Bad atheist arguments: “Atheism is not a claim”
Fred doesn’t believe in Sweden. When asked for evidence, Fred replied, “You think my denial of Sweden is a real claim of some sort, that it’s a belief. But this is not the case. It’s a no-belief. I have nothing to explain, I am rather talking about something that I lack, namely a belief in Sweden, so I don’t need to give proof of that. He says he doesn’t have to testify to his unbelief in Atlantis either.
This is a Christian response to another atheist argument in The atheist who did not exist by Andy Bannister (part 1). Each chapter begins with a silly story to illustrate the problem. In today’s episode, Fred doesn’t believe in Sweden but refuses to testify. It’s supposed to parallel the atheist saying: “Atheism is not a claim. It’s just disbelief in the statement “There is a god.” “
Who bears the burden of proof?
Avoiding the burden of proof in this way may be a smart rhetorical move, Bannister says, but it won’t work. “The first problem is that the statement ‘atheism is only disbelief in God’ proves too much.“Cats don’t believe in God, does that make them atheists?” What about the potatoes? Rocks? The color green?
It is not necessarily a ridiculous definition. Babies are atheists by that thought, and it can make sense. They start out without a belief in a god by default, and they can assess and choose (or be brainwashed) a religion when they are able to understand.
Another definition is that atheism is simply a “No” to the question “Do you believe in the gods?” “
My own approach is that I will take a stand. I think the evidence shows no god, and I will make a positive argument for atheism. There must be a hundred articles on this blog that do just that. But I have no obligation to do anything positive since I am not making the extraordinary claim – it is the asymmetry that Bannister ignores. In the case of an extraordinary affirmation (and “There is a god” is certainly one), the default position is the refusal of this affirmation: “There is a god” against “there is not. “.
“Humans have been medically probed by aliens in spacecraft” vs. “has not happened.”
“The Loch Ness monster exists” (or Atlantis or unicorns or goblins) versus “no”.
If the extraordinary claim is not supported by extraordinary evidence, I am forced to revert to the default position. My stance (no gods) is the default stance, and it’s my option to get its benefits. I don’t have to present a positive case. If you don’t like the asymmetry of our positions, don’t adopt an extraordinary claim.
And why does the Christian make so much talk about it? He characterizes the burden of proof as a burden. If he demands reciprocity before defending his cause, he is missing an opportunity. Does he want me to win the right to hear the Good News? Why not say that he will be happy to plead his case and simply hope that the atheist will follow his example?
I think it’s because his defense of Christianity is weak and he wants to improve his overall argument by having something to attack as well. But regardless, Bannister is adamant that he doesn’t want to be the only one who has to defend his worldview. “If my atheist friends wish to judiciously join the conversation – and I believe atheism deserves its place at the discussion table as much as any other worldview – then they must recognize their belief for what it is and what it is. ‘engage accordingly. “
This refusal to be the only one to defend his vision of the world is a popular point of view in apologetic circles, but it remains untenable. As another example, I am responding to Greg Koukl’s version here.
Apparently, beliefs are active versus passive (not true versus false or ordinary versus extraordinary)
Bannister says we misclassify beliefs. We should be using active versus passive.
There are an almost endless number of things that I don’t passively believe in, if you pressed me: everything from floating celestial teapots to unicorn unicorns. . . . On the other hand, there are plenty of things that I actively I don’t believe: for example, I don’t believe that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine reached the summit of Everest in June 1924, beating Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay by their 30s. . . . For our active unbelief, unbelief that consumes our time and energy, for those, yes, we to do need to give reasons.
I see three categories of beliefs:
- A, true beliefs (Sweden exists)
- B, false beliefs (Atlantis exists)
- C, things you might have a belief in but don’t (Bannister example: if there are hippos in the bathroom).
He wants to call A active belief, ignore B and hope no one asks him about it, and call C a passive belief. Instead, I want to focus on A (true beliefs) and B (false beliefs) and ignore C, since we both agree that no one cares about C.
Another useful way is to reclassify categories A and B into two different categories, extraordinary beliefs and trivial beliefs. Bannister doesn’t like either approach (true / false or extraordinary / mundane) because it doesn’t give him what he wants, parity with atheism.
It would come closer by dropping the demand that “atheism is a belief” and instead pushing that “atheism is a worldview”. Atheism is probably more correctly “the lack of a religious worldview ”, but at least it would be closer.
Atheism leads to nihilism?
What follows from atheism? He quotes the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche: “When we renounce the Christian faith, we take away the right to Christian morality from under our feet. This morality is by no means self-evident.
What “Christian morality”? Do you mean “western morality”? Do you mean the innate human morality that Christianity claims to give back to us? What is unique about Christian morality that you cannot find in other cultures? Yes, there is a non-obvious moral that is unique to Christianity (or the Abrahamic religions), but this part sucks. Don’t get me started on the crazy immorality that God tolerates in the Old Testament.
And then there is nihilism. He quotes an atheist:
[The atheist] must be daring to weave a casket of “endless night” on the very edge of the abyss of abysses. He must make this precarious cradle cat his intellectual home. It is not only belief in God that must be given up, not only all hope of life after death, but all confidence in an orderly moral order. . .
and blah, blah, blah. You also don’t believe in the Norse religion and must give up all hope of Valhalla. Oh my God! How can you continue ??
I can understand that the reality is intimidating for some people. It might be difficult to be an adult, to be part of the generation that’s supposed to be in charge of society. But as for me and my house, we follow the evidence.
Atheism a religion?
He seems particularly desperate at the end of the chapter when he quotes an atheist: “Atheism is a kind of religion, or can be. And then a sociologist who said that religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relating to sacred things”.
Isn’t the “worldview” working well enough? Why try to classify atheism in the category Religion? Does misery love company? Whenever I see this argument it always sounds like, “Don’t tell me I’m stupid for believing in religious claims!” You are just as stupid, since you also have a religion! Throwing such a wide net would also attract many sports fans, which is probably not a goal of the Christian or the atheist. And maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I won’t call something a religion if it doesn’t have supernatural beliefs.
This is just another attempt to deny the asymmetry. When you are the one making the incredible claim, you have the burden of proof.
To continue: I just reject one more god than you
Too often we value the comfort of opinion
without the discomfort of thought.
– John F. Kennedy
(This is an update to an article that originally appeared on 12/21/16.)
Image by Arild (CC BY-SA 2.0 license)