Thursday, October 03, 2013

Richard Dawkins and the ‘Absence of Belief’

Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists have popularized the idea that atheism, contrary to other positions, is not a belief; it is simply ‘the absence of belief’ in God or a supreme being.  It almost sounds esoteric. Theists believe that God exists and atheists merely lack that belief. Well, on that view, my Chevy is just as much of an atheist as Richard Dawkins, for it, too, lacks the belief that God exists. And I don’t say that lightly; I love my Chevy.

Now, there is some truth to the idea that atheists ‘lack belief.’ They do. But that’s not enough. Like I said, what is it that separates an atheist from my Chevy? My Chevy lacks belief in God. Animals lack belief in God. Newborn babies lack belief in God. There are lots of things that lack belief in God and yet aren’t atheists. It takes more than ‘lack of belief’ to define an atheist.

Furthermore, Atheism isn’t the only worldview that lacks belief in God. All non-theists lack belief. The lack of belief is an umbrella definition that groups together three different types of non-theism: atheism, agnosticism, and apatheism. Atheists, agnostics, and apatheists all lack belief in God, but for different reasons.  Some atheists take offense at being called agnostics, and rightly so, for their position is more defined. But if atheism is simply the absence of belief, then what is the difference between an atheist and an agnostic? Both atheists and agnostics lack belief in God, but we need to clarify the distinction.


All atheists lack belief in God, but not all who lack belief in God are atheists. This means that it isn’t enough for an atheist to only say that she lacks belief in God–there needs to be more. If an atheist says that she lacks belief in God, while that’s all well and true, she must further define her position: Why does she not believe in God? If it’s because she doesn’t know if God exists, then she is an agnostic. If it’s because she doesn’t care, then she’s an apatheist. If it’s because she maintains that there is no God in which to believe in, then she is an atheist. But notice that last one: the atheist maintains that there is no God, i.e. she holds the belief that the proposition, ‘There is no God’ is true about the world.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Atheism as: “the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. (1)” There is a subtle, but important difference between not believing in something and believing that something is not (does not exist). Atheism adopts the latter position in holding that God does not exist. Atheism is more than mere lack of belief, it is the denial of the existence of God. Mere lack of belief makes the atheist no different from a newborn baby or my Chevy.

(1). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/


About Paul Rezkalla
Paul graduated from NYU with degrees in Religious Studies and History. He is now studying for an MA in Philosophy of Religion & Ethics at the University of Birmingham in England. He enjoys history, philosophy, and theology.

This is a guest post from the Christian Apologetics Allianceanswering seekers, equipping Christians & demonstrating the truth of the Christian worldview.

17 comments :

John Moore said...

Oh, you're just playing word games. What's your real point?

Eric said...

Here's Colin Mcginn on atheism:

"An atheist is often defined as someone who does not believe in God. It is quite true that an atheist does not believe in God, but that is insufficient to define the state of belief of an atheist. A tree or a rock or a lizard does not believe in God either--but it would be bizarre to describe such beings as atheists. This is because they are not believers at all, in anything. And even a dog or a chimpanzee, which plausibly do have beliefs, are hardly to be characterized as atheists. Furthermore, an agnostic does not believe in God either, since he suspends belief on the question. What is missing, obviously, is the fact that an atheist disbelieves in the existence of God—he believes that there is no God. He doesn’t merely lack belief in a divinity; he positively believes in the absence of a divinity. Moreover, he takes his negative belief to be rational, to be backed by reasons. He doesn’t just find himself with a belief that there is no God; he comes to that belief by what he takes to be rational means—that is, he takes his belief to be justified. He may not regard his atheistic belief as certain, but he certainly takes it to be reasonable—as reasonable as any belief he holds. Just by holding the belief he regards himself as rationally entitled to it (or else he wouldn’t, as a responsible believer, believe it—that being the nature of belief). Also, given the nature of belief, he takes himself to know that there is no God: for to believe that p is to take oneself to know that p. The atheist, like any believer in a proposition, regards his belief as an instance of knowledge (of course, it may not be, but he necessarily takes is to be so). So an atheist is someone who thinks he knows there is no God. Thus he is prepared responsibly to assert that there is no God. The atheist regards himself as knowing there is no God in just the sense that he regards himself as knowing, say, that the earth is round. He claims to know the objective truth about the universe in respect of a divinity—that the universe contains no such entity. Of course, this entails that he claims to know that other people’s beliefs on this question are false, i.e. the theists who believe that there is a God. He also claims to know that the agnostics are mistaken too: they suspend belief when it is rational to commit oneself on the question. If an agnostic asserts that only a state of non-belief about the existence of God is rational, the atheist takes the view that this is false: it is rational to hold positively that there is no God, not merely to be neutral on the question. The atheist thus claims to know that theists and agnostics are epistemically defective—that they have false and unwarranted beliefs about the question of God’s existence. He then has reason to wish to alter their beliefs so as to bring them into line with the truth. True beliefs are better than false ones, and he has the true beliefs while theirs are false.

