Definitions Of Atheism
So there’s no doubt, as many a theist contends this issue, and it will be a topic throughout the blog, here are the definitions of atheism by atheist philosopher Michael Martin:
“… there is popular meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist not simply holds no belief in the existence of a god or gods but believes there is no god or gods. This use of the term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion, let us call this positive atheism, and the type of atheism derived from the Greek root held by the atheistic thinkers surveyed above let us call that negative atheism. Clearly positive atheism is a special case of negative atheism: Someone who is a positive atheist is by necessity a negative atheist, but not conversely. In my usage, positive atheism is positive only in the sense that it refers to a positive belief- the belief that there is no god or gods. It is positive in contrast to negative atheism, which has no such positive belief.” (Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, pp. 463-4, 1990)
(See references for many other definitions by atheists, throughout history)
It seems theists are bent, based on the teachings of apologetics, on believing that atheism is somehow defined as (and only as) the positive belief there is no god or gods or that it is somehow a worldview. Atheism is not a worldview, just as theism isn’t. Naturalism and Christianity are worldviews. There will still be theists who still claim to be able to define atheism in the way they choose and what’s worse, label you with their definitions. Do not fall for this trick.
Burden Of Proof
To quote philosopher Malcolm Murray:
“Those claiming the existence of something have the burden of proof. Absent a good case being made for said existence, the default position is disbelief in the existence of that thing. Theists make the claim that God exists. Therefore it is up to the theist to prove their case. And should all their arguments come to naught, the reasonable position is atheism. Theists who maintain the atheist needs to prove her case have reversed the burden of proof” (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer, pp-24-25, 2010)
Weak atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods, it is the default position to the God claim (as Murray states, disbelief is the default position to all claims). Atheism as a whole is therefore not making a counter, positive claim. It is important to note however, that strong atheism, does make a claim, one that needs backing, hence why most atheists don’t subscribe to it. Why do most atheists not accept this position (with an unattainable burden of proof)? To answer this question we turn, yet again, to Malcolm Murray:
“Consider the proposition that there is a goblin under the bed. Perhaps your daughter has woken you up in the middle of the night to make such an assertion. How should you appease her? Perhaps you will get down on your hands and knees and look. You report your findings: a stray sock, a book, some dust, but no goblin. Does this test prove the non-existence of goblins? Not if one of the magical properties of this goblin is the ability to become invisible. You’re not seeing the goblin is perfectly compatible with the existence of an invisible goblin. Even your daughter understands this logic. So, you take out a broom and sweep under the bed. Your broom has not struck anything that you cannot see. Does this prove the non-existence of an invisible goblin? Again, such a test is to no avail if another of the magical features of this goblin is to disappear when faced with non-believers. Your not striking the goblin that can magically avoid being struck can hardly count as proof against the existence of such a goblin. You now realise that all tests will similarly fail. The magic nature of the thing being investigated is such that no definitive test can prove its non-existence.” (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer, pp-24-25, 2010)
Applying this story to God, Murray makes a point to elaborate, that we shouldn’t, as strong atheists, simply say “it is reasonable to not believe in God because it is a fact that God does not exist” (begging the question), since we cannot show that God does not exist. Our non-belief in God does not make it a fact that God does not exist, rather, as Murray surmises, we “reasonably hold” that no God exists because no evidence can be offered to support its existence. We don’t see God, we don’t feel God, we don’t hear God, we don’t smell God, we don’t taste God and any effects in the world can be explained without recourse to God. (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer, pp-24-25, 2010)
Atheism has no dogma, no authoritarians, and no organised structure, and is clearly not a belief. There are some theists who would claim that atheism is a belief or a worldview (using phrases like: “fundamentalist/militant atheist”?), which is, categorically wrong. Based on the aforementioned statements/definitions the concept of a fundamentalist atheist seems an absurdity, as there are no fundamental from which to adhere. Perhaps what is really is being interpreted is zeal, or passion, mistaken for fundamentalism and militancy, by those who do not understand atheism. Dawkins responds to this claim in his paperback edition of the 2006 bestseller, The God Delusion:
“No, please, it is all too easy to mistake passion that can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will. Fundamentalist Christians are passionately opposed to evolution and I am passionately in favour of it. Passion for passion, we are evenly matched. And that, according to some, means we are equally fundamentalist…. Fundamentalists know what they believe and they know that nothing will change their minds… As J.B.S. Haldane said when asked what evidence it might contradict evolution, “Fossils in the Precambrian”… If all the evidence in the universe turned in favour of Creationism, I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediately change my mind. As things stand, however, all available evidence (and there is a vast amount of it) favours evolution. It is this reason and this reason alone that I argue for evolution with a passion that matches the passion of those who argue against it. My passion is based on evidence. Theirs, flying in the face of evidence as it does, is truly fundamentalist.” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 18-9, 2008)
The claims made by Christian theists, as Murray states (and Dawkins to a lesser extent), are truth claims regarding the nature of our world and this reality. The Christian God’s existence, the universe being created by God, Jesus being God, the world being 6-10,000 years old, the flood, dinosaurs and man living together, these are claims about reality. Hence the burden of proof falls to them. My atheism is defined as the lack of belief in a God or Gods (weak, implicit, agnostic atheism), anyone who tries to represent strong, explicit or gnostic atheism as the whole or the majority is using a strawman argument and is being dishonest. “All atheists are weak atheists, but not all weak atheists are strong atheists”.
