David Hume showed that we never know anything with absolute certainty. We try our best to gather and process all the relevant information when we need to make a decision, but we can never possibly plan for every single contingency, and we can never have access to all the pertinent facts, so we just do the best we can, shrug and leave a little bit to chance. Even people who couldn’t care less about eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers or the intricacies of epistemology intuitively understand this in the course of their everyday lives. We don’t know for certain that we won’t be one of the tens of thousands of people who are involved in a fatal accident this year, but we confidently get behind the wheel every morning anyway. We don’t know for certain that we’re going to live beyond tomorrow, but we make plans for what we’re going to be doing in five years. Provisional knowledge is good enough.
Except when it comes to belief in God, it seems.
A frequent objection to atheism I’ve heard is that there’s something particularly dangerous about claiming to be reasonably certain that there is no immortal soul or personal, loving god or gods and living one’s life in accordance with this. I can only think of two reasons for this.
One would be the general idea that knowledge is a good thing in and of itself, there is something undesirable about living in a benighted state, and that we should always seek to reduce confusion and ignorance. Therefore, if someone thinks atheism is simply incorrect on the merits, it’s natural for them to want to bring it to attention. The problem is, all the good arguments are on the side of disbelief. Nothing we know points to proof of a soul or a god other than wishful thinking, which of course is no proof at all. And as many have pointed out, apologists haven’t really come up with any worthwhile variations of the basic (and flawed) arguments for God’s existence that we all learned from people like Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, whereas science and logic have continued to draw on human experience and expanding knowledge to keep chipping away at theological reasoning. It’s perfectly fine if you think I’m wrong, but simply asserting it to be so isn’t good enough.
It’s more likely, though, that the objection is rooted in the mentality best expressed as Pascal’s Wager (which has many flaws of its own). That is, having been raised in a largely Christian culture, we’ve absorbed the idea that there is a personal god, and he happens to be a fanatically insecure psychopath who’s just aching for the chance to make a horrible example out of anyone who questions or defies him, however mildly. Openly doubting his existence, of course, is the gravest insult one can offer him. Even those who think they’ve rejected the strictures of traditional religion still seem to harbor this psychological remnant. Better to just pay lip service to the old bastard and avoid unwanted attention.
It’s really stunning when you stop to think about it, how we’ve normalized such an insane point of view, how we’ve become accustomed to such a crippling weight upon our minds. In any other instance, what’s the worst that could happen if one makes a mistake in reasoning? Having to admit being wrong? Feeling a sting to your ego? Why wouldn’t that also hold true if it turned out that we do indeed have an immortal soul, and we end up meeting God after we die? Why wouldn’t an atheist be allowed to say, “Well, what do you know? Boy, do I feel stupid now!” Even tyrants, you would think, would enjoy seeing a former opponent bow and scrape and proclaim their mistake for all to hear. Why would it not be good enough that I did the best I could with the mind I had to make sense of the information I was presented with?
And even if it were true, and our soul lives on after death, and there really is a father-figure type of God waiting to grade us on our performance while alive and punish us for making mistakes — why would you want to believe in such a being? Why would you want to accept being ruled by someone with a personality that would get him imprisoned or institutionalized in human society? Wouldn’t you want to rebel against such a state of affairs?