Clarification of an Argument for Atheism

What follows is an excerpt from my book (Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith), specifically a section from Chapter 20: Uneven Ground, about a double standard in arguments about atheism. The double standard is that one side gets exacting scrutiny, while the other side too often gets a pass.

I made reference to the argument — “As I explained in my book …” —  in my most recent post, Beta Culture: Proposing A New Definition of Atheism, but so briefly I wasn’t sure it was clear. Hopefully this will help:

Millions of people who would otherwise be full-blown atheists self-identify as “agnostics” because, even though they’re pretty darned sure there are no such things as 3-part gods and holy virgins who amuse themselves by appearing on freeway overpasses, they feel ouchy about making what they consider to be a logically-insupportable statement to that effect. “Well, if I don’t search the entire universe and determine for myself that it contains no Parrot-Headed Jimmy Buffet Goddess, I can’t logically support the assertion that there is no such thing. So I guess I’ll have to keep quiet and allow for the reasonable doubt that She Of The Green Feathers might really exist somewhere.”

My point is this: in the loosely-argued domain of personal faith – which is where all statements of religion are made – the assertion of atheism is equally justified.

If you’re not going to apply the strict standards of logic and proof to the first one, you can’t single out the second one for harsh scrutiny. That would be like waving a white job applicant through while forcing the black applicant to undergo a battery of strict tests.

In this loose domain of personal faith, the two are equally supportable – there is a god, there is no god – and you can “believe” either one with perfect justification. Yet our civilization is seriously slanted to favor one, reject the other. So much so that if you attempt to equate the two, or assert the no-god position, you seem to be radically slanted the other way.

Atheism – in the domain of personal faith – is as justified as any other “belief.”

But there’s this other domain, isn’t there? The one where both assertions – god/no-god – have to pass the stricter real-world test?

I need to go off on a slight tangent here, to talk about the couple of different flavors of atheism.

What I’ll call “hard atheism” is the definitive statement “There are no such things as gods.” This is active disbelief, the certainty that these mystical superbeings don’t exist.

“Soft atheism” is the slightly less definitive statement “No specific god or gods have been proven to exist, and it’s a mistake to actively believe in them until there’s some proof.” This is more like “I’d be willing to consider that they might exist, but only if some supporting evidence shows up.”

My own feeling is that, after 20,000 years or so, and among the 8 billion or so humans ever to live on Planet Earth, if nobody has yet provided any concrete evidence for the existence of one or more of these gods, then for every practical human purpose the second statement is indistinguishable from the first. If you’re the least bit non-belief-prone, there’s no use wasting your personal time on the question of God’s existence until the sky opens up and an angry 70-foot-tall Zeus steps down with lightning in his fists. (Well, of course it’s going to be Zeus. What, you thought it would be that Jesus character?)

But back to this matter of logic and evidence: There’s an interesting little side-issue that few religious people consider when the question of God comes up, something that lives at the heart of proof itself.

Let me explain something about the mechanics of proof. If you believe a thing, say that All Men Are Dogs, you can’t prove the truth of that statement by getting a bunch of your sorority sisters together specifically for the purpose of talking about what dogs men are.  You can’t do it that way because none of you, come to tell your own horror stories of Life Among the Dogs, are able to view the question objectively. Objective conclusions can’t happen when everybody weighing in has an axe to grind.

To really determine the truth of the matter, you have to turn the question over to someone objective. Get it? Someone who does not already believe that all men are dogs.

The judge of the statement might decide, after hearing your evidence, that all men are dogs. She might decide that all men are not dogs. She might decide that no men are dogs, or that some men are.

But she has to start by not believing your assertion that all men are dogs. Only from that position can she objectively consider the weight of the evidence … which you then have to deliver. If you don’t trot out the evidence, and a good, solid lot of it, your assertion can’t be considered true.

That’s the way reasoned argument works. Every question has to be weighed from the viewpoint of someone who has no axe to grind. Someone who doesn’t already believe in the conclusion the proponent hopes to advance with her arguments and evidence.

Perhaps without knowing it, you already agree with the point: No matter how devoutly religious you are and how much you might insist that everybody should automatically accept the existence of your god, if you come into court accused of a crime, you want the jury to start by not believing the charges made against you. All of us know full well that a juror who already believes the truth of the charges filed against the accused is not a fair juror, and a great deal of effort is made to see that those people don’t get into the jury box.

The only way to be sure each claim or assertion gets a fair hearing is to have a judge who starts with a mind clear of belief in any particular conclusion. A skeptical judge. A judge who says “I don’t believe you right now, but I’m open to convincing. Prove it.”

Whether you’re proving that all men are dogs, or that a Subaru Outback is the best car ever made, or that your specific God exists, that’s how proof works. You start with someone who doesn’t believe it.

Or, given the lack of an objective outside judge, you yourself have to start by assuming the assertion under scrutiny isn’t automatically true.

