I would like to preface this post by stating that it is not my intention to quarrel or debate with atheists – not here, and nowhere else. I’m not out to change the perspectives held by atheists; and I feel no need to have anyone come along and try to change my perspectives when it comes to the topic of belief. I am writing this, instead, as a reaction to what I have noticed is an increased volume of anti-religious rhetoric found on the Internet and in other places this time of year; and as a statement of my own views in the hopes that anyone who might feel shamed for actually believing in a god, or the gods, might have something to read and take heart from. I have actually, through the course of my time in this world, gotten to know and respect a number of confirmed atheists – by and large people who are content to see the Universe as they see it, and not inclined to try to disprove anyone else’s beliefs.
What does it mean to believe in something that cannot be proven? Even if we happen to experience something a certain way, we may not be able to fully convey that experience (let alone prove it) to anyone else. This is because, at its heart, belief is something that is very personal. In the end, though many might say that there really is no choice in the matter, belief is a matter of choice. As for proof, I think in the end there is really nothing that needs proving – those who believe in gods do so; while I have yet to observe a single proof in the non-existence of any god offered by anyone who does not believe. Since I do not make it a habit of walking around and telling atheists that they are misguided, I see no reason why a burden of proof should rest on my shoulders … I prefer to let someone who would tell me how wrong I am, especially when couching such an accusation in the language and spirit of science and philosophy, actually offer their proof first.
The truth is, there is no proof – not one way, and not the other. An atheist has chosen to reject the notion of deity, just as a theist has chosen to accept it. This is a commonality; but it is not the only one. We all have our reasons for the choice we make, whether to believe or not – these reasons will in turn guide us further along the paths we have chosen. I believe very strongly in the gods; yet I also believe very strongly in the concept of reason. This has guided me over the years to apply reason and, I would also say some measure of skepticism, to my own beliefs. My path now reflects this. Others have different reasons, different influences that have guided their decisions. This has resulted in, among those of us who believe in gods, some wide varieties of beliefs, belief structures, and opinions (anyone who has ever spent time among religious people should know we tend to have plenty of opinions!). But how does this look among those who have chosen to reject the notion of deity?
It might come as a surprise to some; but among the atheists, there are also differences of opinion. There are different paths to approaching disbelief, it would seem – as different as are the reasons for which up to 20% of the world’s population (depending on the poll and criteria for defining atheism – not as easy as it would seem on the surface) choose not to believe in any kind of deity or spirit. This inability to form an absolute consensus, I would suggest, is another common trait that theists and atheists share. The fact that there is no single Way to approach atheism suggests that there is no absolute proof to be found against the existence of deity. Even if there were, this proof would be subject to individual interpretations. These interpretations would obviously be influenced by other factors – the interpretations of others that are highly respected, for example. In the end, though, one would still have to look at everything surrounding a theoretical proof in the non-existence of deity; and choose an interpretation, based on what they have seen or experienced. This process is well-known to theists – we call it belief.
At its heart, religion is an attempt to answer fundamental questions of our existence. In this regard, religion and science are separated not by purpose or goal; but rather by the nature of what evidence is acceptable in forming a belief or theory. Many religious traditions can easily be disproved by application of the scientific method (or even just digging up something out of the ground that disagrees with an established tradition). But religion – just like science – is a man-made construction. The gods did not make religion, that is our own doing. Therefore, disproving a religious tradition does not disprove the existence of the deity who may have been involved in the inspiration of that tradition. Science, on the other hand, can disprove itself quite easily, as well. Scientists are trained to follow a process of hypothesis and refinement that can one day celebrate Newton’s command of Physics, and then demote elements of Newton’s theories when someone like Einstein comes along. Scientists regard this as being one of the more hallowed strengths of science – that through the process of refinement, a theory gets improved upon, and that this in turn strengthens science itself. Why there are atheists who then feel like disproving a religious tradition or story is enough to disprove the validity or value of religion is puzzling to me; but as I stated in my preface, not every atheist sets out to do this.
I could write more here, and may consider doing so at a later point; but I think I have done what I set out to do with this post, in that I’ve pointed out that we theists and atheists may not be as different from one another as some would perhaps be more comfortable thinking. We make choices, to believe or disbelieve; and these choices in the end reflect more what kind of person we have chosen to be, than they do whether or not gods actually exist. Just as an atheist may be inclined to believe that the sheer volume of theists running around in the world today (we are in the clear majority, regardless of polls or definitions) does not support the existence of deity, theists can also take heart in the understanding that the existence of the scientific method, no matter how refined it may get, will not disprove the existence of the gods. The gods, whether they exist or not, would do so regardless of our beliefs or theories … thus our various debates change nothing. I would like to close this, then, with a couple of quotes from one of my favorite philosophers, one who concerned himself greatly with the notion of belief and religion – quotes that have appeared in this blog before, and will likely do so again:
“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” – Friedrich Nietzsche