To quote Murray again:
“The sincere atheist need not pretend to have proof of the non-existence of God. All she needs is to point out that the side with the burden of proof has not sufficiently demonstrated his case.” (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer, pp-24-25, 2010)
One of the many reasons an atheist may not believe in the existence of a god gods is due to the paucity of evidence. A theist might ask “what would constitute evidence an atheist would accept for the existence of a god or gods?” To give a basis for the answer to this most fundamental of questions we refer to Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
For any claim to be accepted, it needs to be based on evidence, if we care about our beliefs being true that is (what rational person would deny this?). The evidence should also match the degree of the claim, based on multiple sources and independently verifiable. Generally the importance or consequences of the claim determine the level and type of evidence needed to make the claim prudent to accept. A god or god’s existence has eternal consequences and would count against all of our empirical observations; hence it requires an extraordinary amount of evidence to justify. John Loftus provides an interesting take on ECREE in his book The Christian Delusion:
“…what extraordinary claims are atheists making? Is it an extraordinary claim for atheists to say with Carl Sagan that, “the cosmos is that is or ever was or will be?” It may seem that way to believers, and so this must be shown to be the explanation of the available evidence in discussions with them. But it’s not an extraordinary claim at all… By finding the evidence lacking for the extraordinary claims that supernatural entities exist, the atheist simply concludes these claims false. And if these entities don’t exist then Carl Sagan’s conclusion is all that remains.” (Loftus, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (edited John W. Loftus), pp-98, 2010).
ECREE has been recently contested amongst Christians, as Tim McGrew is quoted in a post on Victor Reppert’s blog:
“Another common slogan, also popularized by Sagan, is that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Much depends, of course, on what counts as extraordinary, both in a claim and in evidence. It cannot be simply that a claim is unprecedented. At a certain level of detail, almost any claim is unprecedented; but this does not necessarily mean that it requires evidence out of the ordinary to establish it. Consider this claim: “Aunt Matilda won a game of Scrabble Thursday night with a score of 438 while sipping a cup of mint tea.” Each successive modifying phrase renders the claim less likely to have occurred before; yet there is nothing particularly unbelievable about the claim, and the evidence of a single credible eyewitness might well persuade us that it is true.
The case is more difficult with respect to types of events that are deemed to be improbable or rare in principle, such as miracles. It is generally agreed in such discussions that such events cannot be common and that it requires more evidence to render them credible than is required in ordinary cases. (Sherlock 1769) David Hume famously advanced the maxim that“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish” (Beauchamp 2000, p. 87), which may have been the original inspiration for the slogan about extraordinary evidence. Hume appears to have thought that his maxim would place certain antecedently very improbable events beyond the reach of evidence. But as John Earman has argued (Earman 2000), an event that is antecedently extremely improbable, and in this sense extraordinary, may be rendered probable under the right evidential circumstances. The maxim is therefore less useful as a dialectical weapon than is often supposed. It may help to focus disagreements over extraordinary events, but it cannot resolve them.” (McGrew 2010)
McGrew seems to be missing the point:
“Much depends, of course, on what counts as extraordinary, both in a claim and in evidence. It cannot be simply that a claim is unprecedented.” (McGrew 2010)
This appears to indicate that personal, unique, supernatural, necessary agency is somehow not extraordinary? If the deity in question is not extraordinary, it loses its definition and we’re not talking about a god or gods anymore (as a god or gods is necessarily unique). Secondly McGrew’s story about Aunt Matilda is a non sequitur, where is the extraordinary claim? Where is the reference to the supernatural? How is his story relevant? A more fitting simile would have been “Aunt Matilda won a game of Scrabble Thursday night (due to the power of an intangible, invisible, all powerful beagle who loves her) with a score of 438 while sipping a cup of mint tea”. It’s with this revised phrase that we see how antecedent probabilities fail. We may be inclined to grant McGrew his original hypothesis, but the addition of the supernatural claim makes the likelihood of that claim shrink (and become seemingly unfalsifiable, hence factually meaningless).
