Lack of Belief in Belief-Capable Entities

Recently my friend Eve Keneinan had a Twitter Thread in which she talked about the problems with defining Atheism as “a lack of belief in God”:

There is a problem she doesn’t mention with this definition, which is that there are no useful sentences which you can construct.  In order to have a useful sentence using a word, there has to be something you can predicate of all of the things described by the word. And (ignoring the problem of rocks and krill being caught up in the lack-of-belief definition), there is nothing you can predicate of people who believe God doesn’t exist, people who aren’t sure he exists, babies, the mentally retarded, and people who’ve never heard of the concept. They’re not all tall or short, stupid or intelligent, fat or thin, nor anything else. You can say that they exist, but that’s about it. This disqualifies it as a possible definition by what should be called the “uselessness test”. That said, let’s ignore it for now.

Eve mentioned a possible way of amending this definition to avoid catching up rocks and bricks and such-like as atheists:

However, this amended definition still leaves it a completely useless definition for a different reason than the one above (which still applies). Actually, before I even get to that, there’s a problem which needs addressing: it’s under-specified. Specifically, what sort of beliefs must the atheist be capable of forming?

There are different ways of defining “belief”, but since atheists are pretty much all materialists and thus don’t believe in a soul nor an intellect (in the traditional sense), they have to define “belief” as some sort of behavioral relation to the outside world. As such, it is clear that a rat which nibbles on a block of rat chow “believes” that the rat chow is food. So we still have the problem that under this amended definition, most atheists are bacteria and funguses, followed by higher-order life forms like krill and beetles. OK, so let’s grant the atheist the ability to use a theist’s definition of “belief” such that it’s the sort of thing which only human beings have, despite there being absolutely no way for a materialist to do this at all consistently.

We now get to the problem I mentioned about under-specificity. What sort of beliefs must these beings be capable of forming? To give an overly simplistic example to illustrate the point, it is utterly uninteresting that a man whose ability to form beliefs encompasses nothing more than the belief that cucumbers exist does not believe in God. This generalizes to the real point: if a man is for some reason limited in that he’s not capable of forming a belief in God, it is not an interesting property that he doesn’t believe in God. It is uninteresting for the same reason that we don’t count a man who can’t do even 1 pushup as as physically unfit if the reason he can’t do a pushup is because he has no arms. An armless man who can run a sub-6 minute mile is still quite physically fit. And further, his being fit but unable to do pushups tells us nothing about a couch potato with arms who cannot do pushups because he does nothing all day long. In the same way, if a man has a cognitive defect where he cannot form a belief in God he is unfortunate, but he has nothing whatever in common with someone who can form a belief in God but has formed the belief that God does not exist instead.

But really, either way, this definition cannot be applied to anyone given the limits of human knowledge. We have no way of finding out whether a man is capable of forming a belief in God except that he actually forms it. And even if we retreat from that we have no way of knowing that a man is capable of forming beliefs at all (without being him). We can tell us that he does, but I can easily program a computer to say that it forms beliefs, too. Heck, one could easily write on a rock, “I, this rock, can form beliefs”. If one rejects noetic knowledge as most online atheists do and demand evidence from the one making the claim, it is impossible to know whether anyone is an atheist since we can’t know what’s actually going on inside of his head. And this is different from taking his word about whether or not he in fact believes in God, since that presupposes he’s the sort of being which could have a word to give. The amended definition of “atheism” now requires us to find out whether he’s the sort of thing which can give his word before we know whether the definition applies to him.

Of course atheists tend to take the practical solution of demanding that theists merely assume the theistic worldview at all necessary places in order to make sense of what the atheist is saying, but to then reject it wherever it is not necessary for the atheist’s statements to be other than raving gibberish. At some point I think that everyone is tempted to say of online atheism what King Arthur said of Camelot, “No, on second thought, let’s not go there. It is a silly place.”

