The following is an original post from 27 April 2010 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz. It is about what the term Atheism means and the burden of proof.
In the previous post “What does Atheism really mean? Part I” we saw that the traditional understanding of Atheism is the positive claim that God does not exist, and that this requires reasonable argumentation if it’s to be considered rational position to hold. I ended suggesting there was an alternative route to make it seem like the Atheist was being rational all along.
In April 2010, William Lane Craig had this to say about his visit to the University of North Carolina and his debate with Herb Silverman at UNCW, the Faculty Forum on the existence of God.“Around 1,000 people showed up to hear a very rousing debate. As is typical with secular humanist types, Dr. Silverman had very little of substance to say about the arguments for or against God’s existence (indeed, he presented no arguments against God’s existence, taking the lazy man’s route of re-defining atheism to be just the psychological state of being without a belief in God).”
This “lazy-man’s route,” or expansion of the term Atheism to include merely “the psychological state of being without a belief in God,” is not without precedent. The columnist Christopher Hitchens advocated this construal of atheism during his debate with Craig the previous year at Biola University. The late Antony Flew, for many years the world’s leading intellectual Atheist recognised this shift of definition in the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion. “…the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way. Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.”
Rowe goes on to say in his 1998 article: “Another meaning of ‘atheism’ is simply nonbelief in the existence of God, rather than positive belief in the nonexistence of God. These two different meanings are sometimes characterised as positive atheism (belief in the nonexistence of God) and negative atheism (lack of belief in the existence of God). Barring inconsistent beliefs, a positive atheist is also a negative atheist, but a negative atheist need not be a positive atheist.”
It is said that this shift in definition is taken up to avoid the burden of making an argument. That might not be the motivation, but it is clearly the consequence of doing so. No longer does the atheist have to make an argument, because atheism has changed from being a view about something to a state-of-mind. The first must have a truth-value, while the second is absent any proposition about how reality actually is.
This negative definition is absurd. Consider the many things that have no belief in God; babies, dogs and cats, even trees. Should these be considered Atheists too? Something that applies so broadly clearly lacks the kind of significance one desires as an identifier. And do Atheist’s of this stripe really want to equate the extent of their thinking about God as the same as that of a cabbage? Do advocates of the new definition really want the New Atheism to be an anti-intellectual movement?
You can see further how the negative definition is absurd, because one’s psychological state says nothing about God’s actual existence. Theism could still be true, and even the more rational and respectable option regardless of any person’s lack of belief in it. For instance, the fact that I have no opinion regarding women’s softball in Zimbabwe bares no relevance as to whether the softball is played in Zimbabwe. My emotional states have no relevance as to whether salmon is being served at Lone Star Bar & Grill on Tuesdays. Psychological states don’t tell us anything about the way reality is. That job is for propositions with positive truth-values.
But have negative atheists truly escaped the burden of making an argument? I think not for at least two reasons.
Negative Atheists still carry the burden of proof
1. In moments of honesty those who claim to be negative Atheists are actually undercover traditional Atheists.
Ask a negative atheist in an unguarded moment, “Do you believe there is a God?” and the answer you’ll probably get is “No. No way!” They may say “No” in different ways; “God is a Delusion” (Richard Dawkins), and “You won’t find me guilty of wishful thinking” (Christopher Hitchens). Bill Cooke, one time president of the NZ Rationalist and Humanist Association, in print chose to define atheism negatively. In debate he reaffirmed this definition and Craig caught him out by pointing out that a god merely in the imagination and a god not existing is “a difference without a difference.” One atheist commentator was heard to say, “I’m not arguing that God doesn’t exist. I just want you to admit that the essential attributes of your God are incoherent.” This too is a difference without a difference. It is philosophical double-speak. At bottom, these “no-belief regarding God” folks hold to the traditional construal of Atheism, that God does not exist. They either haven’t thought deeply enough about it, or are just not willing to submit to the burden of having to justify their disbelief.
2. They implicitly, even sometimes sometimes explicitly, claim that traditional Atheism is the more probable candidate. Falling prey to a truth-claim is very easy. It’s like launching yourself into thin air; eventually you’ll land on something hard to stand on.
A good example of this is Reginald Finlay, one time host of the Infidel Guy Radio program. He described himself as an Atheist-Agnostic or Agnostic-Atheist. Agnostic because he recognises that he cannot know with certainty that God does not exist, and Atheist because he believes that nevertheless Atheism is the more likely than Theism. He expended an incredible amount of time asserting that it was theist’s job to demonstrate their positive belief, and that he didn’t have to demonstrate his non-belief. Yet he says with regard to Theism, “I really doubt it.” To this we may respond, “What reason is there to think that no god is more reasonable than a god?” You would be right to do so, for his negative atheism had slipped away from being non-belief to certain beliefs about Theism’s credibility.
Other examples include New Atheists, such as Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and the late Hitchens. All railed against the notion of God. Why would they do so if they didn’t have certain beliefs about the justification for theistic belief in general, and God’s existence in particular? If they really had no belief about God, they would say a lot less than they do. Of Dawkins, my professor, misquoting Shakespeare, was once herd to quip, “Methinks he doth protest too much.”
Thus the new brand of Atheist is in the difficult position of once again having to support their beliefs with reasons. When pressed for reasons, like Reginald Finlay above, generally Atheist’s deflect by appealing to the idea we should not believe in things in the absence of evidence. This appeal is called the Presumption of Atheism. It is a poor appeal in various respects.
- Atheism also makes a claim to knowledge, as demonstrated.
- The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. For more on this see my post on “Where did Russel’s teapot go?“
- There is no absence of evidence for God existing. See the arguments for God’s existence, such as the cosmological, design, moral, ontological, and historical arguments from miracles.
- It relies on the notion that all the arguments for Theism are unsuccessful. This lays a heavy burden on the negative Atheist, for the premises of these arguments are highly plausible and they do not appear fallacious. These arguments put the negative Atheist with the Presumption of Atheism on the back-foot and in defensive mode; hardly a fitting position for a “presumption.”
The Atheist might try to appeal to make other appeals, such as to the presence of evil in the world. But once they go there, they’re back to acting like traditional positive atheists and, like their intellectual forebears, stuck with arguments that after years of re-formulation eventually grew tired and were found not to work. For instance, Christopher Hitchens’s only argument (amidst all the rhetoric) is the Problem of Evil, and even he embarrassingly admitted in a panel discussion in Dallas Texas that the presence of evil and suffering in the world could be explained coherently on the Christian worldview.
Atheism is not the default position or a position of intellectual innocence and neutrality. As rational agents we should be able to give account for the justification of our beliefs and the Atheist, however he chooses to define himself, must accept this fact, no less than the Theist.
- William Lane Craig, “Reasonable Faith April Newsletter 2010,” Cited 27 April 2010, Online: www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8081
- William Lane Craig vs. Christopher Hitchens, “Does God Exist?” Cited 10 July 2019, Online: https://youtu.be/P0XRQd9YOUM?t=4760
- Antony Flew, “The Presumption of Atheism,” in Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).
- William Rowe (1998). Atheism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge.
- Bill Cooke, Dictionary Of Atheism, Skepticism, & Humanism (New York: Prometheus, 2005).
- William Lane Craig vs. Bill Cooke, “Is God a Delusion? 5/12” Cited 10 July 2019, Online: https://youtu.be/wSsHxpuxSto?list=PL8822057FF7145959&t=118
-  William Lane Craig, Christopher Hitchens, et al. “Does the god of Christianity exist?” Cited 10 July 2019, Online: https://youtu.be/2j3VU1T8ALU?t=2898