"It would be quite wrong, then, to describe an atheist as a “non-believer”. He does not merely lack beliefs; he has many beliefs, among them that there is no God."

Eric said...

"Oh, you're just playing word games. What's your real point?"

John, there's a big difference between dealing with words and dealing with concepts, and the post clearly deals with the latter, not the former.

janitorialmusings said...

>>Oh, you're just playing word games. What's your real point?

The atheist is playing word games. The apologist is exposing it.

Chad said...

"The atheist is playing word games. The apologist is exposing it."

Well said

Rebel1 said...

Ridiculous. The vast majority of atheists are agnostics, including Dawkins. Dawkins himself stated that he does not claim to be certain that there is no god, only that there is no evidence that there is, and that in the absence of such evidence, the correct position is to assume there isn't. I assume there is no such thing as a fairy, or a celestial teapot. I believe that is a perfectly reasonable position to hold. I do the same for any god, because there is as much valid evidence of the existence of a god as there are for fairies or celestial teapots.

But that does not mean I hold any certainty in that matter, or any other at all. I hold a position with a certain degree of confidence, based on the amount and quality of the evidence supporting that position. It's that simple, and it's you who are playing word games, my friend.

As for the difference between a rock and myself? I have a brain, the rock doesn't. End of story, no need for wordplay or souls.

janitorialmusings said...

Rebel1

You seem to be saying an agnostic is someone who isn't certain about his position. But that's not what agnosticism typically means and, if it did, then you would have to say some Christians, even some Christian apologists, are agnostic. After all, Dawkins says that God almost certainly does not exist, but many Christians only claim that he almost certainly does. And of course the motive behind the atheist trying to make such a move is simply to shrugg the burden of proof. So if atheists like Dawkins think such qualifications relieve them of the burden of proof then so too with these Christians.

>>Dawkins himself stated... only that there is no evidence that there is...

Actually Dawkins doesn't think there is only a lack of evidence for God belief. He thinks there is evidence God does not exist and he tries to present such evidence in his book The God Delusion.

>>I assume there is no such thing as a fairy, or a celestial teapot.

Trying to equate god-belief to belief in fairy's or Russell's teapot means you either don't understand the issues involved in philosophy of religion and the arguments for God or else you're simply disingenuous.

There is no conceivable set of arguments one can produce for a tea-cup floating around space in the same way one can produce a set of arguments for God. I know new atheists would like to *pretend* that the set of theistic arguments are so laughably bad that god-belief is in the same epistemic position as Russell's teapot, but there's a reason why new atheism, including new atheists like Dawkins, aren't taken very seriously by most people, including many secularists... In trying to wage its own culture war against religion it has painted itself into a ridiculous and extremist corner that even other atheists can see through.

>>I believe that is a perfectly reasonable position to hold. I do the same for any god, because there is as much valid evidence of the existence of a god as there are for fairies or celestial teapots.

In fact it's completely irrational, because it's irrational to claim that god-belief is on the same epistemic footing as fairy belief. It's not reason that drives you to such a position, it's dogmatism.

>>But that does not mean I hold any certainty in that matter, or any other at all.

So what? I don't hold epistemic certainty about virtually anything. But I still believe God almost certainly exists.

>>It's that simple, and it's you who are playing word games, my friend.

Sorry, but it's still the atheist playing word games. For the atheist still does not merely have a lack of God belief, but believes God does not exist. Whether he holds to that belief with epistemic certainty or psychological certainty or with almost certainty or any other degree of certainty, the belief is that God does not exist.

Neal Korfhage said...

