Unlike most of my posts here, where I’m generally speaking to atheists, this is a post directed squarely at theists, specifically theists who claim to “just know” that God is real. Not only will it serve as a good primer on why unsubstantiated claims of knowledge are inherently faulty, it will give me a place to send theists who make this claim so I can stop explaining it over and over and over again.
First, I’m going to make an assumption and I want it stated plainly. I am going to assume that anyone reading this actually gives a damn if what they believe is factually true. It’s sad that I have to ask people if this is the case but in my experience, far too many theists are much more concerned with how their beliefs make them feel and not at all about whether or not they are true. Ask yourself, and be honest, if evidence showed that your god was not real, would you stop believing? If so, then continue. If not… seek professional help, you have something wrong with you. I honestly expect to lose a sizable chunk of theist readers right here, those people who have been taught since they were young that faith is all that matters and questioning faith for a moment will cast you into eternal perdition.
You might be wondering if I’m just quibbling over words but the answer is no. Language is our primary means of communication, we simply cannot be understood if we use language incorrectly. Words have meanings for a reason, without clear and concise definitions and properly used speech, there’s no point in opening your mouth. Therefore, either the definition of “knowledge” is being misunderstood by those who are using it or it is being purposely misused in an attempt to mislead others. The first is simple ignorance and easily corrected. The second is outright dishonesty. One cannot honestly use the word “knowledge” as a substitute for “belief”. You do not “know” these things, you “believe” them.
Now that we have that out of the way, and it was important, let’s move on as hopefully rational people and ask ourselves how it is that we determine what actually is true in the real world. Belief alone, as I’m sure most reasonable people would agree, cannot be enough. After all, for the religious, there are people who believe in many different gods with the same fervor and faith that you have, yet you think they are wrong, just as they think you are wrong. To take a wholly non-religious tack on this, let’s substitute unicorns for gods. Would anyone here disagree that, no matter how much faith one has, how much blind, absolute certainty an individual possesses that unicorns are real, that does not make unicorns actually exist? If thinking about unicorns bothers you, substitute any other entity, real or not, into the equation. It’s clear that belief, in and of itself, doesn’t make the unreal real or the real unreal. You can no more have faith that gravity isn’t real and somehow it becomes that way than you can that leprechauns are real and magically, they are. Whether you like it or not, faith is irrelevant to factual reality.
Next we need to address knowledge. Surely, you will agree that belief and knowledge are two entirely different things and need to be treated entirely differently. Someone who says they believe that unicorns exist and someone who says they know unicorns exist are making two fundamentally different statements. In the first, a proper response might be “why do you believe in unicorns”, but in the second, it would be “what evidence supports your conclusion?” Knowledge is a fundamentally evidence-based claim. It requires some basis in fact to be credible. Knowledge is based in the real world and anyone making a legitimate claim of knowledge must be able to present a reason for such and that reason must stand up to critical evaluation. Claiming “I know 2+2=147″ is a fallacious claim, clearly 2+2 does not equal 147 and you cannot present any facts or well-reasoned argument which supports your claim. Thus, not only is the claim itself false, your claim of knowledge regarding the claim is false. You cannot possibly “know” what you are claiming to “know”.
The same goes for claims about gods. It doesn’t really matter which god you’re talking about, you don’t “know” anything about any particular god in reality. Oh sure, you might “know” things about god-characters that come from books. I know lots of things about the character of Harry Potter, as described in the books by J.K. Rowling. I can point to the books as my evidence for my knowledge. However, I cannot claim that I know Harry Potter is real, I have no rational basis for making such a claim. And neither do you. That’s the thing, you have no objective evidence that you can provide for your claim of knowledge.
Let’s say someone runs up to you on the street and says “I know that elephants exist!” Discounting the fact that most people have some form of experience with elephants, if you demanded how that individual knows elephants are real, they could present a wide variety of evidence, from pictures and stories to actual elephants if they wished. They have a clear basis for making the claim of knowledge. However, take that same individual who says “I know that Godzilla exists” and it’s a different matter. Assuming he’s not talking about the movies, but a real, existing entity, he’s got nothing to present to you. Yes, he can show you the films, just as the person in my above example can whip out the Harry Potter novels, but I think both of us would agree that the images in a film, or the words on a page, do not, by themselves, support the factual existence of the entity in the real world, especially if the person is trying to claim the current existence of the entity. Once again, we’re forced to reject the claim of knowledge because it comes with insufficient evidence to support it.