The Irrationality of Lack of Belief Atheism

I’ve written about lack of belief atheism before, and no doubt will again. (Enough that I can’t pick out a particular post to link to.) To give a one-sentence history: it was a failed attempt to get out of having to argue for atheism by then-atheist Antony Flew in a 1973 essay titled, “The Presumption of Atheism“. It really should be a hint as to what the purpose of this move was when the title is saying that he would really rather win by default than have to support his position.

Stupid as such a request is, laziness is certainly an understandable temptation. What I find curious is the depths to which ordinary atheists who seized on it have sunk. Most, if pushed, will claim that their position is a sub-rational one in which their head is as empty as a rock, and therefore absolutely no rational thoughts can be expected to come from them. Though in a sense as a point in their favor, they turn this tragedy in farce by then saying that it is Christians who are irrational. I’ll give one example. It’s been in my thoughts recently because I’m working on a script for a video about it.

Lack of Belief Atheists (who I will refer to from here on out as LoBsters) love to say that “atheism is just a lack of belief, that’s it, nothing else” but do not consider that the alternatives to God not existing entail more than just the proposition that God exists. For simplicity, I’m going to restrict this to Christianity (it only gets worse for the LoBster when you include other religions). The easiest of which are moral proposition. If Christianity is true, then:

  • Forgiveness is good
  • Mercy is good
  • Love (willing the good of someone for their own sake) is good
  • Knowledge is worthwhile for its own sake
  • The truth is worth dying for
  • Fornication is wrong
  • Adultery is wrong
  • Masturbation is wrong
  • Murder is wrong

The complete list would be much longer, but that’s plenty for now. If someone disagrees with any of these things, they are, by logical necessity, holding Christianity to be false. It’s a simple Modus Ponens.

Modus Ponenes:
P → Q
∴ ~P

Please bear in mind that affirming Q tells you nothing about P. (Trying to draw positive conclusions about P from Q being true is called the fallacy of affirming the consequent.) Modus Ponens in one of the elementary logical syllogisms which everyone who studies formal logic for even a few days learns. So the only way that a LoBster can legitimately claim to lack a belief in whether Christianity is true is by holding that Christianity is entirely correct in all of the morality which it teaches. Well, that’s not quite true. All that they have to hold is that it might be true in all the morality it teaches. But that itself has implications for how one lives, because if an act might be fine and the upside is that it’s fun, or it might be terribly evil, the better bet is to avoid it. So by and large, such a LoBster would have to live almost as if Christianity is true since he holds that it might be.

They don’t do that, of course, but their only way out is to disclaim all rational thought on the subject, and basically on all subjects. (Except Mathematics, of course, but LoBsters seem to have studied almost no math.) It’s really quite sad. Pray for them.


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.

The Odd Rhetoric of Atheist=Lack of Belief

(A word of warning: this is primarily a rhetorical, rather than philosophical, post.) Apparently, in the late 1960s a prominent atheist by the name of Antony Flew redefined atheism from the belief that there is no God to the lack of belief in God. This was in light, I think, of what was becoming the primary atheist argument, largely popularized (if not invented) by Bertrand Russell:

You can’t make me believe in God!

That’s not the standard phrasing, which is usually some variant of this:

I don’t see any evidence for the existence of God.

I’m not sure if Bertrand Russell was simply being dim-witted or if he was a liar—he was at least a serial adulterer so honesty was by no means his strong point—but in any event the problem with the “I’m not convinced” argument is that it’s always open to the rejoinder:

But how on earth does that prove your contention that there is no God?

And indeed it doesn’t. By refusing to rationally engage the subject, the atheist of yesteryear simply took himself out of all discussion. A great many people are fine with this—they’d rather not be in any sort of philosophical discussions at all, really—but it sits very badly with pretentious intellectuals who want to be admired for understanding the universe through gross oversimplification. I mean, for their brilliance. Hence the redefinition of atheism to something which doesn’t need defense because it’s not a proposition about the world. Now it’s the default position which doesn’t need to be defended! Hurrah! Even better, now all children start off as atheists, so it’s not weird, it’s normal! Could it get any better!?

Well yes, it could, in the sense of actually better, since aside from the few minor points mentioned above, this puts the atheist in a terrible (rhetorical) position. Just for starters, it is not usually a compliment to someone’s understanding to call it childish. Proudly proclaiming that one knows no more about the world than a babe in its mother’s arms is… a dubious compliment to give oneself.

