Do New Atheists Unjustifiably Shirk Their Burden For Evidence?

Michael Antony has an interesting but problematic article in Philosophy Now exploring whether “New Atheism” holds itself to a double standard when it comes to rules of evidence. He argues that New Atheists dismiss religious belief explicitly on “evidentialist” epistemic criteria whereby we must always proportion our belief to evidence, but at the same time, they do not hold their own atheism up to that same standard of evidential warrant for belief.  Of course, here at Camels With Hammers, I have argued countless time for the evidentialist standard for belief, making it the central refrain of the blog’s centerpiece, the on-going “Disambiguating Faith” series.  So, I am implicated in Antony’s charge of hypocrisy and failure according to my own standards of evidence.  So can I, and others like me, refute this charge?  Let’s start with Antony’s specious formulation of the charge:

But what of the New Atheists’ atheism – their belief that there is no god or other divine reality? According to evidentialism, that belief (with whatever degree of confidence it is held) also requires evidence in order to be rational. However, the New Atheists tend not to worry much about providing evidence. Although they sometimes offer arguments – ‘the problem of evil’, Dawkins’ ‘Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit’ in The God Delusion, and a few others – overall, those arguments play a minor role in their attacks. Far more central is their repeated insistence that because religious belief lacks evidence, it is irrational and so should be abandoned.

We are clearly off to a bizarre start to the article when Antony dismisses the actual arguments that “New Atheists” offer as not counting as evidence simply because the focus in atheist attacks is usually on (a) the paucity of evidence for religious positions and (b) the irrational means of forming religious beliefs which make them, if not untrue, at least unjustified in principle.  Just because one’s argumentative emphasis is on pointing out the flaws in your opponent’s arguments does not mean that the constructive evidence you offer for your own position is not sufficient to warrant belief in it.  Waving away the evidence against an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god that comes from the problem of evil as not evidence for atheism (at least atheism towards that particular god possibility) is to trivialize what there is plenty of reason to think is a conclusive argument in favor of at least a limited kind of atheism.

But, moving on, Antony isolates 5 key ways in which he thinks that New Atheists try to avoid holding their atheism to the evidentialist standards to which they hold religious beliefs, according to which they would have to proportion their beliefs to evidence.  The first position New Atheists advance which he takes to be a dodge is the idea that “lack of belief is not a belief” and, so, “atheism is not a belief”.  Antony rejects this argument in the following way:

It is often said by atheists that atheism is not a positive position at all – a belief or worldview – but merely a disbelief in theism, a refusal to accept what the theist believes, and as such, there is no belief or position for there to be evidence for. Evidence is not needed for ‘non-positions’.

While the word ‘atheism’ has been used in something like this sense (see for example Antony Flew’s article ‘The Presumption of Atheism’), it is a highly non-standard use.

So what if this is a traditionally non-standard use?  This is no argument at all against delimiting our understanding of atheism going forward so that it is more cautious and consistent with the evidentialism with which Antony is saying atheism cannot reconcile itself.  If he wants to attack the New Atheists, then he cannot ignore their relatively new emphases and redefinitions of atheism as though these are irrelevant for being traditionally non-standard!  He has to explore what the implications of what this New Atheism would be and not hold it to the shortcomings of the traditional understanding of the word.

And to say the “lack of belief” characterization of atheism is non-standard is to ignore how pervasively influential this New Atheist emphasis has been among what we might call “movement atheists” all over the internet (including me) who regularly repeat this meme, from major YouTubers like Qualia Soup and NonStampCollector to high profile bloggers like Greta Christina and PZ Myers.  These may not be traditional philosophers but they are clearly representative of the New Atheist movement and the movement, in all media in which I have encountered it, is redefining its understanding of what atheism is and is not.

