This is a reply to the article ‘Why Atheism is Illogical. Part One: Atheism is a Belief and a Truth Claim’. Which was written by @ToAtheists from Twitter.
There are another two parts to this article but I consider that a refutation of the first article renders a refutation of the second two redundant.
This is an interesting ‘attack’ on atheism, given that it comes from a philosopher rather than a member of the religious community. Nonetheless, and somewhat disappointingly, it falls afoul of many of the same problems that religious attacks upon atheism do. Most especially not understanding what atheism is and what it does – or doesn’t – claim.
The author says, at the beginning of their article:
” I found rather quickly that the structures of religious belief are duplicated in atheist belief. But this lead to the fascinating question of why atheists try to deny this basic fact which in turn opened up the realization of how atheism is an inherently illogical belief, even more illogical than religious belief. So, this work in progress is attempting to understand why and hopefully establish a theory with the power to explain atheist belief.” – ToAtheists
In my opinion this presents an immediate bias and a conclusion before the subject is even examined. It is also manifestly incorrect.
The most inclusive definition of atheism is this:
“Either the lack of belief that there exists a god, or the belief that there exists none…” – Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2008
The ‘lack of belief that there is a god’ also called ‘weak’, ‘soft’ or ‘agnostic’ atheism is not a belief but, rather, the absence of one. While it has the counterpart of ‘strong’, ‘hard’ or ‘gnostic’ atheism I can’t say that I have ever met a person – even Richard Dawkins – who would describe themselves thus.
Speaking for myself, I am certain – on the basis of logic, reason and evidence – that certain definitions of the god claim absolutely do not, indeed cannot, exist. So I am a Gnostic atheist with regard to, for example, the literalist version of the biblical god. However, we are not talking about me, or Dawkins, or Harris, or Dennett or anyone specific but rather atheism as a whole which, at its most inclusive is simply the lack of belief in god/s.
By this definition even a newborn child, unexposed to the dogmas and indoctrinations of religion, or even the very idea, is an atheist, albeit a passive one.
“Theism is the belief that the proposition God Exists (GE) is true. Theism is a truth claim for GE since, for any proposition P, to believe P is to take P to hold in the actual world. Beliefs are active assertions that a state of affairs is true in the actual world. To believe something is to believe that it is true and it is the height of irrationality to believe something yet think it is false, or to not believe something yet think it is true. The proposition GE is an existential proposition (the question of existence) and such propositions are different from propositions such as “democracy is the best political system.” All existential propositions are binary: necessarily either absolutely true or absolutely false. You can’t be a little pregnant or kind of dead, you either are or you are not. The existential proposition GE is objectively either true or false in the actual world and if it is false then its negation is necessarily true.” – ToAtheists
All agreed so far. With the note that the idea of god/religion can exist – and do harm – without the god proposition being true, real or actual.
“To deny any existential proposition is to necessarily assume its negation, for example, you must say that the Loch Ness Monster either exists or does not exist, there are no other options for you to choose. The negation of GE is the proposition God Does Not Exist (Not-GE). Rational beings either believe that GE is true, believe that GE is false and thus necessarily believe Not-GE is true, or say they do not know, claiming neither. The first position is Theism, the second Atheism, the third Agnosticism. Atheism is to deny that the proposition GE is true and thus to necessarily assume Not-GE is true. To withhold assent to both GE and not-GE—assert that one does not know—is agnosticism. It is necessarily the case that unless one claims ignorance, agnosticism, then one is assenting to either GE or not-GE—logical use of language prevents other possibilities.” – ToAtheists
More definitional problems here and more lack of understanding of what atheism is.
A denial rather assumes that there is a case for something in the first place. Since we’re talking in generalities we can’t really argue the finer points of the arguments ‘for’ and against a particular god definition. When such arguments are presented what is produced as a counter is a refutation, rather than a denial. Pointing out problem, fallacies etc in arguments is not denial – though apologists will often claim it is – it is refutation.
There is a difference between ‘I do not believe in god’ and ‘I believe god does not exist’. Of course, sometimes we say these things interchangeably because we’re only human and the long form of the statement is, frankly, the kind of tiny difference that only means anything to philosophers.
If I say ‘god does not exist’ it is, for me, shorthand for:
“I do not believe a god exists, I see no evidence for one and so, while one MAY exist I am forced by the burden of proof, my own scepticism and better explanations for god claims (science and naturalism) to hold the negative position. I will change my mind if evidence comes along that is sufficiently convincing and overturns everything else I have considered in coming to this point.”
Which I’m sure we’ll all agree, is a bit too much of a mouthful for day to day conversation and better summed up as ‘God does not exist’ or ‘I do not believe god exists’.
This burden of proof is the same principle we use in Western courts where we hold the position that someone is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. We suspend judgement, but assume the negative, as the only safe, rational and logical position unless someone’s guilt (or in this case god’s existence) can be proven beyond any and all reasonable doubt.
Another example of this suspended judgement would be the claim that a human being can fly, unaided. In case you are wrong it does not make sense to proceed as though the claim is absolutely true. We would suspend judgement and not throw ourselves from the top of multi-storey car parks flapping our arms until we were sure. Even then it would make sense to try taking off from the ground, just in case.
Agnosticism and atheism are not incompatible. As I briefly covered above, the ‘weak’ atheist position can also be called the agnostic atheist position, and is the most common one.