That’s why you don’t “know” that your god exists either. You cannot present any actual evidence that it’s really real. No evidence, no knowledge. While there may be things that you’ve seen, experiences that you’ve had, that led you to hold these beliefs, those things cannot be transmitted to anyone else. They are, by definition, subjective. What’s more, you’re not alone in your claims. People of all religious faiths claim to have see things, experienced things, that cause them to “know” that their particular gods are real. Are you willing to accept all of them at their word, that their gods are actually real, or are you willing to accept that your own claims, no different than theirs, are not evidence of factual truth? You can’t have it both ways.
Most people don’t bother to test their own beliefs to see if they are valid. They become emotionally attached, not only to the beliefs, but to the experiences which they use to justify the beliefs. The majority of believers have never stopped to consider what’s actually happened to them. They had a “mystical” experience? Is there a more rational explanation? Were they under the influence of altered brain chemistry? Were they delusional? Is there any brain damage that could account for the experience? After all, science has known for years that many brain diseases and dysfunctions can account for spiritual experiences. Temporal lobe epilepsy, for example, is well known to cause religious experiences for people who suffer from it. And even if you cannot come up with an explanation for the experience, you must examine your reasons for the reason you’ve chosen to attribute to it. An example that gets used a lot is that of Dr. Francis Collins, currently head of the National Institutes of Health, who converted to Christianity after he saw a waterfall in the forest that was frozen into three parts. I’m not going to try to judge Collins’ emotional state at that moment, he’s described it elsewhere, but I will say that there is no way to leap from a frozen waterfall, an entirely well-known natural phenomenon, and a specific god. Collins, whether he likes it or not, had gone entirely off the rational reservation.
Rational thinking is like playing connect-the-dots. You start out with an initial observation then you try to determine, following strictly logical and evidence-based steps, what caused that observation. You cannot simply leap willy-nilly from “I saw this” to “God did it!” Remember, we all agreed back at the beginning that the truth matters. Illogical leap-frogging does not demonstrably get you any closer to the facts than throwing darts at a random list of “causes” on a wall. There is a name for this kind of thinking, it is a logical fallacy called the argument from ignorance. Simply put, it states that when one cannot identify the true nature or cause of an incident, they will simply attribute a cause, typically one which is emotionally satisfying, to the event. For example, take Collins’ frozen waterfall. Assume for the moment that Collins could not identify the true mechanism behind the event. Is claiming “God did it!” any more rational than claiming “Mickey Mouse did it!”? Maybe “Francis Ford Coppola did it!” Unicorns? Leprechauns? What difference does it make what cause you arbitrarily assign, the fact remains for all of them that you simply cannot get from “A” to “B” logically. In reality, which we’re all concerned with here, the only proper answer in this scenario is “I don’t know”. Not knowing is scary or disturbing for many, but it is, in fact, the only worthwhile answer to questions we do not currently have the answer to. Not knowing encourages us to keep looking for the truth. Inventing an answer, assigning a cause without any rational reason to do so, discourages us from continuing to look. After all, once you have answered your question, why look for a different answer? If we could just eliminate the rampant use of the argument from ignorance from modern-day theological thought, we would likely eliminate the overwhelming majority of theism. It is that pervasive.
In conclusion, you need to be honest, you don’t actually “know” that your god exists or anything about your god’s actual characteristics. You know how your god has been described in a book, written by people who were no more knowledgeable than you. You arbitrarily assign characteristics that you find admirable and routinely remove characteristics that become unwieldy. Most Christian apologists once thought of God as omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omnipresent, until rational minds realized that those three characteristics could not exist together (see the problem of evil). So, instead of throwing up their hands and admitting that God wasn’t real, they just rewrote his attributes. They redefined God. Maybe instead, they should have just been honest and admitted they had no clue what they were talking about and there was no reason whatsoever to think that God existed in the first place. There isn’t, you know. There is no evidence supporting the existence of any type of supernatural god, much less a specific deity. It is no more likely that God exists than it is that Godzilla exists. It’s a nice fable, a story by primitive people that modern man should have long-since outgrown. You don’t know God exists. You have no reason to suspect God exists. You just cling to wishful thinking, an emotional safety blanket, a universally applicable “answer” for questions you’ve not yet found a real solution to. Maybe it’s time that you gave up that security blanket and took your first real steps out into the rational world, a world that exists whether you’re willing to acknowledge it or not.
It’s real. Time to deal with it.