So, there has been some discussion all over the web, especially the atheist blogosphere, about Richard Dawkins’ recent revelation that he is not 100% certain that god does not exist (actually, this has been his consistent view for many years, as many have already commented).
Much has already been said, so much of what will follow may be redundant, but in an email exchange today on a local email list, someone said the following:
I’m 100% certain god doesn’t exist as well. I’m also 100% certain that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and I’m 100% certain that gravity is not the cause of microscopic or invisible elves that apply glue to the bottom of my feet….
He went on, but this is the important part. I responded to him and wanted to post that response here, because while it is not comprehensive of all the relevant issues, it addresses something that is overlooked by many atheists who claim more certainty than they can chew.
Here is my reply:
The problem with this 100% certainty is the meaning of the term ‘god’ there. If you mean, by that generic term, the specific god as described in the Bible (for example), then you are on pretty firm ground. But the term itself does not point to any specific god, but to the larger metaphysical/theological concept with many possible referents.
While it may seem trivial, I can point out that in history certain political figures have been thought of as gods. The Sun has been considered god to many cultures as well. You may argue that the definition of god does not allow such things to be meaningfully called “gods”, and there is some room for argument there, but my counter to most of them would be to say that the more transcendent, incomprehensible, etc concept of god that we think of today is basically a theological pull-back to vagueness as a response to the advance of empirical knowledge about the world.
What I mean by this is that while gods were once commonly thought of as either real beings which people could interact with (Zeus liked the ladies, for example) or general forces in nature which were directly responsible for events in the world, our understanding of nature, exponentially increased by the evolution of the scientific method, has pushed those concepts further and further from physical things which were super-human to completely transcendent and supernatural in nature (if that sentence can even be sensible at all…).
And even given the arguments against the supernatural in general (at least in terms of its ability to interact with nature and still be transcendent), there are still concepts of gods still used which either could not be dis-proven and which are also compatible with what we understand about the universe (therefore there is no way to be 100% certain of them not existing) or they are actualy physical things, like people, idols, etc which can be demonstrated to exist, even if we don’t think of them as being worthy of the title ‘god’. It is not for us to determine what the definition of ‘god’ is for believers; it is for us to ask “what do you believe, and why do you believe it?” Let semantics stand aside.
I am guessing that your certainty is pointing to very specific, and probably Abrahamic, definitions of gods. If so, I will say that those concepts are logically incoherent, assuming you take all scripture to be equally valid. Because if you consider some scripture more relevant, then all you need to do is decide which descriptions from scripture you like (based upon some logical criteria, say) and use those verses to define what god is. And depending on how one does that, they could believe in a god which is logically coherent but which has no evidential support. And many theologians do just that.
To such gods, all you can say is that “I have no proof that such a being does not exist, but I also see no reason to accept any claims that it does exist.” That is what being an agnostic-atheist is; not 100% certainty, but lacking belief (whether due to lack of evidence or otherwise). By making the broad statement that you are 100% certain that god doesn’t exist, you have not allowed for the possibility that the person who hears that phrase has a logically coherent concept of god which, technically, cannot be dis-proven. Therefore, claiming certainty of that level would seem unjustified to that theist.
And that seeming, by that theist with their logically-coherent god, would be correct. Because even while they still have the burden of proof to demonstrate such a god, you then claim the ability to demonstrate that their god certainly does not exist, which you cannot do in every case, especially theirs.