This post should be considered an addendum to a previous one entitled “Why Atheism Is Not a Lack of Belief”. In it I provided a rationale for why atheism is not simply a psychological disposition but, rather, an intellectual proposition that must be justified (just like Christians in their theistic proposition). After the post went up it created some consternation (to put it mildly) in certain atheists for a number of reasons. These days I need to be judicious with my free time so I figured I would respond to some of the more frequent challenges from atheists here:
You’ve Given a Straw Man Argument!
A Straw Man Argument is when someone distorts another’s view in order to, more easily, knock it down intellectually. For example, when an atheist claims that Christians believe in a magic man in the sky and then go on to poke holes through that paper tiger, Christians simply shrug and say, “We don’t believe in a man in the sky either.” Likewise, if I were to claim that atheists believe that the universe is made entirely of cheese and then refute that, atheists should shrug their shoulders and say, “We don’t believe in a cheese universe either.”
But this is not what I did in the previous post. I quoted a claim (that came specifically from atheists) that atheism, as an enterprise, is a “lack of belief” and provided reasons why that cannot be the case. In some places I simply gave those reasons, in others I followed the claim to its absurd conclusion (which is otherwise known as a reductio ad absurdum). Providing a rationale for why a claim is not true is not a Straw Man Argument. It’s just a principled disagreement. You can reject the reasons I gave (although I’m going to ask you to provide your own reasons why mine were wrong) but claiming I made a fallacy is simply mistaken.
How Dare You Tell Me What I Believe?
I’m not telling you what you believe. I’m accepting your belief for the sake of argument. That is, if you are an atheist that believes you simply “lack a belief” that God exists, I’m accepting that as a premise. What I’m saying is: something more is happening than simply lacking a belief. You’re holding to a particular metaphysical view in which God does not exist. And if you’re holding the view then it needs some kind of support with good reasoning, just like the theist needs the same with his particular metaphysical view. It seems to me that this “lack of belief” notion stands on the shoulders of another notion, the presumption of atheism, which suggests that we should all begin as atheists until we see evidence to the contrary. But the presumption of atheism is mistaken because atheists are looking at the same evidence that Christians are (i.e. the universe and its particular features) and proposing an alternative explanation for that evidence (i.e. materialism). In other words, many atheists assume there is no evidence for God when there actually is. For more on that, see “Why Russell’s Teapot Fails”.
In the same vein, the idea that atheism is a “lack of belief” is flawed because it suggests that atheists do not bear the burden of proof since lacking a belief implies no claim to prove. Because of this some atheists are attempting to make Christians the only ones that need to justify their beliefs. Again, this is false because atheists also believe something. A lack of belief is not a position that someone else’s proposition is wrong. A lack of belief is simply a missing mental property. But atheists believe Christian propositions are wrong. That’s why they reject the arguments and evidence Christians give and remain steadfast in their position. This is so obvious it’s almost frivolous to point out.
Look at it this way: Let’s say you and I were having this conversation at your house and we heard a knock at your front door. Perhaps I take the position that someone is at the door making the knocking sound and you say you lack that belief. What you’re really saying is you believe that something other than a person has made that knocking sound. Fine, that’s your position. But let’s not pretend that the burden of proof is only on me to show that someone made that knocking sound. It’s on you as well to provide your alternative. That’s the thing! The universe and its features is the knock at the front door. Both Christians and atheists have the same evidence to appeal to in order to support where they fall on this issue. Christians are not the only ones that bear the burden of proof, and suggesting otherwise because of a “lack of belief” is just semantic gymnastics. It would be just as silly if I tried to say that I lack a belief that God does not exist and tried to make you, the atheist, the only one that needed to justify his view.
The Dictionary Says “Lack of Belief.”
There are a couple of things to say about this. While the Oxford Dictionary might agree with your definition of atheism, Merriam Webster’s clearly agrees with mine. So appealing to the dictionary, in and of itself, is not really going to help. Other Christians will just appeal to another dictionary and then you will object to that particular dictionary for the exact same reason a Christian will likely object to yours. Here’s the problem, the dictionary simply reflects current vernacular usage. It does not tell you what word should be used. But any linguist will tell you that words contain meaning in relation to other words. I should know. Linguistics and semantics were part of my field of study in grad school. Therefore, the content of a definition should be meaningfully relevant rather than contemporarily relevant. In other words, it matters that the term atheism is distinctive from, say, the term agnosticism because, if there is no distinction then they mean the same thing. But this is exactly what is happening now. There are atheists (you might be one of them) who like to describe themselves as agnostic atheists. But think about that. If atheism is a lack of belief and agnosticism is essentially a lack of belief as well, then agnostic atheists are like gray grays or Republican Republicans. There is no meaningful distinction. As a matter of fact, the only way there can be a meaningful distinction is if agnosticism is a term for those who do not hold a view and atheism is a term for those who do, which is exactly how these terms have been understood in history.
By the way, don’t take my word for it. Here is Bertrand Russell, probably one of the best thinking nonbelievers I’ve come across, on these terms:
“An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned… An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or denial.”
Russell was not creating new definitions for these terms but reflecting the way they have always been understood. That’s important to grasp as many atheists seem to think that Christians (like me) don’t understand atheism. That’s not the case. Many of us do understand atheism because we once were atheists. This fact seems to be missing from consideration with regard to people I talk to. That’s right, folks, I wasn’t always a Christian. I started following Jesus in adulthood. But I’m digressing.
The point is: the best way to determine whether you are an agnostic or an atheist is how you fall given this particular scenario. Let’s say we bump into each other at a coffee shop and I propose to you that God exists. I then ask you if you agree with my belief. You really only have three ways to intellectually assent. “Yes, I agree.” “No, I disagree.” Or, “I don’t know.” If you say, “Yes,” or, “No,” what you’re really saying is either, “Yes, I believe what you said is true of reality,” or, “No, I believe what you said is not true of reality.” Obviously, “No,” is the atheistic position that Russell characterized. But, as I stated, if your position is “No,” then you share a burden to provide justification for your view, just as those who say, “Yes.” The only position where one can say, “I don’t know,” is the agnostic position since they have, as Russell puts it, suspended judgment on the God question. Those of you identifying as atheists should really consider where you fall on this issue.
Finally, as I said before, the dictionary simply reflects current vernacular usage. But it doesn’t reflect what word should be used. Take “literally” for example. Once upon a time “literally” denoted a nonfigurative, strict or literal sense. Now, based on current trends, a number of dictionaries have included a definition of “literally” that expresses the exact opposite: a figurative, nonliteral sense, as in “I literally died when I read this post!” Do you see the problem here? Sure, the dictionary is expressing a popular usage of the term, and, sure, context can flesh this out. But that doesn’t exclude the fact that the term now means both A and not-A, which is absurd. Now, if someone were to say “I’m literally figuratively dying!” there is no meaningful difference. This is just like the problem with “lack of belief” for atheism. The term is being redefined into oblivion in order to (I believe) shirk the reality that those who disagree with theists also bear the burden of proof for their view.
There is so much more to say about this (like, if atheism is simply a “lack of belief” then it is possible for atheism and theism to be correct at the same time… think about it) but enough has already been said. Take care that you are not taken in by this phrase. It has the effect of undermining what could potentially be greater intellectual discussions between atheists and theists.