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Posted by on Mar 6, 2014 in Atheism | 10 comments

Nonbelief or Disbelief?

 

It’s worth reading this post by Mike Dobbins (a theist apologist) about whether atheists have a mere lack of belief in the existence of God, or a belief in the non-existence of God.

Atheists stating atheism is nothing more than a ‘lack of belief in God’ are simply using that definition as a cop-out.  They are hiding behind an impotent definition of atheism so they won’t have to confront what they actually believe about God.  Atheists are quite willing to accept they have disbeliefs regarding other supernatural phenomenon and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  It is time they became reconciled to the fact that they they don’t believe in God as well.

 

I think this is fair. I’m certainly willing to lay my cards on the table and make the stronger of the two claims – that I disbelieve in God. That is, I believe there is no god (reasonably defined) of any kind.

I do, however, see a place for the ‘lacking belief in God’ definition when describing atheists as a whole. What is the necessary condition that someone must satisfy in order to correctly be described as an atheist? In my opinion, it should be that they don’t believe in God, not that they disbelieve in God. In practice of course, most atheists probably do hold a belief that there are no gods, but I would still resist the idea that someone can deduce what someone believes solely on account of their being an atheist.

As far as the charge of “cop-out” goes, I would perhaps agree. It’s one thing to attack your opponents arguments, but it is a much harder task to put forward your own and defend them. I have come across plenty of atheists who claim they only lack belief in God, and some who bizarrely claim to lack any beliefs at all! I suspect the latter is down to them defining “belief” as some proposition held to be true in the absence of evidence, or as a synonym for “faith”, but this just isn’t a reasonable definition.

Finally, on a related note, just because an atheist believes that God doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that they ought to defend it every time we question or debate a theist. It is fine to demonstrate that theism fails, or that the arguments for theism fail. If successful, we’ll be in a state of ‘lacking belief’. If we then want to take that to the next level and challenge ourselves, let’s let the theist hold our disbelief up to scrutiny just as we’ve done to their belief. There’s nothing of value to be lost by questioning ourselves.

 

  • http://www.theaunicornist.com Mike D

    These discussions are tiresome. It’s trivially true that I lack belief in a God or gods, since I do not hold a positive belief that a God or gods exist. The only reason theists think this is a cop-out is because it’s taken that anything can have a lack of belief, including, I dunno, rocks and babies. But I always operated on the assumption that we all agreed we were talking about rational adults with the capacity to reason and evaluate evidence.

    In any case, I have a lack of belief; I disbelieve; and, I don’t believe a God or gods exist. I just don’t see how any of those statements are meaningfully distinct.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Well I distinguish ‘don’t believe’ and ‘disbelieve’ by saying that the former is a statement about belief about God’s existence and the latter is a statement about God’s existence. The former might be reduced to ~B(G) and the latter B(~G) where B signifies belief and G signifies the existence of God.

    I think theists (perhaps rightly) think that the former can be a cop-out is when an atheist who believes that God doesn’t exist avoids debating that issue because “atheism is a lack of belief”. In my view, whether disbelieving in God can be justified or not is an interesting question, but you rarely see it tackled. I think the “cop-out” is an explanation for this in some instances.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    BTW I’m only following the quoted author’s use of “disbelieve”. I think the word’s meaning can be confusing – that’s why I usually frame it in terms of “lack belief that X” vs “believe ~X”

  • kraut2

    Really – I just give a shit – no, even less than that, because my shit can tell me about my health – if a god of whatever provenance exists or not. Nobody has anything that even approaches evidence that something like a god of whatever provenance exists. All the logical premises brought forward lack exactly the same – prior evidence.
    The question of god to me is only interesting because of some of the more or less ridiculous arguments brought forward why this or that god should exist.
    Other than that – I rather contemplate the question of the existence of the perfect pizza. I just have to formulate the parameters.

  • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

    There is also an important sense in which “lack of belief” is used, and that is in more stringent philosophical discussions in which the burden of proof is a key element. Whenever we use a more exacting standard of evaluation than casual lay conversation, BOP starts to matter.

    To say “lack belief” is a way of emphasizing that an atheistic position (perhaps a mere side effect of metaphysical naturalism) makes fewer suppositions making it the rightful, but provisional, default position.

  • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

    Adults capable of reason can also lack belief in God because they may have never been exposed to such an idea (e.g. the Piraha people). Such people can not rightly be said to “disbelieve” in God (in the transitive form of the verb).

  • im-skeptical

    I think atheism is not a belief system. Most atheists also have some kind of belief system or metaphysical view, such as materialism. The atheism, in its own right, doesn’t imply any belief, but their metaphysical view defines what they believe. Atheism is not a cop-out, but if you deny any metaphysical view, that may be a cop-out.

  • http://www.theaunicornist.com Mike D

    I concur that’s a useful distinction if someone’s anal about semantics, but I think that the reason it arises in most apologetic arguments is out of a lack of charity – everyone in these discussions are rational adults who have been exposed to a litany of god-concepts. And hey, we can still say we lack belief in God in all its anal semantic glory because there are an infinite number of potential god-concepts we haven’t been introduced to.

  • http://www.theaunicornist.com Mike D

    Agreed. I’d add though that most of these problems stem from the ambiguity of how God is conceptualized.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Dictionaries of common usage report both meanings. Macmillan has “someone who believes God does not exist” while Collins has “a person who does not believe in God or gods.” Houghton-Mifflin splits the difference: “One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.”

    I’m fine with either usage, as long as you’re upfront and clear about it. It could well be a cop-out for someone who sincerely believes all gods are fictional to fall back on mere lack of belief when challenged.