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Thursday, March 12, 2009

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Bill,

"So what's going on here? What am I missing?"

I have wondered similarly and asked similar questions. But for a direction towards an answer look at my latest post on your other thread on this matter "The Definition of 'Atheist' and the Burden of Proof".

peter

It seems to be a linguistic trick that serves dual purposes: 1) the burden of proof is immediately placed upon the theist 2) Moreover, atheism is seen as the "default" position, the position that is more natural to human life. The second may appear to be simply a more forceful reiteration of the first, but 2 is meant to make theists sound irrational and fanatical about their beliefs. This is not necessarily true with 1.

The Raving Theist did a good piece on this: http://ravingatheist.com/2009/03/what-is-atheism/ .

(For context: http://ravingatheist.com/2008/12/christ-is-the-lord/ and
http://ravingatheist.com/2008/12/daily-headline/ .)

Tom,

Thanks for the link.

Edward,

Right.

Peter,

I read your piece carefully after I wrote mine. I accept the distinctions you make.

Well, all right.

First, as a philosophy student, I love this blog! Second, as someone who once called himself a "negative atheist," I thought I might have a little something to contribute. Hope I don't embarrass myself too badly!

In my experience, Edward is right about why this "linguistic trick" is so attractive. But I was hoping I could give the position a more charitable interpretation.

Consider the proposition "God exists." Some reasons to believe that proposition might include Aquinas's arguments. Atheists don't find these reasons compelling, because they reject those arguments. In that sense, they do take a position, just as a nominalist might reject Plato's arguments about the Forms.

So the proposition the negative atheist asserts is something like this: "None of the reasons that theists claim support the existence of God do in fact support the existence of God."

That's certainly a proposition that can be debated, refuted, etc. But it's also not identical (at least, as far as I can tell) with this proposition: "There is definitely reason to believe God does not exist."

One might follow from the other -- I'm not sure about that -- but the negative atheist seems to assert only the first one, and not the second.

Some atheists do assert the second, of course; we called that "positive atheism" back in the days when I was one of those annoyingly militant atheists. That's the position associated with "active denial or claims of certainty" about the existence of God. Negative atheism, as I understand it, is only associated with claims of certainty about the arguments _for_ the existence of God.

Of course, if that distinction doesn't work, then the negative atheist really must move toward the positive side of the fence.

Hello Terrence,

Glad you like the blog and welcome.

I take it that for you, a negative atheist is one who rejects the arguments that theists offer, but does not claim to be able to prove the nonexistence of God. You could use 'negative atheist' in that way, but that it is not what is meant in the quotation at the beginning of my post. The idea is that negative atheism is simply the lack of the belief that God exists.

Theism is the claim that God exists. It is clear that someone who finds fault with every single theistic argument need not positively assert the nonexistence of God. He could be an agnostic. There is no need for the phrase 'negative atheist.'

Most atheists I know, including negative atheists, do not merely lack a belief in gods. They positively believe gods do not exist. In fact, they are quite sure of it. And they have MANY reasons for thinking so. Except when trying to be sneaky in debates, they positively claim that they are quite sure no gods exist. So, they carry some burden of proof, as I wrote in "Atheism and the Burden of Proof":
http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=597

But Terrence is right that many negative atheists really take the position that "None of the reasons that theists claim support the existence of God do in fact support the existence of God."

In the same way, consider a-unicornism. As an a-unicornist, does the burden of proof lie on me to prove that unicorns don't exist?

Luke,

There are three questions that ought to be carefully distinguished:

(a) Should 'atheism' be redefined as the Neoatheists (the term I use for 'negative atheism') propose in terms of the *absence* of both a belief that the theist God exists and the belief that the theist God does not exists?
(b) In the debate between atheists and theists, who carries the burden of proof?
(c) Are there any good reasons that support the belief in a theistic God and has the theist advanced such reasons?

