Not All Who “Lack Belief in Gods” Are Atheists

Not All Who “Lack Belief in Gods” Are Atheists October 9, 2014

1. On Those Atheists Who Claim Only to “Lack Belief” in Gods, Rather Than Positively Disbelieve in Gods or Know There are No Gods.

A lot of atheists say that atheism means simply a “lack of beliefs in gods” and that rather than either “disbelieve in gods” or affirm that no gods exist they rather just lack a belief in God. Sometimes they (falsely) imply that no atheists make stronger claims of disbelief than that even though some of us (like me) surely do claim to positively disbelieve in gods and some of us take that further and consider it a knowledge claim. Often the atheists who claim that they simply “lack a belief in gods” try to claim that they are committed to no positive contestable philosophical propositions anymore than their other “lacks of belief” (like in unicorns or a myriad of imaginable entities they’ve never even pondered) are positive contestable philosophical positions in need of defense.

Typically they frame their position in scientific terms instead. They claim God is a scientific hypothesis (or at least an empirically testable one, in principle–or that if it’s not, God is simply a meaningless word). And accordingly they use language that says they’re defaulting to atheism as the “null hypothesis”, remaining open to scientific evidence, and refraining from belief in the absence of any such evidence. Further they argue that anyone who does not believe in any gods thereby is an atheist (whether they like it or not). They claim none of this is taking a philosophical stance of any kind since they’re not making any definite metaphysical claims, but waiting for evidence before believing anything.

While I have always granted that the “lack of belief in gods” kind of atheism is a respectable theoretical competitor alongside the “disbelief in gods/know there are no personal gods” types that are closer to my own position, it’s become clear to me of late that there are some who lack belief in gods and yet should not called atheists. And, further, anyone who “lacks belief” in the right way to be accurately called an atheist is taking various philosophical stands, whether they like it or not. Those stands are grounded more in views on epistemology than metaphysics. By this I mean that their stance, whether implicitly or explicitly, is about what kinds of things are knowable or not in principle, what kinds of evidence count as justifying, what kind of philosophy of science we should have, and, most importantly, what standards allow one properly to believe, disbelieve, or deliberately refrain from believing in lieu of evidence.

And, let’s not kid ourselves, an atheist thoughtful enough about the issues and familiar enough with atheist literature or the atheist movement to frame themselves as “merely lacking belief in gods” is typically an atheist who cares about and thinks about atheism quite a bit and is more likely than not going to have armloads of positive arguments from philosophy (and ones extrapolating from science and history) to say that God does not exist and to, in practice, outright disbelieve in God, irrespective of their principled claims to “simply lacking belief”. These are people who regularly make aggressive arguments for unbelief. They think all manner of positive religious beliefs falsified, groundless, absurd, contradictory, and/or even laughable. They have dozens of arguments against God plausibly existing and positive counter-arguments to theist apologist’s points.

I have a hard time thinking that all such people who claim they merely lack belief in gods and don’t disbelieve really carry through on this suspension of belief mindset. It’s certainly not evidenced in their statements or their behaviors. Their abstract epistemology, their gestures at austere humility, and their leeriness of adopting philosophical positions or being subject to the burden of evidence for having done so, are each constantly undercut by their behaviors of actually making positive metaphysical arguments, refuting positive religious beliefs, and treating religious notions as ludicrous to the point of being beneath worthiness of belief by any rational person. Mentally they seem to operate indistinguishably from atheists like me who admit that our attitude is one of thinking we know there are no personal gods.

But I shall nonetheless be charitable and take them at their word and assume for argument’s sake that they have some way of justifying this as consistent with their “only lack beliefs” policy. At least some who claim to “only lack belief in gods” rather than to be convinced to a knowledge level that no personal gods exist are out there. But even with this granted, I think we can still say that not all who just lack a belief in gods are thereby this kind of atheist. Or are any kind of atheist at all.

2. On Arguments from “Non-Belief” and Belief in Babies and Older Children.

The simplest example is babies. Many atheists claim that we are all born atheists because atheism is just the lack of belief in gods and babies aren’t born with god beliefs. It is puzzling why the appeal to babies is supposed to be evidence for anything. Babies are incapable of beliefs about a huge range of things that are well known to be true. The sense in which they “lack belief in God” is trivial. You had might as well say “Babies don’t believe Obama was born in the United States!” or “Babies don’t believe in evolution!” These are not points in favor of birtherism or creationism. Babies don’t have the foggiest clue who or what Barack Obama, the United States, or evolution are. If they also don’t believe in God, that’s not a point for atheism.

