The Problem With Know-Nothing Atheism

A little while ago I wrote a post about The Problem With Agnostic Atheism. That was a more philosophical approach to the subject. This post is going to be basically the same thing, but from a rhetorical, rather than philosophical, perspective. Agnostic atheism is not really a philosophical position; one meets it almost exclusively as rhetoric. The purpose of this post, then, is to provide some rhetorical tools for meeting it. Accordingly, I’m going to refer to it, in this essay, as know-nothing atheism.

To save you the trouble of following the link above just to get a definition, here’s the position I mean by know-nothing atheism, in the sort of reasonable-sounding language used to pretty it up:

There is insufficient evidence to prove the existence of God, and the default in the absence of evidence that a thing exists is to assume it does not, so until such evidence exists I’m going to go with the default position that God does not exist.

This is a reasonably adequate translation of its use in practice:

I don’t care about whether there’s a God, so I’m not going to consider the question unless you can make me.

Just a word of warning, know-nothing atheists generally combine a great deal of arrogant confidence with incredibly thin skin. Because their position is one of refusing to think, they will never see any parallels between what you’re saying and what they said; they will call you arrogant the moment you counter their confidence with your own confidence, and they will call you mean if you counter their claims that you are mentally defective with claims that they are the one who is mentally defective. It’s like arguing with a ten year old because in many ways it is; this is a position held by people who have refused to grow up, so they behave like they have refused to grow up. Complete with the certainty that not only do they know everything and those who disagree with them are idiots, but that they’re unappreciated geniuses suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. (Individuals will vary, of course.)

If you want to see this in action, to verify it for themselves, just test them out. Here is a hypothetical exchange:

Atheist: The burden of proof is on the person making a positive claim.

Theist: Does France exist?

Atheist: Of course.

Theist: What evidence do you have that France exists?

Atheist: You can go there and see for yourself.

Theist: That isn’t evidence, that is a suggestion for how to get evidence—supposing France actually exists, as you claim—at great effort and expense on my part. [At this point the theist could say, “If that counts, then just commit suicide and you’ll go to hell and that will prove I’m right.” but I recommend against it, as it will just confuse the poor atheist.] Just as I thought, you don’t have any evidence.

Atheist: I don’t have the time for nonsense. I don’t need to show you the evidence that France exists, go do look it up for yourself. We’re talking about whether God exists.

If you’re doing this on Twitter, you’ll probably get a number of epithets insulting your intelligence and honesty added in. But the key thing is that they clearly don’t believe in the standard, think anything they don’t understand—no matter how clear—is nonsense, and get upset with you if you try to actually explain what you mean rather than just bowing down to their superior intellects.

The whole goal of the know-nothing atheist is to try to get you to fight on his terms. In particular, he wants to make himself the jury for the argument. This may be tempting to give into, since a person sincerely inquiring into the truth must receive it according to their present understanding. However, the know-nothing atheist is not pursuing truth. He’s only after a rhetorical victory. (This can be an unpleasant conclusion to come to, because we would like to believe that everyone is acting in good faith, and moreover it is bad manners to accuse someone of acting in bad faith, but in real life people do act in bad faith, and pretending otherwise helps no one. I do recommend always coming to this conclusion reluctantly, because there is always the danger of dismissing someone honestly seeking the truth, which can do great harm.)

Because the know-nothing atheist is only after rhetorical victory, it is a complete mistake to allow him to set himself up as the jury who must be convinced. When he tries to do this, a strong counter is to shift the argument to whether he’s arguing in good faith. Since he’s not, this is a weak position for him. To give an example:

Atheist: what is your evidence that God exists?

Theist: To know what book to recommend you, I’ll need to know whether you want a philosophical approach or more of a practical, common-sense approach.

Atheist: I’m not going to read a book. I want to know what *your* evidence is.

Theist: What sort of evidence would you accept as proof for God, if I could produce it for you?

Atheist: Stop evading. The truth is you don’t have any evidence and you know it.

Theist: I have plenty of evidence. What evidence do you have that you’re capable of understanding it?

Now, at this point, the atheist is very likely to go one of several routes:

  • They will take this as a personal insult and claim it’s evidence you have nothing.
  • They will claim that you’re evading.
  • They will just repeat their demand for evidence like they’re a broken record.
  • They will make some weird epistemological claim like evidence doesn’t need to be understood, because evidence directly points to the thing it’s evidence for.