The principal topic of the present thread is (a). However, (b) becomes involved because the Neoatheists's proposal to redefine 'atheism' is motivated by an attempt to set up the debate in a way that turns the burden of proof upon the theist. (c) is irrelevant to the present topic.

There are many problems with the Neoatheist's proposal to redefine 'atheism' in terms of epistemic-abstinence from any beliefs regarding the existence or non-existence of a theist God. Bill and Gordon have covered the terrain pretty well and I have posted several arguments in a post on another thread on this site. I have not seen here any cogent responses to these arguments. But there is one consideration that in my opinion provides the most serious objection against the Neoatheist's move.

Epistemic-abstinence from existential beliefs in a theistic God typically characterizes the modest agnostic's position: namely, the position that unless very good reasons are provided for either the proposition that there is a theistic God or for the proposition that there is no theistic God the moderate agnostic maintains a neutral epistemic posture and refuses to accept either proposition into their belief-corpus.

Traditionally atheism and this form of agnosticism have been viewed as two different positions. Unlike the traditional atheist, the moderate agnostic has an open mind about the question of the existence or non-existence of a theistic God, but at the same time imposes strong epistemic constraints on changing his mind by accepting either one proposition. By contrast, the traditional atheist does not have an open mind, because he believes that a theistic God does not exist. The Neoatheist's proposal conflates these two separate positions or worst redefines atheism in a manner so that the new-atheist professes agnosticism when he wishes to shift the burden of proof to the theist, but he can still maintain his traditional atheistic position when convenient.

Many of us, both theists and atheists alike, think that this Neoatheist's proposal is tantamount to "theft over honest toil", in Russell's apt phrase.

peter

To have an honest theist/atheist debate this misunderstanding, whether sincere or not, must be clarified. Bill is certainly right in his response to Terrence, but the point should be even more explicit than that. No theist, if we use Aquinas and Christianity as the model, claims that God's existence is self-evident. God's existence must be argued for rigorously using both valid and sound arguments. Atheism, traditionally defined, is the assertion that no such God exists. That God's existence is not self-evident cannot be an argument used to support the atheist position because no one is disagreeing with it. This is, however, precisely what the neoatheist is seeking to do. This shifting of the burdens of proof is merely a distraction with rhetorical force. What I mean to say is that, because it sounds appealing or succinct or witty, it is often employed. Nevertheless, it only obfuscates the real issue at hand: God's Existence.

Bill is also right to observe that, according to this new definition of atheism, agnosticism has been kicked out of the room.

[BV writes] "Now what is the point of the terminological mischief perpetrated by these 'negative atheists'?"

That's a good question and pending further thougth, I can only speculate at the moment that it has a use similar to the matador's red cape. The theist philosopher charges at atheism, but he ends up hitting, not a cape in this case, but a cabbage.

The implications of this definition, and the arguments involved in defending it are perhaps more interesting than the ultimate 'point' or 'purpose' behind it, if there is such a thing. What happens, for instance, when an atheist doggedly maintains that he "merely lacks belief in God" and that "atheism does not involve a belief that God does not exist", yet at the same time he asserts (rabidly so) that "God does not exist" and "religion is evil" and that "theists are just like holocaust deniers" and many other such things? For sure this happens often, and the immediate glaring inconsistency in this does not seem apparent to the atheist. Which is in itself an interesting phenomenon worthy of some study. So how does the atheist rationalize this? In this way: beliefs like "God does not exist" and positions like "religion is evil" have no more to do with atheism than the atheist's position on smoking or his beliefs about the quality of the current Chelsea line-up.

Since the above scenario sounds absurd, I had better support it with some quotes from an atheist. Trusty Austin Cline delivers:

http://atheism.about.com/od/atheismreligionideology/a/AtheismBelief.htm

Myth:
If an atheist says they lack belief in God, yet actively seek to undermine theistic proofs and promote atheistic principles, then their actions are consistent with their beliefs; namely, that they actively believe that God does not exist. Atheists who say they lack belief in God, or disbelieve in God, yet actively attack theistic proofs and seek to promote atheism, are acting according to their beliefs, not their non-beliefs or their "lack of belief."

