Friday, May 06, 2016

The Myth that Atheism is the Lack of a Belief in God

I have been in discussion with some atheists recently regarding two of their more popular myths.

By "myth", I mean false feel-good beliefs brought into a culture and embraced against all evidence.

These myths are:

(1) Atheism is the lack of belief in a god.

(2) The claim that criticizing a religion does not imply criticism of all of the people who identify with that religion.

In this post, I will discuss the first of these myths. I will discuss the second myth later.

Both of these myths have to do with claims about the meaning of terms. Consequently, we must start with an account of the meaning of terms.

When attempting to defend the claim that atheism means the lack of a belief in a god they typically answer that it is built directly into the term. Atheist comes from the parts “a” (without or not) and theist (belief in a god). Thus, atheism means “without belief in a god.”

If this is a reasonable way to proceed then, contrary to the claims of every physicist and chemist, you cannot split an atom. The term “atom” come from the part “a” (without or not) and “tomos” (to cut or split into parts). It literally means “that which cannot be divided further.”

Just think, all these years in which physicists and chemists have been using the term 'atom' incorrectly.

In fact, that is not how one determines the current meaning of a term within a language.

The meaning of a term is determined by the theory that best explains and predicts the behavior of native speakers of a language engaged in using that term. The behavior in question particularly concerns linguistic behavior, but may include other forms of behavior as well.

One can support a theory with observations about behavior consistent with the theory, and falsify a theory with observations that are inconsistent.

Let us take the term "atheist" it " atheism". The "lack of a belief in God theory" predicts that native speakers of a language would be totally comfortable with assigning the term "atheist" to rocks, squirrels, and peopled with such undeveloped brains that they cannot form such complex beliefs. In act, they would view these assignments as obviously true. "Of course they lack belief in a god."

Observations show us that these predictions fail.

This, then, gives us reason to reject the "lack of a belief in God" hypothesis.

Here is a competing theory.

Atheism is the belief that the proposition, "At least one God exists" is certainly or almost certainly false.

This predicts that native speakers will only apply the term to those who assert that they have a particular belief. They will not apply it to rocks, squirrels, mentally impaired adults, or particularly young children. Indeed, this is what we observe among native English speakers in general.

I must offer a precaution here. Many of my readers are likely to be people who have bought into this atheist myth. A clique or sub tribe, consisting of significantly less than 0.01% of the native speakers of English, gave adopted a private language that redefines the term. However, this does not change the fact that, in the linguistic community at large, the term is used consistently with the second theory.

As a part of this myth, many in this clique that have adopted this private definition actually assert that it is the “correct” meaning of the term. They respond with condescention and ridicule when encountering members of the 99.99% who use the term with its standard English meaning. Thus, they add fiction upon fiction – myth upon myth.

There is a reason why this clique of atheists have adopted this myth. Unfortunately, it is not because the belief is grounded on sound reason.

It is grounded on the belief that the absence of a belief does not have to be defended rationally. By denying that atheism is "a belief that P", they feel justified in asserting that they need not offer argument in defense of that which is believed.

In other words, this clique of atheists is playing word games as an alternative to engaging in rational debate. By equivocating on the meaning of the term "atheism", they (often smugly) cross their arms and say, "I don't have to defend nothing. I don't have a belief to defend. It's your job to do the defending."

The statement, in most cases, is actually a lie. Those who employ this mythical definition of atheism still have the belief that the proposition, "at least one God exists" is certainly or almost certainly false. If somebody tries to use this “lack of a belief in God” claim, just ask them, “Is the following proposition true, almost certainly true, probably true, unknowable, probably false, almost certainly false, or certainly false?” Then give them the proposition, “At least one god exists.”

If they answer, “almost certainly false” or “certainly false” then they DO have a belief. In fact, they have exactly that belief that identifies them as “atheist” in the common understanding of the term. All of that talk about lack of a belief in God is just rhetorical nonsense.

In fact, one can now bypass this “lack of a belief in God” nonsense by saying, “Let’s talk about this instead.”

In spite of these protests, I expect that this atheist clique will continue to embrace the “atheism is the lack of a belief in god” myth.

Atheists are human. Among humans, it is all too easy for myths and fictions to worm their way into a community to such an extent that the community cannot easily abandon it – in spite of the weight of reason and evidence stacked against it. This fiction has become so much a part of the identity of this atheist sub-group that one cannot even be considered a full member unless one embraces (or at least pays lip service) to this myth. To question the myth is to risk banishment.

