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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Should Atheists argue that Atheism is a lack of belief?

A common atheistic rhetoric that atheism is just “a lack of belief’ has been the subject of a lot of debate over the past decade.[1] Here I will discuss that rhetoric in theory and in practice. It is my contention that not only is the rhetoric not accurate or helpful, but in practice atheists consistently go far beyond a lack of belief. This assertion, that atheism is a lack of belief, commonly goes hand in hand with the assertion that atheism is thus a default position. The more I've been discussing this the more I think that defining atheism as a lack of belief actually weakens the atheistic position. I almost want to go along with it because if we allow that position through it will become easier for theists to simply dismiss atheism as a trivially true statement of subjective psychology than a substantive philosophical option.
Fortunately, integrity cannot allow me to argue against weak positions as if they are the only positions. I think that atheism defined as the belief that God(s) do not or probably do not exist is an much more robust position because it seems the perfect storm of a very minimal burden of proof as a position of negation but also that it does not suffer the potential problem of equitation between different usages. Not to mention it escapes the criticism of being a redefinition for polemical purposes. Much ink is spilled simply over the semantics and etymology of the word “atheism” without actually getting to the real issues at hand.[2]
Part of the problem struck me when someone said that a person could be a “gnostic atheist.” That is, that they could claim to know that God does not exist, and lack a belief, that is, think that God's existence is not disproven but unproven. This position just seems completely bizarre - that someone can know X is false but not have the belief that it is true that X is false. At that point the equivocation that occurs on atheism being a lack of belief and atheism being a rationally justifiable position just fell like a ton of bricks.
It is true that the atheists may have to give up the claim that babies are atheists but if we are honest, that did not get them very far anyway because no one claims that babies are theists. Thus for that to be in any way a meaningful assertion, the atheist would need to show why it is not a total equivocation that babies are atheists in a different way ultimately than they are or else the theist can simply point out that atheism has as the rational foundations of a baby and a rock and a lobotomy patient.
Firstly, the position that atheism is a “lack of belief” is not what atheism has meant. That position is just agnosticism - "I dont know if there is" entails the corollary "I dont know that there isnt." That position is actually a rather innocuous statement merely stating that you don’t know either way. God could exist and he could not exist and the odds are about even. Or, for a kind of “hard” agnosticism, one might hold to the position that we are simply in a position that we cannot possibly know if there is a God or not.
However, if by "I dont believe there is a god” one actually means “I disbelieve that there exists a god” then the logical corollary is, “I believe that no such thing as god exists” in which case you are not an agnostic. This is what has traditionally been defined as atheism. That person is what has historically been meant by an atheist – one who affirms the non-existence of a god. Yet if by “I don’t believe there is a god” one means something about their personal psychology – that is that it is just an autobiographical statement about one’s psychology equivalent to “I do not believe god’s existence is either true or false,” then again, that person is an agnostic. They are not describing the content of their actual beliefs but rather are making a kind of cataloguing statement of the kinds of beliefs that do or do not appear in their worldview. Yet atheists will commonly use the term atheism to be a stance against that of the religious believer. They do not mean it as a simple autobiographical statement. If that was a valid tactic then no one could object when if I were to say that theism is just the presence of a belief in God as an autobiographical statement of the kind of belief I have. That would just be trivially true.
The real problem, I think, is that this position (that atheism is a lack of belief) is not actually possible in any meaningfully sense. Anyone who is involved in discussions about the existence of God have, in actual fact, all kinds of beliefs about God(s) and their more or less plausible or probable existence. The only way that we could be said to lack a belief about God once engaged in discussion about him, is if we are tabula rasa with regard to the issue of God – which none of us are. This may be an apt description for rocks or trees or infants or lobotomy patients, but not adults engaged in religious debates.
Now another equivocation seems to be on the rise in the atheistic community between “I believe” and “I know.” If by “I believe” we mean less than 100% certain knowledge and by “I know” we mean absolute and certain knowledge then I can have all kinds of beliefs that I both hold to be true and yet I do not know are true. The problem is that the terms flip flop. Atheists will say that they lack a belief in God because they are not claiming to know that God doesn’t exist – therefore they are not making any claims that need to be supported. That is, they are claiming they lack a belief because they lack knowledge (in the sense of absolute certitude). I could say by that same kind of equivocation that I am a theist (I have a God belief) and that I am an agnostic (I do not know with absolute certainty that God exists) and then switch when pressed. This means that I could make all kind of statements assuming the existence of God that I believe to be true, but then when pressed say that I am not affirming beliefs since I am not claiming to know that God exists. This means that I could then help myself to the same rhetorical method that many atheists use. Imagine the following conversation:

Me: God exists!
Atheist: How could you say that?! What is your evidence?
Me: Oh I’m not making any claims to know that God exists. I lack a belief that God exists.
Atheist: But you just said that God exists.
Me: Yes but that is just an observation. I’m not claiming absolute knowledge so I don’t need to defend it.