[Ausin Cline's] Response:
...merely not believing in any gods will not inspire a person to critique religion, religious beliefs, or theism. Merely lacking a belief in the existence of any gods is insufficient cause a person to get involved in any debates with believers about the nature of gods or about the reasonableness of theism. The mistake made by Christians who repeat the above myth lies in their failure to distinguish between what atheism is, broadly defined, and what an atheist happens to do... Not everything which an atheist does can be attributed to their atheism — not even those things which are in some manner connected to their atheism. Some atheists attend sporting events, but this doesn't follow from their atheism and can't be claimed to be part of atheism. Some atheists enjoy photography, but this also has nothing to do with their atheism as such... Some atheists do actively believe that no gods, or at least common conceptions of the Christian god, exist. Some atheists actively criticize theistic arguments, theistic beliefs, and theistic religions. These atheists and others do indeed act on the basis of what they believe, but what they believe goes beyond mere atheism...

[BV writes] "Atheism redefined as the lack of theistic belief is a PROPERTY of certain persons. Now a proposition is not a property. "

Quite so. When an atheist asserts that he "lacks belief in the existence of God", he is making an assertion about his mind, not about God. As such, it is irrelevant to the question of whether God exists or not. Since atheism is irrelevent, we should then factor it out as a useless residuum and focus on the real factor: that which actually drives, causes (in some sense) or is essentially related to the behavior of people who, say, author anti-God and anti-Religion books and tirelessly argue against theists. Because, apparently, atheism isn't it. Maybe we can think of a name for this real factor.

Edward,

I'm not sure that defining "atheism" in this way (or according to my revision) kicks agnosticism out of the room. That is because the atheists who take up the negative position often redefine "agnosticism" at the same time, making negative atheism and agnosticism logically compatible with one another (thus yielding the position of "agnostic atheism.")

http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutagnosticism/a/atheism.htm

I'm not saying I agree with Austin Cline; I'm just using him as evidence that neo-atheists don't stop at redefining atheism.

Others are probably right that this semantic jury-rigging is ultimately an attempt to shift the burden of proof back to the theist. But is that such a bad thing? If there is a sound argument for the existence of God, then the agnostic atheist is wrong. Period. Whatever intentions atheists have should be irrelevant, no?

ECO,

I think we are in basic agreement, and I thank you for your contributions. (I borrowed that cabbage example from you and I should have acknowledged that, so I acknowledge it now.) But I wonder why you are so exercised by these third-rate atheists who you dig up from obscure corners of the 'Net. This Cline fellow, for example, who reads him? The people to deal with are the people with influence: Dawkins, Dennett, Grayling, Hitchens, Sam Harris et al. Now do any of these people spout this nonsense about atheism being merely the absence of theistic belief? Maybe they do, but then I need references.

Luke asks, "In the same way, consider a-unicornism. As an a-unicornist, does the burden of proof lie on me to prove that unicorns don't exist?"

No. The burden of proof rests on the unicorn-affirmer to give reasons for thinking that there are unicorns. The crucial question, however, is whether the claim that God exists is relevantly similar to the claim that a certain sort of unicorn exists. I deny the similarity. But it would take a sdeparate post to explain why.

"Atheism redefined as the lack of theistic belief is a PROPERTY of certain persons. Now a proposition is not a property. "


Hi Bill

Can the lack of something be properly described as a property of a subject? If this is so, then it seems that every property can be ascribed to every subject. For example, would one of my properties be that I lack a sixth, seventh, etc. finger on each hand, or that every belief (out of the set of all possible beliefs) that I lack is a property?

I don't know much at all about how philosophers think about properties, so I may be way off here.

