Sunday, August 30, 2009

I find your lack of belief disturbing

In a couple of recent posts, James pointed out that the logical positivist position that statements about God are meaningless applies equally to statements that God does not exist. Some commenters suggested that this only applies to hard atheism, the assertion that God does not exist. It does not, however, apply to soft atheism, which simply means that one lacks any belief in God. See here and here including the comments.

I don't understand exactly what is meant by lacking a belief. For myself, I find my belief or disbelief isn't a simple matter, but works on a scale or field so that I believe some things more strongly or weakly than others and the same holds for things I disbelieve. In the middle area is indecision or agnosticism, where I neither believe nor disbelieve, although even here there is often a leaning towards belief or disbelief. Presumably it would be incumbent upon me to explain why I place a particular claim where it is in the scale. This is obviously a simplification, as the border areas are fuzzy, and a weakly-held belief can have some positive characteristics that a strongly-held belief lacks. Yet nowhere in this spectrum do I find anything I could accurately call "lacking a belief."

However, outside of the spectrum I do find something like this. Were someone to ask me if I believe some random concept I hadn't heard or thought of before -- like whether there is an advanced civilization of penguins on the fourth planet orbiting Sirius -- I would place my belief in this somewhere in the spectrum. But prior to having this concept presented to me, it wouldn't be true to say I disbelieved it or was agnostic about it, much less that I believed it. Here I could accurately say I lacked a belief in this concept. But to make the point clearer, once I heard the idea I could no longer claim to lack a belief in it. I either believe it, disbelieve it, or am agnostic about it.

So this is why I'm confused by people who say they lack a belief in God. They have clearly heard of the idea; they're actively discussing it. Yet they specifically distinguish themselves from agnostics who say that they neither believe nor disbelieve in God, as well as from hard atheists who simply disbelieve. So, again, I don't understand exactly what they mean by this. I find no room in myself to say I lack a belief in something I have heard of. I have to agree with James: soft atheism looks like an attempt to disbelieve in God without having to go through all the rigamarole of having any reasons for it. It looks like an insistence to believe and disbelieve whatever you want regardless of the way things actually are.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Doug said...

So what you are saying is that folks who claim a "lack of belief" are like children who close their eyes, put their hands over their ears and yell "I can't hear you!"

KESS said...

Usually, if someone claims to "lack a belief in god/gods" in response to atheist/theist discussions then they are simply using it as a defensive tactic against reversing their logical positivism against them.

Let's be honest, atheists strongly dislike anything associated with "faith." Their actions in support of atheism clearly have correlations with religious faith though, even forms of fundamentalism. Many are very offended when these connections are pointed out. At the same time, they realize that when their logical positivism is turned on their assertions concerning the non-existence of God, they are forced into making faith claims.

Especially for the less educated atheist debaters, this tactic attempts to get them out of this quandry. When pressed on the issues they can simply respond by saying that atheism makes no positive claims, but is simply a lack of belief. Of course, as you've pointed out, belief isn't that simple...and if anyone is involved in this type of discussion then their opinion is defined enough that they do have beliefs on the existence/non-existence of God.

Of course, agnostic literally means without knowledge, and seems a better description of the "lack of belief" claim. The problem is that many atheists then get attacked from the other side for not taking a stand, or being a "weak" atheist.

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as "weak atheism". Atheism is the belief that that God doesn't exist. What everybody calls lack of belief is agnosticism.

And here's the contradiction. If these people lack a belief as they claim, their actions say otherwise.

Unknown said...

Just based on my own experiences debating them, I think the main reason they do it is to put themselves in a more viable defensive position. By claiming that they don’t “believe” in God so much as they lack a belief in God they can say with a strait face that they aren't asserting a claim, merely doubting or denying yours. Therefore the atheist doesn't have to provide any arguments or evidence to defend his side of the argument.

But as you said, that doesn't really fly when you think about it. So its just pretty much a weasel tactic to shift the burden of proof on to the theist. Which is a very logically dubious attempt to win the argument by default.

KESS said...

I think both Christians and Atheists have groups on the edges who are either overly enthusiastic about arguing, or afraid of real challenges. As far as atheists go, both groups use this argument. The former uses it to skirt dealing with difficult challenges in a debate, whereas the latter uses it to dodge having to defend their beliefs altogether.

The atheist community tries very hard to say they are truly nonreligious, but I can't help but assume sociologists would classify their actions as a belief system, ala Hoffer. Recent posts from prominent atheist blogs make this all the more evident.

One was trying to deal with a friend, who was a former leader in their college atheism group, who was now a vocal evangelical Christian. The comments were telling, as many had friends who had been former atheists, and now embraced some religious faith. This caused an existential crisis for some, as some reacted with the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, refusing to admit that these people knew as much about atheism as they did, while others shared their personal "faith-crisis" over their friends no longer "lacking a belief in God." As atheism becomes more united as a worldview (as it has in the last 10 years), and cares more about their number of adherents, we can expect more of this as some atheists will "lose faith" and join religions. After all, the recent Pew Forum on changes in belief among adult Americans showed that over half of those raised as "nonreligious" are now religious. As such, I can't expect atheists admitting the obvious religious parallels with such situations, so I'm interested to see how the terminology will change to deal with this situation.

Another was talking about how the most effective way for atheists to cause people to lose their faith wasn't through debates or rational argument, but through letting them see that atheists can live productive and happy lives without God. It encouraged atheists to show how friendly they can be toward others and let their lives be an example of their atheism. They would never admit it, but it was almost word for word how a Christian youth minister might encourage students to let others "know they are Christians by their love." I believe that some atheists are starting to realize that the continued religious faith by intellectuals isn't simply due to sociological factors or ignorance of atheist arguments, but actually because some have assessed the situation and find Christianity more intellectually compelling. Many can't handle this and will look for other forms of "evangelism."

Donn said...

I covered this issue several years ago in an article on the etymology of the word atheism. The thing that led me to write the article was constantly running up against atheists that used the "lack of belief" dodge during debates.

You can read the article here.

KESS said...

I really enjoy your site, it's always full of insightful information and does a good job of presenting both sides of the issues accurately. It's because of honest presentations like yours that I'm a Christian today.

Donn said...


Wow....I am honored by your comments! Thank you so very much.

IlĂ­on said...

Matko: "There is no such thing as "weak atheism". Atheism is the belief that that God doesn't exist. What everybody calls lack of belief is agnosticism."

And agnosticism is almost always an intellectually dishonest ploy to be an atheist in practice without ever troubling to examine the foundations ... while also asserting that no one else may examine them.

frances said...

Response here:

MCPlanck said...

I am thinking of an imaginary creature right now. It's so new, I haven't even given it a name yet.

Do you actively disbelieve in it? Or do you merely lack a belief in this entity which I have not yet named? What about an entity I am going to make up tomorrow?

If lacking a belief is the same as active disbelief, you must possess an infinite number of active disbelieves.

Given that the definition of God is often so slippery as to be akin to an unnamed imaginary creature I haven't finished making up, you can see why atheists often resort to this position.

I do not actively disbelieve in whatever entity you are about to define. I simply lack belief (or for that matter knowledge) of it. The point of this position is really just to force the theist to define precisely what he is talking about.

However, I completely agree that an agnostic is merely an atheist that wants to avoid an argument. The agnostic also lacks belief and is pragmatically indistinguishable from the atheist. One could say that agnostics are making a statement about the likelihood of someone presenting convincing evidence (i.e. 0%), but your average atheist is pretty equally certain that you can't present evidence of God, so even that's a wash.