I’ve been following with some interest the attempts to create common understanding between Christians and atheists at the blog Unequally Yoked. I’ve never had much interest in the endless online battles between arrogant atheists and hapless and/or arrogant Christians that have been happening on the Internet since the Usenet days, but the Internet could conceivably be a venue for a more productive discussion. I’m just not sure that Unequally Yoked is doing any better. I take exception to her characterization of the “atheist” position in this recent post:
Don’t forget that atheists and Christians don’t just disagree on which way the evidence points, they disagree on what kind of evidence should be counted. Atheists think that proof for the existence of God should look like the proof for the existence of life on the moon, or an invisible dragon in the garage. There should be observable, reproducible evidence that is convincing to pretty much any person with a grip on reality. Christians like Jen think that this kind of proposition is more like the squishy claims of “my mother loves me” or “people’s actions have moral weight” or “the physical world is not an illusion.” These claims are not provable in any formal system and they don’t lend themselves to definite empirical observation.
I call myself an atheist, but this doesn’t mean I’ve rejected the statement “There is a God” in the same way that I would reject the existence of an invisible dragon. It would be a failure of understanding to suppose that the God of Augustine “exists” in the same sense as temporal things exist, and we would have to make a major leap to suppose that we can coherently talk about God in terms of observable evidence. Though I am an empiricist in many ways, I don’t share the dismissive attitude towards this sort of “squishy” concept. Any standard of truth we use we use because it has some value to us, because it helps us to achieve or to better formulate our goals. This is why we use the empirical definition of truth, and likely it’s why many religious people use definitions of truth based on spiritual feeling. I don’t think that all definitions of truth are equally valuable, but I would never claim that only the empirical one has any value at all, or try to force other people into debate with me in terms of it.
I call myself an atheist because, quite simply, the concept of God does not occupy a central position in my view of the world. I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t occupy any position in my view of the world, because I do possess a mental representation of the concept and find it useful now and then, in trying to understand the motives of the religious people around me and in reading literature written from a religious perspective. When I say that I don’t believe in God, all I mean is that I am not inclined to act on the propositions that make up that particular cluster of concepts in my head. That’s it – my beliefs about evidence and different types of truth are a different matter.