Atheism: not merely a lack of belief

Atheist shoes for shoe atheists
Atheist shoes for shoe atheists
On the Reddits, there’s a bit of debate about what we should understand by the term “atheist”. The most popular view among atheists there is that their atheism is a “lack of belief”, and that they make no claim about whether or not God exists. Take the sidebar on /r/DebateAnAtheist as an example of this view:

For r/DebateAnAtheist, the majority of people identify as agnostic or ‘weak’ atheists, that is, they lack a belief in a god. They make no claims about whether or not a god actually exists, and thus, this is a passive position philosophically.

What’s going on here?

Firstly, some people think that someone who believes or who states a belief has a “burden of proof”. See Frank Turek’s blog, for example, where he makes the analogy to a courtroom (I guess he doesn’t know about Scottish law). In this view, the atheist needs to make their case, they can’t just sit back and wait for the apologist to make theirs. The “lack of belief” atheists accept that a person with a belief has a burden of proof, so they are careful to say they don’t have a belief, just a lack of belief.

Secondly, apologists also like to say that atheists have a belief, therefore they have faith (meaning unevidenced belief), therefore we’re not so different, you and I. Again, a “lack of belief” atheist might accept that a “belief” is “something accepted on faith”, and that believing without “positive evidence” is always bad, but deny that they have a belief.

Finally, the apologist and the “lack of belief” atheist might both accept that “you can’t prove a negative” and relatedly, that to claim to “know” something requires you to be absolutely certain of it.

I think what’s going wrong in all these cases is that the atheists have gone too far in accepting stuff which the apologists made up to muddy the waters (or, more charitably, which is confused thinking shared by atheists and apologists), but then suddenly realised they need to pull up just before crashing into an undesirable conclusion.

What does the “lack of belief” view get right? Well, people do have degrees of belief, so it’s true to say that failing to accept one belief is not the same as believing the opposite belief. The classic example quoted by “lack of belief” atheists is the jar of beans: if I say I don’t believe the number of beans is even, I’m not saying it’s odd, I’m saying I don’t know. If I wanted to put a number on it, I’d say it was 50% likely to odd and 50% likely to be even, in the absence of any other information.

However, if I thought it was 50% likely that there was a God, I’d still be in church every Sunday. The consequences of being wrong are too great to risk on a coin toss. I think most atheists consider it much less likely that there’s a God, unlikely enough that, if the question were about anything other than God, they’d be happy enough to say “X does not exist”.

Burden of proof

Going back to the first point, we should distinguish between rules of debate (or of a courtroom) and rules of rationality. An atheist who goes into a debate and says just sits there repeatedly telling their theist opponent “you haven’t proven your case” deserves to lose the debate. Entering into a debate requires taking up the burden of convincing the audience.

But it’s not true that if we want to be rational, we take on a duty to defeat all comers when we believe something or say out loud that we believe it. Being rational means we ought to have good reasons for our beliefs, but our time is limited, so we cannot become experts on everything. Rational belief in evolution doesn’t require us to rebut everything in a Gish Gallop in a way which would convince a creationist.

It’s not that hard to come up with good reasons to think there isn’t a God based on our background knowledge: on the face of it, the universe looks nothing like what we’d expect if there were. We’re rational in believing and saying that there are no teapots in the asteroid belt, no unicorns on Pluto, no fairies at the bottom of the garden, and that there’s no God.

Belief, faith, and evidence

On to the second point. As I’ve mentioned previously, atheism doesn’t require faith, at least in most common senses of the world. A belief is just a mental assent to some statement of how things are. This assent isn’t something that only happens because a person has faith: perhaps they have excellent reasons for their belief (or perhaps they don’t: both cases are examples of belief).

There’s also some confusion about evidence, where some people don’t realise that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Something that doesn’t happen when your theory says it should have can provide as much evidence as something that does happen.

Proving a negative, absolute certainty

We can certainly prove a negative in mathematics (the square root of 2 is not a rational number, there are no even primes above 2, and so on). Outside of mathematics, it’s difficult to reach 100% certainty for anything we believe, but that just means that we’ll have to make do without it. It’s generally harder to show that something does not exist than that something does (where we can just point to an example of the thing), but remember, something that does not happen can still be evidence.

When someone says “I know there is no God”, they might be doing a couple of things: they might be emphasising the strength of their belief (“I don’t just believe it, I know it”) and/or making a claim that this belief is true and justified (which is traditionally what knowledge means to a philosopher). The confusion between these two is responsible for a lot of argument between people who know a bit of philosophy and those who don’t.

In either case, just because we can think of ways in which we could be wrong does not mean we shouldn’t believe something or act on that belief (for example, by saying out loud that we believe it or know it).

Are atheistic arguments failures?

