My readers already know I don’t think very much of the concept of “burden of proof,” being used outside formal legal settings, where it has some meaning. It isn’t any principle metaphysics or logic or ethics. It is, at best, a sometimes useful heuristic, and in my opinion, whatever utility it once had has nowadays become outweighed entirely by its misuse as a rhetorical trope used to “cheat” in arguments. As I have argued, it’s a rhetorical trope that combines two fallacious argumentative moves: it sets out an argument from ignorance—saying your opponent has the burden of proof is basically stipulating “I’m right until proven wrong”—and it then implicitly justifies the argument from ignorance with special pleading: “You have to prove your case, but I don’t have to prove anything,” which, when combined, yield “Whatever I believe is true, and I am justified in holding this believe, because you have not proven me wrong, and you have failed to prove me wrong, because no matter what arguments you make, I won’t accept them.” In other words, it creates an “impregnable” position—by the ultimately tawdry trick of defining oneself to be right. It lets you always “win,” but the victories are always straw victories.
My readers also know I don’t think very highly of the intelligence or argumentation of most atheists. See my Intellectually Dishonest Atheists on that.
But as we say nowadays “Hastag #NotAll.”
Matthew McCormick is an atheist for whom I have intellectual respect—at least in this short piece. I haven’t read anything more by him. He makes a number of points that are entirely cogent, and that atheists ought to take to heart. Since he is himself an atheist and has written a book arguing why everyone should be an atheist—atheists just might take him more seriously when he says the exact same things that I say , e.g.
With that said, I’ll turn you over to McCormick. Of course, when he says, “Anyone who doesn’t draw the atheist conclusion has probably gone off the tracks somewhere,” he’s quite wrong—but this is probably as good as we are going to get from an atheist. The emphasis is mine:
by Matthew S. McCormick, atheist philosopher
I’ve gotten enough comments from colleagues, blog responders, and students to say some more about this, although a full treatment would take many pages.
First, my view is that while in the end I clearly think atheism is the reasonable conclusion to draw, and that anyone who hasn’t yet, should, the starting points for different people and the standards by which they evaluate evidence are highly variable. There simply are no universal standards of reasonableness whereby it would make any sense to say that anyone who doesn’t accept atheism is unreasonable or irrational.
My claim is not that theists have no work to do to justify their positions. Ultimately, everyone can do better than they are doing with regard to having a well-justified, coherent belief system. And ultimately, I think that anyone who doesn’t draw the atheist conclusion has probably gone off the tracks somewhere.
My position is that the burden of proof is in large part a socially determined entity.
It is naïve to think that the Cartesian model applies to human reasoning whereby we start with nothing and then build up a network of justified beliefs one at a time. That’s neither an accurate picture of how we come by our beliefs, nor is it a plausible goal for how we ought to proceed in assessing our beliefs. Wittgenstein got this much right—he said that belief comes first, then doubt second. What he meant was that as a person matures through childhood, everyone acquires a vast network of interconnected expectations, predictive principles, and beliefs about the world. The character that this starting framework of belief takes depends largely on the historical, social, and epistemic context that that person finds themselves dropped into. That context may provide them with beliefs that are false like, “Fever causes demon possession,” and inference rules that are faulty. One nineteenth century logic textbook endorses the Gambler’s Fallacy, for instance. I have a very difficult time convincing some introductory logic students that it’s a mistake. If someone has been surrounded by (authoritative!) people who endorse it, and it appears to be supported by one’s experience, and even your textbooks recommend it, how could a person possibly be held epistemically culpable for not seeing what we now know is a mistake. That would be as foolish as faulting Heraclitus for not knowing the implications of research from 21st century particle accelerators for atomic and subatomic theory.
So it’s the epistemic context that frames out the starting position for everyone as to what’s prima facie reasonable. Even during the same historical period, that will vary from context to context. Common sense to someone born and raised in the jungles of Borneo will be radically different than common sense to someone born and raised in the same era in urban San Francisco.