Thanks janitorial musings and Eric for your insightful comments. I had been thinking how I would respond to an atheist who relies heavily on this rather strange definition of atheism. You both helped me very much.

Phil Ensor said...

To draw the line between atheism and theism, and to remove the idea that we are dealing with a 50-50 argument, please remember that the theist is the one making an incredible supposition, whilst the atheist is refuting the certainty that a theist operates under. There really is, genuinely, no proof in ANY format, that a deity of any sort exists. Therefore the issue is not 50-50, and the burden of proof cannot be shifted back to the atheist as if it is.

However, another thing that needs to be taken into account is that a lot atheists define their position specifically against the Hebrew god. but let me say this: my atheism, though held firmly, is not held 100%. I simply can't be that certain, because I know that I don't know everything. However, I would be 100% atheistic in relation to the figure of the Hebrew god. I can say with complete certainty that the character portrayed in the bible is an horrendously contradictory fabrication, a reflection of human caprice.

The Janitor said...

Phil,

>>please remember that the theist is the one making an incredible supposition

On the contrary, it's the atheist who is making the incredible supposition... Life comes from non-life, rationality from the non-rational, morality from the amoral, everything from nothing. And the majority of people throughout history have recognized some form of deity. So from a purely psychological standpoint the atheist is making the more extraordinary claim.

>>whilst the atheist is refuting the certainty that a theist operates under.

Most new atheists and internet atheists are every bit as certain and dogmatic as any theists. And not all theists are operating under certainty, particularly in regards to the arguments. (Nevermind that you haven't identified what sort of certainty you're talking about.)

>>There really is, genuinely, no proof in ANY format, that a deity of any sort exists.

That's just a blank assertion. Why waste your time making such blank assertions in a forum where you know the majority of your audience won't accept it? It's like if I wondered onto an atheist website (e.g., The Friendly Atheist) and flatly asserted "There isn't a single objection to any theistic argument."

>>Therefore the issue is not 50-50, and the burden of proof cannot be shifted back to the atheist as if it is.

This whole "burden of proof" thing really is just a charade atheist play to try insulate their beliefs. It's not a principle of logic, though many seem to think so. It's simply a pragmatic tool in formal debates and in court cases. But the situation outside of those scenarios is really quite simple: if you believe God does not exist you must have some reason for thinking so. If you believe God does exist you must have some reason for thinking so. In a rational dialogue both parties will present reasons for their position. It's as simple as that. If the claim is not that God does not exist but simply that there are no good arguments for God's existence then that's fine too, the persons can just lay out the arguments and debate the issue. If the claim is that one can simply assume God does not exist, without any reason, then presumably the person making this claim has *reasons* for thinking that and should offer them upon request. Otherwise the atheist in this case is clearly not interested in rational dialogue. And if he isn't then that's fine too, but then he shouldn't pretend to be.

>>I can say with complete certainty that the character portrayed in the bible is an horrendously contradictory fabrication, a reflection of human caprice.

Great, and this is where you have a "burden of proof" or, put differently, should offer reasons for thinking so.


Phil Ensor said...

Something came from nothing? Not at all. There was a deity existing outside of all time/space reference that made everything. It's as simple as that. In your view anyway. You have no qualms in asserting the existence of a creator far more complex than the creation, and then fall back on the argument that it always existed. Talk about hypocrisy. We can get into infinite regression if you want....

Regarding my supposition and statement that you addressed at the end of your reply, I don't thimk I particularly need to reference the Hebrew God's homicidal tendencies. Nor do I need point out the multifarious contradictions throughout the bible. Nor slavery, nor cruelty, nor misogyny. Thebgaos in tha book are horrendous, hence the huge number of competing denominations. There is material all over the internet, and the refutations have themselves been roundly refuted.

And again, re burden of proof, whilst you call it a charade (whilst happily batting it back), you need to offer positive proof of something existing if all you do is suppose it exists. The atheist doesn't have to because it is not apparent that a deity exists.

The Janitor said...

>>Something came from nothing? Not at all. There was a deity existing outside of all time/space reference that made everything. It's as simple as that. In your view anyway.

Arguments are offered in favor of it.

