A reader writes:
The essential difference between atheism and a strong theism such as Christianity is that one makes specific, positive claims about the material universe that are untestable and for which there is no good evidence, and the other does not. It's quite true that a hypothetical atheist who was absolutely certain that "there's nothing out there" would be holding an indefensible position; but in practice, virtually no atheist--not even Dawkins or PZ Myers--feels that way. As a nonbeliever, I don't ever "feel a twinge of doubt" that I might be wrong; I'm pretty sure that I'm wrong, about many things.
And like you, I doubt that what is "right" on this subject is intellectually comprehensible by the human mind. The difference is that, given these limitations and the absence of evidence, I am unwilling to hold a positive, specific belief on poor evidence. Remember: atheism as it is normally found in the real world says, "There is no evidence to support (for example) the Christian God, so until such evidence is presented, I maintain no belief in such a god and live under the assumption that he is not there." The doubt that Douthat is talking about is not only built into atheism, it essentially is atheism.
Douthat doesn't seem to get this, so he leaps from his fictitious 100%-certain atheist to a false comparison between the Christian God and the FSM. Of course the two are not "equally ridiculous hypotheses." That's the whole point. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a deliberately ridiculous idea; so was Bertrand Russell's teapot. The point of these examples is that, however ridiculous they are, they are just as non-disprovable as the Christian God. The idea is to put the burden of proof on the one making a specific, positive claim. "The universe is mysterious, and you can't disprove X completely, so you can't argue if I say that X is true" is a bad, content-free argument. Substituting the FSM for X instead of God or Jesus is just a way of making this point.
Having now read Ross' post, he makes several good points. I think most atheists I know would admit to having had doubts at some time. My dad always said, "If everyone else is telling you you're drunk, you should at least consider sitting down."
But he sidestepped the central point of Russell’s Teapot, which is that there is exactly as much empirical evidence for the existence of God as there is for the Teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Now certainly there’s more to the world than just empirical evidence. But even if one accepts that religious beliefs developed out of (forgive the pun) good faith rather than malice, that still says more about the human need to believe than it does about the actual existence of god. The fact that lots of people believe a thing doesn’t make it any more likely to be true.
And again, the closing quote that "the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the flying spaghetti monster as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often" also completely misses the point. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is INTENDED to be ridiculous - aggressively absurd, even. That's the whole idea. The more interesting question, to me, is why people who find the Hindu or Buddhist or even Islamic version of God to be so ridiculous and improbable view the Christian version as not only True, but self-evidently so. Mark Twain put it best: “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.”
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.