
My problem is that to claim to be a seven, or to say that I’m 100% positive that there cannot be gods, is to make a claim and have specific knowledge to back it up. I would have to make the claim that “There cannot be gods.” I don’t think there are. I see no reason to believe one or more exists. But I can’t make that claim for the simple reason that I have no evidence to back it up.
If I said, “There are no gods. And you must disprove me,” from a philosophical standpoint, this is a faith-based claim. Just like Russell’s Teapot, there is no evidence for or against. The practical upside is that it could be disproven by one simple gesture. God could show up and say “Here I am.” But I’m not holding my breath.
There are a few esoteric upshots to this mindset.
First, it allows me to have meaningful conversations with some believers. Specifically, I can talk to believers with open minds like some of the members of RevMo’s church. I’m not looking to change anyone’s beliefs, but at least I can discuss some of the issues from the point of view of a non-believer in a way that I couldn’t as an active disbeliever.
Second, and this is the geek in me, it allows me to understand and appreciate fantasy and magic in fiction in a way that I couldn’t before. Whether it’s a boy who lived, a Hobbit journeying Middle Earth, believing a man can fly, that a woman can have a magic lasso, or that a bite from a radioactive spider can imbue super powers … it renewed my interest in all levels of fiction. And as a person who has invested in comics to the point that my collection has literally fallen through the floor, that has value for me.
Have you been asked to disprove an unprovable claim? Join the conversation and describe your experience in the comments.