Reblog: Trent Horn’s “Is Atheism a Belief or a Lack of Belief?”

Original post is found at Strange Notions.  Trent Horn’s book is Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity.  His blog is The Counsel of Trent.

Is Atheism a Belief or a Lack of Belief?

by Trent Horn

When asked to prove atheism is true, many atheists say that they don’t have to prove anything. They say atheism is not “belief there is no God” but merely “no belief in a God.” Atheism is defined in this context as a “lack of belief” in God, and if Catholics can’t prove God exists, then a person is justified in being an atheist. But the problem with defining atheism as simply “the lack of belief in God” is that there are already another group of people who fall under that definition: agnostics.

The “I Don’t Know’s”

Agnosticism (from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis) is the position that a person cannot know if God exists. A strong agnostic is someone like skeptic Michael Shermer, who claims that no one is able to know if God exists. He writes, “I once saw a bumper sticker that read “Militant agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either.” This is my position on God’s existence: I don’t know and you don’t either.”1

A weak agnostic merely claims that while he doesn’t know if God exists, it is possible that someone else may know. Agnosticism and weak atheism are very similar in that both groups claim to be “without belief in God.”2

Pope Benedict XVI spoke sympathetically of such people in a 2011 address

“In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: ‘There is no God.’ They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are ‘pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.’”

A Difference Without a Distinction

Because agnosticism seems more open-minded than atheism, many atheists are more apt to describe themselves like agnostics, who likewise have “no belief in a God,” even though they call themselves “atheist.” They say that an atheist is just a person who lacks a belief in God but is open to being proven wrong. But saying you lack a belief in God no more answers the question, “Does God exist?” than saying you lack a belief in aliens answers the question, “Do aliens exist?”

This is just agnosticism under a different name.

For example, can we say agnosticism is true? We can’t, because agnostics make no claims about the world; they just describe how they feel about a fact in the world (the existence of God). Likewise, if atheists want us to believe that atheism is true, then they must make a claim about the world and show that what they lack a belief in—God—does not exist.

Belief on Trial

An illustration might help explain the burden of proof both sides share. In a murder trial the prosecution must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the murder. But if the prosecution isn’t able to make its case, then the defendant is found “not guilty.” Notice the defendant isn’t found “innocent.”

For all we know, he could have committed the crime, but we just can’t prove it. Certain kinds of evidence, like an air-tight alibi, can show the defendant is innocent. But it is the responsibility of the defense to present that evidence.

Likewise, even if the theist isn’t able to make his case that God exists that doesn’t show God does not exist and therefore that atheism is true. As atheists Austin Dacey and Lewis Vaughn write:

“What if these arguments purporting to establish that God exists are failures? That is, what if they offer no justification for theistic belief? Must we then conclude that God does not exist? No. Lack of supporting reasons or evidence for a proposition does not show that the proposition is false.”3

If he wants to demonstrate that atheism is true, an atheist would have to provide additional evidence that there is no God just as a defense attorney would have to provide further evidence to show his client is innocent as opposed to being just “not guilty.” He can’t simply say the arguments for the existence of God are failures and then rest his case.

(This blog post is an excerpt from my newly released book, Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity.)

11 comments on “Reblog: Trent Horn’s “Is Atheism a Belief or a Lack of Belief?”

  1. keithnoback says:

    A rose by any other name? It gets so complicated so quickly; it’s almost as if the Kinds supervene upon their instances 🙂


  2. Does God exist? While there is a chance, it’s extremely unlikely. Just like if I asked you if the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists: there’s always a chance, but would you live your life on that basis? Would you describe yourself as agnostic towards the Flying Spaghetti Monster? No, me neither.

    “saying you lack a belief in God no more answers the question, “Does God exist?” than saying you lack a belief in aliens answers the question, “Do aliens exist?””

    True, but do you therefore live your life on the assumption that aliens exist? And not only that, but a particular group of aliens whose intentions you are privy to?

    Moving on to your trial analogy:

    “if the prosecution isn’t able to make its case, then the defendant is found “not guilty.” Notice the defendant isn’t found “innocent.””