Then if you really think about it—and by “really” I mostly mean, “for more than two thirds of a second”—anything without a mind lacks a belief in God. Trees lack a belief in God, as does algae and literal piles of what the germans call “hund scheisse”. This means that the post-Flew atheist is in the position of proudly proclaiming that he’s no smarter than a gallon of dead krill.

This also puts the atheist in the embarrassing position of the best argument in favor of atheism being a tire-iron to the head.  Cause enough brain damage and you will guarantee that any theist will instantly become an atheist. Which does raise the question, “is atheism actually a form of brain damage?” Lesions to the brain can cause loss of memory or the inability to learn certain things. If atheism can be reliably induced through brain damage, is all atheism just brain damage? I’ll leave that one to the lack-of-belief atheists to figure out. (Or not, since they might be too brain-damaged to do it.)

This also puts the atheist into the very weird position of saying:

Intelligent people might believe in God—even partial idiots might believe in God—but complete idiots are all atheists.

Well, if that’s the company you want to keep… Of course being the sort of atheist whose goal was to cheat so he wouldn’t have to defend his position, the lack-of-belief atheists will immediately claim something to the effect of:

Obviously atheism is a lack of belief in people who are capable of belief.

And will then probably do some metaphorical version of throwing the hund scheisse at you, claiming that you’re as stupid as the stuff he claims to be as stupid as. Pointing out people’s inconsistencies usually makes them angry at you.

Anyway, unless he’s claiming that his lack of belief has some sort of positive aspect, it cannot be distinguished from the lack of belief of a brick. His lack of belief has no properties. The brick’s lack of belief also has no properties. There is, therefore, nothing by which they can be distinguished. On the other hand, if he claims that his lack of belief has a positive aspect, he has thrown away his argument because now that positive aspect is a claim which must be defended.

Of course what’s going on is plain to anyone who isn’t trying to eat his cake and still have it afterwards too. He’s trying to imply that a rational mind—which most atheists being Materialists don’t believe in, but whatever—would have come to belief if there really was a God. This always remains at the level of insinuation, however, because it’s obviously false.

Consider: I lack a belief that the prime minister of France had a pet dog as a child. I’ve got a mind capable of believing that he did. Does my lack of belief in his pet dog mean anything at all with regard to his possible pet dog’s existence? Obviously not. I’ve never so much as looked for any evidence that he had a dog or didn’t. I don’t even know what the prime minister of France’s name is. My ignorance about his childhood pets doesn’t mean anything at all except that it would be a bad idea to ask me for information on the subject.

So it is with lack-of-belief atheists, of course. The main difference between asking them and a dead bucket of krill about God is that only one of the two is likely to answer with verbal hund scheisse. Other than that, well, I’ll leave it to them to make the positive argument that the way that belief in God doesn’t exist in them is somehow different from the way it doesn’t exist in a brick. I mean, other than lack of belief in God possibly indicating brick damage to their brain but not brain damage in the brick.

Update: Fixed a spelling error to Antony Flew’s first name and tightened up the language in the conclusion slightly. Also included the “brick damage in their brain” joke at a reader’s request.

By the way, since this definition of atheism results in all inanimate objects being atheists (so far as we know), it means that more than 99.9999999999% of atheists are incapable of rational thought. So the next time an atheist gives you guff, ask them for evidence that they are capable of rational thought and remind them that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Remember: them being capable of rational thought is a positive claim and the default is to assume that they’re as dumb as a bag of bricks unless they provide you with clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.

And if they’ve really ticked you off, point out that you don’t need to bother listening to evidence presented by something which is incapable of rational thought since being incapable of rational thought there can’t be any evidence which shows that they are capable of it. (Do bear in mind, though, that whatever defect of intellect or character makes this joke about someone appropriate will almost guaranteedly prevent them from getting it. Like Chesterton said about madmen in Orthodoxy, if they could get the joke they would be sane, and it wouldn’t apply to them.)