You can’t logically, rationally prove the existence of your god in a court that consists of nobody but other believers. You can only prove it, really Prove It in some sort of objective, rational terms, in a court not already convinced.

Which means, as I said: If there’s evidence, you have to trot it out. You can’t just say “Prove that he doesn’t exist.” You have to prove that he does.  Otherwise, it’s no proof at all, it’s just you and your friends doing a triumphant circle-jerk.

In the arena of reason and evidence, every statement has to survive on its own merits. Religion can’t get a free pass. Every religious belief has to pass through the court of skepticism, held to the same exacting standards of logic and reason, as any other assertion of truth.

In other words, religion has to be looked at from a viewpoint free of religious belief, and in that viewpoint religion has to prove itself.

Putting it still another way, the default state of a rational mind considering the truth of religion is one of unbelief. You start with the lack of belief, and then the believers have to prove their case.

Which means: Every time you have a conflict of one person who says “I don’t see any evidence that a supernatural superbeing exists,” and another guy who says “God is real,” it’s the second guy who has to trot out the evidence. The god-believer is the one who has to do the proving.

Which also means: In the real world of reason and logic, the default viewpoint in any argument about the existence of supernatural superbeings is unbelief. Which is to say, soft atheism.

Which also-also means: Atheism is always logically justified.

So …

People who hold atheism to what they think are strict standards of logic are already demonstrating a very high degree of illogic, first when they fail to use that exact same standard in judging – on that same field of argument – each and every claim of religion, and second, when they fail to realize that atheism – unbelief – is the starting point for any proof of the existence of gods.

So the next time someone says anything at all about their god, we should all chime in with “When you can offer objective evidence that your god exists, then we might be willing to talk about it. Until then, you can’t logically make such a statement.”

It’s only fair.

  • Jennifer Allen

    “What I’ll call ‘hard atheism’ is the definitive statement “There are no such things as gods.” This is active disbelief, the certainty that these mystical superbeings don’t exist.”

    That’s way off. No such atheists exist, or at least I’ve never met or heard of one. Yes, some atheists flatly deny some specific gods. For example, some atheists find the Christian god to be logically incoherent and factually impossible and thus certainly non-existant. But they won’t deny the god of Deism. “Unlikely,” they’ll say, “damn unlikely and wholly unnecessary, so the odds are a trillion-trillion agaist, but I can’t absolutely rule it out. My working assumption is that no gods exist, but if one shows up I’ll evauate the evidence.”

    “’Soft atheism’ is the slightly less definitive statement ‘No specific god or gods have been proven to exist, and it’s a mistake to actively believe in them until there’s some proof.’”

    That would be a reasonable description of what you call ‘hard atheism.’ Atheism simply means “Not a theist.” The so-called soft atheist doesn’t believe in any of the gods, and lets it go at that without bothering to assess relative probabilities. The position can come from lack of interest, lack of relevance, or whatever. It’s just MEH! So called soft atheism can also come from lack of evidence, but it’s never from lack of proof. Atheists understand that proof is impossible as long as time continues to march on.

    Other than the above, good post. Excellent post.

    • Hank Fox

      Heh. You’ve met one now! I’m a hard atheist of the type described.

      • Jennifer Allen

        Your certainty would seem to be a faith-based position, a belief. If so, Patheos is a suitable home. Are you familiar with asymptotes and asymptotic approaches to “truth” or “certainty”?

        • Hank Fox

          It would require a longish new post to answer you fully, but I don’t think my type of hard atheism is a “faith-based” position. The fact that it DOES seem so to you — to most of us — is an artifact of our growing up in an extremely goddy social environment. In a culture where we’re taught that everything is permeated with mystery, and that we don’t dare not see it that way, the lack of any least scrap of belief or doubt would seem just as mysterious.

          • Jennifer Allen

            “It would require a longish new post to answer you fully, but I don’t think my type of hard atheism is a “faith-based” position.”

            Then you must be very confident in your ability to preclude certain relevant discoveries during the infinite future.

            “The fact that it DOES seem so to you — to most of us — is an artifact of our growing up in an extremely goddy
            social environment. In a culture where we’re taught that everything is permeated with mystery, and that we don’t dare not see it that way, the lack of any least scrap of belief or doubt would seem just as mysterious.”

            I can’t decode that. You really do belong on Patheos.

            I’m out of here.

          • Hank Fox

            Ah. I thought we were having a conversation. I see you had the different goal of posting triumphant zingers.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs no santa

            She runs away when pressed to trot out any evidence for her statements. Maybe she doesn’t get what mysterious means?

  • Jennifer Allen

    I might add that one can be both a (what you call) hard and soft atheist at the same time and with various degrees of hardness and softness. I’m very hard re Judaism, Christianity, Islam, LDS, etc. Crazy stuff! I’m soft on the Deist god, and totally MEH on the others.


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