The fact that so many people in American culture are religious and profess to believe in God allows us to make some generalizations. The general situation we find ourselves in is one where for the vast majority of people it is completely intuitive and obvious that God exists. Many, maybe most, Americans never pause to consider seriously that there might not be a God. And for the ones who did, the implications as they see it for a meaningless, ammoral, nihilistic existence quickly make it evident that such musings are dangerous and/or preposterous. Many of them have heard of atheists and atheism—but such a prospect seems unnatural, ugly, counterintuitive, and remote. Everyone believes in God, after all. What could be more obvious?
For the most part, these are all normal, reasonable, mentally healthy, cognitively functioning adults. The atheist who scoffs that anyone who believes in God is stupid, foolish, unreflective, or in the grip of a psychiatric disorder simply hasn’t been paying attention and has been shirking their own epistemological responsibilities. This atheist is little better than the sulking and immature teenager who pouts that “Everyone is soooo stupid. They are such conformist sheep. I hate them.” I’ve been there, and I like Bauhaus and Joy Division as much as the next guy. But atheists and atheism as a movement has got to grow up. (Unfortunately, I think some of Richard Dawkins evangelical, anti-theist vitriol may represent some backsliding. Nevertheless, I sure enjoy it.)
To be fair, there are unreflective and even dumb theists, and they need to be shaken up and challenged just like we all do. But it would be a gross and irresponsible over-generalization to be dismissive of theism altogether. And now I’m making two points: one, for most Americans, theism (Christian) is the default backdrop against which any worldview they ultimately settle upon must be tested. Second, there are some powerful, interesting, and challenging arguments for the existence of God out there, and no atheist who has taken the issue seriously can claim to have secured justification for their view until they have considered those arguments carefully and figured out what’s wrong with them.
So like it or not, atheists find themselves in this hostile, or at least contradicting, environment. And that environment sets the framework of principles, rules of evidence, and beliefs from which every person has to start. Since the atheist conclusion is so deeply contradictory to the context they find themselves in, the lion’s share of the burden of proof will be on them.
The alternative view, like Flew’s, seems to be that the belief that there is no such X is always the justified, default starting point, and that anyone who wishes to conclude anything different than just having a blank slate must provide adequate proof to motivate the belief. This is outrageous for a number of reasons. You haven’t done that and probably can’t do that for a great many (maybe most) of the reasonable beliefs you have. You didn’t populate your head with all of your beliefs by deliberately and consciously starting from a blank slate and then only after acquiring sufficient reasons accepting a belief into a special circle of sanctioned views. Becoming a conscious, reflective adult capable of thinking about your reasons already required that you had a full set of beliefs about your world that you inherited from your environment and that came to you naturally. We do not have a blank hard drive for a mind, despite the popularity of that metaphor, that are written onto by experience. A web of beliefs is consciousness—they are what make a worldview possible at all. Without the context of belief you’d have nothing to doubt, no questions to ask, nothing to wonder about.
And just like reasonableness depends on so many subjective factors, evidence is not a clean, objective logical notion. It’s not that people who disagree with you have no evidence at all. What do you think you were the first person to see this singular, unambiguous phenomena in the world because you’re so much smarter than all of them? And you were the first 15 year old to think that everybody is a conformist too, weren’t you? Evidence, for the most part, is what a person takes it to be. Evidence doesn’t just exist out there on its own. Some phenomena only becomes evidence in virtue of being taken to be indicative of some conclusion by some person. And obviously, different people can take the same phenomena as evidence to contradictory conclusions. Or they can appear to be observing the very same phenomena, but they are actually taking note of very different details and drawing the same or different conclusions from it. We have discovered that there are better and worse ways to gather and evaluate evidence. But it’s not that when someone draws a mistaken conclusion or one you don’t like that they have no evidence at all. What you disagree with them about is what evidence is relevant and how best to evaluate it. So atheists need to get out of the habit of dismissing all believers as “having no evidence at all.” The believers don’t see themselves that way, and you just come off as dogmatic and irrational for saying it about them. Wouldn’t you think it was laughable if they said about you, “Well, he’s got no evidence and no reasons at all for what he believes.”