Further, it is important to point out that the emphasis on atheism not entailing any other specific “worldview” conclusions is crucial to avoid confused arguments that somehow make the truth or falsity of the atheistic position hinge on other positions, to which only particular atheists or atheistic movements might ascribe, which are not actually either logically dependent upon atheism or whose truth or falsity makes no difference to the truth or falsity of atheism.  The simple rejection of all beliefs in gods does not necessarily entail any particular view of politics, ethics, science, etc.  Too many times the falsehood of beliefs which are neither necessary premises for concluding that there is no God nor necessary entailments of that belief are wrongly taken to somehow refute atheism.

Communists may be atheists with an atrociously stupid and immoral political history but their communism is neither a necessary premise for becoming an atheist nor at all an inevitable entailment of one.  By emphasizing that atheism simpliciter is a “non-worldview” and a “non-position” on a range of issues, New Atheists usually are not attempting to deny that atheism has any content whatsoever, but rather an attempt to emphasize that it is a viewpoint that is compatible with a range of other perspectives and, unlike the religions which it opposes, does not have any inherent pretensions to give people a comprehensive picture of the world.  There can be such constructive, deliberately atheistic conceptions of things, but the particular standpoint of atheism itself does not automatically commit oneself to any such conceptions such that if they turn out to be false atheism too is necessarily undermined.

But back to Antony’s main point of attack in dismissing the insistence that atheism is simply a “lack of belief” and not a robust world view:  It is my view that the New Atheist movement must be refuted on their own terms if they are going to be refuted by reference to an internal contradiction as Antony wants.  And anyway, what would be wrong with defining atheism as a lack of belief in gods rather than as a positive belief there are no gods?  Antony’s answer is that

So understood, atheism would include agnosticism, since agnostics are also not theists.

But what is wrong with including agnostics among atheists?  I think agnostics are forms of atheists (unless they are agnostic theists) since by default lacking any belief in gods leads them to opt out of religious commitments to gods, and be, from a religious point of view, atheists, people who live without all gods and, so, decline from worshiping them.  Belief and non-belief in gods is not some purely abstract issue.  It has direct bearing on one’s relationship to theistic religion.

The real defining characteristic of atheism, as far as I’m concerned, is one’s rejection of, or abstention from, religious devotion to a god or gods and to religious institutions and practices which define such devotion.  This is why atheists have long adopted figures like Spinoza, Voltaire, and Jefferson as essentially our own in the most important matters.

We have rarely cared to vehemently oppose people’s metaphysical speculations on whether or not there is some unitary eternal causal principle (whether within or outside of the perceivable universe) which causes the observable features of our experience to exist.  Yes, some atheists are concerned to oppose the philosophers’ “God” concepts as ultimately not explanatory or as dismissable unless it can acquire a verified scientific formulation or as being too vaguely conceived to be meaningful or as requiring positive evidence to be at all believable.

But atheists’ primary concern has seemingly always been on the sorts of personal gods whom people worship, from whom people claim to take orders, and on whose behalf people presume to impose questionable codes of moral or legal conduct with severe emotional, physical, and/or even legal consequences for disbelief, dissent, and disobedience.

And a principled agnostic is not someone whose mind is simply not made up about religion, but rather someone who opposes religious belief on principle as presumptuous, unfounded speculations, and who rejects positive assertions both that there evidently is a God and that there is evidently no God of some metaphysically sophisticated stripe.  But even as that agnostic leaves open the possibility of some metaphysically plausible God principle, she almost has to positively reject religious claims of divine intervention, miracles, prophetic inspiration, sacred texts, efficacious rituals for divine appeasement, etc., as all clearly matters about which to positively reject belief and to hold an explicit position of disbelief.  Unless the agnostic is going to abandon all standards of evidence whatsoever and hold no god-related propositions, however fanciful, as likely enough false to explicitly reject as probably false, the agnostic’s own high standards of evidence will almost certainly preclude belief in any of the fantastic claims which make beliefs at all  characteristically religious.

The traditionally conceived agnostic, defined by Huxley himself, is simply far too skeptical to be anything but a de facto atheist about everything that characterizes religion except the small sliver of metaphysical abstraction that is of conceivable philosophical merit and not merely a legacy of primeval superstition.

