One of the complaints raised over a recent post came from my presumption that the phrase “There’s probably no God” is one way to describe atheistic thought. I’ve expanded on that idea in the past, so I didn’t feel it necessary to discuss it in my recent post (plus it was besides the point I happened to be making). But more than that, the notion seems so simple.
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins actually spends more time than should be necessary on the point of how to define atheism. He creates a 7 point scale where a “1″ is an absolute believer, someone with no doubt in the existence of God, and a “7″ is the polar opposite, an absolutely certain atheist. In the middle are varying levels of belief or disbelief. Dawkins places himself as a “6″, describing himself as nearly certain there are no gods, but allowing for the possibility, however slim it may be. This is how a huge swath of atheists also describe themselves. (It’s at the root of some of the messages being put out on the bus campaigns, in fact.)
The complaint to this is the belief that atheism means absolute certainty. What requires this? The word means “without theism”. That does not imply certainty of what is true, but rather a degree of certainty of what is not true. In modern connotations, the term includes a rejection of deism and usually anything supernatural. But how does this rise to become certainty?
Many people, for whatever reason, insist that any lack of certainty thus equals agnosticism. There are two issues with this. First, no, it doesn’t. Atheism, again, does not require certainty. Second, the only way one can arrive at this conclusion is to use the modern connotations of atheism. The problem comes when the connotations of agnosticism are then ignored, ever so conveniently. That is, the fact that atheism is usually taken to mean a complete rejection of all things supernatural is employed, but then the fact that agnosticism is usually taken to mean a 50/50 uncertainty is ignored. This is why Dawkins needed his scale. Few people are right in the middle (“4″). Most of us lean one way or the other. In fact, I hope a majority of people do not categorize themselves as “1″, pretending as if they’re absolutely certain of their God’s existence. We should all have doubt; the lack of it is a mark of fundamentalism.
In essence, the argument that atheism is absolute certainty is a blatantly dishonest one. If the term means absolute certainty, then it cannot be ignored that agnosticism usually means a perfect middle ground. It is bad form to ground an argument in cherry-picked connotations; in this case, demanding a self-proclaimed atheist call himself “agnostic” due to a lack of 100% certainty is weak because the common notion of a 50/50 split for agnostics is being ignored – clearly the self-proclaimed atheist is not 50/50 on the existence of gods. This would be like demanding that anyone who says unicorns are possible must also believe the mythical beasts have a 50/50 shot of existing. Of course unicorns are possible – and everyone should acknowledge that fact – but they are exceedingly unlikely. And more importantly, there is not a shred of evidence for their existence. This does not make anyone agnostic towards unicorns except in the strictest, most semantic, most useless sense.