>>You have no qualms in asserting the existence of a creator far more complex than the creation

Not sure what you mean by calling God "complex". You'll need to specify what sort of complexity you have in mind and then demonstrate that it is relevant to the discussion. For instance, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Simplicity, in this sense [in science], is often understood ontologically, in terms of how simple a theory represents nature as being—for example, a theory might be said to be simpler than another if it posits the existence of fewer entities, causes, or processes in nature in order to account for the empirical data. However, simplicity can also been understood in terms of various features of how theories go about explaining nature—for example, a theory might be said to be simpler than another if it contains fewer adjustable parameters, if it invokes fewer extraneous assumptions, or if it provides a more unified explanation of the data."

On that account of simplicity, it's not obvious God is a complex explanation since it posits a single entity, provides a more unified explanation of the data, etc.

>>and then fall back on the argument that it always existed.

Again, arguments are presented for this. You've done nothing to address those arguments, apparently your happy to act incredulous and expect us all to fall down at your feet?

>>Talk about hypocrisy.

Not sure what you think is hypocritical.

>>We can get into infinite regression if you want....

Go for it... unless by "get into" it you mean to merely state things in an incredulous manner, in which case it's probably best not to waste time.

>>Regarding my supposition and statement that you addressed at the end of your reply, I don't thimk I particularly need to reference the Hebrew God's homicidal tendencies. Nor do I need point out the multifarious contradictions throughout the bible. Nor slavery, nor cruelty, nor misogyny.

You're right, there was no need for you to reference caricatures.

>>Thebgaos in tha book are horrendous, hence the huge number of competing denominations.

I don't know what that first word is supposed to be, but I'm guessing you meant to mention something like vagueness or ambiguity. First you should demonstrate that the huge number of competing denominations you have in mind are *significantly* different. Second, you should demonstrate the different denominations are due to the book and not to the psychology of the ones reading the book.

>>There is material all over the internet, and the refutations have themselves been roundly refuted.

These sorts of statements get us nowhere. If you don't want to have a conversation, fine. But why waste your time making assertions you know won't be accepted? When that's all you consistently do it comes off as though you just want to thump your chest in trollish manner. Is that it?

>>And again, re burden of proof, whilst you call it a charade (whilst happily batting it back)

When the atheist uses it to try and say he has no burden of proof it's clearly a charade. I never said Christians don't have a burden of proof. Rather, if you read carefully what I said you'll notice: "If you believe God does exist you must have some reason for thinking so. In a rational dialogue both parties will present reasons for their position."

>>you need to offer positive proof of something existing if all you do is suppose it exists.

There's a website called Apologetics315 that often provides easy access to such arguments. Click over to one of the arguments (e.g., try the weekly bonus links) and have yourself a go.

The Janitor said...

Part 2 -

>>The atheist doesn't have to because it is not apparent that a deity exists.

And so it's back to the charade, without any attempt to justify it. It looks like you aren't a serious dialogue partner, in which case it's probably not a wise use of my time here. But if you won't listen to Christians, perhaps you can take some pointers from a fellow atheist:

"... positive atheism in the narrow sense being the disbelief in a theistic God. For positive atheism in the narrow sense to be successfully defended, two tasks must be accomplished. First, the reasons for believing in a theistic God must be refuted; in other words, negative atheism in the narrow sense must be established. Second, reasons for disbelieving in the theistic God must be given."

- Michael Martin, "Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism" in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism.

Given what you said in your second paragraph in your first reply here, Martin would clearly classify you as a positive atheist in the narrow sense. If you have a substantive response that engages in providing reasons or interacts with readily accessible material I'd be glad to interact further, but if it's more of the same then I'll have to leave it at that.

Phil Ensor said...

Complexity. In the sense that the creator has to be more complex than that which was created. Like the old 'finding a watch' argument. The observer surmises the watch was created by something. And in itself, the assumption is that something greater created that watch, something greater than the watch. I'm extrapolating that example to show how silly it is to criticise an atheist for believing in 'something from nothing' when believing goddidit, which just further begs the question. It's completely circular.

Caricatures? In what sense? Are you suggesting a more holistic approach to Yahweh's behaviour in the bible? Does that make the unsavoury elements acceptable?

Regarding arguments re ever-existing deities, can't they also apply to a complex universe? If not, why not?

On the subject of quoting atheist material (even the devil can quote scripture after all), the particular reasoning I would offer is the complete lack of proof. Testable proof. There's my answer. So, in the spirit of carrying on the old charade, back to you.



