22056 (catchy name) has a second blog, and it is here. This blog exists solely to host one post, arguing that theism can be thought of as a lack of atheism. He considers this important, because it could change the nature of the burden of proof: atheists would have to do more than question whether arguments for God make sense, but they’d have to come up with arguments in favour of the content of atheism.
Simply trying to explain the impacts of the 22056 thesis, if true, immediately undermines it. What is the content of atheism? If it has no content, what exactly would a lack of it be? There is a further problem: atheism literally means ‘without theism’. So, 22056 is trying to define theism as ‘without without theism’. If that’s the definition of theism, then the definition of atheism becomes ‘without without without theism’. This is a self-referential paradox. I should be able to leave my criticism here and not engage with the actual argument made. But where’s the fun in that.
I want to preface this with a point of clarification about language that equally applies to xPrae, from former posts: the mere use of words is not the same as an explanation. On ‘Enquiries on Atheism’ I posted something that starts to allude to what it actually means to offer an explanation; you can read it here.
So, let’s start to look at the actual argument offered:
“The primary goal of this investigation is to determine whether or not the theist can use the same reasoning as the modern atheist in order to separate the term ‘theism’ into a weak/negative […] just as modern atheists have done with the term ‘atheism’; weak theism would thus be defined as a ‘lack of belief concerning God’s (or gods’) non-existence (essentially, a-atheism)’ whereas strong theism would be defined as a ‘disbelief in God’s (or gods’) non-existence (essentially, belief in God).” [My emphasis]
There are three interesting points here. Firstly, the term “a-atheism”. This is the author’s first actual point, and right off the bat the author alludes to the self-referential paradox. Secondly, “lack of belief concerning God’s… non-existence” is a type of atheism. It’s a heavily agnostic atheism, but if you lack a stance on the non-existence of God, as either true or not, then you really shouldn’t believe in that God. That’s atheism.
The third point is that this asinine redefinition of theism doesn’t have any point. “Strong theism”, as 22056 terms it, is “a disbelief in God’s… non-existence… essentially, belief in God”. Atheism doesn’t have the luxury of being defined in both a positive belief and an absence of a belief, in the exact same way. Atheism actually is a lack of theism. Theism is an actual content-holding stance.
I should clarify: if 22056’s point is that he doesn’t believe God doesn’t exist, then I can agree. Neither of us believe a God exists.
“There are numerous, almost fatal, problems with the idea of weak atheism, such as that weak atheism is not really different from agnosticism”
Weak atheism is the stance of not believing in a God. This overlaps heavily with not knowing whether a God exists, which is agnosticism. However, atheism is in the domain of belief and agnosticism is in the domain of knowledge. The distinction is relevant. But, let’s pretend the distinction isn’t relevant. Then this entire argument could be mooted by simply agreeing that ‘weak atheism’ should better be referred to as ‘agnosticism’. If one were to make that admission, which the author seems to be advocating, then their argument crumbles away immediately.
“or if it is, then it actually fits the criteria of being burden-bearing strong atheism rather than weak atheism”
To say “I do not accept the claim of Gods” is not burden-bearing. It is atheism. And it is also agnosticism. The problem here is the author doesn’t understand the words being used. I don’t accept that weak atheism and agnosticism are the same, although clearly the author is advocating that they are. But they are answers in different domains of cognition.
“furthermore, the atheist’s use of weak atheism is arguably disingenuous given that the atheist seeks to gain the burden-avoiding advantages of agnosticism while still being able to label himself as an atheist.”
I don’t see that this is true. I use the label atheist because it’s the honest label. I don’t mean to garner advantages for myself, I am simply unconvinced of by your argument, or anyone else’ arguments, so far, for a God. I am unconvinced, therefore I don’t believe. That’s literally atheism.
Agnosticism has other elements to it that have impacts upon atheism, but are clearly distinct. Agnosticism may extend as far as the claim that we cannot know of a God. Ontological naturalists would fall into this category of agnosticism, but would also be atheist. Ignosticism is a subset of agnosticism, that pertains that the claim of a God is so poorly defined that it is meaningless to say one could know. Some parts of agnosticism are actually burden-bearing. Atheism is not.
But, our author goes on:
“the modern atheist: he will define himself regardless of what the dictionary or traditional usage asserts is the case, and the way that he defines himself is as someone who just lacks a belief in God or god; he is, essentially, just a non-theist, not a positive atheist”
This is comical for many reasons. Take the traditional usage of the word “atheism”, where the polytheistic Romans used to call Christians and Jews atheists for not having enough gods. The dictionary used to define atheists with adjectives like “sinfulness” and “wickedness” (which the author readily quotes), but everyone seems comfortable admitting that traditional dictionary use doesn’t actually apply. No, the author is arguing for the “traditional” and “dictionary” definitions, only so far as they support his own position. Dissenting and differing views are ‘no true Scotsman’. The term “traditional use” in a language that adjusts to better encapsulate ideas and meanings is also “archaic”.
It gets weirder still. By the definition offered in the post, I am not an atheist. But, I am also not an agnostic. So, what am I? Where’s the burden of proof? This “explanation” has muddled understanding to the point of obscurity.
