This wibble has been prompted by a visit to my friend Lexin's atheist website. To Lexin's eternal credit, the site states that there is no intent to proselytise or convert others to atheism: I once described proselytising atheists as people who swam round a shipwreck cutting the straps on people's life jackets, on the grounds that they ought to be able to swim for themselves. However, I did have a problem with one of Lexin's arguments which I want to try and air here, in the hope that if I'm wrong someone will correct me.
The argument in question is called "Schrödinger's Football." It goes like this: someone hands you a box and tells you there's a football inside. You can't open the box. It's about football-sized, nothing moves inside when you shake it and the weight tells you nothing. Several people assure you that the football is there, and get into ferocious arguments with each other about what colour it is, but as far as you are concerned there is no way of telling what's in the box. From this Lexin reasons that in the absence of any evidence, the only logical conclusion is that there isn't a football in the box.
The ringing sound you hear is my head going pwunnggunggungg having just been hit in the face by the apparent flaw in this logic, but before we get on to that I have a minor issue with the metaphor. A box with a football in it, that you can't take out and play with, is of no possible use or interest whatsoever. If it were the very football that Geoff Hurst kicked into the German goal in 1966, it might be more interesting, but if you can't see it the same applies. I would suggest that god, to those people who believe in him or her, is rather more important than an unusable item of sporting goods. A better metaphor might have been the ashes of a loved relative, or the last perfect rose from Old Earth, or perhaps a rare telepathic alien life form that can't tolerate our atmosphere but must be kept safe and happy and likes to have good thoughts directed at it for a time every day. Making the unknown item so unimportant devalues the subject of the argument, and while it may be just that trivial to Lexin, it isn't to the people on the other side.
Okay, now to the flaw in the logic. The only logical conclusion to be drawn in the absence of evidence one way or the other is agnisticism, or agnosticism as it is known by those who can type. There is no evidence that there is a football in the box, or that there isn't: and while you can't prove a negative, if you're going to state that the box is football-free you should be able to back this up with some kind of proof, either reasoned or evidential. In the absence of proof, whether there is or is not a football in the box becomes a matter of...what? Anyone?
Faith, that's right. If you don't know whether god exists or not, then you either believe that s/he does, believe that s/he doesn't, or believe that you don't know, the last one being the only position you can back up with logic. Science has not disproved the existence of god, and any real scientist would be the first to admit that it can't. We can now say, with some certainty, that none of the creation myths our ancestors came up with are literally true, but that doesn't affect the question one way or another. When it comes down to it, atheism is as much a matter of belief as any other religion.
So, how to decide? If you aren't willing simply to go with what your parents believe, what your friends believe, what your role-models believe, what basis is there for choosing whether to believe in a god or to believe in none? One or two possibilities suggest themselves, depending on where you are. In some places, expediency may impel one to adopt a belief system as an alternative to being stoned to death, burned alive or expelled from the Townswomen's Guild. Fortunately, we live in a pluralist society where such dangers are minimised: our current tribal ethos tolerates all kinds of heathen goings-on, as well as almost all flavours of superstitious mumbo-jumbo. We have free choice, and it's precious: but it doesn't help one to make a decision.
In this climate, the only possible basis for choice is personal preference, and this is what most people who think about it at all go by. Atheists are atheists because they prefer their universe uncluttered with deities. Christians are Christians because the Christian world-view appeals to them, and so on. Pick-and-mix pagans take this to its logical conclusion, and there is no argument in the world against their doing so, because in the end nobody knows, and Moonshine Winterbottom the kosher vegetarian Buddhist Celt may be closer to right than any of us, for all we can tell.
As for me, I'm just as confused as any of us. I believe in Christ because I love the story and the images it evokes, but I don't believe in the Church of the Pauline Heresy because over the centuries they've talked too much nonsense and added too much spin, and at least some of the time they were only in it for the money and the power (in this connection, see Theodore Sturgeon's "Godbody" for how I'd really like it to be). I prefer to think that god is female, and in other ways my inclinations are pagan, but when the universe chooses to kick me in the painfuls there's a definite temptation to regard the kicker as male. Even then, though, I'd rather feel I was being kicked by a person than by a blind, uncaring mechanism.
Which brings us back to football. Maybe the image could be reversed. Maybe we could be the football in the box, speculating endlessly about the existence or not of a Footballer, someone who will eventually take us out of the box and put us to the use for which we were designed, and for which there's so little scope here where we are. What kind of use that might be--Premiership final, school practice match, kick-around on the beach just before lunch--is the subject of our theological deliberations and arguments. That there should be no Footballer at all, no purpose to our existence, no way out of the box, seems to me a brave and difficult thing to believe.
But it is, after all, only a belief. Just like mine.
Buttons and bars and such are courtesy of Jelane's Free Web Graphics, at http://www.erinet.com/jelane/families/.