It is difficult for me to express the extent to which I violently, vehemently disagree with Ross Douthat’s recent post about how thinking atheists should really be just a little bit agnostic. He’s responding to a famous quote by Bertrand Russell, in which Russell likens a belief in a god to a belief in a china teapot orbiting the Sun between here and Mars, on the grounds that both beliefs are unprovable as false but are, at best, highly unlikely. Here are the key points from Douthat’s response:
An intuitive belief in some sort of presiding Agent seems to be an extremely common, albeit hardly universal, feature of human nature; this intuition has intersected, historically, with an enormous amount of subjective religious experience; and this intersection (along with, yes, the force of custom and tradition) has produced and sustained the religious traditions that seem to Richard Dawkins and company like so much teapot-worship.
The story of our civilization, in particular, is a story in which an extremely large circle of non-insane human beings have perceived themselves to be experiencing an interaction with a being who seems recognizable as the Judeo-Christian God (here I do feel comfortable using the term), rather than merely being taught about Him in Sunday School.
… it is one thing to disbelieve in God; it is quite another to never feel a twinge of doubt about one’s own disbelief. And just as the Christian who has never entertained doubts about his faith probably hasn’t thought hard enough about the matter, the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the flying spaghetti monster as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often.
Basically what Douthat is saying here is, lots of other people have believed this, so that makes it more likely. This is obviously an egregious logical fallacy, and it does nothing to address the problem of burden of proof put forth by Russell’s analogy. Human beings have at one point or another believed in all sorts of demonstrably silly things, including: that the world is flat; that the souls of long-dead aliens influence our actions; and that people of a different skin color are a different species entirely. But the fact that humans have believed these things does not change the fact that there is absolutely no shred of evidence whatsoever to support them, and an overwhelming amount of evidence that proves the opposite. So it is with a Christian God.
It is one thing to acknowledge that religion has had a incalculable impact on what we will, for the moment, call civilization. It is another to look at that widespread belief and wonder what it says about human beings, about the way that our mind works and the way our culture shapes our ideas. But to look at this widespread belief and say, well, maybe they were on to something is to ignore the fact that human beings have historically been wrong about almost everything.