Yet, they will eagerly condemn theists who display these very same qualities.

Or, atheism is the belief that the proposition, 'at least one God exists' is certainly or almost certainly false.

And I, by the way, am an atheist as the term is used in English - and I see no reason to try to hide that fact behind some verbal smoke and mirrors.


Scritch said...

Okay, I see your point, but what about those of us who use the archaic form of 'atheist' out of a genuine lack of belief? I don't belong to any cliques, and I answer 'unknowable' to your challenge question - how then am I to identify myself succinctly, if asked to do so?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It sounds to me like you are fitting under the common definition of "agnostic" - one who denies that a person can justify either the proposition, "a god exists" or "a god does not exist".

Though, actually, I also have questions about how you are using the term "know". A person can accurately claim to "know" something - even though it might end up being false. I can know what I am having for supper - even accepting the possibility that something might happen between now and supper time to prevent me from having supper at all. Knowledge does not require certainty.

That being said, language is an invention, and we have not invented a term for everything. It is often possible to identify things for which there is no term - in which case a new term is invented (or, in some cases, an old term is repurposed, the way 'atom', 'malaria', and 'planet' have been repurposed. The fact that no current term exists for something is not a problem. It is not even rare.

Anonymous said...

"Knowledge does not require certainty." // I'm not so sure of this one, justified belief i.e. knowledge to me means having it be true, and justifiably true through evidence. Other words what you are calling 'knowledge' may just be 'getting lucky'. Some can guess something and it be true, that doesn't mean they have knowledge that it is true, only belief or a guess that may turn out to be true epistemologically, but not justified with sound reasoning. 'true knowledge' as I'll term it means to have both justification of sound reasoning that something is true, rather than any luck happening in the process.

Scritch said...

Actually, the more I think about your challenge proposition ("A god exists.") the more I question what an appropriate response would be. For one thing, I don't think that a 'generic god' is even a valid concept given what we know of the various properties ascribed to beings labeled 'gods' throughout history - and these properties are many and varied. So varied, in fact, that trying to define a generic all-encompassing term for them in this way is, I think, futile.

What is 'a generic god'? Is it necessarily a universe-maker? That would rule out Zeus, for example, since Zeus was never said to have created a universe. Is it necessarily a personal deity? If so, then this rules out all the deist positions in all their forms, since their gods are entirely non-personal. And so on - there are so many things that have been labeled as gods that I don't think there is a single characteristic that they all share in common (except, perhaps, being immaterial - but this surely can't be the *only* qualifying criterion, or else the imaginary friend I had as a child is also a god, as are Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny).

To answer the implicit question here - what is my position regarding a specific god (say, Yahweh) - I do indeed have a belief that it does not exist. So in that sense, I am a modern atheist with respect to specific god concepts in the way that you describe. I could go into the reasons why I feel this way if you like, but I suspect we probably share many of the same opinions on that matter.

It's for these reasons that I feel the term 'agnostic' doesn't apply to me - I do believe it is possible to justify the position regarding specific god claims, and so using your definition I can't be an agnostic. I just think the 'generic god' concept is inherently flawed - 'generic god' is undefined - so you can't rationally hold any position on that question.

Then there's the question of what it is to 'know' as you brought up. I disagree with you on the certainty point. What you've demonstrated with your example is not that certainty isn't required, it's that accuracy or truth isn't required - a position I do agree with. I personally subscribe to the idea that knowledge is a subset of belief, and one of the criteria that sets knowledge-belief apart from non-knowledge-belief is a high degree of certainty. I would even say that beliefs exist on a spectrum of certainty, and that those beliefs at the high end of the spectrum are what we call knowledge.

Say, for example, I believe I'm going to have hot dogs for dinner tonight - but I don't have a high degree of certainty in this, because my wife might want to go out instead. Even if I'm right, and I do end up having hot dogs for dinner, can I be said to have known that I would have had hot dogs for dinner? A person in this position of uncertainty about their future plans does not typically speak of knowing what they're going to do - in fact, they may say something like "I believe I'm going to have hot dogs, but I don't know."

I should mention that I haven't really studied epistemology in detail - I'm not an educated philosopher, just an interested layman - so I may be missing something that makes this view of knowledge completely unworkable, but I think that, at least colloquially, this is how we tend to use these words.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous: If knowledge requires certainty, then we can have no scientific knowledge.

