Tom Gilson

Atheism and the Fear of Believing Something That Might Be Wrong

“I need proof for God. Real proof.”

“Hey, how do you know the God you’re worshiping is real?”

“You could be wrong about your God, you know.”

I’ve heard those challenges often enough to know that atheists have a terrible aversion to believing something that might be false. They don’t want to be fooled. My best example comes from Peter Boghossian, Richard Dawkins, and Lawrence Krauss, all of whom have said something like this: “Suppose all the stars lined up to spell out to everyone in their own language, ‘I am God. Believe in me.’ That would be suggestive, but it could also be a delusion.”

That’s being very, very careful to commit to believing since, you know, you still could be wrong.

The Science Connection

One thing you notice if you hang around enough atheists is how much they love science. I’m not convinced they love it any more than Christians and Jews. But they certainly seem to love it more exclusively — especially as their test for truth. For them it’s the one reliable source of trustworthy knowledge. I bring that up because science also operates on the standard of,  Don’t get fooled. Don’t believe (or at least don’t publish) anything unless you’re really sure it’s for real.

In science that’s a very sensible standard: When scientists publish, they’re generally reporting it as a finding everyone can count on. They’re saying it’s true — so it had better be. Granted, it doesn’t always work that way in actual practice, but that’s the standard, the ideal.

So the word in science is,”If you’re going to make any mistake, make the mistake of missing some real truth rather than the mistake of calling something true when it isn’t.” It’s far better to be wrong by believing too little, than to be wrong by believing too much.

What Works So Well for Science Doesn’t Work for Everything

In science that standard works great. What works for science, though, doesn’t work for very much else we deal with on a daily basis. Everyone chooses to believe things that have a significant statistical chance of being wrong. I’ll demonstrate by listing just a few beliefs that may likely be held by atheists at one time or another in their lives.

  • “My education will pay off for me.”
  • “My stock market investment is a good idea.”
  • “This man or woman will be a great life partner.”
  • “My decision to partake in casual sex comes without any negative consequences.”
  • “This person I’m hiring will be a positive addition to our team.”

Relationships, Future-Oriented Decisions, and Richness-of-Life Decisions

All of these fit in one or both of these categories: They’re either about human relationships, or else about the unknown future. They all involve risk. They’re not scientific questions; they’re out of science’s reach. So there’s no proof for any of them except in the trying.

And they all fit into one more category: Right or wrong, they’re the kinds of decisions that may well determine the richness of a person’s existence. (Actually, I’d say it’s certain that the one about casual sex is wrong, but we’re looking at it from the atheist’s point of view.)

So with that in mind, let’s add one more to the atheist’s list:

  • “There is no God, or at least no God that matters to me.”

This belief-decision fits in exactly the same three categories as the others I’ve listed. Christians are clear that the decision is about a relationship, it’s about each person’s future, and it can make all the difference to the richness of their lives.

The Question of God Doesn’t Fit Within Scientific Parameters

Of course I can hear atheists shooting back, “No it’s none of those things, because it isn’t true in the first place. You’re just imagining it!” But still it’s a question in those three categories. The atheist is saying, “No, the relationship you describe isn’t real. No, my future doesn’t depend on what I think about God. And no, my life’s happiness doesn’t depend on it, either!” When he does that, he’s saying the decision fits into each of those categories, right or wrong.

But how does the atheist know these things are true? For many, it’s because there’s no scientific proof for God. But there’s no scientific proof against God, either — just as there’s no scientific test for the truth of any other relational/future-oriented things the atheist may choose to believe.

The decision to believe or not to believe in God can’t be made the same way scientists make their cautious, never-publish-anything-that-might-be-false belief decisions. Their standard is irrelevant for these types of questions. Yet atheists use it anyway.

The atheist might want to retreat to probabilities: “I didn’t marry her because I knew for certain that she’d be a great person to be with for keeps. I married her because the probability seemed so high. And scientists use probability testing, too. So we’re actually making decisions the same way after all!” But that’s pushing your love for science too far. Sure, you’re making an informal sort of probability assessment when you decide to marry her. Science uses probability assessments, too. But you don’t go into dating, much less marriage, with an absolute commitment to avoid any possibility of getting it wrong. Which actually is the way you seem to be going at the question of God.

Some Questions for Atheists Who Demand Certain Proof

All these observations lead to a simple set of questions for those atheists who won’t believe in God without certain proof:

Why do you require certainty for God, but not for other beliefs that fall into the categories of relational, future-oriented, and potentially life-enriching?

Why do you want something like scientific proof for something that’s so obviously not a scientific question?

Why are you so afraid of being fooled?

What if that fear of being fooled is leading you to the most disastrous false-negative error anyone could possibly make: the commitment not to believe in God unless he proves himself on your terms?