    Is it therefore logical to assume the defendant MAY have committed a crime even where there is little to no evidence? No, just as it is not logical to assume a lack of evidence means God may exist. (In fact there is lots of evidence that contradicts the God claim(s).)

    “an atheist would have to provide additional evidence that there is no God just as a defense attorney would have to provide further evidence to show his client is innocent as opposed to being just “not guilty.””

    This is not how burden of proof works. Sure, it would be in the defendant’s INTERESTS to present this evidence; but he does not HAVE to. The onus is on the prosecution to prove he DID commit the crime.

    Look at it this way. Can you prove I don’t have a space ship that I can park outside of space and time? If not, then is it likely I’m a galaxy-hopping time traveller from Andromeda?

    If there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence I would be willing to accept it. But I would not describe myself as agnostic, as that implies there is an equal chance of God being real/not real. But there just isn’t.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      The onus is on the prosecution because of a sound prudential reason: it is worse for an innocent to be convicted that for a guilty man to go free.

      There simply is no metaphysical “burden of proof” that attaches to the theist and not to the atheists. Those who claim that there is are engaging in special pleading.


      • Burden of proof always lies with the person making the claim. The theist is the one making the claim that God(s) exist, not only that, but it is their particular God(s). The atheist is making no such claim. They simply do not believe in any deities.

        If you want to talk about special pleading, let’s talk about the line of thought that goes something like this: The universe had to have been created by God because you can’t create something from nothing. Except God, He came from nothing because, you know, magic. I hear that one a lot.


  3. Travis says:

    Yes, you can’t disprove any god. As Richard Dawkins explains in The God Delusion, most reasonable atheists (myself included) can be placed on a spectrum of 1 to 10.

    1 is believing in God, 10 is being sure there is no God (or gods). Nobody can be logically placed as a 10 because you can’t be certain there is no god. However, you can be placed as a hard hard 9.

    I believe in a god just as much as I believe there is an invisible dragon with a top hat that watches over this blog. You can’t disprove either, but you can be pretty sure (99.99999…%) as an atheist that there is no such thing as either. Agnostics commonly refer to themselves as more open to the idea of a God. They may be a 5 on the scale, give or take. If you really want to try and slap the “agnostic” label on an atheist because they can’t disprove God, then go ahead, but because I am pretty much certain there is no God, I call myself an atheist.

    Just wanted to put this line of thinking out there. Thanks!


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      Dawkins has said he is 6.9 out of 7 sure that God doesn’t exist. That’s about 98.5%. Frankly, 1.5% doesn’t seem a negligible probability, given the stakes, as Pascal would point out.

      I would point out the obvious, which is that you are very confused about the concept of God if you think it is at all like an invisible dragon. Please go see my “God vs the gods” post.


      • Travis says:

        Pascal’s Wager isn’t any sort of proof, though. And it fails to address any god besides the one he believes in. What about Zeus and all the other 4000+ gods with no evidence behind them? And would God really want someone believing in him or pretending to do so out of fear? Pascal’s Wager is terribly flawed in this sense and still offers no proof.

        Also, it doesn’t matter what percent Dawkins says he believes in a god. He’s also said that he believes in God just as much as he believes in a teapot floating through space, of which the odds are astronomical.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Andrew Brew says:

    The existence and status of Zeus are of no relevance to the question. Let all the gods of the pagans exist, if you like, as perhaps they do. Let them be worshipped by people, as they certainly were. What bearing does that have on the existence of God, the ground of all being?

    Let me rephrase the question in a variant of your preferred phrasing: What evidence is there that Existence exists?


  5. Mark says:

    Where does a lack of belief in religions fit in? Personally I have no problem with god existing or not. I don’t think it really matters very much. But I have a problem with religions.

    Religions and the scriptures they are based on make no sense to me – why the multitudes of religions, why the differing revelations to prophets, why the assertion of divinity of scriptures written by people, why the separation of people’s into believers and non-believers, etc. None of this is godly in my opinion, it’s all very, very human; I see no divine inspiration hiding in there, just people, with all their faults and insecurities, appealing to a higher authority to excuse or guide their actions.

