Although I myself don’t believe in existence of God, or other supernatural entities, I find what I call The Game of Proof very amusing. Its a game where both parties, religious and atheists, demand proofs from each other, or provide proofs for fellow members in order to tackle the enemy.
A typical scenario is this. A religious person, extremist or not, talks about existence of God and an atheist, extremist or not, demands proof. After some trying and constantly being shot down, the religious person resorts to saying “Alright, can YOU prove God doesn’t exist?”. To this the atheist says, rather condescendingly, “You don’t understand the concept of burden of proof. I am not obliged to prove his non existence, rather you are”. The condescension increases as his amateur knowledge of science increases. Such people I call Dawkinians.
Dawkinians are interesting species. They do the exact same thing that they mock the religious people for. They follow Dawkins mindlessly and repeat what he has said over and over again. To most things they refer to Dawkins, who is their prophet. A lesser prophet to them is the rather snobbish Hitch.
The atheist is right in this regard with respect to burden of proof. The accepted intellectual convention is that those who make extraordinary claims are obliged to provide proofs for their claims. However, what is not right is the idea held by the atheists that they have successfully proven non existence of God because the religious people couldn’t prove the existence of God.
A cursory survey of such encounters reveals that almost all proofs shown by atheists are a sort of initial condition problem, and like any initial condition problem, starting from a different point will yield vastly different result. Typically, the religious party makes the claim and thus hold the burden of proof, which they cannot handle optimally. A nice variation would be instead of the religious claiming existence of God, they simply pose it as a question to the atheists. When the atheists emphatically say “no, such a thing cannot possibly exist”, the religious come out on top. Now the burden of proof is with the atheists.
Many Dawkinians are quick to argue that proving a negative is against the principles and conventions of philosophy, thus making it absurd. Typical. However, the better informed among the atheists recognize that it is not really absurd to do that and they set out to prove the non existence. They use a familiar technique of proof by contradiction that used in mathematics – assume something is true, show that it leads to absurdity, and conclude that it cannot therefore be true. A canonical example of this in mathematics is to prove that square root of two is irrational.
The Dawkinians treat the claims made by religious people and their scriptures as true and show that there is an abundance of things that happen contrary to the ‘facts’ espoused by the religions, or that plenty of things happen despite the claims in the religions. For the first kind, the preferred topic is evolution, and for the second kind, the preferred topic is prevalence of crime and suffering. Therefore, the Dawkinians say, victoriously, there does not and cannot exist anything like God.
However, if you look closely at the proof, you will see that the Dawkinians have only managed to prove that a particular religious doctrine is false. They haven’t proven anything about God. It is akin to disproving a theory that tried to explain an experimental result. Just because rules of logic concluded the theory to be absurd doesn’t make the result an illusion. A cursory look at history of science shows how many theories came and went trying to explain things like light and atoms. Did the disproving of the theories have any bearing on the ‘reality’ of light or atoms? Did it disprove existence of light or atoms? Religion is also a theory to explain the universe and everything humans perceive, such as thunder, earthquakes, dreams and death. But this theory is based on perception and emotion instead of experiments and analyses using modern scientific rules and ideas.
There are plenty of things that science can’t explain. The standard response to that by Dawkinians is ‘we don’t know yet but we will find out eventually with science’. A religious person can never say something on those lines because religions are set in stone. This makes the atheists believe that they win, albeit in some future date. What the atheists don’t know is that the religious have a trump card of their own – “only god knows best’. Every god based religion can use this trump card and there is nothing Dawkinians can do about it, and it infuriates them to the maximum. They know they can’t counter this trump card because it is exactly same as what they say, except they rely on a future scientist instead of an all knowing and eternal God. Some desperate Dawkinians claim that such statements by the religious party is an informal conceding of defeat because we can’t possibly know what God knows, and God might know nothing. Of course, they don’t see the absurdity of their arguments. It is absurd because that counter must first acknowledge existence of God. It isn’t surprising then that frustrated Dawkinians mock, insult and bitch about religion and religious people at every available half chance, often unprovoked.
This game is indeed very amusing.