And on and on. There is so much equivocation and blurring of lines that occurs when this tact is taken that it is hard to imagine people aren’t being intentionally deceptive. And this redefinition of the terms only occurred in the last 20 years or so. Before that point we had three easy terms:

Theist – believes God (-/+ probably) exist.
Agnostic – does not know if God does/doesn’t exist OR thinks we CANNOT know either way.
Atheist – believes God(s) (-/+ probably) does not exist.

For centuries we understood that people could be more or less certain within each of those categories. So for example someone could say that they believe that God does not exist but they are only 65% sure of that conviction. The problem is that many atheists and theists alike think that beliefs have to have certain conviction (how often have we heard atheist ridicule theists for being so certain that God exists or theists mocking atheists for being so certain that God doesn’t exist and so on.) It is much more simple to use the terms as they were meant and, like in all other areas, allow for more or less conviction and certainty about those beliefs.
I cannot say with any kind of honesty that I lack a belief in Santa Claus if I have the belief that Santa Claus does not exist unless I employ my terms equivocally. I do not lack belief in Santa Claus. I disbelieve the claim that Santa Claus exists - that is I affirm the proposition "No such being as Santa Claus exists." To then say that I lack a belief would be either deceptive or deceitful or dishonest or all of the above. I do not lack a belief about Santa Claus. I believe that in the real world no such being exists. I believe in a Santa Clausless universe.
Philosophically I do not lack a belief in P if I believe the negation of P is more plausibly true. Rather I disblieve that P is true. Now this is where the equivocation comes in. I may say that I lack a belief in the autobiographical sense - that is if we were to imagine all my beliefs as marble in a box and were to look around the box we would not find the marble that corresponds to the statement "I believe that God exists." So in that sense, yes you lack a belief in truth of the statement "I believe God exists." But in that box we would find a marble that does correspond to the equally assertive claim, "I disbelieve that God exists" or "I believe that (-/+ probably) no such being as God exists." Unless I am tabula rasa or am an agnostic, it is impossible for “I lack a belief in God” to be a meaningful condition beyond a trivially true statement of cognitive autobiography.  
If we mean "atheism" in the purely subjective or phenomological psychological sense then sure it can be a lack of belief. But if we are talking at the level of discourse about the nature of objective reality (which we are in these debates) where we are discussing not our subjective beliefs themselves as a psychological statement but the content of our beliefs as they describe what we think is true of reality, then no, atheism is not a lack of belief but the assertion that (-/+ probably) no such being(s) as God(s) exist. That is, that we live in a god-less reality. Here we should even note the widespread usage of "godless" among internet infidel types. Do they merely want us to accept the trivially true statement of their subjective psychology? Or are they making statements about the kind of reality that they think exists? If it is the former then, so what? It would be just as banal as saying that I have a God belief. That does not tell us anything other than what beliefs populate my psychology. But if we are talking about propositions and what is true of reality, then we cannot allow such equivocations.
For example, imagine I was an anti-evolutionist and I started arguing that I simply lack a belief in evolution. I then argued that people who believe in evolution are irrational and deluded and that evolution was "not even true." What would we say if when I was pressed for evidence for those statements, I simply said, "I dont have the burden of proof to defend my claims. I simply lack a belief in evolution. Sure I may disbelieve in evolution and believe that the statement "evolution is probably is true" is in fact false. But if you were to survey my beliefs you would find that I simply lack a belief in evolution. I dont believe it is true."
To say that a person who believes P is deluded, you must first know that P is not true. In order to say that P is not true you must know (or at least believe it is reasonable to believe) and be able to defend that not-P is true. Therefore you cannot say that Not-Pism is not a belief or a lack of belief and say that people who believe P are deluded. A further example may be helpful here.
I don't believe there is an elephant in the room - I believe that the room is elephant less - because if there were an elephant in the room I would expect certain things that I do not find. The absence of evidence that we should expect to find is a kind of evidence. No, this is not the same as "the absence of evidence is evidence of absence," but if we should expect to find a certain kind of evidence if X is true, then to not find that evidence is reason to hold the belief that X is probably false. I can, from the absence of evidence that I should expect to find in a room with an elephant, that therefore I think it is (-/+ probably) false that there is an elephant in the room.