Arguments about babies being atheists are attempts, I take it, to infer that it is wrong to ascribe religious affiliations to babies. But it’s hypocritical then to assign them atheism either as though that were a merely neutral position and not a stance on a philosophical issue. Even as I adamantly oppose religious indoctrination and manipulation of children that exploits the susceptibilities of their minds to irrational influences and forms in them unreasonably strong emotional dependencies on spurious beliefs, I hardly think that religion is the imposition of something alien to children onto them. Psychological research shows that children are typically deeply amenable to beliefs in supernatural agents. There are even indications that they are disposed to generate god explanations spontaneously at certain points in their cognitive development, whether they are being raised theistically or not. Early on they are even thought by psychologists to assume even their parents are omniscient. It’s hardly a stretch for them to imagine an omniscient god as plausible. It may even be reasonable to say that, on average, they’re more disposed towards god-beliefs than they are even capable of rejecting them. The supernaturalistic beliefs of humans the world over and the predominance of god-beliefs that persist into adulthood seems to naturally fit with that guess.

I do think that inculcation of faith-based and supernatural beliefs exploit natural human cognitive errors where a proper education would train children to overcome them. But to the extent that a family is also just giving outlets for children’s “spiritual” and emotional lives according to their received traditional forms, that’s not particularly a problem to me. Nor is it much of a big deal to me that children are nominally considered to be members of their parents’ faith community. More things make you a member of a faith community than being able to assent with cognizance to the sorts of belief propositions which babies or small children are yet incapable of.

The problem is not so much in ascribing to children the religions of their parents before they can make up their own minds. The problem is with how religions typically ingrain in children deep allegiances and identities formed around rationally dubious (even indefensible) beliefs, and actively reinforce intellectual and/or moral forms of prejudicial thinking. The problem is how irrationally difficult they deliberately make it for people to neutrally, conscientiously, and rationally analyze, and even foreswear, the religious identity they are raised with when they finally do become intellectually mature enough to start having propositional beliefs about supernatural matters. But it’s absurd to try to counter this with a claim that everyone is really an atheist until declaring otherwise or to misleadingly imply that without particular religious institutions foisting supernaturalism on people, by default they’d naturally wind up atheists. Atheistic naturalism, if indeed true–as I think it is–is a counter-intuitive, hard won philosophical discovery along many other surprising but compelling findings of science and philosophy. It’s hardly the human default.

But I digress. Babies lack belief in gods but are not atheists. Neither are dolphins or bears or cockroaches. Neither are dogs atheists (they believe humans are gods), nor are cats atheists (they know themselves to be gods). But seriously, other animals aren’t “atheists”. Neither are rocks. Not even being able to understand the question of theism vs. atheism, means not having a position.

3. How Non-Belief About Specialized Questions Is A Neutral Position, Illustrated with a Hypothetical Physics Example.

But does it work better to say atheism means “lack of belief in God, for anyone who understands the question of the existence of God”?

I still think this is too imprecise by a long shot. There could be two kinds of people who lack belief who I think it would be wrong to call atheists. 1. Those who perceive themselves to be too ill-informed or incompetent with reasoning about these issues to have a genuine opinion. 2. Those who perceive themselves to be well-informed and competent with reasoning about these issues and on that account hold a position that the evidence is genuinely indeterminate.

To illustrate, let me give an example from another field. Let’s say there’s an entrenched dispute in physics. There is a deeply troubling anomaly in a vital theory physicists are committed to. The problem of how to solve for this anomaly is mysterious and intractable to physicists for a long time. One solution that some physicists, who are both indisputably accomplished and indisputably still cutting edge in their thinking, argue for is what they call a “squinicle”. By positing a squinicle they can explain the anomalous phenomena best. But squinicles are not yet empirically verifiable. Let’s call these physicists Squiniclists. Other equally accomplished and equally cutting edge physicists are well-informed about the squinicle hypothesis and reject it. They’re called Asquiniclists for their rejection of the squiniclist hypothesis. (Of course physicists aren’t in the habit of naming their positions in the negative way like this, but it’s just to make the analogy work. I’m not describing the sociology of actual physics, just drawing analogies about how things would look were physics debates more analogous to debates over theism and atheism.)

Now let’s imagine three other groups of people. First let’s start with non-physicists. We are either uninformed about the squinicle debate or incompetent to expertly decide it. We perceive experts to disagree. We are adequately humble about the limits of our understanding. Someone asks us, “Do you believe in squinicles?” It seems clear to me we should say we have no opinion.

