A recent issue of New Scientist (Sept. 3-9) is billed as "The Metaphysics Issue: How science answers philosophy's deepest questions." This is probably not going to make philosophers happy.Several of the articles are devoted to the "big questions." According to New Scientist these questions are normally left to philosophers but the editors go on to say, "Now, though, scientists are increasingly claiming them as their own ..." Let's look at one of the questions: Can we ever know if God exists?. Here's the part I want to discuss ...
No one has proved that God exists, but then no one has proved there is no God. Is working out the truth a supernatural feat?Really? Disbelief in Thor, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, and Gitchi Manitou is a "leap of faith"? I have not been convinced by any evidence that these gods exist. Is that irrational and incoherent?
... Gallons of ink and blood have been spilled over this question but have largely got us nowhere. Belief in a god or several gods is a leap of faith. So is disbelief. The only coherent and rational position is agnosticism.
Agnosticism, in its simplest form, is the position that you can never prove that gods exist and you can never prove the negative. I am an agnostic and so is Richard Dawkins. It's the rational position you have to take in philosophy class when anyone asks if you can disprove the existence of all gods. But philosophy class is just about the only place where this stance is practical. In the real world you have to take a stance. You either believe in some of the gods or you don't believe in any of them.
In the real world, you can disbelieve in something without committing yourself to proving that it doesn't exist. For example, I don't believe there are fairies at the bottom of my garden. With respect to gods, this form of disbelief is the position of many (most?) atheists. They simply don't believe in gods. They have not been convinced by any arguments for the existence of any gods. Atheism, in this sense, does not mean that you deny the existence of gods. That's why many of us are atheists AND agnostics.1
It's just childish nonsense to say that failure to believe in something is a "leap of faith." The author of this article, Graham Lawton, may have been thinking of something else when he wrote "disbelief." Perhaps he was thinking more in terms of disbelief meaning "rejection of gods" but that's not a common meaning.
It is coherent and rational to say we can never prove there are no gods just like it's coherent and rational to say we can never prove the absence of fairies at the bottom of my garden. That's almost trivial. I don't know why everyone makes such a big deal of it.
It is also coherent and rational to be an atheist who doesn't believe in any of the gods. On the other hand, I don't think it's coherent and rational to reject 99.99% of the gods but believe in one of them. That's truly a leap of faith.
1. Some people—John Wilkins is one—adopt a different definition of atheism. They think an atheist must deny that any gods exist. This is why he is a nonbeliever but not an atheist. He is an agnostic who doesn't believe in any gods. According to his logic, he could also be a theist and an agnostic as long as he's willing to admit he can never actually prove his god exists. (I know a Jesuit priest who is a theist and an agnostic.)