“an event that is antecedently extremely improbable, and in this sense extraordinary, may be rendered probable under the right evidential circumstances.” (McGrew 2010)
It would take evidence seemingly as miraculous as the miracle itself to prove said miracle (if we accept Hume). Which religion stands up to this? McGrew states that ECREE focuses disagreements but doesn’t solve them. Of course not, it’s a generic statement used as a guideline. McGrew is also very vague, he offers no criteria by which supernatural claims would become probable, as that is the thesis under question, we can assume McGrew doesn’t know either. Keith Augustine defends ECREE below:
“A general heuristic within every empirical discipline is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In practice, this heuristic is applied to claims which are improbable relative to a well-established nexus of scientific laws, theories, and facts, or to well-established historical accounts (emphasis added)… Since it is appropriate to require extraordinary evidence in order to establish the reality of clearly natural phenomena, it is certainly appropriate to require extraordinary evidence for the far more improbable likely candidates for a supernatural event. The highest evidential standards should be met before entertaining such possibilities.” (Augustine, 2001).
McGrew says on ECREE: “The maxim is therefore less useful as a dialectical weapon than is often supposed. It may help to focus disagreements over extraordinary events, but it cannot resolve them”, Augustine has a response to this in the highlighted portion above. It seems McGrew is comfortable to take the words of ECREE at face value, not recognizing it to be a short hand for a heuristic method based on sound methodological practices. (McGrew 2010)
Lack Of Divine Revelation
In the case of a personal god or gods (in relation to ECREE), we have divine revelation: if this/these beings is/are all-powerful, all-knowing, if He/they wanted us to know him/them, to know His/they’re works and believe in Him/them, He/they would know exactly what to do to make that happen. Knowing how unreliable personal testimony is, it would be for hard for outsiders to accept a deity based on some personal experience (given Augustine, above), be it my own or anyone else’s, as revelation is necessarily first person (to paraphrase Paine). There is no way to determine whether a person who claims to be having a personal relationship with God is actually having one because the symptoms are the same as someone who is delusional, you may very well have a relationship with this being, but that is no basis for anyone else to accept it (and hence can’t be used as evidence).
Richard Carrier elaborates this position perfectly:
“If God wants something from me, he would tell me (emphasis added). He wouldn’t leave someone else to do this, as if an infinite being were short on time. And he would certainly not leave fallible, sinful humans to deliver an endless plethora of confused and contradictory messages. God would deliver the message himself, directly, to each and every one of us, and with such clarity as the most brilliant being in the universe could accomplish (emphasis added). We would all hear him out and shout “Eureka!” So obvious and well-demonstrated would his message be. It would be spoken to each of us in exactly those terms we would understand. And we would all agree on what that message was (emphasis added). Even if we rejected it, we would all at least admit to each other, “Yes, that’s what this God fellow told me.” (Carrier 2006)
Carrier makes a great point, that the confusion of the message to all believers (which all seem to lack any kind of revelation from perfection), the sheer number of deities and religions, sends a message, not that any religion is true, but that they are all manifestations of our fears and our desires to solve that which is outside our grasp. After all: “Not every religion can be true, but all of them can be untrue.” I’m going to discuss revelation and how that effects free will and seemingly corrupts the image of God as “loving” (after all, how can belief be one if not the criteria to get into heaven, and that belief be at least in part based on revelation, and how can I who has had no personal revelation, then be sent to hell for an honest search of the evidence and no revelation?) in a post based on an interview with Mike Licona on “Hell“.
Everything in the physical world that I accept is one of two things, observable and/or demonstrable, once God is, I’ll accept him (any philosophical positions I adopt are examined using logic, reason, scepticism, rationality etc). It is also important to note that I am not completely closed-minded to the existence of a god or gods (though this book is strongly worded, I don’t mean to offend), I personally don’t say there are no Gods, only that the presented evidence for Him/them thus far fails to meet the required, established burden of proof.
Michael martin- “Well known atheists of the past such as Baron d’Holbach (1770), Richard Carlie (1826), Charles Southwell (1842), Charles Bradlaugh (1876) and Anne Besant have assumed or explicitly characterized atheism in the negative sense of absence of belief in God. Furthermore, in the twentieth century George H. Smith, in Atheism: The Case Against God (1979), maintains, “An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that god does not exist; rather he does not believe in the existence of god.” Antony Flew, in “The Presumption of Atheism” (1972), understands an atheist as someone who is not a theist. Gordon Stein, in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (1980), says an atheist “is a person without a belief in God.” A recent pamphlet entitled ‘America Atheist: An Introduction” says an atheist “has no belief system” concerning supernatural agencies…..
