What Atheists Want
What we atheists want is for people of faith to say “It’s possible” rather than “It is so.” We want them to say “I believe,” not “I know.”
BY: James Metzger
Religious beliefs, however, are based on the supposition of unseen places and agents whose existence is neither self-evident nor easily confirmed. They are of a different order altogether. The Abrahamic traditions in particular ask their adherents to trust that a supernatural being disclosed important information long ago to a handful of select individuals (mostly men), who then faithfully transmitted what they heard to their peers. Adherents are also asked to assume that the message was preserved reasonably well over many generations in the absence of technologies that might have given us more confidence in their accuracy.
Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm whether Muhammad really was communicating with an archangel named Gabriel or whether the prophet Amos had a direct line to the Jewish god Yahweh. Likewise, there is no way to confirm whether Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead and later spoke with his followers. We are asked simply to trust these men and those who knew them well.
Even for those who knew these men personally, verifying their claims would have proven impossible. Why? In part because religious experience is a private matter, inaccessible even to one’s most intimate companions. For the Abrahamic traditions, the entire edifice is staked on a series of private religious communications, which leaves adherents no choice but to “have faith.” Empirical verification is simply out of the question. And when empirical verification isn’t feasible, it would seem that some degree of humility is in order. After all, it’s not as if a Christian is asking us to believe that there’s an oak tree in the front yard or that Earth revolves around the sun. She’s asking us to believe that the death of a Jewish peasant around the year 30 C.E. somehow atones for everyone’s misdeeds and that this same man’s decomposing body was revivified by an immaterial – and therefore invisible – entity. If we assume the time-honored epistemic principle that belief should be apportioned to the evidence, then confidence in these matters isn’t warranted. What we atheists want is for people of faith to say “It’s possible” rather than “It is so.” We want them to say “I believe,” not “I know.”
In addition to having people of faith hold their convictions about an unseen order with a measure of humility, we also would like our understanding of the world to be viewed as the product of a sincere and earnest attempt to come to terms with reality. Too often, atheists’ worldviews are seen as having their basis not in a quest for truth but in, say, negative childhood experiences with religion or a dogmatic commitment to scientific materialism.
Recently, a few Christian philosophers have endorsed the view that believers have every right to treat their basic intuitions about a sacred order in the same way that all of us treat ordinary perceptual beliefs: they may be trusted in the absence of disconfirming evidence. So, just as I’m permitted to trust that the image of a tree formed by my visual cortex reliably indicates that a tree really does stand in front of me, Christians are entitled to trust that the feeling of God’s presence reliably indicates that God really is present. In other words, these philosophers argue that Christians are justified in applying the generous epistemic principle we routinely apply to perceptual beliefs – “If it seems so, it is reasonable to assume that it is so” – to beliefs about a transcendent order.