To go further, imagine an astronomer publishes a paper on "There are not aliens anywhere in the universe" but the entire paper is on why arguments for aliens aren't compelling. At the very least you would say that he has overstated the case and that he cannot say that there are no aliens, just that we don't know if there are or not. The instant he makes the claim that we live in an alien-less universe, he would need to defend that assertion. He does not lack a belief in aliens, but rather is going a step further to the position that aliens (-/+ probably) do not exist. This is a good illustration of someone who is agnostic with respect to aliens and one who is an a-alienist. The atheist position (there is no -/+ probably no such being as God – that we live in a God-less universe) does not have to be "I am certain there is no God" but can also be "I believe it is fairly probable that there is no God". Still, in so far as that is a statement about reality (i.e. reality is such that it is probably a god-less reality) it is a positive claim and thus should be reasonably defensible.
The objection to what has been said so far however reveals the real motive behind the redefinition of atheism is recent years. It is to make atheism the default position by definition. If the atheist can convince the spectators to the God debates that atheism is the default position, then it means that atheism does not need to be rationally upheld or defended. So someone could make atheistic claims all day and mock, ridicule and reject religion and yet never carry any burden of proof to defend those claims. It is not surprising then that pop atheism has become so inundated with "memes" and sound-byte rhetoric because it is particularly easy now to make some attack on religion or some claim about religion being the product of human invention, and when challenged to defend the claims to assert that atheism is the default position, the tabula rasa, the non position that just is a conclusion and an observation but not a belief, and so on. It can be done because the rhetorical campaign to redefine atheism as basically agnosticism while still getting to make atheistic claims has been so successful. It even has some theists now dividing between hard and soft atheism rather than holding the line on what those terms have always meant in meaningful ways. Once we see that it is, however, just a trick of the rhetoric to sneak atheism in under the guise of agnosticism, and that such equivocal uses are not only not helpful but are actually dishonest, then the atheist is paradoxically on their way to a more robust atheism than what they had previously.
I think if an atheist did not just knee jerk react to this course correction coming from a theist they would see that I am actually trying to make their position much stronger. For example, think of the claim that "humans live on the surface of the sun." If I lack a belief in sun-humans, then all that I am saying is that autobiographically in the catalogues of my beliefs that belief is not present. By the same notion I can say that theism is an autobiographical statement that I have such a belief. That is, theism would be reduced to a statement about a belief and is not a belief itself. But then from that posture I could not maintain that I simply lack a belief while at the same time saying that people who believe humans live on the sun are wrong or deluded. In order to do that I have to have a disbelief - a contrapositive belief to theirs. If I try to have both, then it looks like I am being either confused in my statements or else deceptive. It appears that I am playing a rhetorical shell game. However, if I say that I believe in the negation of their belief I have an extremely low burden of proof that could rationally consist of "we have never observed any human to live at those temperatures. For me to overcome my disbelief, I would need huge amounts of evidence." The minimal burden of proof for the negative position is overwhelmingly outweighed by the burden of proof needed for the positive position. The sun-human advocate would need to show that not only is it possible for humans to survive on the sun, but also that humans actually are surviving on the sun right now.
Therefore this stronger version of atheism as disbelief in the probability of God’s existence seems a far more robust version of atheism that does not have any of the inconsistencies or confused language. I take it that this concept of atheism is far harder to deal with for the theist. I think many atheists will likely be too stubborn to see that this is actually much better for them merely because it is coming from a theist and it would mean giving up some of their more silly arguments about babies being atheists. It has been encouraging (and daunting) that I have seen an increase in number of atheists who themselves are seeing the problem of defining atheism as a simple autobiographical statement of lack of belief.
So the ball really is in the court of the atheists. They can continue to play the shell game of rhetoric and maintain a very trivial kind of atheism that will be unconvincing to most people outside of the sphere of internet infidels, or they can abandon their love for saying that babies are atheists because they lack a belief in God and actually post an intellectually stimulating challenge to religious belief. If they define atheism in such a way that it is as meaningful and rational as a baby or a lobotomy patient, why should they be surprised when they are taken no more seriously than a baby or a lobotomy patient?I am highly skeptical. Sadly, to bastardize a Lewis quote, some atheists are too content to play with mud pies in the slums of lacking belief that they cannot imagine a summer at the sea of consistent belief  - or at least will be damned if they allow a theist to give them directions!

