I am taking a look at three claims that Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) made in a recent opinion piece on CNN.
The first, which I covered in my last post, is the virtue of "I don't know." Or, what I called, The Egotistically Arrogant Unwarranted Claim to Knowledge
The second, which I will cover today, is the claim that not knowing the origin of the universe justifies atheism.
Here is what Penn says on the subject:
What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.
In my own case, I take it further than this.
First, I reject the claim that "atheism" is a lack of belief. This may be its definition among of small club of self-important atheists who have adopted a particular (and peculiar) private language, but it is not the American English definition of the word.
In American English, an atheist is a person who believes that the proposition, "at least one God exists" is almost certainly or certainly false.
Atheists like to distinguish among strong atheists, weak atheists, and the like. This is fine for private discussions among themselves. But these are not a part of the public language.
I am an atheist in the American English sense of the word. I hold that the proposition that at least one God exists is almost certainly false.
I also hold the much of religion, as it is practiced, is immoral. However, that is not a part of atheism. It is a subsidiary belief.
So, how do I justify my belief that there almost certainly is no God?
I start where Penn starts. I do not know how the universe came into existence.
Then how can I say that it us almost certainly the case that no God is responsible? Isn't that a contradiction?
No. Not at all.
Let's assume I had a deck of cards. It is a special deck of cards with 1 billion different suits, and 1 billion and three cards of each suit (Ace through 1,000,000,000, J, Q, K).
You draw a card. Don't tell me what it is.
Somebody asks me to name what card you drew.
I answer, "I do not know".
They ask, "What do you think of the proposition that he drew the king of hearts?"
My answer, "I think that the proposition that he drew the king of hearts is almost certainly false."
There is no contradiction here. Both claims are be true. I do not know what card he drew, and the proposition that he drew the king of hearts is almost certainly false.
On the question of how the universe came into existence, I do not know how it came into existence, and the proposition that some "God" is responsible is almost certainly false.
And even if he did draw the king of hearts, and I said he drew the king of hearts, it would be utter absurdity for me to claim that I knew he drew the king of hearts. This is not knowledge. This is merely a lucky guess - no matter how "certain" I might be that my totally unfounded random belief is true.
On the issue of religion, here is something else that I know:
It is possible for a society to adopt what is substantially a fairy tale such that the whole population - or a substantial part of the population believes it is true.
This, I know.
The proof is really quite simple. Look at human history. Look at all the cultures in which whole masses of people have adopted a fairy tale story as true. If you are a Christian, look at Islam. If you are Muslim, look at Christianity. If you are neither, look at both. And everybody can look at all of the non-Christian and non-Islam fairy tales that have been widely adopted throughout history.
Now, if somebody wants to pretend to know that the card drawer drew a particular card - be it the king of hearts or ace of spades or any other card - then that is fine. If they use this pretend knowledge to determine what they wear, what they eat, when they eat, when not to eat, when to have sex, who to have sex with, what to wear while having sex, what to read, or what to not watch on television (or whether or not to have a television), there is no cause for complaint. They can be called foolish, but not immoral.
However, if somebody uses their pretend knowledge to defend conclusions on who to imprison, who to kill, who shall be permitted to kill with impunity, who shall be required to marry and who they shall marry, who shall be prohibited from marrying, who is fit for public office and who is unfit to adopt children, who shall be fed and who shall starve, who shall be permitted to drive a car, who shall get medical help and the types of medical help they shall be permitted, there is a lot of room for complaint. These people are immoral and unjust.
This is what I mean when I say that much of religion, as it is practiced, is immoral. Any religious practice that fits the description of the previous paragraph, is immoral. And there is a lot of that going on in the world. There should not be any.
Religion does not have to be practiced in ways that are immoral. And many people do not practice their religion in ways that are immoral. However, religious practice can be immoral. And much of it is immoral.
These are things that I can know - and that I claim that I do know - in addition to the claim that I do not know how the universe came into existence.