But what if our interlocutor presses us and says, “So what you’re saying is that you don’t believe in squinicles! Since you lack a belief in squinicles, then you are, by default, an asquiniclist!” We should resist this strenuously. Our not holding to the squiniclist hypothesis does not represent our presumption to disagree with those distinguished physicists who are squiniclists. Who are we to contradict them with our lack of expertise? We are no more convinced of, or committed to, asquiniclism than we are to squiniclism. We haven’t the foggiest clue how to really determine which is more likely and are just waiting for the physicists to tell us which is vindicated in the future and we’ll believe that. We have no partisanship in debates about how the issue of squiniclism should be settled. We’re clueless. The asquiniclists don’t get to claim all non-physicists as on their team by default until consensus changes. (And I’m pretty sure real physicists would never dream to behave that way, but would always apprise the public of the divide in the field whenever the topic came up, rather than try to conscript low-information non-experts to their cause with semantic trickery.) I would say we non-experts would just be neutral agnostics (at best) about asquiniclism, if we can even be caught up enough about the issue to comprehend what’s at stake. If not, we should have even less of a position than that. (And especially babies are neither asquiniclists nor even neutral agnostics about the issue. Could you imagine the asquiniclist physicist citing babies as being “asquiniclists”?)

Now if 80% of the physicists become either squiniclists or asquiniclists then we would be justified in siding with the preponderance of expert opinion and become squiniclists or asquiniclists out of proper deference to majority of expert opinion. (And, as a sidenote, I think it’s significant that roughly 67% of professional philosophers lean to or support atheism and less than 17% of them lean to or support theism–a fact that should be more persuasive of public opinion than it is.)

Heck, we might psychologically even overestimate our talent for settling down the middle disputes among professional physicists from our ignorant vantage points and hastily go declare ourselves squiniclists or asquiniclists even when the competent physicists are still split 50/50. I do not think we would be justified in such a case, but we could do it. Then we could, even as ignorant laypeople just making our own eyeball guess, presumptuously declare ourselves squiniclists or asquiniclists prematurely. But what we can’t say is that every layperson sides by default with asquiniclism when they do as I recommend and, with a shrug, says, “I have no idea and I’m incompetent to judge” while the issue is completely contentious among the experts.

Now, let’s say things are different. You’re a physicist and you’re informed and competent enough to tentatively choose a side if you wanted to. But looking at all the evidence for and against squinicles, you’re genuinely undecided. You can rehearse the arguments one way and the other. You can point out the strengths and weaknesses for both sides. You just don’t know what’s the better account, so you abstain from declaring yourself for either position. In your mind, pending future evidence, it’s a question not to have a belief about. Both sides make compelling arguments. Neither is more justified in your mind either on the merits of their positions nor in their methodological choices.

In this case, you lack a belief about squinicles. Does that make you default to being an asquiniclist? Can the asquiniclists claim all these undecided physicists in their camp? No, because in this case of “lacking a belief” you simply don’t have a side. You don’t presume that the next new finding will vindicate asquiniclism. You don’t presume in advance of the next investigation that asquiniclist solutions will work better than squiniclist solutions. You don’t predominantly advance arguments on behalf of asquiniclism while countering arguments for squiniclism. Even if the divide within yourself on the matter is not exactly 50/50 but only 60/40 or even 70/30, you remain genuinely so open to believing either way that if the right finding came down tomorrow you wouldn’t be surprised at all to find yourself in the camp you’re leaning against at the moment. If you’re in such a position, not declaring for either side, then I see no reason for the asquiniclists to claim you as essentially one of them simply on account of the way you tilt or on account of the fact that you don’t make a positive affirmation for squiniclism. You’re what I would propose we call a “neutral agnostic” with respect to the question of squinicles.

Now, let’s consider another case. Let’s say you have a physicist who is more skeptical about unseen entities than most. Let’s say this physicist is committed to a rule about what is more plausible to affirm and demands a higher bar of evidence in each case of hypothetical entities for those who propose them than for those who deny them. Let’s say this physicist, on matters of epistemic principle, thinks it rationally unjustified to affirm any entities without conclusive evidence for them. Let’s say she applies this principle and says, “I don’t think there’s a strong proof that asquiniclism is true, but there does not have to be. Asquiniclism functions like a null hypothesis here and it has the presumption of truth on that account. Until the squiniclists furnish sufficient proof for the existence of squinicles, I am going to default to not believing in squinicles. I am not going to make the positive claim “there are no squinicles”. But I am going to say that as a matter of principle I am refraining from affirming the existence of squinicles, in lieu of sufficient evidence and be a (persuadable) de facto asquiniclist. 

