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

8 Comments on "Atheism: not merely a lack of belief"

  1. I have no proof that God exists, but I also am aware that most definitions of God include a being who is perfectly capable, if they choose, to be perfectly hidden from me. And therefore I am not prepared to state a total belief that they do not exist.


    1. As usual, it depends on what you mean by “God”. The all-{seeing,knowing,good} God-with-a-capital-G would not hide. The fact that some people who seek him (or don’t actively avoid him) don’t find him is one of the arguments against God’s existence (the Divine Hiddenness argument).

      When I say “there’s no God”, I’m using the capital G to refer to that god: like Fincke, I’d say I know that God does not exist. There are other concepts which people refer to using the word “god” (or even “God”), but I don’t think an atheist has to rebut the existence of anything that anyone might refer to using those words. Some uses of “god” are just a verbal flourish on something an atheist might otherwise agree with, as the Simon Blackburn’s essay says. Some seem to be versions of God but tweaked to be less detectable. Just as we should be suspicious of the police officers who decide to investigate someone they picked at random out of the phonebook to see whether they committed a particular crime, we should be suspicious of that sort of thing: there are so many names in the book that the odds are they picked the wrong one.


        1. A couple of ways:

          First, by saying it’s better for people to be aware of such a God’s existence, as that’s a necessary pre-cursor to a correct relationship to such a God. The religions who have a God which falls into the tri-omni category think it’s a very bad thing for people to ignore God, after all.

          Secondly, Schellenberg links it to the idea that such a God is supposed to be loving. He writes:

          Some creatures in the world are capable of relationship with God (they have the equipment required to believe that God exists and trust in God and feel God’s presence, for example), and what I am suggesting is that there is something remarkably odd about the idea that, supposing there really is a God whose love is unsurpassably perfect, such creatures should ever be unable to exercise their capacity for relationship with God–at least so long as they have not got themselves into that position through resisting the divine in the manner earlier indicated. What sense can we make of the idea that capable creatures should be open to relationship with a perfectly loving God, not resisting it at all, perhaps even longing for it, and yet not in a place where they can have such a relationship, if there really is a perfectly loving God? I suggest that if we look carefully at the matter, we will not be able to make any sense of that at all. A perfectly loving God–if those words mean anything–would, like the best human lover, ensure that meaningful contact with herself was always possible for those she loved.


          1. I can see why it would be, in general, better, while not believing that that necessarily means that it would be better, overall, if every single person was aware. It might be necessary, as part of a grand plan, for individuals, groups, or even whole galaxies to be unaware, so that God’s creatures as a whole might flourish more.


            1. Well, that might be true, but is it what you’d expect to see, given how important getting that relationship right is supposed to be? Why can’t God come up with a better plan? We’re kind of back to Hume again: we can acknowledge our limitations, but this should only make us more hesitant to give weight to more outlandish conjectures.

              I’m not sure God’s supposed to be a strict utilitarian, either.

              But perhaps Schellenberg’s point is stronger: a loving God would want a relationship with everyone.


              1. You’re clearly trying to read the mind of God here. And you have multiple “supposed to”, which makes me wonder who, exactly, is supposing.

                And a loving God may want many things, but as the world is full of the suffering of innocents, either God can’t have everything he wants, or God doesn’t want that. If we assume God is loving (as I assume you want to) that means that perfection is impossible, and not everyone gets to have a perfect solution. And sometimes that imperfect solution might involve them not ever being aware of God’s existence.


                1. You’re clearly trying to read the mind of God here. And you have multiple “supposed to”, which makes me wonder who, exactly, is supposing.

                  I’m trying to work out the consequences of what other people have said about God and show that they do not match up with what we observe. All of any religion’s “God did X” claims (sent this prophet, caused that holy book to be written, did this or that miracle) are claims that “God would X”, and so are claims to know the mind of God to that extent. Once you grant that, it’s hard to make a principled distinction between those times when we can “read the mind of God” (God would author a book, God would create the universe) and those when we theists say we can’t (God wouldn’t allow so much suffering, God would make sure everyone who wasn’t actively resisting was in a position of being able to have relationship with him). (credit: John D’s explanation of Rob Lovering’s paper “On What God Would Do”)

                  And a loving God may want many things, but as the world is full of the suffering of innocents, either God can’t have everything he wants, or God doesn’t want that.

                  Or there’s no God. Schellenberg wants to distinguish his argument from the Problem of Evil, though: “it is not the anguish of doubt and the empathy of God that, in the first instance, should lead us to wonder why there are nonresistant doubters. It is rather the natural inclination of any loving parent (and so of any loving Parent) to make relationship with herself possible for her children–for their sake, certainly, but also for its own sake, and even where there would be no pain and suffering if it were not made available. The Divine Parent’s motivation to make divine-human relationship possible therefore includes much more than do the motives to which we appeal when we argue, if we do, that God would prevent pain and suffering.”

                  If we assume God is loving (as I assume you want to)

                  I don’t think God actually exists, so I’m going by what other people say about the omnimax creator God.


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