Does a skeptic have to reserve belief, even potential belief, for God because there is no evidence against God? My simple answer would be, "no".
As I said above, I would consider God a claim. Not just any claim - an extraordinary claim, requiring therefore extraordinary evidence. I would further say that if no evidence can be provided, we can say, with some confidence, that God does not exist.
This doesn't entirely rule out the possibility! Mr. Agnostic might call this view agnostic. I would strongly disagree. Based on my knowledge of biology and astronomy, for example, I see alien life as a strong possibility. However, being a skeptic, I will say that thus far, there is no evidence for aliens. I might word it this way, "aliens don't exist".
Likewise, I can say, "God doesn't exist". There is no evidence to support such a claim. The possibility of life on other planets is currently much higher than the existence of God, but this is just my opinion since neither can be currently confirmed. Does this really make me closed minded? I don't think so - let me explain why.
My first reason is similar to what I said above about the burden of proof. If I say that I saw a ghost while walking to work, would not the burden of proof be on me? While some might believe me outright, for those that do not, is it not up to me to demonstrate a ghost? Does my very statement carry some power of creation? If anyone asks me to provide proof, can I just fire back and say, "Show me some proof that I did not see a ghost!"? Mr. Agnostic says, "yes", in this case, perhaps to sound intellectual, as Asimov said, and perhaps to sound open minded.
If we allow this kind of reasoning, reality itself breaks down, or rather, our understanding of it. Everyone knows that one can't prove a negative. But it's just as silly to use English grammar and turn every statement around, form a negative, and expect the person hearing the claim to provide the negative-proof! The person making the claim must provide evidence and/or proof, as the situation demands, rather than using grammar to turn their claim around and throw it back at the listener.
For example, I can create a silly construct such as the infamous
IPU (Invisible Pink Unicorn). Does my statement carry the power to assert this deity into reality? Is anyone that does not believe in the IPU closed minded? Can no one say that they will not believe in the IPU until they have some evidence, without being called dogmatic in stance? Is it really up to the skeptic to disprove the IPU in order for it not to exist?
Why stop with the IPU? Lets put everything on the table for Mr. Agnostic.
Mr. Agnostic, is there anything at all that you do not believe in? No? Do you think that anything and everything is possible? What about the notion of a paradox, Mr. Agnostic? Do you accept the notion of a paradox? Do paradoxes, which are illogical by definition, not raise any red flags that you just might have found something that is not believable?
If we allow this kind of thinking, what method are we to use to determine reality, to study the universe, to tweak something resembling truth out of this stubborn universe, whatever the word truth might mean? Surely there is some standard! For example, currently, people walk and lack the ability to fly like birds. How do we determine that people cannot fly? Is a lack of wings evidence? Are we really being clever by procaliming that anything is possible, or just naive? Some people believe in ghosts, but no person can fly - is there something powerful and sneaky at work here? What if we used the same methods to determine that no one can fly to check to see if there are, indeed, ghosts?
A common response from Mr. Agnostic is that we don't know everything, we can't see everything. Many fundamentalist Christians are feeling the squeeze of modern knowledge. Many are escaping into regions that science can't really touch as of yet - alternate universes, for example. Whether it's the "branes" from M-theory, or separate universes which have separately inflated, there seems room for anything and everything, and this room is somewhat grounded in science, making it even more appealing. Mr. Agnostic is following as well, "how can you be a closed minded atheist? God could live in an alternate universe, ya idiot!."
My simple answer would be, if we find God in another universe, I'll become a Christian. I see no need to protect my "open mind" status by becoming Mr. Agnostic in the meantime. Atheism isn't a belief for me; I loose no face if something changes and I adjust my understanding. Potential reality, however, isn't reality. This quote from Asimov fits in rather nicely here:
To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.
-- Isaac Asimov
Any concept or strange region which we don't understand (perhaps the bottom of a black hole) does not automatically become housing for supernatural deities and events. A lack of understanding isn't evidence for the supernatural. And while I cannot disprove that a family of hippos doesn't live in the bottom of super strong gravity wells, does it make me close minded to say, "Based on the evidence thus far, I do not believe that hippos live in the bottom of super strong gravity wells."?