Now that kind of “lack of belief” would be a true asquiniclist of a particular kind. This kind of asquiniclist may only have some overlapping reasons with the asquiniclist who thinks there is good positive reason to affirmatively say there are no squinicles. Their reasons for their asquiniclism may differ. The affirming asquiniclist is one who sees the positive case against squinicles as very strong. The affirming asquiniclists think their belief that there are no squinicles is so justified that let’s just imagine they claim they know there are no squinicles. Since “gnostic” is the word for knowledge that contrasts neatly with “agnostic”, let’s call these physicists who claim to know there are no squinicles “gnostic asquiniclists”. On the other hand, the asquiniclists who self-consciously side against squinicles on epistemic principles of caution but who don’t think there’s a sufficient positive case for asquiniclism for knowledge we can call “agnostic asquiniclists”. They’re not saying they know (or that anyone else can know) that asquiniclism is true. They’re just saying that it is more rational and/or more intellectually responsible to default to asquiniclism in lieu of sufficient positive evidence for squinicles.

4. The “Neutral Agnostics”, Those Who Lack Belief in Gods Without Being Atheists.

Hopefully the analogies are clear. Let me spell them out to be sure.

Some people feel utterly incompetent or too ill-informed to make a decision about theism and atheism. These are neutral agnostics about gods.

Some people feel at least reasonably (maybe even very well) informed and competent to make decisions about gods, and yet think that the issue is simply unsettled. Or maybe even that it is incapable of being settled, either given the current state of knowledge or in principle. They also think that there is no reason to prefer non-belief over belief in such unresolvable philosophical issues. They neither have a hard rule against believing on insufficient evidence, nor a view that one should hold positions deliberately by faith. In their minds naturalism and supernaturalism are equally likely to be true or, if not exactly equally, comparably enough likely to be true that they have no firm opinion either way. Gods (or a God) are roughly as likely to exist as not exist. They simply don’t know. They neither opt to believe by faith, nor to make an epistemically principled refusal to believe in gods. They are what I would call neutral agnostics about gods.

Some of these people will wind up “practical atheists” by living without theistic religious engagement. That is a kind of default atheism. Maybe on account of that some of these “practical atheists” might choose to identify as atheists, taking “not living with gods” to be the important thing. But if such a person insisted that they simply had no position on gods and don’t want to be identified as an atheist on that account, that deserves to be honored. Atheism is a philosophical position first and foremost.

And, of course, not all of these neutral agnostics do default to refraining from religious practice. Any number of neutral agnostics probably practice theistic religion while they’re in their position of uncertainty, whether out of habit, experimentation, curiosity, investigation, or for the social, emotional, or psychological benefits they feel like it gives them.

5. The Varieties of Epistemological Positions Among Theists.

So much for the neutral agnostics. What makes one a theist or an atheist?

Among the agnostics who think the issues are undecided or undecidable (for now or in principle), there are those who choose to believe in God anyway. Some of these may even perceive the preponderance of rational evidence even to be against them, though still leaving room for the bare rational possibility of God. Yet they choose to believe in God. I would call either of these kinds of believers who choose to believe without thinking the preponderance of evidence is on their side (or maybe on either side) agnostic theists. They don’t know (and maybe don’t think anyone can know), and so they’re agnostics. But they affirmatively believe in God anyway, so they’re theists.

Then there are are those who think that they’re reasonably informed and competent and that there are good reasons to believe in God. They do not think these beliefs rise to the level of justification of knowledge that all rational people must accept, but at least to the level of warranted belief. They recognize they might be wrong but think themselves well-justified in believing in God until dissuaded otherwise. These I would recommend we call pistic (or “believing”) theists.

Then there are those who think they know there is a God. They may acknowledge they still could be wrong–or they may not. Either way, they’re gnostic theists. Gnostic in the sense that they make a knowledge claim. Theists in the sense that they affirm theism as true. Notice, by the way, that even though I think I know there are no personal gods, I have no problem with those who think they know there are personal gods identifying explicitly as “gnostic”/knowing theists. It’s compatible to think you know something and acknowledge your opponent who thinks they know the exact opposite may hold their position from what they take to be a standpoint of knowledge and not a rejection of knowledge.

While I do think faith amounts to people culpably believing contrary to what they themselves think is rational, I don’t think all theists are guilty of this. I think it’s possible for a theist to sincerely believe him or herself to know there is a God consistent with the reason and evidence. My difference with those who implicitly or explicitly actually believe in a way that disregards reason and standards of evidence whenever their faith is threatened is a strong ethical and epistemological one about appropriate values and norms about belief. However, my difference with those who also accept that belief must track with preponderance of rational warrant and justification and yet simply have a differing view of what’s actually warranted and justified on the merits is much different (and more forgiving) in kind.

