no evidence

November 12, 2011

When confronted with the question of why they don’t believe in a god, atheists of all kinds have become used to declaring that they don’t because there’s no evidence for it. The response has become a hackneyed, automatic formula.

Well, as I’ve said in a previous post, I don’t define myself as an atheist. I’m a proscient. This means I define myself from what I know, not from what I believe. So it almost goes without saying that I have a very different take on the need for evidence of gods and/or other assertions of supernaturalism.

I need no lack of evidence not to believe that Mickey Mouse is not a real being. I’m an adult, that is, a human with a more complex and coherent view of reality than that of a child. No adult needs to say “There is no evidence for Mickey Mouse’s existence, therefore I don’t believe in him.” An adult can see through the drawing and clearly perceive that it’s man-made.

Similarly, I look at the Bible, the Koran and any number of other assertive stories, and I can see that they’re man-made. The simpler eye of a believer can’t see this; it can’t see through the elaborate and often contradictory narratives and perceive their casuistry or the human purpose sewing behind the scenes.

Every time I hear an atheist talk about evidence, I see a line going straight back to Bertrand Russell, to David Hume. Though they certainly contributed enormously to rational thinking, I suggest it’s time we updated some of their notions.

You know the routine: ‘atheism’ is about not believing, ‘agnosticism’ is about not knowing.

I used to define myself as a radical agnostic. You’ll find it somewhere in this blog. However, when I go really really deep and wide, I discover that questions of belief are a minute, diminutive, teeny tiny bird-droppy thing in myself, when compared with the vast expanses covered by knowledge. You can do it too. List everything you personally really truly believe in, and then list everything you know –not “scientific” knowledge, but every little detail in your life that you know about: you know who you are, you know what you look & sound & feel like, what your history is, how many relatives you have and who they are; you know your street and neighbourhood and thousands, millions of places around the world; you know how to express your thoughts and how to interpret other people’s words; you know over 40 thousand words, and other 40 thousand expressions; you know what you did yesterday and the day before; you know how to tie your shoelaces and comb your hair; you have billions and billions of units of information in your brain. And then you have two or three beliefs. Or ten or twenty. And even if you’re the Pope or some Ayatollah or some televangelist, your beliefs cover a crushingly small portion of your experience –I mean your real-life experience, what you can really account for and show to yourself as unequivocally true. Or else, you’re just stupid and gullible.

On the other hand, (as I’ve said elsewhere) belief is subservient to knowledge in every detail. Belief is fed by knowledge and is in fact nothing other than an expectation of knowledge; in the case of religious belief, it’s an inflated expectation of greater-than-humanly-possible knowledge. Faith is a confidence that you’re enlightened or *will* be enlightened –that is, faith is nothing more than a confidence that you’re in possession of a certain type of knowledge, or that you will eventually have it.

So it sounds pretty silly to define yourself from your beliefs, particularly if you don’t have any. And if you’re an atheist or an agnostic, defining yourself as such is really a disservice to you in the debate with believers: you’re effectively sending them the message that belief is *really* important —in particular that it’s important in defining you—, that what believers are saying about deities and superstitions actually bears considering and deserves a thoughtful response. The debate is about *them*; and oh, don’t they relish it.

Because of all that, I don’t define myself as an atheist. And then, because it’s silly to define myself from what I *don’t* know —in particular because it’s taken to be about “mystical” knowledge—, I’ve also phased out the ‘agnostic’ bit. Now I define myself as “proscient”: I AM WHAT I KNOW —and what I want to learn— from the evidence of my senses and the workings of my own reasoning.