The Dishonesty of Defining Atheism as Lack of Belief in God

This is the script from a recent video of mine with the above title. It should be pretty readable, or you could just watch it.

Today we’re going to revisit the definition of atheism as a lack of belief in God, specifically to look at why it’s so controversial. As you may recall, Antony Flew first proposed changing the definition of atheism to lack of belief, from its traditional definition of “one who denies God,” in his 1976 essay, The Presumption of Atheism. By the way, you can see the traditional definition in the word’s etymology: atheos-ism, atheos meaning without God, and the -ism suffix denoting a belief system. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in changing a definition – all definitions are just an agreement that a given symbol (in this case a word) should be used to point to a particular referent. That is, any word can mean anything we all agree it does. And if a person is willing to define their terms, they can define any word to mean anything they want, so long as they stick to their own definition within the essay or book or whatever where they defined the term. Words cannot be defined correctly or incorrectly. But they can be defined usefully or uselessly. And more to the point here, they can be defined in good faith—cleary, to aid mutual understanding—or in bad faith—cleverly, in order to disguise a rhetorical trick.

And that second one is the why atheism-as-lack-of-belief is so controversial. If atheism merely denoted a psychological state—which might in fact be common between the atheist and a dead rat—no one would much care. Unless, I suppose, one wanted to date the atheist or keep the rat as a pet. But merely lacking a belief isn’t what lack-of-belief atheists actually mean. They only talk about lacking a belief to distract from the positive assertion they’ve learned to say quickly and quietly: that in default of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, one should assume atheism in the old sense. That is, until one has been convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that God exists, one should assume that God does not exist. I’ll discuss how reasonable this is in a minute—spoiler alert: it’s not—but I’d first like to note the subtle move of people who have more or less explicitly adopted a controversial definition of atheism in order to cover for explicitly begging the question. I suspect that this is more accidental than intentional—somewhat evolutionary, where one lack-of-belief atheist did it and it worked and caught on by imitation—but it’s a highly effective rhetorical trick. Put all your effort into defending something not very important and people will ignore your real weakness. By the way, the phrase “beg the question” means that you’re assuming the answer to the question. It comes from the idea of asking that the question be given to you as settled without having to argue for it. But it’s not just assuming your conclusion, it’s asking for other people to assume your conclusion too, hence the “begging”. (“Asking for the initial point” would have been a better, if less colorful, translation of the latin “petitio principii”, itself a translation of the greek “τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς αἰτεῖν”. Pointing out how it’s not valid to do this goes back at least to Aristotle).

So, how reasonable is this assumption? The best argument I’ve ever heard for it is that in ordinary life we always assume things don’t exist until we have evidence for them. This is, properly speaking, something only idiots do. For example: oh look, here’s a hole in the ground. I’m going to assume it’s empty. It might be empty, of course, but in ordinary life only candidates for the Darwin Awards assume that. And in fact, taken to its logical conclusion, this default assumption would destroy all exploration. The only possible reason to try to find something is because you think it might be there. If you should act like planets in other solar systems don’t exist unless someone has already given you evidence for them, you wouldn’t point telescopes at them to see if they’re there. That’s not acting like they don’t exist; that’s acting like maybe they exist. In fact, scientific discovery is entirely predicated on the idea that you shouldn’t discount things until you’ve ruled them out. It’s also the entire reason you should control your experiments. You can’t just assume that other variables besides the one you’re studying had no effect on the outcome of your experiment unless somebody proves it to you, you’re supposed to assume that other variables do affect the outcome until you’ve proven that they don’t. This principle is literally backwards from good science.

Now, examples drawn from science will probably be lost on lack-of-belief atheists, who are in general impressively ignorant of how science actually works. But many of them probably own clothes. To buy clothes, one must first find clothes which fit. Until one gets to the clothing store, one doesn’t have evidence that they have clothes there, or that if they have clothes, that the clothes they have will fit. Properly speaking, one doesn’t even have evidence that the clothes that they sell there will have holes so the relevant parts of your body can stick out, like neck holes or leg holes. For all you know, they might lack holes of any kind, being just spheres of cloth. Do any of these atheists assume that the clothes at the clothing store lack holes? Because if they did, they’d stay home, since there’s no point in going to a store with clothes that can’t be worn.

Now, if one is trying to be clever, one could posit an atheist who goes to the store out of sheer boredom to see whether they have clothes or hippogriffs or whether the law of gravity even applies inside of the store. But they don’t, and we all know that they don’t. They reason from things that they know to infer other knowledge, then ignore their stupid principle and go buy clothes.

