I have been in a lot of online discussions and debates on theism and atheism. I have interacted with hundreds of people, and encountered thousands of nuanced opinions on the subject of god and gods, their existence, and the lack thereof.
Assuming their existence, the debate is barely begun. What does this god want from us, if anything? How are we to know? How do we sort out true revelation from false? To debate these things, we must presume to know what exactly is meant by a god in the first place, which we don’t.
One truth has emerged for me as a result of all these discussions: The Christian position is the one with more epistemic certainty. Christians are more certain of their position because they have to be.
Their position is faith-based. True faith leaves little room for doubt. That means that one must be absolutely certain of her theism, or at the very least, behave as if she does. There is a narrow window when one might question her core beliefs. But at a certain point, they are pressured to decide. They either believe or they don’t.
For the atheist, all epistemic options remain open. They can question and doubt anything and everything. They never have to come to a dogmatic conclusion about anything. But that means they are less certain about big questions. And uncertainty is uncomfortable.
No one wants to admit that they do not know when it comes to the big questions. But that is the position the atheist is in more often. This is just one of the reasons why atheism is the tougher path. Here are a few others:
When two out of three people believe one thing, you do not want to be the third. Confirmation bias often leads to the wrong conclusion. But it is a wrong conclusion that puts us all in the same boat. Even if you are right, it is lonely to be a minority.
For inconsequential matters, it is just uncomfortable. But for more important matters, it could be crucial to survival. In a situation where there is strength in numbers, you want to be a part of the larger number. Go against the group, and they may find you eccentric, but tolerable. But defy the group on a core issue, and you may be ostracized from the group, left to fend for yourself.
Atheism is the minority position. In some parts of the world, you can be locked out of major parts of society by not going along with the religious majority. This is a very uncomfortable place to be. But more than uncomfortable, it can be deadly.
Burden of Proof
Logically, the one making the positive assertion is the one with the burden of proof. But practically, the one with the burden of proof is the one with the minority position. In this way, the atheist always inherits the burden of proof even when it is not his to bear.
That constant burden is bad enough. But it gets much worse for the atheist, as one cannot prove a negative. Even if the atheist’s position is that he is simply not convinced of the existence of any gods thus presented, he must prove that the existence of any god is impossible. This simply cannot be done. So it is an impossible burden the atheist is forced to bear.
Opponents of Straw
The atheist never know’s with whom she is arguing from one moment to the next. She crafts an airtight case against one version of god, only to discover that her opponent also rejects that version of god. She has attacked a straw man.
If an atheist is in discussion with ten different Christians at once, at least nine will accuse her of attacking straw men. There is no single idea of what god is, and what Christianity is. Quoting the bible simply does not help since there are as many views on what the bible says as there are denominations. For the atheist, it is straw men all the way down.
Conclusion: Playing Defense
The atheist is forever on defense. It is not just a matter of the false burden of proof. It is everything. The atheist does not go door-knocking in an attempt to convert believers to atheism. No one is lobbying to have atheism taught in school. Science, yes. Atheism, not at all.
Politicians might begrudgingly admit to being atheist. But no politician runs on a platform of atheism. There is no atheist money that say we do not trust in gods. And it is still the case that atheists are the least trusted people in America.
This is an uphill battle.
All of this is quite apart from the arguments of the position. Atheist apologetics are far easier to argue than Christian apologetics. When it comes to atheism, one can appeal to reason and experience more credibly.
I have never experienced a miracle of which I am aware. I have never experienced the presence of a god. I have no reason to believe that prayer to any god under any circumstances is effective. The sick remain sick. The poor remain poor. The dead remain dead. And mountains remain unmoved. Religious claims do not resonate with me, or comport with my experience of reality. In short, I have no reason to believe religious claims. So I don’t.
No matter, atheism is still the minority report, carries the burden of proof, against opponents of straw.
It reminds me a bit of the Matrix. I always get the red pill and the blue pill mixed up. But one of those pills allows you to stay in a comfortable fantasy. The other pits you in direct conflict with the controlling machines. The fantasy is easier. And so is faith.
Taking the wrong pill insures a life of conflict. That is atheism. Unlike Neo, I didn’t choose. But it is my path nonetheless.