As an atheist, I receive the occasional benign criticism for holding to a belief in atheism as firmly as the religious hold to their belief. The conversation can go on, where I can ask what, exactly, my belief is (because atheism only tells you something I don’t believe, it tells you nothing of all the things I do believe) and about the difference between faith and belief. But occasionally (and all too often) I engage with people who insist on a misunderstanding of a great deal of philosophy. So, instead of being a discussion, it very much becomes a case of me teaching a reluctant learner.
There is no positive belief associated with atheism. Some atheists may believe that no God exists, where others cannot rationally justify belief in God. The reasons for this can be evidential (i.e. there is insufficient supporting evidence), philosophical (e.g. no definition of God is internally consistent) or even irrational and emotional reasons (e.g. not wanting to believe that the horror and the suffering in this life could easily be stopped by a Being who refuses to do it). So it doesn’t mean anything to tell me I am holding to a belief in atheism.
“…if you know a thing you should know how you know it”
Otherwise you are remembering, can’t claim to be sure, or made it up.
When a person realises this the conversation often moves on (informally) to the topic of the burden of proof. Which of the people in the discussion need to give arguments and evidence to support their position? The person announcing a positive belief or the person who says they don’t believe you. The answer is obvious for claims like “my tumble dryer can dry my clothes in under 5 minutes”; you want me to prove that my tumble dryer can do that, and you feel no pressure to offer any evidence that it can’t happen*.
However, I am often asked to present evidence for my doubt. I’m never sure what that means, and my normal approach is to investigate (and discredit) the arguments put forward for a claim. The real question is why do you believe? I follow a blogger called Robin Claire, and she has written her own testimony about how one day, in absolute desperation, she let God into her life and, as it happens, He actually came in and enveloped her in a blanket of love and deep awareness of His existence and of the existence of Jesus Christ. It is a six part post you can find here. She let God in and God gave her a personal experience that was all the evidence she needed. I have a friend who didn’t let God in, God made His own way in when she didn’t expect it; for a short time this was all the evidence that she needed, but it didn’t last. I tried to recreate these experiences the other week, and it didn’t work. I wrote about that, and the commenter MyAtheistLife pointed out that, even though I am finite and God is meant to be infinite, people will see me as the one at fault here; even when I gave God the opportunity to have a loving relationship with me, which apparently He wants, I still had to do all the leg-work. It’s odd that God would accept an invite from Robin, but not from me. It is weirder still that God would invite Himself into my friend’s life and give her a deep awareness of His existence, but not everyone.
So there, I investigated that claim and I got nothing. Not only could I not replicate the experiment, Derren Brown has shown that the even he (as a mortal, I think) can induce those same feelings in a person. Robin’s testimonies are not evidence for God that can be shared; the only material existence of the evidence was a fleeting brain state and an experience that is now gone. And her experience is not my experience, so it would be irrational for me to believe based on it. It doesn’t even make sense, by Robin’s definition of a God, that she would get this experience and I would not (unless desperation in life really is a key part, in which case happiness is a burden).
So, the challenge is not what I would accept as evidence for belief in a God; it is what evidence do you have for your belief in a God? What made you believe?
* As it happens, my tumble dryer cannot dry clothes this fast. Also, I am sure anyone with access to information like the specific heat capacity of water (4.18j/°C/ml) and the burning temperature of most clothes (the ignition temperature of wool is 600°C; nylons can ignite at temperatures as low as 180°C) could show that any tumble dryer that gets hot enough to do that would also incinerate my clothes. But I haven’t bothered with the maths yet.