[1] This is a continuation of a previous article on this subject.
[2] Here I think some spilt ink is useful and have recently done so myself. I think however that we should be able to move beyond semantics, as useful in preliminary issues as it is, into the real content of concepts.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A-theism or Atheos-ism?

  For the purpose of this post I am simply going to quote a well known atheist who makes this argument and then briefly examine the etymology of the word “atheist” to see if the claim holds true.
It is not uncommon for atheists who want to defend that atheism is merely a lack of belief to try and show that this conception is entailed by the etymology of the word atheism. Now to be clear, here in this post I am not attempting to reject that atheism can possibly mean “a lack of belief.” I have argued that elsewhere and in countless threads.

David McAfee writes, “The word atheist breaks down into two parts: A (without) Theism (belief in deities).” For McAfee this is a lead pipe lock of an argument. Atheism just means without belief in deities and anyone who says otherwise is just wrong on what the word even means. He wants us to believe that atheism is a-theism.Well is that the case?

Not at all in fact. The problem arises in that when we are talking about the etymology of a word we are talking about the root language from which it comes. For McAfee’s tortured deconstruction of the word, it requires him to actually subtly slide between languages. The etymology in the Greek is θεος (atheos). This was a term used in the Ancient world to describe people who rejected the existence of the gods and refused to worship them. Christians were often called θει (athei) because they refused to worship the Greek and Roman deities or to worship Cesar as a god. It did not mean to lack a belief but a rejection of the gods and a refusal to worship them.

The other part of the word atheism is English suffix “-ism” which is a way of delineating that a certain noun is the object of a particular school of thought. Absolutism is the school of thought that there are absolutes. Calvinism is the school of thought that traces its theology back to John Calvin. This means that the “belief” aspect of the term is actually bound up in the suffix –ism. The best way to parse the word is more like this:


The reason that McAfee and so many others miss this is because they think that the prefix a- is a later addition to the word “theism” thus arriving at a-theism. This is simply mistaken since "atheism" has its own etymology that is largely independent of the word "theism." Atheos is a Greek root word all on its own. So in the English, as I have shown, it is quite literally atheos-ism, or the school of thought that there are no deities (i.e. that we live in a god-less cosmos). That is the etymology of the term.

Now language is fluid. I do not pretend that root words and etymology are determinative of what a word must mean in modern English. It is perfectly possible that the term “atheism” has come to be a signifier for the concept of a lack of belief in deities. We can argue the merits of that elsewhere as I have done,[1]  but the point here is that McAfee’s argument that the structure of the word “atheism” just means a lack of belief (a-theism) is simply misinformed.

[1] I have argued elsewhere that this is not only indistinguishable from agnosticism, and when combined with agnostic/Gnostic and some atheists would like to do (such as a Gnostic atheist) can even be an incoherent concept that maintains that we know X is false while lacking a belief that X is false. You can read the article here:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Exodus 21:20-21: A Manual For Beating Slaves?

I have written on this issue of this specific passage within the context of another post but for now I wanted to address this passage specifically as its own topic. I recently read on one of my “favorite” antitheistic fundamentalist’s facebook page this comment:

“Most Christians believe that Jesus IS God, that Jesus is the same jealous and angry God that abhorred homosexuals and condemned them as "an abomination." He is the same deity that gave instructions on how to beat slaves and the same divine Creator that suggested the stoning of non-believers and disobedient children. You have to accept the good along with the bad... after all, he came not to abolish the Hebrew laws, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17).”

