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There is a common misconception that staunch religious belief and atheism act as counterweights to one another, and are both equally arrogant and unbending with their claims of certainty.  Herein I wish to dispel this myth by describing the fundamental difference between arguing for a claim in the absence of evidence (religious belief) and arguing against a claim due to the absence of evidence to support it (atheism).​

In the case of the believer – the most common example being that of an adamant follower of one of the three major monotheistic religions – a claim is made whose central dogma rests on the belief in an omniscient entity that is neither seen nor heard, and who controls our destinies after we perish.

Thus, the believer’s claim to knowledge rests wholly in faith-based hypotheses. These claims can never be proven.  In fact, it would be frivolous to remove this component from religious belief since a leap of faith is the essence of being a dedicated follower. None can attest to Mary Magdalene’s virginity, or to Jesus of Nazareth’s relationship with a divine superpower, or to the meeting of the man Mohammed with an archangel named Gabriel in an Arabian cave. Belief in these accounts inherently requires a faith-based approach since they are beyond the scope of what we know to be possible in our physical world, or what may be proven through the presentation of evidence.

This is quite different from our approach to analyze human history, such as ancient philosophies or political and cultural events.  We are able to observe physical evidence for the ability of Neanderthals to craft tools for hunting, or for the removal of Native American tribes from their homelands over the course of centuries. Similarly, we are not required to know the details of Plato’s life, or even whether Plato the man existed at all; it is his words and ideas that are important. This is not the case for Christianity, as its foundation rests on the divine nature of Jesus Christ.

Atheistic beliefs are far less daring.  Atheists claim that since there is no physical evidence to support the existence of a supernatural power, then until proven otherwise there is no reason to believe that one exists (though this is only one of the reasons that someone may be an atheist). No claims are made beyond what can be observed.  So it is simply misguided to compare the certainty of a man who refuses to believe a mystical claim in the absence of evidence, with that of a man who claims to know the mind of a deity. Although both men may feel quite certain in their beliefs, only the latter strikes me as reaching beyond our cognitive limitations.

In each of these cases, when presented with evidence that challenges their fundamental hypothesis, each will likely respond very differently.  In the first case, since the atheist stance relies heavily on evidence, he may be more likely to change or alter his opinion if presented with a strong case for the existence of a god. However when the believer is presented evidence countering his hypothesis, he has no reason to rescind his stance since it rests on faith instead of fact.

The eleventh century Persian philosopher and poet Omar Khayyam exhibited (at the time) heretical insight when he wrote in his masterpiece Rubaiyat that “no agony of any mortal brain shall wrest the secret of the life of man.”  Building off of his wisdom, those who are still alive are quite presumptuous to speak of what happens after you die, and should absolutely not be cast in the same light as those who require proof of something in order to believe in it.

Article published by on 6/19/2012

By Brian T. Murphy

Atheist certainty is not an equal counterweight to religious certainty

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