All right, I suppose I have to comment on this after all – I usually try to let other bloggers handle things like this.
Long story short: In a discussion between Richard Dawkins (notoriously shrill and strident militant atheist, according to ‘media sources,’ which means vapid nitwits,) and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Dawkins noted his personal ruler of belief – on a scale from one to seven, one being ‘absolutely sure of god’s existence’ and seven being ‘absolutely sure of god’s nonexistence,’ Dawkins did not rate himself as a seven, just really close. This isn’t astounding news for anyone familiar with his very same statements many times in the past, but some media outlets (no doubt desperate to appeal to readers with the intellectual prowess of wet sticks) trumpeted it with great delight. This does, of course, imply that at least some religious folk are more concerned with the opinion of a prominent atheist than with half a million sources of unquestionable faith.
From a scientific, and for that matter logical, standpoint an attitude such as Dawkins’ is the only one that can be reasonably taken. There is nothing that is ever proven beyond all doubt, unable to be overturned later – the very nature of both knowledge and humans renders this an abstract superlative. What we have instead is the weight of the evidence, which can give us a nice precedent but does not actually prevent exceptions. Dawkins has simply, generously, admitted that he is not omniscient.
An interesting aspect of all this is the desperation of religious folk to find a crack to hold up triumphantly, but the very search for such things becomes hypocritical. Dawkins’ offhand statement is taken to mean that even the high priest of the atheists [bear with me, I'm being sarcastic again] has his doubts, yet if he’d said instead that he was 100% sure there is no god, that would be considered stubborn close-mindedness and claimed to be as much faith as a belief in god. The amusing sidenote about this is that in one stroke, faith has changed from being virtuous to being facile. The very trait that the religious want to be held in esteem for having is apparently not cool in anyone else.
The related question, posed so often in discussion forums by religious folk, is, “What would it take to make you believe?” I admit I have a hard time treating this as an honest question, but instead merely an attempt to force an admission of blind faith in god’s nonexistence, or alternately to begin to prey on ‘doubt.’ Numerous atheists have pointed out, however, that the typical definitions of ‘god’ are either too vague to be searching for evidence of, or self-contradictory (‘omniscience’ and ‘omnipotence’ rule one another out – if you know everything, there is nothing that you can do except what you already know will happen.) Some have quite simply said, “Give me your definition of ‘god’ as a starting point,” which is either dodged, or confuses the hell out of religious folk: “What do you mean? You know: god.” Which makes it pointless to try and demonstrate, for instance, that supernaturality is defined by being outside evidence in the first place, so the question is stupid.
While it seems efficient to simply avoid playing senseless games with religious folk who either aren’t being honest or never considered the implications of their beliefs, I’m not a fan of dismissing such questions, because that plays into the hands of those who simply wanted to show atheism as a stubborn and intractable emotional crutch. Comments about pots and kettles here won’t cut it either. Instead, I proffer a simple analogy:
If you were to tell me some person is an excellent golfer, I’d want to see some nice low scores to agree with you, as well as watching them play. If you were to tell me this person was the best around, I’d want to see several playoffs among many other golfers, preferably under the auspices of an organization that was not only qualified to judge, but under enough scrutiny to reduce bias as a viable influence.
If you were to tell me, however, that this was the best golfer that ever lived or would ever live, you’ve presented a situation that has no possibility of being demonstrated. The statement has exceeded evidential support and has entered the realm of baseless assertion. While you might feel slighted that I dismiss your statement as meaningless, tough shit.
The various definitions of ‘god,’ of course, far exceed ‘golfer,’ as well as not even being restrained by something like the rules of golf. Most religious folk can’t even agree on whether god answers prayers or not, and dodge the subject by resorting to “mysterious ways.”
Part two of all this is even more damning, unfortunately. Some have pointed out that a large pile of miracles and sudden violations of physics might be leaning in that direction, at the very least – does that count? And, barring the possibility of doubting one’s own senses or sanity (which has indeed been offered as a response,) and allowing that we’ve relaxed the definition to forgo unprovable omnipotence or perpetual existence, then I might admit to the existence of a really powerful being or force. I’m not sure I would rashly label it as ‘god,’ though, with all the assumptions that entails. But hey, if all it takes to provide evidence of a remarkably powerful being is a lot of stunning physical demonstrations, well, go for it.
Although the ability to snuff out my life with a thought, or read my mind, or send me to torment for a long time isn’t enough to make me praise such a being. I don’t really think worship through fear is an honest response – ‘worship’ and ‘fear’ are fairly contradictory. I don’t even have the ability to be grateful for my life or the planet or anything of the sort, since it’s pretty clear that we see both good and bad, and face adversity on a regular basis. You see, I can accept that people dying in natural disasters is how things happen in an undirected world with countless variables. I can’t see any magnificence in someone who supposedly designed it to happen that way, with hardship and disease and competition over resources being, well, omnipresent. I find it hard to glorify life when any proposed supreme being obviously does not. According to the interpretations of some scripture, we were even created with the deck stacked against us, to see if we’d find the right path before we die, or stumble and face everlasting pain – and we cannot ignore the claims of omniscience, where god already knows the result anyway.
There’s a lot that gets missed with all of this. The benefit of knowledge isn’t simply knowing something, peace of mind or whatever, but in being able to use it – preferably to improve our lives in some way. Finding out that any scripture is actually perfectly factual, or even merely inspired by divine communication while getting some portions off a bit, doesn’t change the bare fact that countless portions are incredibly corrupt and vicious. Claims that we mere humans cannot understand the secret goals of a supreme being are not explanatory in the least; if scripture is the guide that’s intended for us, then it’s inept to not have it in a form that we can understand and value. Surely an omniscient being could manage this.
But that’s not the goal in the slightest. The goal is for adherents to feel self-righteous, backed in their particular views not by rational argument, but by an unassailable superbeing, the pinnacle of authority. That’s all that such approaches are trying to establish. No one gives a damn about what evidence really is – they simply want to find a way to forestall disagreement, or render their opponent as intractable and childish.
Lots of pursuits that we engage in as a species, from scientific endeavors to legal proceedings, from auto mechanics to medical exams, rely on a method simply enumerated as, “Here are the facts; where do they lead?” On too many occasions, however, people resort to something else: “Here is the conclusion that I like; how do I build support for it?” Operating in this way means that facts which do not lead in the desired direction are ignored – obviously there are some issues that are going to arise. What it does, to be blunt, is place emotional supplication over dealing with the real world – that’s not something that we should encourage in the slightest. It’s actually pathetic, and should be treated as such.