Thursday, January 27, 2005

The new atheism

After listening to and reading a whole bunch of debates on the existence of God, I have noticed that an unusual amount of time gets spent dealing with this idea of “burden of proof.” The rule in formal debates is that the burden of proof is on he who asserts. If you make a claim, then the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate the truth of your claim.

Nobody denies that the theist has the burden of proof in these debates. He asserts that God exists, so it’s up to him to make arguments to support his assertion. But theists will often claim that atheists also share the burden of proof since they are making an assertion. They are, say the theists, asserting that God does not exist, and they must make arguments to support that assertion.

As soon as theists try to shift the burden of proof onto the atheists, the debate immediately begins to revolve around the meaning of “atheism.” The usual meaning most people associate with atheism is the belief that there is no God. If you ask the average atheist on the street, that’s exactly what they’ll tell you, too. So it’s become a widely accepted definition.

But there’s been a trend among atheist intellectuals to avoid the burden of proof by giving a different meaning to the word “atheism.” According to them, atheism doesn’t mean a belief in the non-existence of God. Rather, it simply means a lack of belief in God. Since they define atheism as an absence of a belief in the existence God rather than the presence of a belief in the non-existence of God, they aren’t asserting anything. They aren’t asserting that God doesn’t exist, just that they lack any belief that he does. Since they aren’t asserting anything, they have no burden of proof. All they have to do is offer rebuttals to the theists’ arguments, but they don’t have to prove any claim of their own.

At this point, the theist will say, “But that’s not atheism. That’s agnosticism!” That brings me to the whole point of this blog. Atheists aren’t giving enough information to really settle this dispute, and this disputes never gets settled in these debates. Both sides eventually drop it after wasting a lot of their time. But it seems to me there's a simple way to settle the dispute, and that's to have the atheist answer a simple question.

Agnosticism is a position of neutrality. It means lack of knowledge. Agnostics don’t know whether God exists or not. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t; they don’t know either way. So Agnostics lack any belief in the existence of God, but they also have a lack of any belief in the non-existence of God.

Atheists, on the other hand, have a lack of belief in God, but they don’t say anything about the status of their belief or lack thereof in the non-existence of God. Do they think God exists? No. Do they think God does not exist? This new definition of atheism leaves that question unanswered.

Do you see the difference between agnosticism and atheism? Lemme break it down:

Agnosticism: lack of belief in the existence of God; lack of belief in the non-existence of God.
Atheism: lack of belief in the existence of God.

The question I would like to put to the next atheist who tells me he has a lack of belief in God is this: “Do you also have a lack of belief in the non-existence of God?” If he says, “Yes,” then he’s agnostic. He lacks a belief in God, and he also lacks a belief in the non-existence of God. He just doesn’t have an opinion one way or the other. But if he says, “No,” then he’s an atheist by the ordinary street definition of the word. If he does not lack a belief in the non-existence of God, then he HAS a belief in the non-existence of God, which is exactly what the theists have been saying all along. Atheism entails the belief that God does not exist. If he is defending atheism, and atheism consists of a belief in the non-existence of God, then the theists were right all along to insist that the atheists must share in the burden of proof.

At least that’s true in formal debates. I want to say something in my next blog about the absurdity of arguing over the burden of proof outside of formal debates.

2 Comments:

At 1/08/2010 6:39 PM , Blogger Chris said...

I totally agree, 100%. Good writing.

 
At 4/26/2014 3:20 PM , Blogger Stefan Keys said...

No, I am sorry but I have to disagree with you. Agnosticism is a position regarding knowledge, an agnostic claims that he has no knowledge of whether God exists or not. Atheism and Theism are two positions regarding a persons belief. An atheist claims that he does not believe in God and a theist claims that he does not believe in God. You can be a theist and an agnostic (most Europeans are like that) and by that I mean that you can believe in God even if you're not absolutely sure that he exists. You can also be an atheist and an agnostic and by that I mean that you can refrain from believing in God because you are not absolutely sure that he exists. Most theists and atheists who are intelligent do not claim to know whether they absolutely know whether God exists or not ( because they don't know that and they know that they don't know that).

 

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