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Ask An Atheist: Is it contradictory for an atheist to attempt to prove God doesn’t exist?

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Q. Do you think it is inconsistent for someone who doesn't believe in God to work against his existence by attempting to show that God doesn't exist?

A. I cannot see how it is even slightly “inconsistent” for an atheist to argue that a particular god doesn't exist, though it would seem the questioner is trying to beg the question with the phrase “work against his existence” thereby embedding the reality of the god as an assumption. It might be argued that the onus is on the believer to provide a reason for thinking the god exists in the first place, but in that case it would sound equally strange to contend the following:

Do you think it is inconsistent for someone who believes in God to work for his existence by attempting to show that God exists?

Of course, If the god does in fact exist no argument pro or con will have any bearing on that existence, or does the questioner think that if an atheist marshals a really, really good argument, you run the risk of the god shrugging their ethereal shoulders, “oh my, that about does it for me, doesn't it” and promptly disappear down a black hole of logical necessity?

Or consider the following parallel:

Do you think it is inconsistent for someone who doesn't believe in unicorns to work against their existence by attempting to show that unicorns don't exist?

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About 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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4 comments

  1. Your unicorn comparison is even more apt as the Bible does claim they exist as well.

  2. Now don’t be too hasty there, Answers in Genesis insists that the unicorns mentioned in the Bible were in fact real animals (Elizabeth Mitchell’s “Unicorns in the Bible” from 25 June 2008), though they are somewhat vague as to exactly what that might have been. This is the same AiG that thinks the Book of Job describes dinosaurs in useful detail, though, so a large dosage of calcium chloride might be recommended to accompany it.

  3. I’ve seen atheism in one facet as being not rejecting that the vaguest notion of a powerful omnipresent being existing as being absolutely impossible. Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have always been quick to point out that there’s no hard and fast rule that intelligences may exist that aren’t necessarily carbon-based flesh. I suppose it’s possible that there could be something out there that lives a very different, large, long, and powerful life compared to us.

    That’s not really a “god” of course, in the sense that this being could in any way create the universe. But I think that this is essentially the version of “god” that the ontological argument asks us to believe in.

    What I’m getting at is that the ontological argument has always been a very lame verbal trick. It’s “logical” in the sense that each part is consistent with the other in the whole of the argument, but the content of the argument is nonsense that’s meant to take advantage of its vagueness.

    Because what atheism is really doing, in my mind, is rejecting the human stories about the supernatural that are often asserted as fact. As a citizen of the world, interacting in human society, it concerns me very much that our rights and safety are at stake because of belief in god, and I would very much like to engage with culture in an attempt to show how those *stories* are false. It is entirely irrelevant to me if some vast, unknowable, mysterious consciousness exists somewhere out there, even only in a conceptual way. Such a being and much less an idea, has any bearing on the quality of my life and how I choose to think and spend my time. It matters nothing to me if it is so vastly distant that it has no affect. I can say this and still be an atheist because I completely reject the validity and value of the stories believed by holy men and asserted by charlatans.

    So, theists, try a better argument than the ontological.

  4. For me the weakness of ontological arguments for gods (from Aristotle’s Prime Cause to a more generic “why is there something rather than nothing”) is that these abstract arguments are routinely used to buttress a specific deity without clearly showing why other religious claimants can’t hitch their own wagons to the same metaphysical star. The late Christopher Hitchens skewered that fallacy best in a debate with Dinesh D’Souza some years ago, accusing D’Souza’s invocation of anthropic fine-tuning arguments for his particular Christian God as “trying to slip God through customs without declaring Him.”

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