I just think that even these theists can’t follow through on the promise to stick only to rational beliefs when pressed for justifications of their faiths’ supernaturalistic religious beliefs that strain credulity. It’s one thing to think that a certain metaphysical abstraction about an eternal ground of being is plausible. But once you start wholesale adopting the particular, intricate, utterly fantastic, theological posits about cosmic propitiation systems or heaven or hell or anything so specific, matters about which we only have the bare claims of ancient authors’ visions and speculations to ground them, I have a seriously hard time seeing how these supposedly rational, careful thinkers justify much of their positive religious belief to themselves with a clear intellectual conscience. For more on this see my post, No, Christians, You Don’t Rationally Proportion Your Beliefs To Evidence and the follow up to it, Is God Just Too Great For Our Finite Minds To Understand?.

6. Various Species of Atheists: Ignostics, Pistics, Gnostics, and Agnostics.

But I digress. To return to my classification scheme, turning to the varieties of atheists: Let’s say you have someone who judges that she is competent and informed enough in principle to understand metaphysical or scientific claims about deities but finds all such claims so ill-formed as to be in fact meaningless and rejects them all. This is called ignosticisim. This person’s “ignostic” decision to not believe in God because the concept is incoherent qualifies, in my book, as atheism. If you think god claims are not even false then that’s atheism. At least philosophically. And probably practically. Though some of these people may adopt a purely expressivist sort of religious practice in which they embrace people coopting “God” to mean other things like “love” or “their ultimate concern”. Some religious ignostics might not like identifying as atheists and instead prefer to join the “God” language game and simply interpret others to be telling them about what they themselves value through “God” language rather than making any literal metaphysical claims.

Now if you think that there is good enough reason to affirm that there are no personal gods, then either you’re a pistic atheist if you would say you rationally believe that it’s more likely than not that there aren’t gods, or a gnostic atheist (like me) if you would say that you outright know there are no gods since the unlikelihood of personal deities is so high (even if you acknowledge as I do that, in principle, you could be shown wrong). Few atheists would say they’re 100% certain (I’m not, and there’s no need to be so certain in order to make a knowledge claim) but they do exist and they’re another kind of gnostic atheist.

And finally, if you think that in matters of metaphysics or, at least, in matters of gods we cannot ever affirm non-existences outright but that we should default to non-belief while we place the burden of evidence on theists, then your “lack of belief” in gods is “agnostic atheism”. It’s also “apistic” atheism. You claim neither to know nor believe that there are no gods. Nonetheless you side with atheism as a more rationally justifiable stance on epistemic grounds, rather than ontic grounds. By that I mean that you think rules for what we can say we know make atheism more justifiable and rationally permissible than theism given (a) the burden of evidence and (b) theism’s perceived failure to meet the burden, rather than that you are willing to make an affirmative claim about what does not exist.

7. Positions on Deism Should Be Clearly Distinguished From Positions on Theism.

I should also clarify, finally, that I think there’s a serious difference between theism and deism that our language should more regularly reflect. Theism is about belief in personal deities. And usually is shorthand for a particular philosophical conception of a particular monotheistic deity (associated with a particular set of religions). Without getting into all the complexities of monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, panentheism, polyatheism, henotheism, misotheism, etc., etc., I do want to point out that believing in an impersonal “source of all being” concept needs to be linguistically distinguished from believing in a personal god or gods. I classify the bare abstract notion that there exists an impersonal, metaphysical “ground of all being” as a species of “deism” rather than “theism”. I think it’s perfectly compatible to be an agnostic deist or a gnostic deist while simultaneously being an atheist of any sort (whether agnostic, gnostic, or pistic). One could also be either an agnostic, gnostic, ignostic, or pistic adeist. Right now I would identify my position as gnostic atheism, agnostic adeism. I find it quite open that I could be persuaded of either agnostic deism or gnostic deism in the course of philosophical argument. The likelihood that I would be convinced of personal gods is far slimmer.

Finally–back to the main point of writing this particular taxonomy. Atheism is not a mere default. People are or are not atheists based on the reasons for their “lack of belief”. Assessment of the roles that their metaphysical, scientific, and epistemological views play in creating their lack of belief matters. Also their explicit identification (or refusal to identify) with atheism matters to some extent.

Your Thoughts?

Related Post: Know There is No God.

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