Answer these three yes/no questions:
- Do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?
- Are your religious claims extraordinary?
- Is it possible that there is no such thing as god?
Before I deal with the results of the survey, I want to elaborate on the three questions. I’ve called them yes/no questions, which they are in the way that they are phrased, but in reality there is probably a spectrum of nuance dependent on the exact definition of some of the words.
The first question is generally accepted axiomatically. In fact, I would say that my shift to atheism is based on the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (see this post). I wrote more about this from a personal perspective here. I’d be interested in a viewpoint that does not hold this to be true, but I’ve struggled to find one that’s rational. I suppose a person might reject rationality, but they still would need some kind of framework for choosing what to believe. The nuance might come in with the definitions of what constitutes extraordinary in the two settings in which it’s used.
On the second question, I think it’s clear that any claim of a miracle is, by definition, an extraordinary claim. There are religious people who reject the miracles, but keep the spirituality or deistic claims. I would argue that any claim of the divine is extraordinary, but could conceive of someone who believed their religion or their divine being was somehow not.
The third question is the real rub. ‘Possible’ in particular is an ill-defined word. What I mean is, given your particular set of experiences and knowledge, could you believe that there is no god? Is such an idea conceivable given what you know and what you, yourself, have seen?
If you answered yes to all three questions, then I would argue that you are, or at least should be, an atheist. The third yes means that the case has not been made beyond reasonable doubt. The first two mean this is really what you should be demanding.
You might ask if this wouldn’t make you an agnostic instead? I would prefer to say that it makes you an atheist who is open to evidence. But that, like your rejection of hundreds of other religions based on lack of compelling evidence, your position should be stated more strongly: I don’t believe the extraordinary claim pending better evidence.
Now you might say, I’ve seen the evidence, and it’s pretty compelling, so on balance of probability I’m going to go with it. But I would argue that this is insufficient – if you agree that a naturalistic explanation is possible (which is essentially your third yes), then you have not got extraordinary evidence for the non-naturalistic explanation.
If you answered yes to all three questions, and are an intelligent believer, then I would submit that it’s possible that you spend your time discussing lofty theological questions like theodicy, apostasy, depravity, redemption or whatever, when you should be figuring out the real evidence for your belief. It’s like you’re building a sky scrapper, and are now enjoying the view from the penthouse suite, and vaguely remember building the foundation some years ago (or perhaps believing someone who said that someone else had checked it out and it all looks great), and it seems so uninteresting to go back and check, when the top floors feel so meaningful. Here’s a list of building inspectors, who might help you check whether that foundation is really so strong.
If you answered no to one of the questions, I’d love to hear from you! For me, this journey was somewhat painful even to think about, so I understand the desire to stay in the penthouse suite. There are friends and family there, and the general view that if you leave you’ll be stuck outside on the street. Some of the art on the walls is so pleasant to look at (justice for all (eventually); reunited with your loved ones; eternal life; loved by an omnipotent being). But if the foundation doesn’t exist, and if truth is really important, then it’s all just an illusion. A matrix that’s comfortable to be plugged into, but really just a comforting fairy tale.