NOTE: I didn’t make this chart. I found it on Twitter, and thought it worth archiving here. It has been noted that this “no” may not be entirely unanimous, but it is nevertheless highly significant that the “lack of belief” definition of atheism has really made very little headway among professional scholars, except when they note it as a variant definition, which is highly contentious, and thus usually used only by those who are ideologically motivated in their arguments.
Def 1: A contingent being is a being such that if it exists, could have not-existed or could cease to exist.
Def 2: A necessary being (or non-contingent being) is a being such that if it exists, cannot not-exist (and therefore could not not-have-existed and cannot cease to exist).
Note: I use ground-reason essentially to do the work of the German Grund, a word which neither the English “ground” nor “reason” sufficiently captures in meaning, since it unites the sides of being and knowing, the ontological and the epistemological, in one.
1. A contingent being C exists.
2. This contingent being C has a ground-reason for its existence.
3. If C were the ground-reason for C’s existence, C would not be a contingent being, but a necessary one, since C, as self-grounding, could not not-exist—contrary to 1.
4. Therefore, the ground-reason for C’s existence must be something other than C.
5. This ground-reason for C’s existence other than C must either be another contingent being or set of contingent beings alone or it must be or include a non-contingent (necessary) being N.
6. Contingent beings alone cannot provide a completely adequate ground-reason for the existence of any contingent being (neither ontologically as ground nor rationally as reason), so the ground-reason for C’s existence is not any contingent being or set of contingent beings alone.
7. Therefore, the ground-reason for the existence of contingent being C must be or include a non-contingent (necessary) being N.
8. Therefore, a necessary being N exists, because without such a necessary being N, C could not exist, contrary to 1.
9. The universe and every part of the universe is contingent (as is “the multiverse” and every part of it, if this concept is supposed to subsume “universe”).
10. Therefore, a necessary being N which is something other than the universe or one of its parts (or “the multiverse”), must be the ground-reason for its existence.
11. Therefore there exists a necessary being N which is the ground-reason for all contingent beings, including the universe or cosmos or multiverse, as well as all their parts, whatever they may be.
12. Et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum.
Premise 1: This premise is empirical but evident. As long as anything at all exists which could have not existed or could cease to exist, it is a contingent being. It is obvious that physical beings are contingent.
Premise 2: This is simply a statement of the Satz vom Grund or Principle of Ground (usually expressed in English as the Principle of Sufficient Reason), although perhaps the Principle of Ground-Reason would be better as I use it. This principle can be expressed negatively as “nothing happens or comes about FOR NO REASON.” It is a core principle about reality, that things cannot happen for no reason at all, just as it is about reality that a thing can’t both be and not be the same at the same time and in the same respect—and because Being is like this, thinking (which follows being) has the Principle of Ground and the Principle of Noncontradiction as basic first principles.
Premise 3: Evident. If C were its own ground-reason it could sustain itself in being and never cease to be, and would thus be a necessary being; but C is already posited in 1 as contingent, so it can’t be the ground-reason of itself.
Premise 4: Also evident. Since C is not its own ground-reason, the ground-reason of C must be something other than C.
Premise 5: By the Principle of the Excluded Middle, this something other than C is either fully contingent or contains a necessary being.
Premise 6: This is the premise that would take the most argumentative work to establish and to get clear about. Since in contingent beings, existence is a property that is “passed on” from another being, if a contingent being got its existence from another contingent being, that being would have to be either contingent or necessary. In this scenario in Premise 6, no necessary beings are in play. So one would have to hold either that there is an infinite regress of contingent beings each passing on their being to another being and receiving it from the one before—most philosophers think the idea of an actual infinite is absurd (conceptual or abstract infinites are not). Or the passing on of existence would have to be circular, where A causes B to be and B causes C to be and C causes A to be. This becomes more clear, perhaps, when we look at it from the side of explanation, as the reason for C: I want to explain how C got here, so I say C₋₁ explains C, but C₋₁ is explained by C₋₂ and it by C₋₃ and it by C₋₄ … infinitely C₋∞. But this “explanation” never actual explains anything. In simply passes the buck infinitely backwards. It is as if I wanted to know the origin of a magic book that contains the secrets of the cosmos, and someone tells me he got it from his father, who got it from his father, who got it from his father … who … etc. No matter how long you make this chain of fathers passing down books to sons, you never answer “Yes, but where did the book originate?” We need something it terminate the infinite regress, where the “buck” of explanation can no longer be passed. Similarly, it would be famous for the possessor of the book, Dave, to explain he got it from Mary, who got it from Josh, who, is it happens, got it from Dave. If I said to Dave, “Yes, I know Mary gave it to you, but where did it come from?” it would not do for Dave to say “I always get it from Mary, who always gets it from Josh, and I always give it to Josh. This circuit is itself the origin of the book.”