Any of these responses are not too far from the end of the argument, because the atheist is being brought onto uncomfortable ground. They will try various rhetorical tricks, mostly accusations of ad-hominem fallacies and claims of having been insulted. You can explain that an ad-hominem fallacy is arguing that an argument is false because of some bad quality in the person putting forward the argument, it is not asking for evidence that the other person does not have a fault which renders them incapable of understanding argument. Mostly, though, I think that the best line is to just stick to the strong position, which amounts to asking, “What evidence do you have that you’re capable of understanding a reasonable argument?” If they can’t actually demonstrate this—and many people can’t; I’ve run into people who don’t know the difference between an assertion, an analogy, and an argument—then why you should spend time and effort trying to explain something to them is in fact a legitimate question. Most classes in school have prerequisites for a reason.

A slightly less confrontational tack to take—though I think a certain amount of blunt honesty is warranted; know-nothing atheists rarely want anything besides a confrontation and they’re hoping for the advantage of being the only person violating tea-time rules of politeness—is to shift the argument from burden of proof to duty to investigate. Basically this amounts to denying that you have an emotional investment in the other person’s holding any particular position. They want you to feel the need to convince them. Be clear you don’t feel that need. Basically, “I’m happy to help if you want recommendations for where to begin, but it’s your job to investigate the answers to the most important questions in life, not mine to do it for you.” To give an example dialog:

Atheist: Theism is irrational because there is no evidence for the existence of God.

Theist: There is plenty of evidence for the existence of God. You’re just defining evidence in an overly narrow way.

Atheist: if there was evidence, it wouldn’t be possible to deny that God exists.

Theist: anyone can deny anything if they want to. That’s a useless standard of evidence.

Atheist: do you deny science?

Theist: Do you affirm it? Even the parts that are wrong and will be contradicted by future discoveries?

Atheist: No, science is just the best method for finding the truth that we have.

Theist: leaving aside that you could only know that if you already had access to the truth to compare it to science, and further leaving aside the fact that “science” isn’t one thing nor do scientists only operate by one method, what you’ve said is that you don’t actually know anything. So the best we have are our guesses which seem to work?

Atheist: That’s right. Make a hypothesis, test it with evidence. That’s the best we can do.

Theist: But if the evidence confirms the hypothesis, you still don’t know that it’s right. Some evidence might come along later which contradicts it?

Atheist: of course. That’s the beauty of science—it’s self-correcting.

Theist: But if you need to make a decision, you will act as if the hypothesis is true?

Atheist: Yes. What would you do?

Theist: Actually, it would depend on how good the evidence is because evidence is not a binary yes/no thing, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that you will act as if a scientific hypothesis is true when you need to act, but outside of that case, you will hold that you don’t know anything because of course every theory might be contradicted by evidence which comes along later?

Atheist: Yes…

Theist: So you don’t know anything, you just have guesses which you are going to follow because you can’t think of anything better?

Atheist: I wouldn’t put it that way…

Theist: Of course not. That’s why I had to worm it out of you; it doesn’t sound very good without the poetic hand-waving to distract us from what you really mean. So that brings up the question: how are you any better than a horse? Horses have their guesses about the world that they will follow in default of some better guess, and don’t have any propositional knowledge which they affirm to be actually true.

Atheist: Why do you need to feel superior to other animals?

Theist: I don’t need to feel superior. The obvious fact that I am superior to a horse is evidence that your entire approach, which leaves you in the position of being no better than a horse, is wrong.

Atheist: Where is your evidence that you’re better than a horse?

Theist: I don’t argue with horses, which it is your contention to be no better than. Why should I argue with you?

Atheist: I can talk and a horse can’t.

Theist: But you have told me that what you say doesn’t mean anything more than a horse’s whinnies. Unless you’ve got some evidence that you’re more capable of rational understanding than a horse is, I can’t see why I should bother speaking with you any further. There are rational people whose words mean more than a horse’s whinnies with whom I could be speaking instead.

Atheist: !@#$ you.

Theist: I don’t believe in interspecies mating, but thanks for the offer.

Atheist: you’re just saying that because you’ve got nothing and you no it.

Theist: I’m saying that because I lack a minimally rational debating partner, and if I wanted to waste my time further, I could argue with the wall.

I’d just like to re-emphasize that this is a rhetorical approach, to be used in cases where someone is purely engaged in rhetoric, as distinct from honestly trying to find the truth. There is one other problem with a rhetorical approach like this: neutral observers will tend to blame one for using it, rather than for being maximally conciliatory. This is an odd reaction, and somewhat akin to the person who looks for his keys under a lamp-post despite having lost them in the dark because he won’t find them in the dark anyway. People who want peace at any price will often try to appeal to the person on the defensive, who is likely to be more reasonable precisely because they’re not the one initiating a rhetorical argument. I don’t think that there’s anything to be done about this besides when one is in the right being firm that one is. In any event the world seems to be getting less genteel, so I suspect that this will increasingly be less important.

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