Really Sciency

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Wednesday, 29 December 2010

I don't believe there is no gods, I have no belief in gods.

One thing I get a lot from believers is that they really don't get Unbelief. It seems a foreign concept for a believer to imagine people that do not believe in some equivalent to the beliefs they hold. It often manifests itself in claims that atheism is just another belief. Sometimes I get accused of not believing and I often correct them by saying  it isn't that I don't believe, it is that I have no belief. The difference between not believing and having no belief may be subtle but for me it is important

If you will indulge me in telling a story inspired by the late Carl Sagan I will attempt to make things clear.

I have fairies at the bottom of my garden. 

I seriously make this assertion to you and being open minded you say “Show me.” 
I take you into the garden and you see the bottom of it – some grass and a hedge. “Where are the fairies?”
I say, “Oh I forgot to tell you, they are invisible fairies.” 
You propose some tests, “Can we put some powder down so we can see their tracks?”
“Wont work, fairies can fly and rarely land”. 
“Can we use some sort of infrared or UV detector or camera?”. 
“Wont work, fairies will only show themselves if they wish it”. 
“How about throwing a net over them?”. 
“No good, fairies are ethereal and the net would just pass through”. 
On it goes, every physical test you propose I tell you why it won’t work.

Now what is the difference between an invisible flying, ethereal fairy and no fairy at all? Claims that cannot be tested and assertions immune to disproof are worthless, regardless of whatever values they may have inspired in me. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing in fairies at the bottom of my garden, in the absence of evidence, and on my say so. The only thing you know for sure is that something is going on in my head and if no tests apply what convinced me?

However you want to be scrupulously open minded so you don’t reject it outright but put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it but you are prepared to examine any new body of evidence. Surely it is unfair for me to be offended by you because you do not believe, or to criticise you for being closed minded or unimaginative?

Now suppose it is not just me. Millions of people who could never have met each other all believe there are fairies at the bottom of their gardens. They cant all be lunatics and ‘evidence’ starts to appear. People show marks in their garden made by fairy feet, and photos start to appear that claim to show the little creatures. But this never happens with sceptics present and all the evidence could have occurred some other way or even been faked. Such evidence is far from compelling – you think the only sensible thing to do is to again reject the ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ hypothesis, but to be open to future physical data and to wonder what might cause so many apparently sane and sober people to share the same apparent delusion.

Now I suspect that unless you do believe there are fairies at the bottom of gardens you are a fairy atheist. Would you say that you do not have any belief in fairies, or that you believe fairies do not exist? I admit it is a fine line, but to not believe in fairies could mean you do believe there is a unicorn at the bottom of the garden.

It’s more correct to state you have no belief in fairies as it better infers that you probably have no belief in other mythical creatures like most fairy atheists. Having no belief means you have not been convinced. Believing their isn't fairies suggests that what ever evidence you have seen has convinced you to not believe. This concept is often difficult and alien for believers to conceptualise. If someone tells a believer he believes their god does not exist, it would be understandable for the believer to think this person believes in another god or gods or some equivalent. If someone tells a believer they have no belief in god, (a more atheistic statement), then it would be normal to assume this covers all possible deities but they are still open to evidence.

Back to you being a fairy atheist. Because you do not believe in fairies have you suddenly become part of an alternative belief system about the existence of fairies? Of course not. Do you now have a lot more in common with other fairy disbelievers? Perhaps similar morals and ethics? No that would be absurd. There are plenty of books written by people about fairies including by other unbelievers like you. You may be interested in reading them to see what they say about the ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ phenomenon. Are these books part of a creed for fairy unbelievers? Are they your holy books forming part of religious cannon? No, that would be completely ridiculous.

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