Premise 7: If it is correct, then, that the ground-reason for a contingent being cannot be nothing but other contingent beings, whether in the mode of an infinite regress (which is a non-explanation) or a circular explanation (which is a non-explanation), then it must be the case that there is a necessary being which terminates the regress.
Premise 8: Since C requires there be a necessary being N in order for C to be, and C is (premise 1) then there is an N.
Premise 9: The argument from 1-8 applies to every being without the universe, all of which are contingent, as well as the whole ensemble of contingent beings called the universe. A whole made entirely of contingent beings cannot itself be necessary, since it is susceptible to change—which a necessary being cannot be. Someone might say that an inference from the things that make up the universe to the whole universe might be a fallacy of composition, but this cannot be the case, since the universe is an aggregate that contains contingent parts and therefore changes.
Premise 10: The same argument 1-8 reapplied to the universe as contingent. There must be something other than the universe, a necessary being N, which is the ground-reason for the universe.
Premise 11: So there is such a necessary being N which is other than the universe and is its ground-reason.
Premise 12: Bit of a joke. This is a variant of how St. Thomas Aquinas ends each of his Quinque Viae or “Five Ways” of proving the existence of God: “And this everyone understand to be God.”
As a piece of natural theology, the argument from contingency will indeed not get one straight to the Christian God—but then, it isn’t meant to. It will get is to “there is a being other than the universe such that it is the ground-reason for the universe’s existence and is in itself a necessary being, such that it has the ground-reason for its own existence in itself.
From there we can go on to flesh out what other things this entails about such a being: if we work through it will find out it is timeless, spaceless, unchanging, and perfect.
In other words, it is very certainly AT LEAST what Jews, Christians, and Muslims call “God, what Hindus call Brahman, what the Chinese call “The Tao,” what Plato knew as “The Idea of the Good,” Etc.
The argument from contingency isn’t enough to settle the theological question of what God is like, but it is enough to show that atheism is false and agnosticism unwarranted.
As philosopher Edward Feser has pointed out, some atheists are simply not intellectually serious. They may be very ignorant or uneducated, directly dishonest, deeply confused, ill-informed, willfully obtuse, ideologically dogmatic, or just plain stupid; the end result is the same: it is not possible or fruitful to have a serious, rational discussion about God with such people. Here are some red flags which may alert you that you are dealing with an intellectually dishonest or defective atheist:
✅ 1. A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish God from a god or gods. This is a distinction 3 or 4-year-old children can easily grasp, so any atheist who claims not be be able to grasp it is either severely intellectually impaired or lying. In almost all cases, the atheist is simply attempting to conflate God with a god in order to set up a strawman and/or trying to annoy you by belittling God—while ignoring the basic conceptual distinction that all European languages mark by differentiating the word “God” from the word “god” by capitalization. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, in the entry written by atheist philosopher J. J. C. Smart:
‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. I shall here assume that the God in question is that of a sophisticated monotheism. The tribal gods of the early inhabitants of Palestine are of little or no philosophical interest. They were essentially finite beings, and the god of one tribe or collection of tribes was regarded as good in that it enabled victory in war against tribes with less powerful gods. Similarly the Greek and Roman gods were more like mythical heroes and heroines than like the omnipotent, omniscient and good God postulated in mediaeval and modern philosophy.