The Janitor said...

Phil,

Thanks for engaging some of the points (though you slip back into mere assertion at the end).

>>In the sense that the creator has to be more complex than that which was created. ... the assumption is that something greater created that watch, something greater than the watch.

You seem to be suggesting that we just assume the creator is more complex and you equate "greater than" with "more complex than." I don't make that assumption. And a greater entity, such as God, is not necessarily a more complex explanation in the scietific sense (where compexity can refer to the number of entities and not necessarily to the qualities or capacities of the entities). The focus on complexity is itself not very fruitful. It's another pragmatic tool and one that, in practice, is often difficult to hash out.

>>I'm extrapolating that example to show how silly it is to criticise an atheist for believing in 'something from nothing' when believing goddidit, which just further begs the question. It's completely circular.

How does saying God created the universe beg the question?

>>Caricatures? In what sense? Are you suggesting a more holistic approach to Yahweh's behaviour in the bible? Does that make the unsavoury elements acceptable?

I was engaging the point at your level. You seem very uninterested in actually setting forth reasons for your claims here. You're operating at the level of conclusion. So what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If your conclusion is "God is homicidal" then my conclusion is "That's a caricature".

Now if you want to set forth an argument demonstrating that God is homicidal (e.g., by showing that God takes some life, by showing that God doesn't have the right to take said life, etc.) then you can do that and I'll respond. Until then, you haven't shown you're willing to give reason and so why should I spend my time postulating your own arguments for you and then responding to hypotheticl arguments you haven't given?

>>Regarding arguments re ever-existing deities, can't they also apply to a complex universe? If not, why not?

Supposing that the universe could be eternal, the scientific consensus seems to currently be that the universe is not eternal. So even if it were possible the weight of evidence is against it. (I'll avoid the contingency argument for time.)

>>On the subject of quoting atheist material (even the devil can quote scripture after all),

Would that be you citing Scripture as evidence of God as homicidal? :)

>>the particular reasoning I would offer is the complete lack of proof

At best that gets you negative atheism. But you laid out your position, which is clearly positive atheism in a narrow sense. Now since Christians offer evidence for God then you can't just fold your arms and go "Nuh uh!" At that point, you need to show how the evidence is lacking or is not evidence at all. And if you want to claim God, as defined in classical theism, does not exist (as you claimed) then you need to also offer reason for thinking such a being does not exist (negative atheism won't get you that).

The Janitor said...

>>Testable proof.

Not sure what you mean by "testable" proof. Hopefully you don't mean scientifically. Testable by rational faculties and logic? Sure.

>>There's my answer. So, in the spirit of carrying on the old charade, back to you.

You ignore the fact that I clearly stated that theists should give reasons for their beliefs. You act as though if you keep asserting "What you say about me bounces back and sticks to you" it will magically become true (maybe you expect godtodoit?).

If I were engaging in the charade I would say something like this:

I don't have to prove *anything* because I happen to lack the belief that God does not exist!!

Then you could rightly say I was engaging in the atheist's charade. But I haven't done that. I simply said that in a rational dialogue (all things being equal) all the parties involved shoulder a burden of proof for what they are claiming.

The all things being equal should account for the person who says "I don't know" or something along those lines.

Moyo. O said...

I didn't know atheist would be interested in blogs like this. Could it be that they r opening themselves up to be convinced, just in case. Like my pastor said once "if there is no God, who was it that has been speaking to me" I ask this same question. So I talk to myself when I desist from a bad habit I am trying to conquer (which wouldn't be. Called a habit if I wasn't so addicted to it) What is the purpose of life? Why is it so beautiful. Why do animals act about the same and humans t so distinct in personality. To what end; for what purpose. Why do we eventually die when up until that moment the body keeps producing cells-the smallest unit of life. That's my own submission. I don't believe in arguing with intellectual conquest in mind. Belief in God has no empirical proof duh so where should I start. How many litmus blues for the almighty? On a lighter note if there is no God, atheists won't get a chance to rub it in or laugh in our face when we die because there is would be no soul. We will all just be dead. We can't even lament for the remaining foolish theists or send a warning to stop wasting their time-no souls- lol! Peace guys and remember to enjoy God and don't be in haste to "convert". He is after all all we really have after defeat in argument and our own personal doubts have
come and gone.

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