These two questions, which I have been asked by many readers continually, clearly require a detailed answer, the nature of which had initially seemed to me to be obvious.
Let’s start with the first question: is the phrase “atheist believer” an oxymoron, a metaphor or just a bit of silliness?
Can a person who believes, that all the events occurring in the universe since the Big Bang can be explained on the basis of the laws of Galileo, Newton and Einstein, and that all the events occurring in the living world can be explained by the laws of Darwin and genetics, without involving the concept of God, be conclusively called an atheist?
If such a person does not know what existed before the Big Bang, why the laws of nature exist or why they work so coherently, and if such a person understands that it is impossible to either prove or disprove the existence of God in an attempt to answer these questions, then can such a person be called a believer?
There is a philosophical view referred to as agnosticism, which relates to all this, but that isn’t our main concern here.
The first question, “is the phrase ‘atheist believer’ an oxymoron, a metaphor or just a bit of silliness?”, is best answered when considered in the light of the second, “what is the difference between faith and knowledge?”
Following the examples in the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics on the law of the conservation of energy I would like to offer an analogy in the style of a “child’s example”.
Imagine a child, perhaps “Dennis the Menace,” who has not yet begun to study physics, and who from early days of childhood has observed how objects carelessly dropped always fall downwards. At first it is a cup of tea, a bowl of porridge, a buttered piece of bread that falls on the carpet, seemingly, always butter side down and which leads to a telling off from his mother; then it is his father’s dumbbell, which has to land on his foot, and later, well, an iPhone that just had to fall on the tiled floor. In addition, Dennis notes that all these objects appear to fall at the same rate of acceleration.
Dennis, who has not yet learned Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, independently makes a brilliant, scientific discovery: “any” body released from the hands falls downwards with an equal acceleration.
Is this discovery a matter of scientific knowledge or faith? We will show, that to all intents and purposes it is a matter of faith.
Indeed, Dennis drops a cup, a bowl, a piece of bread, a dumbbell or an iPhone, i.e. the objects of which he has specific knowledge but he hasn’t dropped “any” or “every” object!
In the evening, when Dennis’ father, who is an engineer, returns home from work, Dennis recounts the discovery he has made during the day. The father praises Dennis but then asks if he is confident in using the word “any” in his law. Dennis responds that he believes that to be true. Then the father blows up a balloon and lets it go. The balloon falls to the floor but slowly, at the “wrong” acceleration, or rather, without any acceleration at all. Then the father takes a second balloon, fills it with helium and releases it. Instead of falling downwards, the balloon contradicts the law Dennis has discovered and travels upwards. The third time, the father drops a piece of paper, holding the sheet parallel to the floor and the sheet of paper also turns at the “wrong” acceleration and slowly falls downwards.
Dennis is dismayed to find his law disproved, but the father comforts him, explaining that his initial law has not been completely disproved. Together they have simply revealed the limits of its applicability.
The father tells Dennis about the air that surrounds us, the story of Archimedes buoyancy, the force of air resistance and that in junior school he will study Newton’s Second Law of Motion, which, taking into account all the forces: the force of gravity, Archimedes force and the force of air resistance, will generate a more general law correctly describing how different bodies fall to the ground.
The law you have discovered and assumed to apply to “any” body, the father says, is underpinned by faith, not knowledge. But it remains true, the father clarifies his point further, for relatively small, heavy, streamlined objects.
Once Dennis reaches junior school and has studied the Newton’s laws of motion, he believes that what he knows, finally, is not just based on faith but real knowledge.
Imagine the disappointment when in high school, on studying Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, Dennis realises that his law which ended with the words “equal acceleration” has turned out once again to be based on faith, not knowledge, and that these words have to be discarded or clarified by adding the words “near the surface of the Earth.”
Perhaps now, Dennis can consider that his knowledge is comprehensive and impeccably scientific.
Enrolling at the University’s Physics Department, Dennis discovers something that even their engineer-father does not know. In the proximity of massive stars, Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation does not work, and instead, Einstein’s law of gravity should be applied, derived as a more exact law from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Does Einstein’s law of gravity constitute the last and final knowledge?
I would like to believe that it is, but recently, several voices have resounded in the world of astrophysics, asserting that this law cannot be taken as the last word and that discrepancies have been observed which pose the need for a new theory.
So, as I conclude this article, I would like to invite my readers to answer for themselves the two questions with which we began.
Written by Karmak Bagisbayev, an author of “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”
Translated from the Russian original by Joanna Dobson.