Finally, as I have argued before at length, atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive because they are positions about different issues.  Agnosticism is a position about the epistemic status of the question of the possible existence of a god or gods.  Atheism is just the lack of belief in a god or gods.  The agnostic’s viewpoint of the epistemic status of the god question is that, for some specific god proposal or set of god proposals, the evidence is too inconclusive to make a knowledge claim either way.

The agnostic essentially argues that there is neither sufficient evidence to warrant saying, with implicit presumption of knowledge, that “There is a God (or gods) of specifiable type X”, nor adequate warrant for saying, with the implicit presumption of knowledge, that “There is no God or gods (as conceived of under some plausible formulations).”  Just because the agnostic thinks that some god hypothesis or hypotheses cannot be ruled out with sufficient warrant to constitute knowledge that such a god or gods do not exist does not mean that the evidences for all god hypotheses are plausible enough that no possible gods can be ruled out with justification.

Put simply, traditional agnostics can be revealed to be in fact only qualified atheists who think we cannot know one way or another whether some particular god conceptions might not be true but who nonetheless think there are justified reasons to say we know that others are not true.  So, in this way, the agnostic–even on the confused, traditional conception wherein agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive positions–may be both agnostic with respect to some gods and atheistic with respect to others.  Yet Antony goes on:

However, on the common understanding of atheism – no divine reality of any kind exists – atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive. Some insist that this non-standard sense of ‘atheism’ is the only possible sense, because a-theism means without theism. But if that were a good argument, the Space Shuttle would be an automobile, since it moves on its own (mobile=move, auto=by itself). Ditto for dogs and cats.

Again appeal to “common understanding” is an illegitimate way to dismiss your specific opponent who is introducing a key distinction to avoid the very internal contradiction of which you are accusing him.  The “New Atheists” are conscientious about proportioning belief to evidence and so they weaken the claim that there is no god or gods to a claim that they simply lack belief in a god or gods.  They do this so that they do not commit themselves to a stronger belief claim than the evidence warrants with respect to particular plausible god conceptions.  But they often, I think, have a positive belief that Yahweh is as fictional as Zeus and so are “gnostic” atheists who think they have knowledge on that point (and why shouldn’t they?  why is Yahweh any less obviously a projection of ancient, superstitious, mythic human minds than Zeus is?)

But when it comes to a thus far hopelessly irresolvable mystery like where being comes from, they are essentially agnostics (or at least I am) and say that without sufficient positive evidence to posit an entity (or to say anything more determinate and clear about such an entity than “whatever it is and whether or not it is a feature of known reality, it somehow causes known existence to be”), that one’s default position should be to lack a knowledge belief in such a divine being.

The analogy to space shuttles is silly.  Under a certain conception space shuttles are automobiles if we define the word as referring to any machines that move by themselves. There is nothing inherently ridiculous about using the same broad word to describe both cars and space shuttles if they share some essential and contextually relevant feature in common (and they do share numerous features in common).  We can call them both “vehicles” and “inventions” and “pieces of technology” and “means of transportation”.  We could even call them both “automobiles” if we really wanted to, but we just have a convention that makes that sound silly.  We have equated the “automobile” with only one type of thing that could be called an “automobile” but that does not mean there is any a priori way to rule out space shuttles as unfit for having the word apply to them were our conventions just different.

So, language is helpfully flexible in that it allows us to have both broad terms for referring to large classes of things which all share a distinguishable, contextually relevant feature, and narrow terms for referring to very specific species of things.  I have always like the coined term “Weapons of Mass Destruction” to cover a wide range of threatening devices that might be deployed.  Nuclear weapons and biochemical weapons and “dirty bombs”, etc. all fit a common umbrella of “Weapons of Mass Destruction”.  And the debate about whether or not Saddam Hussein was a significant threat revolved not around whether he necessarily had or was making nuclear weapons specifically but whether or not he had or was making any of a range of sufficiently threatening weapons.  So, the term, “Weapons of Mass Destruction” was the most relevantly descriptive for defining what the debate was about.