    I’d say this is why many atheists, well maybe moreso agnostics, end up where they are in their beliefs or lack there of… a dislike of religion as much as anything.

    As a disclaimer, my own leaning in terms of own understanding of the world and the human condition are towards taoism/zen, which seems to me to be plenty enough of a metaphysical counterpart to the secular world I live in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eve Keneinan says:

      Presumably you don’t lack a belief in the existence of religions. I mean, Christianity is a thing. Islam is as thing. They are belief systems that exist in the world.

      One would need to get into the epistemology of God. If you are willing to admit God exists, then the question arises as to what we can know about God and how we can know it. It seems incoherent to say “We can’t know anything about God, and I know this about God.” So there will then be a question of WHO is in the best position to know about God? Has God ever revealed Himself to human beings?

      Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that God has directly revealed Himself to us. Others believe, perhaps, that certain holy and wise men e.g. the Buddha or Lao Tzu, have attained wisdom concerning the divine.

      We Christians believe that Christ founded His Church, so Christianity comes with an organization. It isn’t a matter of individual belief. This isn’t to say that any human institution, even one with a divine foundation, won’t be corrupted by human beings. Holy Scripture, even if divinely inspired, will be MISUSED by humans. That is always a possibility.

      I’m sympathetic to Taoism, which I consider to be entirely compatible with Christianity (something that seems to be borne out by Chinese Taoists embracing Christianity). The main step from one to the other would be the belief that the Tao is a ultimately (1) a person, and (2) became incarnate and dwelt among us in the lowly form of a servant. Christianity speaks of the κένωσις or emptying-himself of God; which sounds very much like how the Tao operates.


      • Mark says:

        So this revealing by god to a prophet, the revelations this leads to, the preaching of these revelations, the turning of these revelations into scriptures by the prophet, or their followers, the organisation of these followers into a religion, etc. I think this is where a lot of people who consider themselves atheists or agnostics run into the most trouble.

        Thousands of prophets in various parts of the world at various times have started thousands of religions. Some last, some don’t. Each comes with a different set of revelations, that may or may not be recorded as scriptures, with some degree of accuracy if they are recorded by others. The meaning/intent may somehow be preserved in these scriptures, even though all languages are imprecise, and only become moreso over time as they evolve away from their original meaning, or translations are made.

        How is anyone to truly believe in any of these prophets or their scriptures?
        That’s not a question of belief in god, it’s a belief in people.

        This is I think one of the main reasons many people become atheist or agnostic.
        The existence of god is almost irrelevant, and proving god’s existence changes nothing for them.

        It’s their disgust at the endless suffering caused by religions. The intolerance, the discrimination, the deaths and excommunications. It’s all of this that they are protesting against with their non-belief. You say you can prove god exists, but it’s if you can prove one religion has it right, that their scriptures are “correct”, it’s then that you’ve really got something going on.

        For me personally, I see the abrahamic religion’s instance on their believers being “favored” by god as an instant fail. To condemn half the world’s population to hell is unbelievably inhumane.

        Jesus at least said a lot of cool things, I wish he’d written a book, that would have been nice.
        I like to think he had the same type of enlightened experience of oneness with god/tao that the buddha or laozi had going on, and the gospel of thomas certainly makes it seem like that.
        But son of god? That’s a concept I reject along with all the other messianic type notions in the abrahamic religions.

        Hinduism has some great logically written stuff in it’s scriptures and some entertaing stories, but it also has a caste system in it, which I reject.
        Buddhism is even more logical, at least some types, but the assertion of some kind of morality based rebirth system. I reject that too.
        The Bahá’í’s, they’ve got some good ideas going on – one god means one god, so it’s the same god – very nice!

        In the end I choose my own faith. It may or may not have god, that doesn’t really matter to me, nor does whether there is an afterlife, as that makes no difference to my life right here. In terms of my spiritual experience of the world, well I like the language used in zen/tao as it appeals to how I experience the world. I also find their rejection of anyone being more holy than any other, and no special treatment by their adherents, etc. to be very appealing to my sense of justice and humanity. (Noting that any “buddha worship” type of stuff is not what the guy intended at all, that stuff completely misses the mark).

        Liked by 1 person

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