IN a recent discussion about whether religions contain truth, my friend mentioned that “we cannot be 100% certain that there isn’t a God.” Indeed, the remark was correct, but it carries no weight in discussions of whether individual religions are true. I can’t be 100% sure that I am not hallucinating right now, or that I am not in a dream, or that I am not a brain in a vat with nothing but computer simulated experiences. Total certainty is not a reasonable standard for belief about anything, for there is nothing that a person can know that admits no possibility of error (except, perhaps, the truth of his or her own existence). What we perceive as absolute truth or irrefutable evidence could always be the result of a brain malfunction. Hence, if you require 100% certainty to have “belief”, then you will be left “believing” in nothing, rendering the word effectively useless. A much more reasonable usage would be one which allows for statements such as, “the odds are strongly in favor of X, therefore I believe in X.”
When it comes to belief about God, people often apply a different standard of evidence than they do to all other situations. Most everyone would be willing to say that “there is no rabbit living on the moon”, even though they cannot know this with certainty. After all, it is hypothetically possible that putting a rabbit on the moon was a part of some secret military project. And yet (despite their willingness to deny the moon rabbit), a great many people who find the existence of a God very improbable are not willing to say “there is no God” or even “I don’t believe in God.” This is likely, in part, due to cultural sensitivity (a claim that God does not exist certainly is offensive to some people) and it could also be related to the high stakes involved (if God is as he is perceived by many of the world religions, He has the power to punish and reward, so some may think it’s best not to take the risk of bad mouthing Him, even if you strongly doubt His existence). But it seems that another factor at play is the bizarre and essentially ridiculous redefining of the word “believe” that occurs in the God context.
While I have met a great many non-believers and self proclaimed atheists, I have never heard anyone claim that they could absolutely disprove the existence of all possible forms of God. In fact, using some definitions of “God” (such as an unspecified “higher power”) God cannot be disproven even in theory. Furthermore, an all powerful God, if He existed, could simply make us 100% certain in His absence while he continues to exist, showing that we can never eliminate ALL possibility of such a being.
I have again and again encountered people who, when asked whether they believe in God, claim they are agnostic (or won’t say outright that God doesn’t exist), but when asked how probable they think God is, say something to the effect of “highly improbable.” If it is reasonable to say that “rabbits on the moon do not exist” when such rabbits seem highly improbable, why shouldn’t a person say “God does not exist” if they feel God is equally improbable? The (now somewhat popular) notion that those who say they do not believe in God (or those who say they are atheists) think they can disprove Him with 100% certainty is not compatible with common English usage or with common sense.