Aug 9, 2010 6
In America, and apparently some parts of the developing world, it can be very shocking when you tell people that you do not believe in God. Indeed, even among America’s educated classes, you’ll rarely hear an expression of outright atheism (though you will encounter a fair amount of agnosticism).
I asked a friend once why this was and he replied, in effect, that people claim to be agnostic mainly because they are cowards. At first I thought he meant that they, like Pascal, were basically hedging their bets. I mean, what if they’re wrong? Better not to commit either way.
Now I believe that he was pointing instead to their fear of communal opprobrium. Agnostics don’t fear God, after all (if they did, they wouldn’t be agnostics). The only thing they have to fear is Believers.
For my part, I’ve tended to be fairly forthright about my atheism. I do not believe that God exists. At the same time, being of a rather philosophical bent, I’m not entirely comfortable with that manner of expressing things. Why? Well, it all depends on what your definition of “is” is.
You see, we humans tend to have a pretty strong physical bias when it comes to “existence.” When we say that something exists in the course of daily conversation, one can safely assume that we mean “physically” exists. And to the extent that we are particular in questions of fact, we have some fairly rigorous and straightforward standards regarding proof of physical existence.
For example, one should be able to supply fairly precise coordinates of an existing entity’s location in space if one wants to definitively claim that it does indeed exist. One should also be able to specify it’s mass, its physical dimensions, and so on. (In the case of those “objects”—electrons, black holes, photons, etc.—for which precise location or exact mass, among other things, may be difficult to establish, we have mathematical models and experimental procedures that provide a great deal of circumstantial evidence from which existence can be reasonably inferred, if not postively demonstrated.)
Unfortunately, the existence of God doesn’t lend itself to such procedures and demonstrations. If it is argued that the reason for this is that God does not exist “physically,” then I must respond, “Well, then, in what sense of the word ‘exist’ does God exist if not in the physical sense?”