Finally, Mr. Agnostic, lets get beyond blanket assumptions and statements about atheists, agnostics, etc., and de-construct one of your common specific statements and see how a skeptical open minded atheist might view it:
An atheist cannot prove that God doesn't exist [therefore, he might].
Lets forget the bit above about whom the burden of proof is on. Most theists I relate to are Christians. When most agnostics in my experience mention God, they use a capital G and mean the Christian God. When I referred to God above, I was specifically refering to the Christian God. This God has very specific attributes. These attributes come from the Bible. I break the Bible into two possibilities. A non-literal interpretation and a literal interpretation.
I throw out the non-literal view for this particular argument because there is no definitive way to determine how much we want to say is metaphor and how much is literal. For example, given the evidence for evolution, many Christian sects have no issue with interpreting Genesis to fit the observable evidence - this wasn't always the case; the interpretations change over time, as does the evidence.
But why stop there? Lets just assume that a supernatural God is also just a metaphor. The Bible is it's only evidence, after all, so there is no authority to which we can look to determine this accurately.
As for a literal interpretation, thus far, it's evident that the Bible is wholly inaccurate vs. history and science. What we see, what we dig up, what we know about ancient cultures, what the universe tells us in most every way contradicts a literal Bible.
Given those, if God, with a capital G, has attributes from the Bible than:
- We can say he is just a metaphor - no further disproving required, or, his attributes are meaningless or aren't known/defined (see below, 'god-concept')
- We can say that the book which defines his attributes is unreliable and faulty; therefore his attributes are not reliable either, therefore, we can say he doesn't exist in the manner defined by the Bible. Or, if he does, we have thus far no reason to think so. In other words, if the Bible is to be taken literally, and if it's wrong in some cases, we cannot consider it right necessarily about God either.
Similar methods could be used for all known gods and their relevant holy texts, I suspect (I haven't looked at them all). So, as an atheist, I can quite confidently say that God, capital G, does not exist (at least not in the manner in which he is described in the Bible).
But what about a general notion of a god - a general god-concept?
If we don't use any attributes from holy texts, than what have we got? Even assuming the burden is once again placed on the atheist to attempt to disprove this idea, how can something which is not defined be disproved? How can one work with a vaporous, massless, void of a concept?
I would say that first you must define your extraordinary claim in some fashion. Merely referring to some vague god-concept is not enough.
Being a skeptic, I rely on the evidence I don't always require proof, but I do need something more than a possibility! Right now, there isn't any for God (capital G), so I don't believe. There isn't any for the IPU, so I don't believe. There isn't any for a race of large green Smurfs living in an alternative universe, so I don't believe. Saying that all of these might be in some way possible is not enough for me to believe. It's possible that my mom will vote for Bush, but I have no reason to believe it, based on what I know. However, as a skeptic, if it does happen, if she does vote for Bush, than I will believe it.
Thinking in this skeptical manner isn't closed minded or dogmatic, it's a rational and logical way to observe and try to understand reality. It's the best method we have, in my opinion. This is the kind of skeptical atheist that I am.
Let me add also, that typically, I have no issue with agnostics, but rather, it's some agnostics which have issues with me.. This piece isn't meant to offend agnostics (or theists). It is meant to defend my type of atheism against a specific type of agnosticism, and nothing more.
I also understand that for some, evidence is not required at all for belief. This way of thinking is alien to me, (it seems self-evident that evidence is needed to determine fact from fiction), however, I understand that this category includes many, not all of which are theists!
In conclusion, I can't disprove the god-concept. I can't disprove a silly virtual construction, like hippos in black holes. I can, however show specific gods to have no foundation by arguing against their evidence - their holy books. By showing their holy books inaccurate or undefineable, I can remove any certainty of attributes from the god(s) in question. This leaves only a general god-concept.
Having said that, even though I can't disprove general god-concepts, or black-hole hippos, I am not dogmatic for disbelieving them based on the information I have right now.
I am an open minded, skeptical, atheist. The universe is full of possibilities.