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Ask An Atheist: I don’t know vs. I don’t believe


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By Jim Downard

As an Atheist, what are your thoughts about the statements: “I don’t believe in God” and “I know that God doesn’t exist”?

This question touches on the nature of the definition of “atheist” which I’ve touched on before, as well as what is meant by knowing.  Many atheists simply say they have no belief in gods, and not just the particular one that is represented by the capitalized “God” term (which tends to mean the God of Abraham, usually the Christian one, which is the largest of the planet’s faiths currently).

It’s a further step to the ontological atheism that contends that none of the gods actually exist, and that such things are knowable.

Here one may differentiate between particular gods and the evidence for or against their existence.  It might be argued that any gods no longer actively believed in are either excessively timorous in conveying their continuing existence among people by doing stuff, or are not doing stuff because they’re nonexistent.  Old deities like Marduck (Mesopotamia) or Tlaloc (Mesoamerica) come to mind.

Another approach is to measure the various god testaments against empirical standards.  If the texts claim things that are objectively not true, that could be deemed a disproof factor.  For example, the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, had the stars being made after the earth, which we know now to be cosmologically preposterous.  Their cosmology was geocentrist, too.  Another demerit.

The problem is that the Bible incorporated that very mistake in the Genesis creation story, Day 4 (likely absorbed during the Babylonian Captivity, which is how the Mesopotamian flood tales got folded into the developing tradition also), and also was historically geocentric (not giving up on the issue until the progress of science, and telescopes, since the Renaissance made heliocentrism impossible to ignore).  On those grounds the standard God of Abraham could be deemed disproven along with the Mesopotamian pantheon and geocentrism, but clearly contemporary Bible believers are singularly ill-disposed to jump that shark, and employ several modes to get around it.  Young Earth creationists flush away all the modern science to have the earth literally made before the stars, and there are also some geocentrist creationists too even today, while those not so anxious to vaporize centuries of science work prefer to tag the awkward passages and history of their faith positions as metaphorical.

The problem still exists, though, along with all the theodicy issues that plague efforts to justify the existence of particular gods no matter what the scientific particulars.

For my part, I’m a philosophical agnostic on gods, allowing the possibility that such might exist, but regarding the known ones, they are so deeply flawed and enmeshed in human foibles that I am a practical atheist, having no faith in the reality of any of them.

Needless to say, any actual gods I invite to weigh in.  Don’t be shy.

Jim Downard
Jim Downard
Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose. He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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