Theists have little to no interest in discussing gods, at least not when God is the topic of discussion. If an atheist wants to discuss gods, he is free to do so, but he cannot pretend talk of gods has any bearing on or relevance to a discussion about God.
✅ 1.1 A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish God from such things as imaginary friends, faeries, wizards, spaghetti monsters, Santa Claus, or other fabulous, fictitious, or mythological entities.
✅ 1.2 A persistent habit of paraphrasing religious ideas in ways which are deliberately ludicrous, derisive, or tendentious, e.g. describing the resurrected Christ as “a zombie,” or God as a “sky daddy.”
✅ 1.3 Persistent use of the fallacious “I just believe in one god less than you” rhetorical trope.
✅ 1.4 Persistent use of tendentious and irrelevant rhetorical mischaracterizations of Christianity, e.g. as “Bronze Age mythology.” Christianity, of course, dates from long after the so-called “metallic” ages, in fact from the prime of the Roman Empire, on of humanity’s civilizational high points. And Judaism, its precursor religion, derives almost entirely from the Iron Age up through historical times—not that the age of a teaching has any bearing whatever on its truth-value.
✅ 1.5 Persistent dishonest characterization of God as some kind of “cosmic tyrant” or “cosmic oppressor” (interestingly enough. the position of Satan).
✅ 1.6 Persistent dishonest characterization of God, especially in the Old Testament, as a moral monster.
✅ 1.7 A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish miracles from magic, usually paired with a tendency to attribute magical powers to nature, e.g. in such claims as “the universe created itself out of nothing” or “properties such as consciousness just emerge out of unconscious matter, because they do.”
✅ 2.0 Belief in scientism, the logically incoherent claim that “only scientific knowledge is valid/real/genuine knowledge” or that “only science or the scientific method can establish the truth-value of propositions,” claims which are neither themselves scientific nor established by science, and hence, self-defeating, and which entail such absurdities as “no human being knew anything before Europeans in the 1600s.”
✅ 2.1 Persistent claims that science, which studies physical nature by means of empirical observation and quantitative measurement, has any bearing on the question of the existence of God, who is by definition, beyond nature, not empirical, and not measurable in terms of quantity. Persistent insistence that claims about God must be proven “scientifically” or that any evidence for God must be “scientific” fall into this category.
✅ 2.2 The claim that Galileo Galilei’s run-in with the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 proves (somehow) that there is some kind of natural antipathy between either (a) science and religion, or (b) science and Christianity, or (c) science and Catholicism. This indicates a complete ignorance of the history of the Galileo affair, and is merely a recycled weaponized meme of the early Enlightenment.
✅ 2.3 Use of the non sequitur that the multiplicity of religions proves that no religion is true, either wholly or in part. By this logic, of course, one may also “prove” that no scientific theory is or can be correct, wholly or in part, since there are always rival theories.
✅ 2.4 Claiming or assuming that the atheist, a finite being who is not all-knowing, is not all-powerful, is not all-wise, and is not all-good, nevertheless is in an epistemic position to know with certainty what an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise, all-good being would or would not do or have done.
✅ 2.5 The belief the atheist knows the true or real origin of religion in human pre-history, a matter which, since it occurs far in human pre-history, we have no certain knowledge of, but only conjecture.
✅ 2.6 The peculiar belief held by some atheists that their total ignorance with respect to God and divine matters is in fact an infallible indication of their intelligence or wisdom or knowledgeableness precisely about the things about which they know nothing.
✅ 2.7 Repeated assertion of the evidently false claim “there’s no evidence for God.”
✅ 3.0 Persistent use of the burden of proof fallacy, that is, the rhetorical trope which combines an argument from ignorance (“my position is the default position,” i.e. “my position is true until proven false, so I need not argue for it) with special pleading that the atheist be allowed to use arguments to ignorance in support of atheism (i.e. “atheism is true because I am totally ignorant about God or divine matters”).
✅ 3.1 Chronological bigotry, i.e. the absurd belief that human beings who lived prior to (say) Richard Dawkins were one and all somehow mentally inferior to anyone living today, up to and including the greatest minds of the past. This would also include the belief that all human beings in the past were incapable of skepticism or critical thinking, or were somehow exceptionally gullible or credulous in a way we, the Enlightened Moderns, are not.