- Gnosticism/agnosticism is a claim of knowledge (gnosis).
- Theism/atheism is a claim of belief (with or without belief in god).
Thus an agnostic atheist is one who does not claim to know, but does not believe that there is a god.
“When someone says “I am an atheist” that atheist is claiming that (1) GE is objectively not true (god does not exist), (2) the atheist believes GE is not true, and (3) the atheist is in a satisfactory relationship with the truth value of GE to claim 1 and 2. (All of this is also true for the theist and their claims for the truth of GE.) Atheism is a term that encompasses these three claims that are necessary equivalents to the statement, “I am an atheist.” Atheism is the belief that GE is false, meaning the belief in Not-GE, which means atheism is a truth claim for the proposition Not-GE.” -ToAtheists
Again, a restatement of the base misunderstanding and, alas, repeated assertion does not make something true. When an atheist says ‘I am an atheist’ they are only saying that they do not believe in god. Nothing more. They are not saying they absolutely and definitely know that no god exists just that they do not believe in one. This is the only ‘truth claim’ in the statement, the only assertion, that we do not believe.
Some religious apologists will try to argue that ‘deep down you really do’, which gets tiresome and honestly I’m not sure if there is a way to absolutely prove that we do not believe any more than its possible to absolutely prove that someone does believe. I’m fairly certain fMRI scans could produce some evidence of different brain structures and responses that would support it, but honestly I don’t know.
“One objection some atheists make to this is to say that the Atheist makes no claim but simply does not believe the claim GE. That this objection is absurd is easily seen when we ask if one can disbelieve claim GE while holding that GE is still true. This would, of course, be nonsense. If someone where to say “I do not believe it is raining but it is raining” we immediately see the contradiction.” – ToAtheists
To restate the example in the form of the actual atheist position: “I do not know if it is raining, but I do not believe that it is.”
And whether a-precipitationism or atheism the reasons for holding that position may be varied, from a simple absence of evidence for rain to having read the weather forecast that morning or having looked out of the window and seen no sign of rain.
Of course ‘it is raining’ is a rather mundane, ordinary and normal claim compared to the one ‘god exists’ which is an extraordinary claim, requiring extraordinary evidence.
“It cannot be the case that atheists do not have a belief. It is not the case that they are simply entertaining a certain state of affairs, for example, imagining there is no god. (Though some philosophers contend, with some neuroscience findings backing them up, that imagining a proposition equates to a belief.)” – ToAtheists
Atheists may have many beliefs, atheism – however – describes the absence of one, particular belief.
I can imagine the existence of a unicorn, dragon or a trio of saucy maids of easy virtue laying in my bed. This does not mean I believe any of them to be true. I may not be a philosopher but as a writer and a game designer I am intimately familiar with the imaginary and the capacity of human beings to suspend disbelief while still not considering the things they imagine to be real, true or actual. This is the essence of play, escapism and many forms of recreation. From this perspective, god belief is a failure to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Why this is considered a problem for D&D or Grand Theft Auto but not for Christianity or Islam I do not know.
““I have made the judgment that there is no god.” (Not-GE) So anyone who calls him or herself an “atheist” is either committing to a belief or being dishonest in their self portrayal. For the atheist to claim that atheism is not a belief is intellectual dishonesty.” – ToAtheists
To return to the jury analogy, a jury returns a ‘not guilty’ verdict if they are unconvinced of the guilt of the person on trial. In some jurisdictions it is also possible to render a ‘not proven’ verdict and this is probably a much better analogy for the broadest conception of the atheist position.
“That atheists believe that Not-GE is true is obvious in and beyond their embrace of the term atheism. The term is used by atheists to differentiate themselves from believers, a differentiation only desired if they reject what the believers believe; rejection equates to saying the believers in GE are wrong which is the assertion that the negation of the belief in GE (i.e. – Not-GE) is true. The derisive assertions of Atheists that religious believers believe in “fairy tales” and are “irrational” are assertions that religious belief is wrong. No sane person asserts that a belief is wrong without believing the opposite is correct, so to criticize GE prima facie is to assert Not-GE.” – ToAtheists
More problems here. Whether holding a position is rational or not depends on the evidence for it, NOT whether it is true or not. It is also possible to hold correct beliefs for the wrong reasons. Science in particular is very good at rooting this out and revising when there are issues. It was believed, for example, that bad smells caused disease for a very long time. To an extent this was true in that a bad smell (excrement, rotting meat) was often indicative of the presence of germs and toxins and so avoiding them made sense and would contribute to greater health. It’s the germs though, not the smell (or demons).
Atheism is just a statement of personal lack of belief in a deity. Atheists may or may not engage in anti-theism or counter-theism arguments but such is beyond the scope of basic atheism, which is our sole concern at this juncture.
Honestly, the rest of this article, and what I have read of the next two, is just the continued restatement and attempted justification of the same base misunderstanding over and over again. I would be repeating myself so this is as good a cut-off point as any.
Atheism, in the broadest and most inclusive of terms, is the personal statement that one does not believe in god/s. The only truth claim in it is that the speaker lacks belief in this proposition. Not that the proposition does not exist, just that they do not believe it. Once we move beyond that we’re into areas other than and in addition to ‘simple atheism’ and more specific argumentation. Such arguments and discussions are worth having, but they’re more than ‘simple atheism’.