Sometimes, people say they’re “lack of belief” atheists because of the variety of things one could refer to as gods, but that the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good capital-“G” God does not exist. I think this is one situation where the “lack of belief” idea makes sense: where the person has not really considered all the possible things that could be called gods. We can only formulate a belief when we know what we’re talking about. (But see You can’t know there isn’t an X out there, previously).

But, elsewhere, I’ve also seen Internet atheists respond to Christians with the “lack of belief” definition, i.e. saying that they lack belief in the Christian God. This seems to imply that those atheists think all the arguments against the existence of that God are failures (they’re presumably aware of the arguments if they’re discussing atheism on the Internet), so they can’t say there is no such God, only that they “lack belief”. That’s an odd thing for an atheist to think!

Further reading

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Link blog: theodicy, stephen-law, epistemology, philosophy

Stephen Law: ‘Skeptical Theism and the Pandora’s Box Question’ – YouTube
Stephen Law did a half hour talk on the sceptical theist response to the Problem of Evil (“you can’t know that God doesn’t have good reasons for allowing some apparently gratuitous evils merely because you can’t think of such reasons”), and how adopting such a response leads to more general scepticism about just about everything (the Pandora’s Box objection, as he calls it).
(tags: theodicy theology religion philosophy problem-of-evil stephen-law epistemology)
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Link blog: politics, david-simon, work, sexism

86ing a.k.a. Throwing Someone Out Of Your Venue | It’s The Way That You Do It
After all the discussions on harassment, I’m coming to the conclusion that the hardest thing is not finding the right words for your code of conduct, but actually dealing with the nasty business of having to tell someone they’re doing something wrong and maybe they can’t come back. Here’s a post from someone who’s done it.
(tags: harassment lindy-hop lindy dancing safety)
The austerity delusion | Paul Krugman | Business | The Guardian
“It has been astonishing, from a US perspective, to witness the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.”
(tags: austerity economics deficit debt paul-krugman politics labour)
David Simon on Baltimore’s Anguish | The Marshall Project
David Simon (“The Wire”, “Homicide”) blames the drug war for the breakdown of trust between the police and the community following the abandonment of constitutional protections. Points out that the police force is largely black. Petyr Baelish really did cook the crime stats, too.
(tags: baltimore the-wire david-simon drugs police politics)
A Manual for Creating Atheists – Godless Haven
“Godless Haven” has a good review of Boghossian’s book, “A Manual For Creating Atheists”.
(tags: review atheism peter-boghossian epistemology)
Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks – HBR
Interesting research into the sort of place where you’re expected to be available all the time and work all the hours. Some successful men found ways to “pass” i.e. to appear they were hard workers while finding time for other things (like their families). Women tended to ask explicitly for allowances to be made for child care and their careers suffered for it.
(tags: work hours time employment sexism feminism)
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Link blog: politics, belief, faith, atheism

Justin Schieber on Twitter: “Nobody just lacks belief in unicorns. We all believe (for good reason, mind you) that they are fictions. So too is it the case with gods.”
Justin Schieber (an atheist) argues against the claim that “atheism is just a lack of belief”. This seems fair enough: what atheists tend to use the claim for is to say that they don’t have a duty to rebut any random stuff someone comes up with, but in fact, we consider the eixstence of gods and unicorns unlikely based on our background knowledge and the lack of expected evidence (which is evidence of absence), and this is a legitimate belief.
(tags: belief god atheism theism unicorns evidence epistemology)
60 Years On: Academic Atheist Philosophers Then & Now : The Critique
Graham Oppy reviews 60 years of atheist thought in philosophy. Interesting stuff. Is it true to say that people think sceptical theism means that a theist should not be convinced by the evidential problem of evil? I thought that sceptical theism had problems of its own, but I rely on people like John Danaher to digest the literature for me rather than reading journals or anything…
(tags: graham-oppy atheism philosophy theodicy religion)
Faith vs. Facts –
“a broad group of scholars is beginning to demonstrate that religious belief and factual belief are indeed different kinds of mental creatures. People process evidence differently when they think with a factual mind-set rather than with a religious mind-set. Even what they count as evidence is different. And they are motivated differently, based on what they conclude. On what grounds do scholars make such claims?”
(tags: faith facts psychology religion anthropology scott-atran)
Britain Uncovered survey results: the attitudes and beliefs of Britons in 2015 | Society | The Guardian
The Graun surveyed about 1000 people and weighted the results according to the UK’s demographics. Among other things, the bit about religion was interesting to me: their survey said “A majority of Britons (82%) do not actively practise a religion and a clear majority of the population (61%) agree with that “These days religion is a negative influence in the world rather than a force for good.” Unsurprisingly, those who associate with a religion are less likely to hold this view.”
(tags: survey britain secularism religion belief attitudes politics guardian)
God Doesn’t; We Do: The apologist two-step–McGrew and Marshall on Boghossian
Argues that Norman Geisler and Frank Turek’s “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist” use “faith” in a very similar way to the way Boghossian does, namely “We mean that the less evidence you have for your position, the more faith you need to believe it (and vice versa). Faith covers a gap in knowledge.”
(tags: faith peter-boghossian apologetics religion)
The economists’ manifesto –
The FT asks a random selection of economists what they’d do if they were PM. A whole lot more sensible than the politicians’ one.
(tags: economics politics FT finance)
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Link blog: funny, evidence, philosophy, unbelievable

