Posted on Aug 18, 2013 by Tom Gilson
A short while ago on this blog I quoted a few leading atheists who said atheism is (among other things, of course) the belief that there’s no evidence for God.” By way of reminder,
1. Dan Barker defines atheism as “the lack of theism, the lack of belief in god(s). I am an atheist because there is no reason to believe.”
2. Richard Carrier, writing his definitions on “What is Atheism Really All About?” says, Christians find no reason to believe that Zeus exists, so they do not believe in him. For the same reason, I do not believe in Jehova.”
3. rationalwiki’s “Atheism” page says,
At the root of the worldview of most atheists is evidence, and atheists point out that sufficient evidence for the existence of gods is currently very lacking, and thus there is no reason to believe in them. Evidential arguments are less ambitious than logical arguments because, rather than proving that there is reason not to believe in a god, they prove that there is no reason to believe in a god.
4. Argumentsforatheism.com, on its “What Is Atheism?” page, says, “Atheists believe that there is no proof or evidence for the existence of gods, and they see no need for, or use for, gods.”
I asked atheist commenters for their opinions on this, and got a mixed result. I expected that, because I don’t think Barker, Carrier, and the other two websites speak for all atheists. For purposes of this blog post, I will be focusing in on those atheists who do agree with the four sources I cited. I don’t know how many that would include, though probably David P and Michael would be among them.
So I need to specify just who I am talking about. I am speaking specifically of naturalistic atheists, not (for example) Buddhist atheists; and only those who could be described as atheists-naturalists-who-believe-that-atheism-means-there’s-no-evidence-for-God every time. That’s pretty cumbersome, so instead I’ll use ANR for this form of atheism and ANRs for the persons who hold to ANR instead; the initials hinting at atheists/atheism that includes naturalism and no reason to believe in God.
Also, previously I included the note that atheism (for those atheists) means that “among other things:” this is true of atheism for those who hold to this belief, but of course it’s not the whole story of what is true of atheism for anyone. That’s how I mean to be understood throughout this post, though for the sake of brevity I won’t repeat it every time.
I needed to say that because atheists are a very diverse category of individuals, and they get understandably touchy when theists try to tell them what they believe. This is not telling anyone what he or she believes; this is speaking to those who do believe ANR. Also on those lines, the rest of this post is not telling ANRists what else they believe, but rather what they ought to believe if they’re going to hold to their ANR rationally and logically.
Some ANRists also hold that atheism is defined by “a lack of belief in God or gods,” and that therefore atheism is not a positive belief but a lack of belief. I find this position held by many atheists, ANRist or not. This post is directed specifically toward ANRs who hold that this is definitional of atheism, which I will call ANRL. I think this would be true of Dan Barker, argumentsforatheism.com, and rationalwiki, along with a host of less well-known sources. I do not think that Richard Carrier holds to ANRL.
Continuing with being appropriately careful with terms, Dan Barker’s statement is ambiguous: it’s not clear whether he means that “no reason to believe” is part of the definition of atheism, or part of the explanation of his definition of atheism; but it seems to fit in there somewhere, at any rate. Carrier is more clear: “no reason to believe” is part of his definition. The same goes for rationalwiki and argumentsforatheism.com (and Michael, too): “no reason to believe” is definitional either of atheism as a worldview or of atheists themselves.
Finally, “evidence.” Evidence is not equivalent to proof. Neither is it (as some have told me it was) restricted to empirical sorts of evidences. Evidence is just that which causes us to consider some conclusion more likely than that conclusion would be lacking that evidence. A fingerprint at a crime scene is proof that the person was there. It’s also evidence that the person might have committed the crime, and in itself, apart from other information, it makes it more likely that the person did it. It’s not proof in itself, but it’s still evidence.
Stated more formally, some information N is evidence for some conclusion C just in case the knowledge of N causes some rational observer S to consider C more likely to be true than if N was absent or not known by S.
My question is whether it’s rationally possible to hold that atheism means holding that there is no evidence for God while also believing that atheism is not a positive belief, but rather a lack of belief. Is ANRL a rational position to hold? I think not.
Here’s why. ANRLs say there is no evidence for God. David P put it nicely. The first quote here is from me, the answer is his:
The terminology of “no evidence” is far too absolute to be rational, but atheists use it all the time. The existence of life is evidence for God. The existence of the universe, when considered against the question of how it came to be is evidence for God. The historical record of the Bible is evidence for God.
None of these is evidence for the existence of God. That is a huge mental leap.
Here we have one positive belief, at least, expressed in two forms:
- The existence of life is not evidence for God
- The existence of the universe is not evidence for God
The Bible’s historical record is controversial and unnecessary to include in this argument so I will set it aside. In fact I can make my point just by concentrating on the existence of the universe.
What does the existence of the universe mean with respect to evidences, if it is not evidence for God? It seems to me it means either:
- It is evidence for naturalism, or
- It is evidence for nothing at all in the grand scheme of things, or
- It is unknown whether it is evidence for anything at all.
It seems difficult also to see how (2) could be true. Doesn’t the universe’s existence mean something? Doesn’t it tell us anything about reality in the big picture?
It seems to me that (3) is a cop-out. It’s an intellectually lazy way to go. One could say, “we don’t know what it is that the universe’s existence is providing evidence for.” That’s different from saying, “We don’t know whether the universe’s existence is evidence for anything at all.”
So it seems to me that the rational, intellectually active ANRL must believe that the existence of the universe is evidence for naturalism. Now, I’ve never heard that case argued, and it’s hard to see how the case could be made, but then I could have missed it in my reading and blogging.
Putting the Question To You
Of course I could be wrong about all my conclusions concering ANRLism here, so it’s time to put the question to people who would know better. Are there any ANRLs reading here? Do you hold to 1, 2, or 3? If so, could you explain your position and your reasons for it? The floor is yours.