In recent years I have watched and/or engaged in numerous discussions (sometimes rising to the level of a debate, sometimes much more informal) between atheists and theists of one sort or another. What I find most interesting about these discussions is how each side approaches concepts such as “proof,” “evidence,” “truth” and “reality” from radically different perspectives, to the point where it’s almost as if each side is having a completely different conversation. And, as I reflect on my days growing up ensconced in a religious worldview, I realize that the same arguments that I find least convincing now are the ones that made the most sense to me back then, and the ones that seem the strongest now were the most laughable to me then. I think, when you get right down to it, both sides feel their beliefs (or lack thereof) are just so obvious as to not even need explanation and can’t understand why the other side just doesn’t “get” it.
So, without further ado, here are some of the key differences I have noticed between atheists and theists that affect and shape their world view. You’re mileage may vary, of course, but I’m hoping this exercise will at least help each side understand where the other side is coming from and dispel the notion that one group is just too stupid or too wicked to ever see the light.
- The Vastness of Creation
As a theist, I was taught to see the glory of God in all of creation. The beauty of a flower, the majesty of a sunset or a rainbow, the magnificent panoply of stars in the night sky, etc. As science revealed more and more of the wonders of the cosmos (thank you, Hubble space telescope), it just showed how much more vast and beautiful God’s creation was than we previously knew. The bigger the universe got, the more impressive God seemed.
As an atheist, I still marvel at the beauty of the universe. The more our knowledge of the universe expands, however, the smaller man’s place in that universe seems and the notion of any sort of personal God who created us, watches over us, answers prayers, etc., seems more and more ridiculous. Instead of proving how great God is, the vastness of creation proves that God was invented by people who thought the observable world was all that existed and that the concept of God is no longer relevant today.
- The Burden of Proof
As a theist, I was taught that faith in God is something we were supposed to have without any hard evidence or proof. In fact, I was taught that life was a test to see who had enough faith to believe without such proof and that man would somehow be deprived of his free will if God ever provided irrefutable proof of his existence. One frequent analogy was comparing life to taking a test in school, where having all the answers written on the board in front of you would totally defeat the purpose of taking the test (and presumably studying and learning before the test). Therefore, if somebody doesn’t believe in God, it is up to them to somehow prove that God doesn’t (or can’t) exist. And even if somebody does manage to prove that God (or specific descriptions of God) doesn’t or can’t possibly exist, it doesn’t really matter since it’s all about faith. In other words, you cannot disprove something that does not require proof in the first place.
As an atheist, I’ve come to realize that the mere act of stating something does not, in and of itself, make that thing true. Sure, there are some things that we all accept as true in order to make our way in the world (e.g., that actions have consequences, that we are not all just living in a Matrix-style dream world, that the basic laws of physics aren’t likely to change from one day to the next, etc.), but we should also not accept as true anything that has no good evidence to support it. Similarly, we should reject any statement or belief when there is sufficient evidence to its contrary. Therefore, if somebody believes in God (or aliens, or Bigfoot, or homeopathy, or chiropractic, or magic), those beliefs are wholly irrelevant unless the person has some good evidence to support them. And, similarly, an abundance of evidence to the contrary of those beliefs is a good reason to reject them. In other words, you can’t prove something without actually providing proof.
- Evidentiary Standards
As a theist, I was taught that the best sort of evidence for the existence of God was personal experience, both my own and those related by others (so called “faith promoting stories”). Since God doesn’t want to take away our free will by revealing himself directly to us and since he also “moves in mysterious ways,” we have to rely on our feelings. If we pray to accept Jesus into our hearts and be forgiven and then feel all warm and fuzzy inside, that’s all the proof we need. If we hear stories about how other people accepted Jesus into their hearts and felt all warm and fuzzy inside, that’s all the proof we need. After that, we can see the hand of the Lord wherever we look. If I pray to get a new job and I get it, it’s proof that God exists and loves me. If somebody I know survives a car accident, it’s proof that God was watching out for him. Anything and everything good that happens to me, especially when I pray for it, is sufficient proof that God exists and cares about me. Interestingly, I find that many theists actually do require higher evidentiary standards when it comes to other areas (magic, aliens, Bigfoot, etc.) but seem to lower those standards when it comes to their religious beliefs. Of course, I also know some theists who are willing to believe anything (that doesn’t contradict with their religious beliefs, that is) as long as there is anecdotal evidence for it, whether it be chiropractic, homeopathy, reiki, etc., but I don’t think there’s necessarily a connection.
As an atheist, I have learned that anecdotal evidence is worthless unless it is reproducible under controlled conditions. Some people misinterpret what happens to them. Some people just plain lie about their experiences. The human mind is great at self-deception and you can make yourself feel all warm and fuzzy inside about just about anything if you want to hard enough. Plus, there’s a little thing called “confirmation bias” which is the nearly universal tendency to remember anything that supports your beliefs and discount, ignore or forget anything that doesn’t. If I pray for ten things and one comes true, I become convinced that the one time it worked “proves” my beliefs are right and I just ignore the fact that the other nine times equally “disproves” my beliefs.
- Appeals to Authority
As a theist, I was taught that it didn’t matter what “most” people thought about a subject – what mattered was what the Bible said. And, since the Bible is often hard to understand and seemingly contradictory, it’s important to follow the words of those who have been appointed by God to reveal His truth to us. And it really only takes one so-called “authority” who agrees with what I already believe to counter a multitude of authorities who disagree. And this expands beyond religious beliefs to any science that may possibly contradict my religious beliefs. If, say, the theory of Evolution seems to contradict with the revealed truth of the Bible, all it takes is one “expert” (regardless of his background and education) who points out what appear to be flaws or contradictions in the theory to disprove it. Or if, say, the idea that mankind is contributing to climate change seems to contradict my belief that the Earth was created for our benefit and God will always protect us, then all it takes is one “expert” (regardless of his background and education) who points out what appear to be flaws or contradictions in the theory to disprove it.
As an atheist, I also need to rely on authorities. As much as I would like to learn everything about everything, I simply don’t have the time, resources or, quite frankly, intelligence to do so. The difference is, however, that I rely on those who actually have the background and education and experience to know what they are talking about. And I rely on experts whose views are shared by other experts in the same and related fields. If I have trouble understanding the mechanisms of the Theory of Evolution, for example, I don’t just rely on the fact that a smart guy named Charles Darwin came up with it over a hundred years ago. Instead, I rely on the many thousands of people that have devoted their lives to studying it, verifying it, and expanding it since that time. If 97% of all climate scientists – those actually trained to do the research and understand the data – have stated that the evidence unequivocally shows that man-made climate change is real and dangerous, I will accept their authority on the subject over a lone geologist who thinks he has discovered the “truth” that everybody else has missed.