Peter Boghossian vs Tim McGrew – YouTube
Here’s an “Unbelievable” show in which Boghossian (“A Manual For Creating Atheists”) talks to Tim McGrew, who’s reasonably well known for his arguments in favour of belief in miracles. I’ve linked to a set of comments from “MrShamuto” where he undertakes more or less the process Boghossian describes in the books, of Socratic dialogue with “AdeToz”, a Christian. It is long and occasionally interrupted by other people who are bonkers, but it’s interesting to see Boghossian’s stuff in action.
(tags: street-epistemology epistemology peter-boghossian tim-mcgrew philosophy evidence unbelievable premier christian radio socratic)
W00tstock 5.0 – George RR Martin vs. Paul and Storm – YouTube
The singers of “Write like the Wind, George RR Martin” get a surprise.
(tags: game-of-thrones grrm george-rr-martin funny video wootstock)
List of testimonies from people who just know their religion is true
amymea, writing in the ex-Mormon Reddit, takes to task someone who argues that the “testimony of the spirit” is good evidence that Mormonism is true, by listing a bunch of other people who had strong feelings upon reading their own religious texts.
(tags: mormonism reddit feelings faith religion evidence)
Advanced Trolley Problems
(tags: philosophy funny comic ethics trolley-problem)
What I’ve Learned About Female Desire From Reading
Mallory Ortberg is fun. “100% of women want to have sex with a man who embodies the fox version of Robin Hood from the cartoon Robin Hood, but most do not actually want to have sex with a fox or a man dressed as one.”
(tags: mallory-ortberg funny reading sex desire books)
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I get mail from Neo, but he’s not cool like in the Matrix

Someone calling themselves “Neo” from the Skeptic Arena emailed me on the subject of my previous article, sending me a Word document with his replies in. I pointed out that emailing Word documents around is a bit odd, showed him where the comment box is, pointed out that he didn’t seem to have read the previous post properly, and went on my way.

Neo wasn’t content with that, and has now featured our conversation on his web site as a another Word document. Publically posting private emails is rude, but seeing as Neo has done it, he’s lost the right to complain about the following. I’ve replied to selected points below the cut, but you can see the whole thing in all its glory on Neo’s site, if you’re worried I’m being a bit too selective.

If you’re short of time, here’s what you can learn from this:

  • Atheists aren’t necessarily more rational than anyone else. Some of them write green ink emails to other atheists.
  • Arguments are not soldiers: it’s not rational to attack an argument merely because it’s for the opposing “side”.
  • Some people take this to the next level: they confuse mentioning an argument with using it, and attack the person mentioning anyway. Here’s a Christian example, and another atheist example, both directed at me. If both sides argue with me, I’ve achieved perfect balance in the Force! (edit: actually, one is directed at Yvain and I just pointed it out).

Cut for detail

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William Lane Craig and God, now on Metafilter

God, yesterdayMetafilter wonders whether God exists, or more specially, whether that William Lane Craig chap has good arguments for the proposition1. I missed it all kicking off, so only contributed at the end.

By the point I noticed it, the thread had got into people talking bollocks about induction (mainly the sort of nonsense I examine below, but also including atheists who just don’t get what the problems are). I think the tactic Stephen Law calls going nuclear must be in some apologetics manual somewhere, because you certainly see a lot of it about. So, this is how I’d respond to that:

All this induction stuff is very interesting, but let’s go back to shivohum’s original comment.

This uses a standard Christian apologetical strategy (one that Craig has used himself) in response an atheist’s to use of a naive evidentialism to discount religious claims. If an atheist says “All reasonable beliefs require evidence, there is no evidence for God, therefore belief in God is unreasonable”, the clever apologist will ask “All reasonable beliefs? Really? What evidence could there be for your belief that all beliefs require evidence?” They will then go on to point out that it seems we all have to accept some unevidenced beliefs (induction is a good example for the apologist because it’s pretty hard to see how we would get evidence for belief in it without making a circular argument, as Hume knew, but Cartesian doubts about the external world are also popular). “Aha!” says the apologist, “you see, we all rely on faith, and my belief in God, angels, demons and whatnot is just an article of faith, like your belief in this induction thing you’re so fond of. We’re not so different, you and I.”