I like Luke’s question, but there are few too many complications comparing God with unicorns (mythical creatures). We want to focus on burden of proof, so let me ask instead whether someone who claims that Satan exists is in the same boat as someone who claims that the God of Abraham exists.

Notice that Satan has had millions(?) of believers for thousands of years, so he is as patinated in our mythology/history as the Good Guy. Many Satanists also believe that God exists, but not all. Some myths have an eternal Satan, some have him arising naturally, some have him nearly as powerful as God, some have him much weaker, with power really only over human affairs. The course of human history can be offered as one strong argument that Satan exists (one solution to the problem of evil invokes a malovalent being as the cause of evil).

In any case, what do you think, is the Satanist in the same boat as the theist? Philoponus, the paraclete of Lucifer, wishes to know.

Phil,

"patinated" From 'patina,' I presume. Satan has been 'gussied up' in our mythology . . .

"malovalent" A curious typo. Evil-valued? I know you intended 'malevolent.'

Lucifer = light-bearer = Phosphorus/os = Venus = goddess of love; ergo, the goddess of love = Lucifer, and Phil O. Ponus as paraclete of Lucifer = the advocate and intercessor of the goddess of love. My cat Caissa, an avatar of the goddess of Chess, sends her greetings.

Luke,

I don't think it is necessary for you to prove that Unicorns don't exist if you simply don't believe in them. I think the problem arises when many Atheists these days claim that "those who believe in X must shoulder a burden of proof" without realizing that this very claim needs to be verified.

You can't walk into a debate claiming that Positive Claim X needs to be proven, without expecting your Positive Claim that "X needs to be proven" to be challenged.

Maybe some atheists want a single term for "atheist or agnostic." That could be "non-theist." But they prefer to stretch the word "atheist." It would in any case be in order to beef up their numbers under a big tent and get agnostics to identify with them on some emotional level. Maybe Lakoff is behind this! There could also be a single term for "theist or agnostic" - "non-atheist." (But both "non-theist" and "non-atheist" also cover things and people incapable of beliefs or suspicions on the subject.)

The first three minutes of this video deals with this topic. William Lane Craig dialogues with Lewis Wolpert, who identifies himself as an atheist, and this problem comes up. I think Wolpert is a good character to represent the view:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBXYL9XdGV0

That Wolpert guy comes across as a jackass with no serious interest in truth, while Craig comes acrooss as calm and reasonable by comparison. One has to admire Craig for entering these snake pits.

Ben,

Maybe the loony Lakoff IS behind this! Win by linguistic distortion! Hijack the terms of the debate and pilot them towards some Left coast destination!

Some of these boneheads want 'atheist' to cover not only atheists strictly speaking and agnostics but also people who have never considered the matter.

So you maybe right about the Lakoff connection. That hadn't occurred to me. Thanks.

[BV writes] "But I wonder why you are so exercised by these third-rate atheists who you dig up from obscure corners of the 'Net.

Probably because I'm interested in the history and development of popular ideologies. You pegged me correctly. I tend to be slightly less interested in what the first-rate atheists say, and slightly more interested in what the masses of obscure atheist kooks say.

[BV writes] "This Cline fellow, for example, who reads him? The people to deal with are the people with influence: Dawkins, Dennett, Grayling, Hitchens, Sam Harris et al."

I'll get around to those guys; I don't mean to ignore them, but they are all third-rate atheists in a sense. Perhaps few people read Cline or perhaps many do, I don't know. Cline has distilled some of the garden-variety internet atheist rhetoric into one website. He eats and breathes it. I don't think he influences the huge population of third-rate atheists, because he's merely repeating what they say, but they certainly have influenced him. Whether he is popular or not, I think he is an accurate representative of their thinking. But even granted that this is so, the question arises: why should distillations of garden-variety third-rate atheism be worth examining or even be considered interesting? I hope to justify that they are.

