There is a silly term which I have come to adopt and that is: Atheist. What a nonsensical word! I can offer no proof that Jesus is not god. I cannot refute the various fantastical claims of the Muslims – did Muhammad fly to Jerusalem at night with the angel Gabriel? I have no idea. I can't even refute the stories of the Greeks. Medusa, for all I know, may have turned people into stone with a single glance. And Santa may in fact live at the North Pole and fly around the world delivering presents to those who believe in him. I have absolutely no evidence to tell me otherwise. The word “atheist,” which literally means “without god,” is a term applied loosely. The truth is that I have no idea – and neither do you.
I have frequently conversed with members of the faithful regarding matters of dogma. When I assert, proudly of course, that I am an atheist, I am immediately asked to provide my evidence. “Where is your proof that Yahweh did not appear to Moses in a burning bush?” they ask. “Prove that there is no god,” they challenge me sardonically, as if they know I am destined to be crushed upon the rocky coast of reason. And, to be fair, these sudden believers in evidence and logic – for they needed nothing of the sort only moments before when I asked about their faith – have a point. I hang my head and say, quite truthfully, “I have no proof.”
No I cannot prove that god does not exist, and that is the essential problem with the term “atheist” - without context and explanation it is just another statement of belief, unsupported, unsubstantiated and meaningless.
“But wait!” I look up at my smirking counterpart, quite certain that they have brow beaten me into submission and perhaps even saved my soul. “I am, in fact, not the one making a claim to knowledge. I can't tell you how the universe was created, I don't know for sure how life began, I have no deep insights into the nature of consciousness or the fundamental moral laws. That being said, I can observe the accumulated evidence which science provides. I don't know how the universe begun but I can observe its expansion. I don't know how life started, but I can plot its progression. I don't know the parameters of consciousness, but I can explore the mechanisms of the brain. I don't know what fundamental moral laws there may be, but I can apply philosophy and science and see the consequences of my actions.” I take a deep breath, sip my latte (these conversations almost exclusively take place in coffee shops) and continue. “Really, its you, the religious, who is making the claim. You say that you know that god created the universe, and life, and consciousness, and morality and yet you can't offer a shred of evidence to support this. How the hell do you know this?”
My counterpart invariably looks taken aback. “But without god, how do you think we got here?”
I close my eyes and try not to laugh. “I have no idea! I mean, I have some good evidence and a few working theories – evolution to start with – but at the end of the day I don't claim to have some higher understanding of the way things work. All I know is that, neither do you. You believe that Native Americans are really the 12 tribes of Israel; that when you die you get 72 virgins; that god created the universe in 6 days. And you believe this without evidence. The point is, I am only as much an atheist towards your god as you are towards, say, Zeus or Baal. You can't prove that those gods are not real, but you don't believe them because you think that there must be better answers out there. I don't believe that god exists because I haven't seen evidence leading to that belief, and because I am not satisfied by the tired tales of iron-age mythology and the ramblings of modern day con-men.”
The religious person across from me now looks dejected. “Well, that just doesn't do it for me,” they mutter. “It just feels right.”
And I guess that's about the extent of it. Faith feels good. Did Muhammad fly with Gabriel to Jerusalem? Of course not. But whereas atheism is really nothing more than a profession of NOT-knowing the mysteries of the universe, faith is a profession of knowing – almost everything! And even in the face of evidence, the truly faithful refuse to adjust their beliefs; 40% of Americans believe that the world was made by god less than 10,000 years ago for Christ sake! That's after humans had migrated to the Americas from Africa... go figure.
At the end of the day, I feel the same way about god that I do about Santa. I can't prove Santa doesn't exist, but I really really doubt it. So when I say I am an atheist, all I mean is: I don't know everything there is to know about the universe. I subscribe to the Gospel of Doubt:
I acknowledge what I do not know, seek to understand what I do not understand and patiently wait for good answers. Because there's no point of asking, “why am I here?” if all I get is bullshit.