In science, it is always the case that a new observation will falsify a current theory. While some scientific facts can be taken as nearly certain, no scientific fact is ever unfalsifiable.

Scritch said...

"If knowledge requires certainty, then we can have no scientific knowledge."

Again, I gotta disagree. Certainty isn't a black-and-white binary thing - it's a spectrum, and you can have varying degrees of certainty about any given thing. Scientific knowledge consists of the set of scientifically-curated beliefs for which we have a high degree of certainty in their accuracy. If absolute certainty were required for knowledge, then yeah - there'd be no scientific knowledge. We do require some certainty, though, otherwise we'd lack the confidence needed to call our findings 'knowledge'.

Justin said...

I usually self identify with the Dan Fincke classification of knowledge vs belief:

If you ask me about specific, interventionist, and generally biblical super-beings, I will with some certainty reject them out of hand, but when it comes to unspecific, hands-off, grounds-of-being, I really don't have anything to grab onto and can only say that I don't believe one is necessary given our current understanding of cosmology.

Now, that's not too say I haven't quibbled over the definition of atheism as a lack of god belief, do I get what you're saying here. It's a reactionary attempt to prevent getting into the weeds with believers who require atheists to disprove everything whereas they feel no need to justify anything. Using boilerplate evangelical techniques, they'll try to catch you in uncertainty about a possible deistic entity and use that to justify their own theistic beleifs as if they are one in the same thing. I can understand, therefore how this clique has developed this definition game as a kind of callous against evangelical games. It isn't right, and it isn't rational, but neither are the believers that demand you go through the exhausting process of defending your disbelief in something that they feel they have no need to defend their belief in. Bringing out the null hypothesis at this point is often a method of putting the burden of proof back on the believers, but it then gets woven into the atheists definition of atheism as a kind of shield. If there was never the idea of a god then there would never have been atheists, so in a world where the word atheist is necessary, we ought to accept that we are rejecting something, and saying that we don't believe in a thing, for reasons.

I also believe that there is a difference between lay and specific terminology. For the purpose of general conversation, I am an atheist, that is a general description, I do not believe in god as that term is understood by the majority of people, but if you want to start defining different kinds of God and how my belief relates to knowledge then I have to enhance my description of myself with more terms. I can say, with some certainty, that on this planet, there is no personal god that answers prayers and spies on people masturbating, so I qualify that certainty as knowledge and call myself a gnostic atheist. As far as a deistic entity that spawned creation then went fishing for 13.7 billion years, I don't know if I can know that but I certainly don't believe it is necessary so I qualify that unknowable disbelief as agnostic adeism.

To the question of whether "at least one god exists", I could answer no as long as we kept the scope of "god" to those presented throughout human history and limited that question to the planet Earth.

Anonymous said...

I only started calling myself an "atheist" after learning the newer definition described in your article: a passive non-belief in a god instead of an affirmative belief in no god. Before that I considered myself an agnostic.

After learning more about agnosticism, and that there are Christian Agnostics and Agnostic Theists:, I decided agnosticism was not a very accurate description of my beliefs.

I am a scientist, and I do my best not to believe in things for which there is no evidence, to believe more in things for which there is more evidence, and less for which there is less. The "new atheist" definition, and the scale provided by Dawkins: best suits me.

Anyway, semantics can be tiresome, so typically when describing myself as an atheist to an unknown person, I'll clarify I'm talking about non-belief so as to avoid confusion and get on with things.

Unknown said...


I must disagree with you on this.

I use a somewhat different definition of atheist, and based on (admittedly unscientific) polls, a majority of self-identifying atheists agree:

"Skeptical of the claims of the existence of any gods."

Being skeptical implies one has the ability to believe something, but rejects it based on insufficient evidence or persuasion. So, things like rocks and mentally impaired people wouldn't qualify. And it doesn't require I have a positive stance on the matter such as ""At least one God exists" is certainly or almost certainly false". This assertion implies the ability to "prove" a negative, which while not always impossible logically, is difficult empirically because of the ignorance problem.

And actually, I think your "atom" example works in reverse. I believe the archaic meaning of atheist was "one that believes no gods exist".

Also, I don't think I qualify as an agnostic because I think the proposition is knowable, but just not known at this time, whereas agnostic usually implies you believe it can't be known.