Now I’m not actually going to respond to the full comment. I want to select one of the  clauses to show that this kind of rhetoric is often so blinded by bias and so ignorant that it is surprising that anyone who claims to be a “critical thinker” or a “skeptic” buys into it. And yet this thread got all kinds of congratulatory back pattery and here-here’s (as well as a whole host of new bigoted comments to go along with it) that one would think this person had said something deeply profound or that he had stated some iron clad refutation of Christianity. In fact he may even be drawing this directly from RationalWiki which asserts basically the same thing, showing why RatiWiki is less helpful (and ironically less rational) than just plain ol' Wiki. To antitheistic fundamentalists like this their confirmation bias will also tell them that it is because of blind faith and the irrationalism of religious belief that will keep religious people from following such tight logic. The fact is that no religious person will be swayed by it because it is just nonsense.
So the clause that I want to look at as a prime example is the clause where this fundamentalist writes, “He is the same deity that gave instructions on how to beat slaves...” Let us look at Exodus 21:20-27 (in order to read the whole context) and see just why this antitheist won’t find anyone with even the most nominal of critical reading skills cheering him on when he makes statements like this. The passage reads:

20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.

22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[e] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

26 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.

I am not going to here go into all the detail on the historical or socio-economic background of debt or bond servitude in the Old Testament, but for those interested you can find my series on that beginning here with part one, part two and part three. In this article I just want to address what this law is and is not permitting or prohibiting, not whether or not is moral or immoral or if it should or should not be normative for Christians.
First we have to remember the genre of literature that we are reading. This portion of Exodus is a genre of literature known as a legal code. More specifically it is a casuistic law code. That means that these are case law from which general principles are derived. So it gives “for instance” kinds of laws that are not meant to exhaust all options but rather give illustrative or exemplars of the kind of things that are and are not permitted by the legal code.
Second let us break down what exactly each of these laws is saying:

Law 1 (vv20-21) – If someone has a servant and they beat their servant to death, then the family of the servant has the right to seek retributive capital justice – a life for a life. If the servant does not die, then the family cannot seek capital justice. The landowner cannot be put to death for it.
Law 2 (vv22-25) – If people are fighting and accidently cause a pregnant woman to go into labor but the child is fine, then there cannot be retributive capital judgment, but rather a fine as deemed proper by the courts. If there is serious injury (i.e. the child dies) then it is murder and it is life for life or, as the law explicitly states, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. That is, the second law does not limit the lex talionis (law of the tooth) to just eyes and teeth. It is that injury of any sort is in view. Eyes are teeth are given as exemplars – clear examples – but the law is not limited to eyes and teeth.
Law 3 (vv26-27) – If a landowner hits a servant (male or female) and they are injured in any way (see law 2 above) then the lex talionis applies to them. Not only is the landowner to let the servant go free and forgive all their debt (debt is what caused servitude in Israel) but is to also compensate them for any harm done. Think of this like the first workman’s comp law.

So what we see when we read the laws ALL together (as we should read ALL legal codes) is not a manual for how Jews were to beat a slave. Rather what we see are laws protecting servants from harsh landowners. They had a right to life and a right to not be beaten. If a landowner beat their slave to death then that landowner would be punished to death. However, if the landowner beat his servant but that servant didn’t die then that servant would still, under Law 3, be set free with his debt forgiven and compensation. To say that it is a manual for how to beat a slave is simply as wholly inaccurate of a reading as the person who reads Hamlet and comes away thinking that they have just read a comedy on the plight of 20th century hipsters.
Now, I readily admit that this does nothing like show that God exists or that the Bible is inspired but all too often self-professed “free/critical thinkers” and “skeptics” will buy anything that is said in a witty and inflammatory manner so long as it mocks religion and gives them a platform to join the club to make fun of us “god-tards.”[1] Yet just a rudimentary level reading comprehension would show that this atheistic fundamentalist is completely unable to be objective an unbiased. If that is the kind of “summary” of the law found in Ex 21:21 (which is a relatively simple and clear passage) which they find convincing, then why should anyone expect him to do any better on more complex texts requiring a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the historical, socio-economic, religious, literary or original language contexts? I would ask him to name any scholarly or academic commentary that would agree with his reading of the text as an instruction manual for how to beat a servant. I highly doubt this "skeptic" is very "skeptical" of his own statements or has done any research on these texts whatsoever. Likely he is just parroting the kind of bigotry that has become common place among the internet infidel types. And yet look how many “skeptics” just uncritically agree with him and use it as a launching pad to their own intolerant screeds.  

[1] This particular antitheistic fundamentalist is especially bothersome since he claims in his published work to be an “American scholar of religion” and so people think that his statements are researched when, as we have seen above, they are not only not researched but are just poor reading comprehension.