And if we were talking about transport devices in general then a category that includes space shuttles and cars alike, “vehicles”, is wholly a propos. If we want to talk about something more specific we can narrow our terms.

And in the case of atheism, the catch-all use of atheism to cover all who are “without theism” is the most relevant distinction because it covers all who will not be worshipping gods or submitting to god-based religious institutions, authorities, and arguments in their thinking and behavior.  This makes them all people living without gods, which is the relevant contrast to theistic religious people.  “New Atheists” are opposing religion, not really the barest metaphysical abstractions that have no impact on science, morality, culture, or politics. It is because theism is uniquely culturally relevant among metaphysical positions due to its tight connection with theistic religion, that living without gods is the most salient feature that unites atheists.  This is more important than where they stand on the technical question of whether or not the metaphysical arguments reasons for not being a theist also convincingly prove there can be no gods at all.

The agnostic and atheist difference on whether the God question should be abandoned as unsolvable or answered in the negative is an abstract epistemic debate between de facto metaphysical atheists and simple atheists by religious standards since they have no god-based religion. The defining criteria for defining atheism then is the implicit or explicit rejection of, or abstention from, all god-worship and from all other commitments to deity-based religion, belief, and practice.

Antony’s final argument against the case that “atheism is not a belief” is that regardless of whether or not this is true it does not even matter because the New Atheists actually do not just lack a belief in God but in fact positively think there is no God or gods and so they must meet the standards of their own putatively evidentialist epistemology in order to hold this positive belief.  They are, in my terminology at least, “gnostic atheists”—atheists who do think they can have justified reasons for affirming the proposition “there is no god or gods”.    As Antony puts the point in his own words:

Yet none of that really matters, for even the non-standard sense of ‘atheism’ does nothing to neutralize evidentialism’s demand for evidence. As we saw, evidentialism applies to all ‘doxastic’ attitudes toward a proposition P: believing P, believing not-P, suspending judgment about P, etc. Therefore evidentialism says, with respect to the proposition God exists, that any attitude toward it will be rational or justified if and only if it fits one’s evidence. Now it is true that if one had no position whatever regarding the proposition God exists (perhaps because one has never entertained the thought), no evidence would be required for that non-position. But the New Atheists all believe that (probably) no God or other divine reality exists. Andthat belief must be evidence-based if it is to be rationally held, according to evidentialism. So insisting that atheism isn’t a belief doesn’t help.

In what follows I will use ‘atheism’ in its standard sense.

First of all the qualification that there is probably no God or other divine realities is a statement according to which the New Atheists at least attempt to  proportion their beliefs to the evidence. This means that they are not shirking evidence standards for themselves.  Antony can challenge whether the New Atheists’ standards of evidence are adequate or whether they have sufficient evidence according to those standards.  He will partially go on to argue thusly in his last 4 charges that the New Atheists avoid evidence.

But the fact that they appeal to the probability that there is no God or other divine realities indicates that they do not presume to believe any more than they think evidential justification allows.  Maybe in practice they fail to live up to this standard of evidence-constrained belief, but they do not willfully shirk the standard as Antony seems to be saying they do.

So, the subsequent grounds on which Antony thinks that the atheists are shirking evidence (by putting the burden of proof on believers, by saying that you cannot prove a negative, by employing Ockham’s Razor, and by taking an absence of evidence to be an evidence of absence) are each ways of attaining a probable conclusion that there is no God, which means, ways of finding out what the lion share of the evidence points towards and proportioning one’s belief to match the preponderance of the evidence with a relative degree of certainty which only matches its relative degree of conclusiveness.

Finally, it is worth making a distinction that Antony does not allow and which possibly the New Atheists do not develop clearly enough.  In saying that there is “probably no God (or other ‘divine realities’)”, I take the New Atheists primarily to be referring to the God of religious belief and, again, not necessarily some very abstract, impersonal, and limited notion of a principle as to why something exists rather than nothing.  It is quite possible that most atheists are like me and are merely agnostic atheists who “lack a belief” (or at least lack a confident enough, justified belief) either way about what such a principle might be and therefore are agnostic atheists, atheists by default, on that particular kind of “divine reality”.

