We atheists will change our minds if evidence shows we are wrong


RITE & REASON:Why are atheists so certain that gods do not exist? Actually, most of us aren’t, writes MICHAEL NUGENT

THE RECENT World Atheist Convention in Dublin prompted Prof James Mackey to write a series of articles about atheism.

I suggest he has misunderstood the nature of atheism and its relationship to reality, morality, faith and Jesus.

Do you believe in a god (small “g”)? Atheists reject the idea that your preferred god exists, in the same way that you reject the idea that other gods exist: because there is no reliable evidence that they do exist, and lots of reliable evidence that they are ideas invented by humans.

But what does belief in a god mean? Ask a random 100 Americans. About 60 will believe in a personal god, 25 will believe in an impersonal force, seven won’t know which, and eight won’t believe in either.

Ask a random 100 Europeans, and it gets even more ambiguous. Only about 40 will believe in a personal god, up to 33 will believe in an impersonal force, 15 won’t know which, and 12 will believe there is neither.

Why are atheists so certain that gods do not exist? Actually, most of us aren’t. We merely reject the assertion that one or more gods do exist, based on the best currently available evidence.

We would change our minds if we were given new and credible evidence that we are mistaken.

Some people divide atheists into different types. Strong or positive atheists actively believe that gods do not exist. Weak or negative atheists passively lack a belief that gods exist. And pragmatic atheists simply ignore the idea of gods as being in practice irrelevant to their lives.

What about agnostics? Is it not reasonable to say that you don’t know? Yes it is, and most atheists are also agnostics. Atheism is about what you believe, and agnosticism is about what you claim to know. So if you believe that gods do not exist, but you do not claim to know this, then you are an agnostic atheist.

Atheists reject the idea of personal gods as intervening supernatural beings. This includes all of the supernatural claims attributed to the Christian god, from creating the world out of nothing, to impregnating a virgin in order to give birth to himself, to turning bread and wine into his own body and blood every time a validly ordained priest utters a certain set of words. These ideas exist in the realm of superstition and magic.

Atheists reject the idea of personal gods as moral guides or lawgivers. We do not get our morality from books such as the Bible and the Koran, regardless of whether we read these books literally or metaphorically.

Instead, we apply our own sense of morality to the passages that we read in these books, and not the other way around. At best, you can use the supposed words of a god to selectively vindicate your existing sense of right and wrong, but not to get your sense of right and wrong.

In recent centuries, at least in the western world, science has weakened the idea of gods as intervening supernatural beings, and secular democracy has weakened the idea of gods as moral guides.

And so a growing number of religious people are redefining the idea of god to mean an impersonal force, or a set of universal values such as love and goodness, or even suggesting that the laws of nature are god.

Atheists agree that there are impersonal forces in the universe, and that values such as love and goodness are part of our experiences as human beings.

But describing such natural phenomena as “god” creates an illusion that there is a wider acceptance of the idea of a personal intervening god, because it uses the same label to describe a very different type of idea.

In the coming weeks I will focus on atheism as a response to, and a rejection of, the idea that one or more personal gods exist as a supernatural source of reality and morality.

Michael Nugent is chairman of Atheist Ireland