Probability and God

London atheists purchased bus advertisements stating, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

This is a poor message on a number of levels. Christians would dispute the notion that they “worry” about God’s existence; they would claim that they rejoice in God’s existence. Similarly, they would argue that they enjoy their lives because of their connection with God. The advertisement suggests that that the most important aspect of God, if he existed, would be that he makes us worry and not enjoy our lives. Christians will sensibly respond that such a message says more about the atheists than it does about God.

The fundamental question is whether God exists. Here too the advertisement fails. First, if “there’s probably no God,” then that means God may exist. What is the probability? Is there a 20 percent chance of God? A 49.9 percent chance?

Interestingly, Richard Dawkins helped fund the advertisement. I was surprised to read the following segment from the AP’s article:

Dawkins said that as an atheist he “wasn’t wild” about the ad’s assertion that there was “probably” no God.

[Campaign organizer Ariane] Sherine said the word was included to ensure the posters didn’t breach transit advertising regulations, which stipulate ads should not offend religious people.

I don’t know whether the buses in question receive tax subsidies. If not, then they are within their rights to set advertising policy. If so, then the policy constitutes government censorship.

Offhand, I don’t see why religious people would take more offense at the claim that “there is no God” than the claim “there’s probably no God.”

However, the notion that God’s existence may be subject to probabilities is absurd. A probability is a measure of human ignorance and inability to perfectly predict the future. To take the obvious examples, if I flip a coin, the probability of getting heads is one-half; if I roll a die the probability of rolling a three is one-sixth. I can know that there is a die, and I can know by testing it that its weight is evenly distributed and its sides smoothly cut.

God is something else entirely. To say “there is a probability that X exists” is to say that we know of cases in which X does exist, and cases in which X does not exist, and in a given set of circumstances X exists some fraction of the time. For example, “there’s probably no beetle of a certain type living in this tree,” because we’ve evaluated a bunch of trees and found the beetle only in a minority of them.

To talk about a probability of God existing is to take the concept outside of the context that gives it meaning.

The claim that God exists is arbitrary. It is based on no evidence, and the very concept of a supernatural God is absurd. The proper response to such a claim is to reject it, not pretend that it somehow falls within the scope of probability.