✅ 3.2 “Arguments” that consist wholly of posting atheist memes, e.g. “Eric the God-Eating Penguin.”
✅ 3.3 “Arguments” that consist of no more than exercises in blasphemy or obscenity.
An atheist who goes by [theresidentskeptic] is one of many atheists who have demanded that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy change its definition of atheism to their preferred one, namely, the dishonest “lack of belief” definition. Here’s how the SEoP’s definition reads:
And here is [theresidentskeptic]’s email and Stanford’s reply:
I am constantly having your definitions of atheism and agnosticism regurgitated to me by people who don’t seem to understand what they mean and your authoritative definition completely muddies the waters.
Your definition which can be seen at the the following link states:
“‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it.”
I am forced to point out to you that agnosticism deals with knowledge claims, not claims of belief. Why are you conflating the two? A belief necessarily deals with a single claim; God exists is one claim; God does not exist is another claim- or String theory is true is one claim; string theory is not true is another claim.
A cosmologist who does not know if either position about string theory is true would be considered an agnostic. The cosmologist then disbelieves claim 1; string theory is true, therefore, for lack of a better term, is an atheist with respect to string theory. They do not necessarily believe that claim 2; string theory is false, is true.
Similarly, with respect to god claims, a person who does not know if either claim (god exists / god does not exist) is true would be an agnostic. The person who disbelieves claim 1; God exists is an atheist and this does not say anything about their acceptance that claim 2; god does not exist, is true.
I will use an analogy:
If I made the claim that there are an odd number of blades of grass in my front yard, would you believe me?
No, you wouldn’t unless I could substantiate that claim (if you are rational). Does that then mean you believe the opposite of that claim? That there are an even number of blades of grass in my front yard? No, you wouldn’t accept that claim either. With respect to your belief in the true dichotomy of the nature of the grass then, you are an atheist; you disbelieve claim 1; there are an odd number of blades of grass. If you don’t know which claim is true, you are an agnostic. The terms are not mutually exclusive.
With respect to god claims, I identify as an agnostic atheist; I do not know if a god exists or not, and I disbelieve the claim that a god does exist.
Gnostic: Of or relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge. –> Therefore it’s opposite, agnostic, relates to a lack of knowledge.
Theist: Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures –> Therefore it’s opposite, atheist, relates to a lack of belief in the existence of gods and not necessarily the belief in the opposite claim, that no gods exist.
Belief: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists
Source [for definitions]: Oxford English Dictionary*
Kindly update your definitions to reflect this.
*EVE NOTE: [theresidentskeptic] is being dishonest here: his definitions are from the Oxford Dictionary, not the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is an important distinction—the OD accepts and uses much looser standards than the OED. The OD is what you get from Google. The OED requires a hefty fee to access.
———————————-REPLY FROM STANFORD BELOW———————————-
Thank you for writing to us about the entry on atheism and agnosticism. We have received messages about this issue before and are continuing to consider whether and how the entry might be adjusted.
That said, the matter is not as clear cut as you suggest. While the term “atheism” is used in a variety of ways in general discourse, our entry is on its meaning in the philosophical literature. Traditionally speaking, the definition in our entry—that ‘atheism’ means the denial of the existence of God—is correct in the philosophical literature. Some now refer to this standard meaning as “positive atheism” and contrast it with the broader notion of atheism” which has the meaning you suggest—that ‘atheism’ simply means not-theist.
In our understanding, the argument for this broader notion was introduced into the philosophical literature by Antony Flew in “The Presumption of Atheism” (1972). In that work, he noted that he was using an etymological argument to try to convince people *not* to follow the *standard meaning* of the term. His goal was to reframe the debate about the existence of God and to re-brand “atheism” as a default position.
Not everyone has been convinced to use the term in Flew’s way simply on the force of his argument. For some, who consider themselves atheists in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to water down a perfectly good concept. For others, who consider themselves agnostics in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to re-label them “atheists”—a term they rejected.