Imagine a politician trying to pass a new law, defended by the idea that “it is what God wants”. The politician is opposed by a group who claim they don’t believe in a God and thus don’t accept the defence offered by the politician. The politician then replies with “I don’t believe in not-God”. Does that defend the proposed law? Is there anyone who can’t see right through the politician’s sophistry at this stage?
But don’t worry, it gets weirder still. At a later point the author reveals a profound understanding of the problem with the labels he is using:
“… each of these words are what Wittgenstein called ‘family resemblance’ words. That is, we cannot expect to find a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for their use. Their use is appropriate if a fair number of the conditions are satisfied. Moreover even particular members of the families are often imprecise, and sometimes almost completely obscure. Sometimes a person who is really an atheist may describe herself, even passionately, as an agnostic because of unreasonable generalised philosophical scepticism which would preclude us from saying that we know anything whatever except perhaps the truths of mathematics and formal logic.”
Given this quite nuanced quote, is it just a copy and paste job? Because the author shows a lack of engagement with this idea. The author quotes some other writers and online dictionaries that equally engage in this nuanced discussion about atheism very much including the ‘lack of belief’ ilk, not just the “positive atheism” definition of actively believing God does not exist. So, why does 22056 follow that with:
“So it must be clear that there is nothing irrational or unjustified in claiming that atheism is the positive belief that no God or gods exist”
It’s not just the word “atheism”, a pivotal word in this
faeces thesis. The different between a default position in philosophy and its practical application in the court of law seems to entirely escape our little study.
“[T]he burden of proof is intimately linked to the idea of an argumentative presumption; indeed, if a certain position bears the burden of proof then there is a presumption in favor of the opposing position, which means that a person can and should act as if the presumptive position is actually the case until and unless the position which bears the burden of proof is itself demonstrated to be the case.”
This is a revealing misunderstanding of the default position. The default position is to accept no claim at all. It is not to presume the contradictory claim is true until the claim is demonstrated. In this context, it is not reasonable to assume that just because the claim “God exists” hasn’t met any reasonable burden of evidence, we should instead accept the claim “God doesn’t exist” is true. I accept neither claim. And that is the default position.
There are practical assumptions. When you are found ‘not guilty’, you may as well have been found ‘innocent’, for you are revealed back into the population. However, it is an important distinction to note that there may not be evidence they are innocent, there is simply insufficient evidence that they are guilty.
It is not prejudicial. That’s the really important point. When you try to make the case for a God’s existence, you are trying to move someone away from the default position. Default positions are not prejudicial. If your failure were then considered evidence God actually doesn’t exist, that would be prejudicial. That’s how it works. In a court case, it is prejudicial. In a court case, the failure to demonstrate someone’s guilt leads to a ruling that is indistinguishable from being innocent. It does not lead to a re-trial until at least one side demonstrates their case; it all rests or falls on the success of the prosecution. But that is a poor parallel to the religion-debate.
Here’s a question to ponder: how do you distinguish between different types of atheism? Positive/Strong/Gnostic atheism is often characterised as the stance that believes there are no Gods. Where are Weak/Negative/Agnostic atheism is the stance of a lack of belief in Gods. But, that latter category is one I share with my laptop and desk; they too lack a belief in a God. There is a meaningful distinction: I doubt the existence of a God, my desk is incapable of thought and doubt. This is probably the only good point 22056 makes. But, before we offer to buy him a round of drinks, simply making a point is something 22056 has elevated to “damningly”.
“First, and must damningly, consider that rocks, raccoons, and rhubarbs lack a belief in God or gods, and yet it is obviously absurd to claim that such things are “atheistic” in any meaningful sense; but if atheism just is a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods, then, literally-speaking, the very computer that I am typing this document on is “atheistic”, which is, as stated, an absurd view”
I argued that language changes to better encapsulate ideas and meanings. I don’t think it is absurd to lack a belief, like a stick of rhubarb would. However, I do think it is meaningful to draw the distinction. We could, for example, refine the definition of atheism again to the stance of doubting the claim that a God exists. Rhubarb doesn’t doubt, and so a meaningful distinction is made. Also, I think this captures a lot of what people in the atheist community do; they articulate their reasons for doubt. Or, we could create a category of atheism called “naive atheism”, where rhubarb, babies and people who have never heard of a God reside. The problem isn’t exactly damning, and it doesn’t help show that theism is better defined as a-atheism.
Part of the problem here is 22056’s thesis was written before I published this picture, where I explained that just because you have heard a claim, does not mean you accept it.
“if someone has contemplated the existence of God or gods, then it is highly doubtful that they lack a belief about the issue, but rather they have very likely either come to see God’s existence as more probable than not, or less probable than not”
Perhaps this is true. But that does not mean either claim has been demonstrated to the level of being believed. I don’t have to accept a claim or its negation just because I have heard the claim. I can consider a claim more likely than its negation, and still not believe it. I can not understand the claim in any meaningful way (which describes a lot of people when it comes to God).
I’m less than halfway through the thesis at this point, and I’m starting to see the power of the Gish Gallop. I can’t be bothered to address the rest. And, on the way to this point I have simply overlooked equally big errors as simply being irrelevant. But, have a read of the thesis, leave a comment. Be nice.
Smart, JJC. (2011) “Atheism and Agnosticism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/.