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!
- Is a lack of belief the best we can do? and Knowledge and Counter-apologetics on Twitter (the latter talks more about what philosophers mean by knowledge).
- a discussion of the burden of proof in philosophy, where the professionals say that the idea of a burden of proof doesn’t do anything like the sort of work that the Reddit atheists (and, I’d add, Christian apologists like Turek) want it to do. See also the parent comment from the professional philosopher.
- Reddit user wokeupabug wrote a classic critique of “lack of belief” atheism.
- Daniel Fincke writes that Not All Who “Lack Belief in Gods” Are Atheists and I Know There Is No God.