If I were disputing Objectivism, then for sure the best route would be to go after influencial Objectivists like Rand and Piekoff and so on. Those people are not only influential, they set the tone, they are the idea-people: they determine something about Objectivism, they develop it, and they are authorities recognized by third-rate Objectivists. Defeating Rand's positions or Piekoff's poses major headaches for the masses of objectivists. Likewise, it would be a waste of time to study and critique third-rate neo scholastics in usenet groups when one could be going after Maritain or Cardinal Mercier. Rand did not get her ideas from third-rate amateur Objectivists, rather it's the other way around. Similarly for neo-scholasticism.

Now, I deny that the relationship between Harris &co and the masses of third-rate atheists is analogous to the relationship between Rand and the masses of third-rate Objectivists. Rather the relationship seems to me to be more like the opposite.

Objectivists will probably not forget about Rand or Piekoff anytime soon, and neither are Cardinal Mercier or Maritain scheduled to pass into oblivion any time soon in the memory of scholastics. But this is not how it is with atheists. The next generation of garden variety atheists will have completely forgotten Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, Harris, etc. Why do I say this? Because history proves it. Before Dawkins you had Julian Huxley, who was the Dawkins of his time. In fact the similarites between these two are striking. Julian Huxley was even a friend of the Dawkins family too. But do garden-variety atheists today remember their former champion of atheism? No. Before Huxley you had guys like Robert Blatchford who was a hugely popular raving atheist who sold a million books. Does anyone remember him? No. Before Blatchford was Ernst Haeckel and his books were translated into a dozen languages. Who remembers them? Atheists are ever-ready to forget or discount these influential atheists. Maybe it's because they were not so influential after all -- not in the sense of intellectually influential. They were demagogues, and when their time was up, or when the crowd got bored with them, room is made for the next demagogue.

All those guys put forth all much the same arguments and much the same rhetoric. Today it's flying spaghetti monster; back Haeckel's day it was "gaseous vertebrate". One generation of "influential atheists" passes away, another comes and takes up the same arguments and the same rhetoric. You answer the "Invisible Pink Unicorn" in 1990, and it comes back as the flying spaghetti monster in 2005. Dawkins says that Darwinism allows him to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. The raving atheist Karl Vogt said the same thing a century ago. Perhaps re-stating the same things over and over again are major advances in atheist philosophy which require fresh refutation every generation.

In the case of Sam Harris it seems to me that much of his rhetoric is taken straight from garden-variety internet atheists. For example: "Why doesn't the Bible say anything about electricity, about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? Millions of people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, many of them children." That may as well have been written by an atheist usenet troll circa 1995, long before anyone heard of Sam Harris.

It seems to me that what these new first-rate atheists do is take themes that have long since been floating around on the internet, and develop them into books. The culture garden-variety third-rate internet atheists is the immediate source of these ideas. I don't think they take their cues from Harris; I think he learned the ropes from them. Just like the way Austin Cline learned the ropes from reading atheist trolls in religion forums.

In fact it's ultimately more illuminating to read atheist usenet trolls and crappy rationalist tracts from the early 1900s than to read the first-rate atheists today, because in doing so you can see that Harris &co are not really leaders, but followers. It is true that they are influential in the sense that the masses of third-rate atheists derive emotional nourishment and moral support from popular guys like Harris. He gets his ideas from them (and from atheists long dead that nobody remembers) and feeds the very same ideas back to them, making them quite happy.


[BV writes] "Now do any of these people spout this nonsense about atheism being merely the absence of theistic belief? Maybe they do, but then I need references."

Sam Harris seems to agree that atheism means cabbage atheism. And he seems to see a problem with it. He writes, in "The Problem with Atheism":

"I think that "atheist" is a term that we do not need,
in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone
who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people
non-astrologers... Atheism is not a worldview—and yet
most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such.
We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this
misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even
naming ourselves."