George smith—-Consider the British atheist G.W. Foote editor of the Freethinker and the author of many books and articles on atheism. Foote’s atheism was scarcely of timid variety; convicted of blasphemy and sent to prison, his case provoked a young John Stuart Mill to write a passionate defence of religious freedom. Yet Foote repeatedly insisted that atheism is properly defined as the absence (or lack) of theistic belief, and not the denial of God’s existence. In a typical exchange, Foote challenged a critic to “refer me to one Atheist who denies the existence of God.” The atheist is a person without belief in a god; “that is all the ‘A’ before ‘Theist’ really means.”
This was the view of Charles Bradlaugh, the most influential atheist in Victorian England. In The Freethinkers Textbook (1876), after noting that the meaning of “atheism” had been “continuously misrepresented,” Bradlaugh went on to say: “Atheism is without God. It does not assert there is no God.” Similarly, in Why I Do Not Believe In God (1887) Annie Besant defined atheism as “without God.”
No historian has yet undertaken a thorough investigation of this negative definition, so we don’t know when it came into common use, but we do see traces of it as early as the seventeenth century. For example, John Locke, in Essays concerning human understanding (1690), cited travel accounts that reported “whole nations” of atheists, “Amongst whom there was to be found no notion of a God, no religion.”The negative definition also appears in the first comprehensive defence of atheism, Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770). “All children are atheists,” according to d’Holbach, because “they have no idea of God.”
Christian scholar Robert Flint understood that atheism, as defined for many decades by prominent atheists, is negative rather than positive in character. In Agnosticism (1903), Flint pointed out that the atheist “is not necessarily a man who says, There is no God.” On the contrary, this “positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds…..” The atheist is simply a person “who does not believe that there is a God,” and this absence may stem from nothing more than “want of knowledge that there is a God.” Flint concludes: “The word atheist is a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term. It means one who does not believe in God, and it means neither more nor less.”
As the Freethinker blog states:
“A theist gnostic is someone who believes in god/gods and thinks that the existence of gods can be known. This position is usually referred to as just ‘theist‘, since people who believe in gods, usually also think that their existence can be known.
A theist agnostic is someone who believes in gods, but thinks that they could not know for sure that their god exists. Another fairly unusual position, as people who have faith in gods usually also think that their god can be known to be real.
An atheist agnostic is someone who does not believe in gods and also thinks that the existence of gods cannot be known. This might mean that they don’t believe in gods because they haven’t seen any evidence that supports their existence.
An atheist gnostic is someone who does not believe in gods, and who thinks that we can know that gods do not exist. A fairly unusual position, they might think they have found proof of the non-existence of gods, or might have been persuaded by life experiences.” (The Freethinker- http://freethinker.co.uk/2009/09/25/8419/).
Augustine K., (2001). A Defense of Naturalism. 16/01/2011. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_augustine/thesis.html#distinction
Barker D., (1992). Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. Freedom From Religion Foundation. Pp. 99.
Carrieri R., (2006). Why I Am Not a Christian. 18/01/2011. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/whynotchristian.html
Christina G., (2009). Eleven myths and truths about atheists. 15/01/2011. http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/03/myths-and-truths-.html
Dawkins R., (2008). The God Delusion. Great Britain. Bantam Press. Pp- 18-19.
Flew A.G.N., Edwards E., (1984). God, Freedom, and Immortality. Prometheus Books. Pp. 14.
Harris S., (2006). 10 myths—and 10 Truths—About Atheism. 15/01/2011. http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/10-myths-and-10-truths-about-atheism1/
Loftus J.W., (2009). The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (edited John W. Loftus). Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. Pp-98.
Martin M. (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia. Temple University Press. Pp- 463-4.
McGrew T., (2010). Timothy McGrew on ECREE (Victor Reppert’s Blog: Dangerous Idea). 14/02/11. http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2010/12/timothy-mcgrew-on-ecree.html
Murray M. (2010). The Atheist’s Primer. Ontario, Canada. Broadview Press. Pp-24-25.
Smith G. H., (2000). Why Atheism? Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. Pp 18-24.
Stein H., (1980). An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism. Prometheus Books. Pp. 3.
The Freethinker Blog (author unknown). 14/02/2011. http://freethinker.co.uk/2009/09/25/8419/
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