All that said, we are continuing to examine the situation regarding the definitions as presented in this entry.
All the best,
Uri Nodelman Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
CSLI/Cordura Hall firstname.lastname@example.org
Stanford University ph. 650-723-0488
Stanford, CA 94305-4115 fx. 650-725-2166
[EVE NOTE: Emphasis mine.]
[EVE NOTE: You also have to admit that “Based on a false etymology of a word, one grammatically plausible but as it happens, etymologically incorrect in the word’s history, I argue that we should give an established term a totally new definition, because doing so would have the advantage of making the position that I happen to hold (in 1972—I’ll change my mind later) a distinct rhetorical (but not substantive) advantage in arguments and debate about the subject.” If this is not special pleading, there is no such thing as special pleading.]
“The Philosopher’s Groan” was a philosophical blog that seems no longer to exist. This is shame, as it had a number of interesting posts. One in particular stands out to my mind, because it is an atheist philosopher’s trenchant critique of the tendentious “lack of belief” redefinition of atheism.
Although strictly speaking it should make no difference whatever whether a theist or an atheist critiques a given atheistic talking point, in practice it does, since most atheists will simply dismiss criticism made by theists out of hand.
It is therefore very worthwhile for you atheists to hear it from one of your own, that the “lack of belief” redefinition of atheism is severely flawed, tendentious, and at this point in the discussion, simply intellectually dishonest to maintain.
Here, then, is a link to Is a ‘lack of belief’ the best we can do?
Because I know you’re probably too lazy to click a link just on my say-so, I’ll give you some of the main points:
There is a common view – one you yourself may hold – that the only intellectually honest position for an atheist to have is a ‘lack of belief’ in gods. Today I’m going to argue that this definition is confused, and should be retired. It is too broad to be useful, and that we ought to reserve the word ‘atheist’ for active disbelief in the existence of gods.
In recent years, many counter-apologists have come to recognise ‘atheism’ as meaning a ‘lack of belief’ in gods, and that’s it. That is to say, atheism is the end result of rejecting – but not necessarily denying — the positive claims of religion. It’s a non-committal, neutral stance. The reasons usually provided to motivate this definition are some variation on the following:
I’ll take each of these in turn.
(1) It is possible to prove a negative by demonstrating a logical contradiction: there are no married bachelors, or square circles. Those paired concepts are mutually incompatible, and rule each other out. If the concept of god is incoherent, then the thing it points to can’t exist. And that’s the end of the story.
Furthermore, it’s possible to argue for a negative with an ‘absence of evidence’ argument. If X exists, I should expect to find evidence Z. If evidence Z isn’t found, X is not likely to exist. While not irrefutable, we don’t need it to be to say with a high probability that X doesn’t exist. If you think we do need it to be irrefutable to say X doesn’t exist, then you’re an infallibilist about knowledge, and I’ve already written about why that’s not a desirable position.
(2) This seems to be a confusion between the folk concept of ‘belief’, and it’s more precise philosophical definition. The folk concept is something like ‘an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially without proof‘. The philosophical definition is something like ‘a mental state that represents a state of affairs which is accepted as true by the believer‘.
[Eve: A failure to make this distinction leads to such hilarity as William Lane Craig’s humiliation of Lawrence Krauss after Krauss declared in a debate “I have no beliefs!”, to which Dr. Craig humorously responded “Do you really believe that?”]
The philosophical definition means, roughly, a ‘picture’ or a ‘sentence’ in your head that you think is an accurate representation of the world. You look at a wall, you have a belief about that wall. You think about the past, you have a belief about the past. The word just tells me that you think the world is a certain way. It shouldn’t conjure up the spectre of ‘acceptance without evidence’, which is confusing it with ‘faith’.
The only time someone can be said to have a lack of belief regarding a god is before they’ve heard the claim for one. In some minimalist sense this person is an a-theist, but that’s an extremely weak point to hang one’s hat on. After hearing it, they can accept, reject or mull over the claim undecided. But lacking a belief about it is no longer open to them.