It is consistent for these atheists to “lack belief” in that God, while simultaneously being gnostic atheists who are willing to positively say, “there probably are no personal, intelligently designing, divinely intervening, incarnating, avatar-producing, book-writing, moral-code-giving, worship demanding, prayer answering, loving and/or damning gods as inferred through either superstitious or inadequate scientific means and conceived of in traditional religious categories, within traditionally structured religious institutions.  That whole pantheon of mythic and scientifically undermined god conceptions is counter-indicated by enough evidence that a proportional belief can conclude they do not exist as a matter of knowledge.

And, remember, the evidentialist burden of proof is not certainty, but rather proportion of belief to evidence.  Gnostic atheists, atheists who think they know that particular god conceptions are false, only need to have enough evidence for a justified belief to be entitled to make their knowledge claims.  As long as they temper their belief statements in accord with the proportion of their evidence and say there probably are no gods of the religiously imagined types, based on the numerous reasons to doubt there are such beings, they are entitled to their knowledge claims on the terms of their own evidentialist epistemological standards.  They may yet be wrong, but they are not holding themselves to a double standard in principle.

But I have already written more than I hoped I would have to on Antony’s first charge of evidence shirking among the New Atheists and so I will have to save replies to the other 4 charges for another post or two.

In the meantime, Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    If I’m sitting comfortably on my front porch (which would mean it was spring or fall) and a Christian comes up to me and tells me God exists, why would I then have to prove he didn’t? Why would I even care? That being said, if the Christian is sitting on his front porch and I come up to him and tell him God doesn’t exist then I should be equally ready to present my case.

  • Buffy

    I don’t have to provide evidence for the non-existence of gods any more than I have to provide evidence for the non-existence of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or pink unicorns. I’m not making an affirmative claim about them–I’m merely rejecting the claim of those who are–so I’m not the one with the burden of proof.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Well you are making an affirmative claim if you say they do not exist. Or are you just saying you “lack belief” in Santa Claus but are not willing to commit to saying “Santa Claus does not exist.” I for one am willing to say Santa Claus does not exist and there’s evidence for the proposition that makes it a knowledge claim. And I’m willing to say more than that I lack belief in Yahweh and the incarnate Christ but that Yahweh does not exist and Christ was not an incarnate godman (if he was a real man at all). I am willing to say those are matters of knowledge, not just “beliefs I lack”, in which case, Antony is write about one thing—I need to provide evidence, for those positive claims. And, gladly, I think there’s plenty of it.

    But, Buffy, are you willing to say there is no Yahweh and Christ was not an incarnate godman and that you know these things or are you only going to say you lack belief in them?

  • James Gray

    Depends what “evidence” means. Parsimony/Simplicity/Occam’s Razor (the teapot argument) isn’t really evidence that God doesn’t exist, but the idea is that we should disbelieve in God despite not being able to give empirical evidence that God doesn’t exist. You can’t show that God is nowhere in the universe in particular and therefore doesn’t exist.

  • Hitch

    Before I say that god doesn’t exist or I reject the belief in such a god, or I cannot say either way, I want a definition I can do something with. The burden of definition is with the one who introduces a category.

  • Andrew

    Wow, quite the tirade! :-)

    Even if this is only addressing the first point, I think you are hitting the new crux of the situation. The problem of changing the language is key here for sure.

    But to be fair, the phrase “Newly-Defined Atheist” wouldn’t sell that well, really (“gnostic atheist” might though). It may be more academically accurate in the sense that the “New Atheists” are trying to steer the conversation in a ‘new’ direction. However, to contain it within a purely academic discussion would be bad PR.

    When I was first introduced to the New Atheists, I wasn’t that impressed because many of their points had been brought up before, even in Theological College 50 years ago (ok, maybe only some colleges…). But now that I see the public conversation changing as much as the academic conversation, I am much more intrigued with where they are going.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks Andrew, I hope to be a part of both those conversations.

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Odd, this whole comment thread showed up in Google Reader today.