The atheist’s evidentialism is pretty naive and they probably deserve that sort of response, but still, there seems to be something wrong with equating the rejection of fairly radical sceptical positions with belief in God. I think Chris Hallquist has it right: “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.”

That is, religious beliefs do seem to be the sorts of things that require evidence, as even Christians agree if you ask them what it’d take to convince them of the truth of some other religion. If a Christian were to say, “no, but, you see, it’s only Christian beliefs which are like rejection of Cartesian doubt”, we’d just say “riiiiight“. OTOH, if it’s not just Christian beliefs which are now OK because we all have to rely on faith sometimes, why not be a pagan, Muslim or Pastafarian instead?

I followed up with another comment explaining why Craig gets (admittedly grudging) respect from atheists2. I also talked about what I think is the shakiest point of the Kalam argument: where Craig needs to show that the transcendental “cause” must be something like a person: he says mathematical concepts don’t have causal powers (a recent Mefi may disagree) but then wants to argue for that the best explanation is a person who lacks several of properties of all persons we encounter (not material, not existing in time) and has properties unlike that of any persons we encounter. If we’re allowed to do that sort of thing, why not just say that there’s at least one mathematical concept with causal potency? Or even that there’s maybe more than 2 kinds of transcendental thing, for all we know? Someone must have written a paper about this, right?

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  1. In reality, we all know God exists, otherwise who’s writing that Facebook page, eh? Checkmate, atheists. 

  2. You’ll see atheists explaining that Dawkins was right not to have a debate with Craig because Craig supports genocide (by which they mean the Biblical massacres like the one recorded in Numbers 31). This is silly: Dawkins will not debate with Craig because Dawkins would lose, horribly (note that one can concede this and still remain an atheist). Dawkins’s refusal to dance with Craig is prudent, but let’s not see it as some great moral stand. 

Link blog: art, spying, nsa, argument

Arguments From My Opponent Believes Something | Slate Star Codex
1. Argument From My Opponent Believes Something, Which Is Kinda Like Believing It On Faith, Which Is Kinda Like Them Being A Religion: “The high priests of the economic orthodoxy take it on faith that anyone who doubts the market is a heretic who must be punished.”
(tags: argument belief debate epistemology)
Skeptics shouldn’t have lined up with the Mail to call Psychic Sally a fraud
"The great pity about the legal battle between the Daily Mail and ‘Psychic’ Sally Morgan was that somebody had to win." You’re not a sceptic if you call someone a fraud without evidence
(tags: libel law sally-morgan evidence scepticism daily-mail psychic fraud)
Twelve Tones – YouTube
30 minutes of video (hand drawn pictures in time to the narration) and music on finding patterns and 12 tone music. Worth a watch/listen. Via AB on Google+.
(tags: music pattern stravinsky chromatic art vi-hart video)
Schneier on Security: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence Defends NSA Surveillance Programs
"Here’s a transcript of a panel discussion about NSA surveillance. There’s a lot worth reading here, but I want to quote Bob Litt’s opening remarks. He’s the General Counsel for ODNI, and he has a lot to say about the programs revealed so far in the Snowden documents."
(tags: terrorism nsa spying leaks privacy security prism)
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Link blog: google, porn, dance, consent

Ambidancetrous: The Blog — “We don’t want to make people uncomfortable.” (aka, “What about teh menz?!”)
"Ultimately, some of the worry that some straight guys will be uncomfortable dancing with other men (or being led by a woman) may be justified." Het guys: you lost the oppression Olympics, so your comfort and consent about who touches you is less important than our plan to build a utopia through dance. PROBLEMATIC. Well, OK, that bit rubbed me up the wrong way. But seriously, I think an "ambidancetrous" dance scene would be less "problematic" if the expectations (and how they differ from pretty much every other scene) were made clear up front. What I expect would happen then is that if you insisted every lesson was ambidancetrous, you’d never get enough people to make a viable community. Maybe it’d work as an option within an established scene, though.
(tags: lindy consent gender feminism lindyhop dance)
A doctor writes about the difficulties of dealing with obesity: dealing with a social problem, and applying epidemiology to individuals. Via Metafilter.
(tags: food fat obesity medicine health)
On the stupidity of asking, “but where’s the evidence we need evidence for things?”
"it’s a mistake to think that if someone thinks maybe you should have some evidence for a particular thing you believe, they are therefore committed to a sweeping philosophical doctrine about needing evidence for absolutely everything."
(tags: evidence philosophy epistemology)
Online Child Porn – What the Papers Aren’t Telling You.
Could Google really block it? (Hint: no)
(tags: google porn filtering internet)
Ukip Activist Marty Caine Provokes Fury by Branding Drummer Lee Rigby’s Family ‘Idiots’ – IBTimes UK
Looks like the old "the EDL are the provisional wing of UKIP" joke is actually true.
(tags: edl lee-rigby islam racism ukip)
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