What if God wants to show you his reality on his terms instead? Would you be open to seeing him if he showed himself to you in some different manner than you’ve demanded?

Would you be open to the evidence that God has actually given? There’s a lot of it. If you’re willing to look at it with an open mind, that is.

Image Credit(s): Susan Olsson/Flickr and Tom Gilson.

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11 thoughts on “Atheism and the Fear of Believing Something That Might Be Wrong

  1. Why are atheists so afraid of being fooled? Well, it’s obvious that many people are trying to fool us all. Politicians tell blatant lies. Church leaders live secret lives of immorality. The real question is why so many Christians apparently don’t care. Why do you blithely go along with these leaders who treat you like fools?

  2. Tom – Your points here are well taken. There’s is one additional belief that most atheists seem to hold to as being true that I would have added to your list: the belief that the blind, purposeless forces of matter and energy interacting over eons of time through chance and/or necessity are capable of explaining the existence of everything. And, they hold that belief on far less evidence than Christians apologists provide to them for theistic and Christian belief.

    Over the past 20+ years I’ve had many discussions and debates with atheists on several different forums, and the pattern I’ve seen most often repeated is the rejection of any positive evidence offered for theistic belief, and the acceptance of naturalistic explanations for all sorts of things on flimsy to non-existent evidence. All of that tends to make me think that the issue isn’t about evidence at all, nor is it fear of being wrong. I think the real fear is that theists are correct, and there is a God. Furthermore, I think they all KNOW that there is a God, as it is one of those things, as Jay Budziszewski wrote that “we can not NOT know.” The clamor about evidence that is either there or not there is, I think, a smokescreen for the fear that, yeah, there really is a God.

    So, I wonder is it really fear of being wrong? Or fear that theists are right? My experience tends to make me think the latter is more the case.

  3. You hit the nail on the head, Tom.
    In spite of the fact that God-and-His-interaction-with-humanity have historically been advertised to be “relational, future-oriented, and potentially life-enriching,” atheists insist that God-and-His-interaction-with-humanity must rather be a mostly-irrelevant binary property about some entity in a cosmic wasteland. Why? Because that god doesn’t exist — and their emotional well-being depends upon the non-existence of god. That there is a God inconveniently existing outside their pet thought-category is just too uncomfortable for them to address.

  4. Thanks, Doug and Donald.

    Back to the subject of the original post, John, supposing your explanation covers some atheists’ views, does it really explain the examples I gave there? Or do you think those examples are so exceptional they don’t matter very much to the question?

  5. I don’t think atheists are really asking for certain proof about God’s existence. That’s a misunderstanding. When you look out into the world and try to make sense of it, nothing is absolutely certain. The difference between theists and atheists is that theists claim certainty about God. They fervently and passionately proclaim God’s truth! Most atheists just think this fervent passion is unjustified. The evidence that apologists provide does not seem very compelling.

    Same thing with more mundane beliefs such as having a happy marriage or getting good returns in the stock exchange. Atheists look at the evidence, try to see patterns, and then make their predictions the best they can. We hope the patterns we see will continue. When it comes to God’s existence, though, we just don’t see the pattern of evidence.

    Suppose I buy some Microsoft stock. I have my reasons and expectations, but I’m not going to stand on the street corner shouting ecstatically about how certain I am that Microsoft will gain in price. If someone points out to me some disappointing news, like the new Windows 11 has security bugs, I’m not going to brush that news aside and disregard it. But this is the kind of behavior we see among religious people.

  6. “If someone points out to me some disappointing news, like the new Windows 11 has security bugs, I’m not going to brush that news aside and disregard it. But this is the kind of behavior we see among religious people.”

    So John, just what news is it for which Christians “brush that news aside and disregard it.”

    I mean you’ve been around here for a while. In order for you to make a claim like this you must have repeatedly seen this disregard for confronting items that are problematic. Care to be a bit more specific? Anyone can write the words “brush that news aside and disregard it”. Can you tell us what we’ve been so remiss as not to address?

  7. “But how does the atheist know these things are true? For many, it’s because there’s no scientific proof for God. But there’s no scientific proof against God, either — just as there’s no scientific test for the truth of any other relational/future-oriented things the atheist may choose to believe.”

    You seem to be saying that asking for scientific evidence for God is some sort of category mistake. As a Christian, I think this is ceding too much ground to atheists. The entire field of natural theology deals with scientific evidence for God: the fact that the universe is life-permitting, shows a remarkable degree of order, etc. etc. Atheists obviously can and do reject such arguments; apparently, some of them even admit that if the stars spelled out “I am God. Believe in me,” they would try to find a naturalistic explanation. But Christians can plausibly argue that if the universe were designed by a supreme being, we would get exactly what science observes. In that sense, the “God hypothesis” is as testable as any other.

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