When we’re talking about scientific concepts, we make the effort to use appropriate scientific language. We ought to make the same effort to be philosophically precise in matters of philosophy. ‘Atheism’ and ‘belief’ are also technical terms in philosophy. This might rub some anti-philosophical types the wrong way, but like it or not, if you engage in rational argument, you’re doing philosophy. And anything worth doing is worth doing correctly.
(3) This one is often said in conjunction with ‘2’, and is usually accompanied by this graphic:
The first thing I can say here is that belief and knowledge are not usually paired this way. As our justification for a belief being true gets stronger, it eventually qualifies as knowledge (because knowledge is at least a ‘justified, true, belief’). So this makes both the gnostic positions rather redundant, as you necessarily have to have a belief if you also have knowledge.
The second thing I can say is that this ‘neat’ partitioning doesn’t capture the degrees of confidence we have in our beliefs and knowledge. I know that the Sun is a star. I also know that evolution has occurred. Do I know these two facts to the same degree of confidence? No. They’re both very high, but not identical — and they’re certainly not 100% certain. This graphic doesn’t capture that nuance, and neither does the distinction it’s attempting to carve out. It’s too simple. Our minds don’t work like this.
(4) While it is true that ‘believing X’ and ‘believing not-X’ aren’t the only options, I disagree that the middling position of ‘not believing X’ is a useful definition of atheism. It’s far too broad to capture just what we might intuitively want to call an atheist (it drifts too far into ‘Area C’). I’ll try to motivate this change of intuition in you.
If a mere ‘lack of belief in god’ is sufficient to be an atheist, then babies are atheists. You might say “yes, they are, or at least were before religion got its mitts on them!” But on this definition chimps are also atheists. As are dolphins, dogs, and doors. They all lack belief in a god.
You might object that the ‘thing’ has to be capable of beliefs at all to prevent the ‘door’ from making this absurd (that’s going to be a problem for anything that is defined in purely negative terms). But suppose I grant that point, even though it seems extremely ad hoc. Are you comfortable calling a dog an atheist? If so, are you just as comfortable calling a goldfish apolitical? Calling the ants in my garden a colony of atheists feels like a misuse of words to me, because this word – defined in this way – picks out any conscious thing on the planet as its referent. That’s a huge net. If we think of atheism as ‘positive disbelief’, that picks out a very small subset of belief-capable humans, and that’s a more desirable outcome.
(5) is an interesting one, as it is a great example of what I call the ‘fetishisation of etymology’. It treats language as if it’s static and eternal, rather than the truly fluid organism it really is. Words change meaning all the time, mostly due to popular usage, but sometimes due to necessity (like the planet example). Thumping the table and shouting “words have meanings!” as I so often see happen, is not an argument.
[Eve: For an excellent case of ‘linguistic fetishization’—although not in this case a fetishization of etymology—see my account of my encounter on Twitter with a linguistic fetishist who maintained that ‘words have only one true meaning, so it is usually the case that the inventors of a word are using it wrongly as soon as they invent it, since its true meaning may not be known for centuries’ at Chaucer, Lit Fish, and Go Fuck Yourself, and Revisiting Whales and Fish One Last Time.]
In the first few centuries CE, the word ‘atheist’ was used by polytheistic pagans to describe Christians, who they were ridiculing for believing in ‘one god for everything’. They taunted them that they should just round it off to an even zero since they were most of the way there already. Before them, it was used by the pagans against the Epicureans (yes, this one, even though this quote is wrongly attributed to him by an early Christian scholar) in Ancient Greece, who believed that the gods did exist and were made of atoms, but were unconcerned with human affairs.
So the word ‘atheist’ has changed several times in history already in response to a conscious or unconscious desire for it to do so. Rather than let the folk concept flitter to and fro, I’d rather intelligently design our language so we can mean what we say, and say what we mean. Like Pluto and the planets, it seems to me that once this folk concept is scrutinised, it comes up short and in need of a rethink.
[Eve: adding a useful reference on the etymology of atheism. Not that one should fetishize etymology, but it is worth knowing that the etymology of atheism simply is not a- theism but atheos -ism: See my The Etymology of Atheism.]