Now, if you were to point this out to a lack-of-belief atheist, their response would be some form of Special Pleading. Special Pleading is just the technical name for asking for different evidentiary standards for two things which aren’t different. You should have different evidentiary standards for the existence of a swan and for a law of mathematics, because those are two very different things. Sense experience is good evidence for a swan, but isn’t evidence at all for a law of mathematics, which must hold in all possible worlds. Special pleading is where you say that sense experience suffices for white swans but not for black swans. Or that one witness is enough to testify to the existence of a white swan, but three witnesses are required for a black swan. That’s the sort of thing special pleading is.

And this is what you will find immediately with lack-of-belief atheists. Their terminology varies, of course, but they will claim that God is in a special category which requires the default assumption of non-existence, unlike most of life. In my experience they won’t give any reason for why God is in this special category, presumably because there is none. But I think I know why they do it.

The special category of things they believe God is in is, roughly, the category of controversial ideas. Lack-of-belief atheists—all the ones I’ve met, at least—are remarkably unable to consider ideas they don’t believe. This is a mark, I think, of limited intellect, and people of limited intellect are remarkably screwed over by the modern world. Unable to evaluate the mess of competing ideas that our modern pluralistic environment presents to everyone, they could get by, by relying on a mentor: someone older and wiser who can tell them the correct answer until through experience they’ve learned how to navigate the world themselves. And please note that I don’t mean this in any way disparagingly. To be of limited intellect is like being short or weak or (like me) unable to tolerate capsaicin in food. It’s a limitation, but we’re all finite beings defined, to some degree, by our limits. God loves us all, and everyone’s limits are an opportunity for others to give to them. The strong can carry things for the weak, the tall can fetch things off of high shelves for the short, and people who can stand capsaicin can test the food and tell me if it’s safe. Limits are simply a part of the interdependence of creation. But the modern world with its mandatory state education and the commonality of working outside the home mean that children growing up have few—and commonly no—opportunities for mentors. Their teacher changes every year and their parents are tired from work when they are around. What are they to do when confronted with controversial ideas they’re unequipped to decide for themselves?

I strongly suspect that lack-of-belief atheism is one result. I’m not sure yet what other manifestations this situation has—given the incredible similarities between lack-of-belief atheism and Christian fundamentalism I strongly suspect that Christian fundamentalism is another result of this, but I haven’t looked into it yet.
This also suggests that the problem is not merely intellectual. That is, lack-of-belief atheists are probably not merely the victims of a bad idea. Having been deprived of the sort of stable role-models they should have had growing up, and not being able to find substitutes in great literature or make their way on their own through inspiration and native ability, they probably have also grown with what we might by analogy call a deformity in the organ of trust. They don’t know who to trust, or how to properly trust. Some will imprint on the wrong sort of thing—I think that this is what produces science-worshippers who know very little about science—but some of them simply become very mistrustful of everyone and everything.

Now, I don’t mean this as the only explanation of atheism, of course. For example, there are those who have so imprinted on the pleasure from a disordered activity that they can only see it as the one truly good thing in their life and so its incompatibility with God leads them to conclude God must not exist. There are the atheists Saint Thomas identified in the Summa Theologiae: those who disbelieve because of suffering and those who disbelieve because they think God is superfluous. But all these, I think, tend not to be lack-of-belief atheists and I’m only here talking about lack-of-belief atheists.

So finally the question becomes, what to do about lack-of-belief atheists? That is, how do we help them? I think that arguing with them is unlikely to bear much fruit, since most of what they say isn’t what they mean, and what they do mean is largely unanswerable. “I don’t know who to trust,” or, “I won’t trust anyone or anything,” can only be answered by a very long time of being trustworthy, probably for multiple decades. What I suspect is likely to be a catastrophic failure is any attempt to be “welcoming” or accommodating or inclusive. What lack-of-belief atheists are looking for—and possibly think they found already in the wrong place—is someone trustworthy who knows what they’re talking about. A person who is accommodating or inclusive is someone who thinks that group bonds matter more than what they claim is true, which means they don’t really believe it. The problem with “welcoming” is the scare quotes. There’s nothing wrong with being genuinely welcoming, since anyone genuinely welcoming is quite ready to let someone leave if he doesn’t want to stay. When you add the scare quotes you’re talking about people who are faking an emotional bond which doesn’t exist yet in order to try to manipulate someone into staying. Lack-of-belief atheists don’t need emotional manipulation, because no one needs emotional manipulation. What they need are people who are uncompromisingly honest and independent. The lack-of-belief atheist is looking for someone to depend on, not someone who will depend on them.

The good news is the same as the bad news: the best way to do this is to be a saint.

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