Something to prove, but what?

Question from Darian:
What would be defined as legitimate proof of god(s) within the accepted community of atheists? And, is there any proper scientific research being done to find said proof? Another way to word, what would be the atheist definition of god(s)?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some argument about this within the atheist community (for example between biologist bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne) so I don’t think there’s a definitive answer I can give you. Some atheists name grand gestures (say, huge letters in the sky) as evidence they would accept, and some think even that kind of thing would be insufficient.

The more general attitude is that if evidence for an entity which might qualify as a god presented itself, there would be two questions to answer: whether the evidence was valid, and if so what kind of presence was actually indicated. The resulting investigation would make as few assumptions as possible, which might be difficult given the subject, to get as close to the facts as possible.

Religious apologetics, and the idea that a god might be demonstrated by an argument alone, are considered differently. Each of the prospective arguments that aims to do this makes its own presumptions and inferences about the qualities of the supposed god. If an apologetic argument were established and accepted as valid and sound, thereby unambiguously confirming the existence of a god, what that argument said about the god would implicitly be accepted too.

Since the ontology of a hypothetical god (i.e. what it is) isn’t settled, there isn’t a lot of scientific research of any kind being done to discover evidence for it. If scientists knew what to look for, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get a grant or sponsorship with the help of religious politicians, philanthropists or venture capitalists. As it is, scientists are exploring the universe as best they can to find whatever happens to be there, and evidence for a god might turn up under a microscope or millions of light years away when they least expected it.

On the other hand plenty of work is being done to establish the existence of a god (usually a specific god) by those who want there to be one, though a lot of it doesn’t qualify as research, let alone scientific, because it doesn’t uncover anything new. A famous example is that expeditions have set out to find Noah’s Ark, and some claim to have found it (in several different places). The much more common approach, though, is simply finding new ways to interpret existing biological, paleontological and geological data in order to support the idea.

15 thoughts on “Something to prove, but what?”

    1. Doesn’t have much to do with the article, but sure, this is a quick one. Yes, everyone currently getting an education is going to die eventually, but on average it will be a long time between the end of formal education and death. Education will likely improve the quality of one’s remaining life, so many judge that it’s worthwhile.

  1. Why do we need to use science to prove the existence of God .
    Science can only deal with tangible things , for example the five senses , anything beyond this is not the providence of science but rather rational thinking .

    1. God might not be tangible, but the God you believe in has plenty of tangible influence on the world, right? As soon as the observable world is affected, science has a phenomenon to investigate.

      As I mentioned tangentially, however, there is a school of thought that the best hope for establishing the existence of a god is through rational thought and logical arguments, mainly because the tangible influence hasn’t been demonstrated. The arguments put forward so far have not proved convincing for the most part, merely reassuring to believers.

  2. I didn’t see any clear mention made of what would qualify as a “god.” Shouldn’t coming to agreement on a clear definition of the term be the first step in discussing and empirically exploring this question? Is there an unstated agreement here that, whatever it is we’re talking about, it is intrinsically “supernatural” or “magical” in nature? Would an unimaginably technologically-advanced extraterrestrial race qualify as “gods” if they had all of the functional abilities and powers of a traditional mythical god? What if their powers included the ability to bend or break natural law? Perhaps even to “rewrite” natural law locally, or even globally? (In principle, if an intelligent technological species, or AI, were to reach the point where no natural disaster could kill them off, not even a supernova, they could theoretically exist and develop technologically for millions of years.)

    1. Hi Brian. I generally avoid settling on a detailed definition of a god because as soon as I criticise the support for its existence, theists will protest that it’s not the kind of god they believe in. Since different theists believe in different kinds of god, there’s not much point picking just one to discuss.

      Rather, I take what is implied about the nature of someone’s god by their questions and/or challenges, and discuss that idea as best I can. It’s much easier to have a productive exchange with someone you disagree with if you can understand their premises and speak in appropriate terms.

      Case in point: if your idea of the most likely god-like entity is an advanced alien or alien race, scientists are looking for evidence of it constantly with whatever budget they can spare for SETI projects. So far there’s been no hard evidence, so taking this semantic route hasn’t advanced the case for the existence of gods even by this definition.

  3. What about those currents of pantheism and satanism that deify the world and the self, respectively? No spirit of nature, no immortal soul, just the world you live in, or your own person, as your god. If I met such a pantheist or such a satanist, I would not doubt the existence of their gods. Those gods are real, duh! But I would question the pertinence of calling such things gods.

    When I say that I am an atheist, that I do not believe in the existence of a god, I do have my own idea of what “a god” means. It entails self-awareness and primordiality.

  4. My tongue-in-cheek answer would be that theists need not bother with what will be convincing enough for atheists as proof of god.
    If god exists, I’m sure he/she/it can work the appropriate neural pathways in the brains of a few hard core atheists to make us believe, when push comes to shove.
    Now that, to me, would certainly qualify as a miracle.

    On a more serious note … suppose you were to encounter a person that looked human but could walk on water, make it rain when you wanted it to, move around things purely by focusing on them, mend a fractured leg just by touching it, heal any injury it goes through etc. etc. (do any and all “miracle” that you wanted it to do).
    Would this being qualify as god & its existence as proof of god?
    If I am convinced that what this being does is not a hoax, I’d probably still just call it an advanced being and I’d be very curious to know how it does what it does – especially the underlying causal patterns – the actual physical mechanisms that it invokes to do what it does.
    That being would represent to me a potential that (maybe) every human being can aspire towards perhaps by understanding nature better than we currently understand it. Maybe we can never aspire to be that way due to biological limitations much like one can’t expect an ant to compose Beethoven’s 9th. But why would an ant revere me and think of me as “god”. It might fear me, and run away from me but why would it trust me or love me? Similarly why would I revere such an advanced being?
    If it (the being) promises me I can become like it by doing some stuff, I’d like to know what this stuff is and then try it out maybe. But if the stuff sounded cuckoo and with no scientific basis, I’d probably avoid doing it. If the being gave me convincing enough scientific justifications for such stuff, I’d do it maybe. But why would I revere the being in any case? Why would it want me to revere it? Hopefully its ego would have far surpassed the annoyingly human limitation of needing a boost every now and then.
    If it told me that I could never become like it but I could be with it all the time and experience bliss because of being with it, I’d probably return the tickets to this heavenly show. For even if I can’t become like it, I’d like to know what it really is and how and why … I’d not like to “be in bliss” etc.

  5. “Some atheists name grand gestures (say, huge letters in the sky) as evidence they would accept, …”
    The problem with that was when God wrote in big letters in the sky, “PAIN”, the English cowered in fear while the French gathered wine and cheese.

      1. The word PAIN in English means BODILY SUFFERING while in French PAIN means BREAD. Thus the English would cringe at the message PAIN from God while the French would rejoice about the feast God had planned for them. That’s the problem with grand messages, it is difficult to understand what they mean and thus, conclusively attribute them to God.

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