I received the following question by email from a reader of my web site. My answer follows.
It seems to me that Theists cannot prove the existance of (a) God.

If we totally ignore religionist arguments and the weaknesses of those arguments and the inadequacy of their evidence...what is it that should convince people that a supreme being does not exist?

Do Atheists have sufficient evidence of their own to prove that such a God does not exist? And if so, what is it?


My response:
Well, lots of folks who ask this question aren't very clear about what the word "prove" means. Some people say they are agnostics because God's existence or non-existence can't be proven in an absolute, logical way. I don't think that sort of proof makes any sense except in mathematical situations. And, in those situations, Gödel demonstrated that we can't prove anything without making assumptions, anyway.

You seem to be using "prove" with the more sensible meaning of "convincingly demonstrate". Like if God showed up and started performing miracles down on my street corner, it would be easy to demonstrate that he existed just by bringing folks around to see for themselves.

The other can of worms you have opened is the question of what God is. Most theists don't seem to have much idea of what they believe in. If you try to pin them down about what God is like, they will tell you there is something out there bigger than us, and maybe they think he created the universe. Well, gravity is out there, it is way bigger than us, and it certainly may have played a role in creating the universe. But, that won't satisfy them, because what they really want is a big person out there - someone that thinks like us and cares about us.

Since God is such a slippery fellow to pin down, the only thing that seems constant about him is that he is transcendental. That is, he is somehow outside the universe while still affecting it. Thomas Jefferson's deism is a humorous exception to this rule. He thought that saying that God was immaterial was the same as saying that he doesn't exist. He believed in a creator God who was no longer active in the universe - a God who was material, but made of a thin, wispy sort of matter. Most people today reject this idea. What makes religion religion is its insistence on transcendentalism.

So what can we do to demonstrate that a supernatural, transcendent God does not exist? The only real demonstration is that this God is not compatible with a naturalistic world-view. Humans have succeeded in understanding the universe around us better than any other species on Earth. It wasn't easy, our faculties are not well suited to the task, as evidenced by the fact that we made very little progress until we figured out how to record information extrasomatically (outside the body) in the form of writing. Our knowledge of the universe is now exploding as our brain-assisting technologies rapidly expand.

Expanding real knowledge of the universe has pushed religious explanations of the universe relentlessly back. Everything on Earth is now well-enough understood by science to render religion unnecessary, except human beings. I hope and believe that advances in brain sciences and related and supporting disciplines will one day chase religion from its last hiding places. I don't think it will be in my lifetime, though, and the resistance will be terrible. Perhaps the scientific world view will lose out and the world will plunge into a new dark age - but I hope not.

Any one scientific advance is not enough. Even if evolution were universally accepted - even if love were explained genetically, chemically, and biologically, God would slither off to claim some other terrain that had not yet been explained by science. Other areas may be permanently undecipherable by science, like the cause of the Big Bang. The real proof is the overall naturalistic world-view. It has always been productive and self-consistent. It is universal. There is no Western science and Eastern science. No new-age science. No leftist science. (Stalin tried to enforce a Communist science that rejected Mendelian genetics, but it failed miserably.)

We really can look at the universe together - we really can understand it. And, everywhere we look, we see no sign of God. The only real evidence for God that I have ever seen is that an awful lot of people believe in God - even otherwise smart and sensible people. But, the best explanation for this widespread belief is not that God exists, but rather that belief in God satisfies some psychological need.

What do you think? Mark Gilbert

Last modified 1998-09-12
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