This reminds me of the case of Charles Fiterman, a usenet atheist who, in the mid-1990s realized to his horror that atheism couldn't merely be "lack of belief in God(s)" because, unless amended with further clauses, it forces the atheist to lack belief in the existence of the gods you can easily make in your basement out of stone or lumber. Fiterman unfortunately suffered, at the hands of his fellow atheists, a fate similar to that of the pythagorian who proved that sqrt(2) is irrational. He was thrown overboard, so to speak, and evicted from the atheist Aeropagus.

ECO,

Thanks for that detailed apologia. May I ask where you are coming from, ideologically speaking?

I am not understanding Fiterman's horrific realization. Can you explain it to me?

I honestly think that Aquinas states the case for atheism better than any atheist does. He succinctly states why it seems that there is no God, and he does so with complete clarity and unambiguity.

ECO, I have to admit - you've given me a new way to look at the way these debates so often play out. I never really noticed the trend you're speaking of, but as someone who's been following arguments like these for a while.. it makes a lot of sense.

Though I'm glad Bill is calling attention to this particular question. Something always struck me as wrong about it.

[BV writes] "The crucial question, however, is whether the claim that God exists is relevantly similar to the claim that a certain sort of unicorn exists. I deny the similarity."

Here is my take on Russell's teapot, the invisible pink unicorn, the flying spaghetti monster, and Dennett's superman.

http://www.inbredscience.co.cc/essays/srhetoric.html

[BV writes:] "I am not understanding Fiterman's horrific realization. Can you explain it to me?"

Suppose I want to make a god for myself and my family. I take the mahogany furniture from the family room and drag it downstairs to the basement. I get to work with an axe, the lathe and some power-tools, and in an hour I have myself a wooden god. I call it Gulabjab and me and the rest of the family, and the inlaws too, worship him. I invite my atheist neighbor over to admire my stylish new mahogany god. Now, my neighbor says he lacks belief in the existence of gods. So perhaps I'm putting him in a difficult position, but if this is true, then he'll stand there like a dummy pretending not to see what's in front of his face. He can't say that he can see it but that it isn't a real god. Clearly it is. He can't say that he believes the wood exists but that it has no supernatural powers, therefore it isn't a god, because whether Gulabjab is thought to have supernatural powers or not, there's no use denying that Gulabjab is a god. The dictionary says that he is, e.g. 'an idol', 'a graven image', 'an object believed to have more than natural attributes requiring human worship' etc. Gulabjab is a god by virtue of being worshipped as a god, and also by virtue of the dictionary. And besides, atheists have never been in the business of defining what 'god' means to a theist; that's the theist's problem. Clearly Gulabjab exists. How can the atheist not see him?

Fiterman's original arguments were a bit nebulous and involved deified emperors and planets and so on, but the above contains the gist of it.

In a sense, the New Atheists are right to say that their atheism is a 'negative belief.' In the sense they want to mean it, though, they're wrong. The sense they want doesn't describe themselves or any other 'atheists.' It describes people like me, who aren't theists because we don't believe that God exists, but also aren't atheists because we don't believe that God does not exist. Up until recently, we've called these people *agnostics*. The objection will go that between p and not-p one *must* have a belief one way or the other, but that's just plainly not true, at least if we're talking about 'beliefs' as propositions to which a person would sincerely and unequivocally assent. I would not sincerely and unequivocally assent to the proposition that God exists; I would also not sincerely and unequivocally assent to the proposition that God does not exist. Not believing p is not the same as believing not p.

All the same, people who do not believe p or not p do not form an ideology around their non-belief or write loud-mouthed books about it or go around denouncing people who believe p or not p just as such. Genuine agnostics either don't care about the issue and so don't make an issue of it or they consider it a wide open question without a clearly correct answer, in which they will not shape their identities around one particular answer to the question. The New Atheists don't deserve to conflate themselves with genuine agnosticism, because they actually believe not p.

Nonetheless, their belief is 'negative' in a sense, and dangerously so. To the extent that a person embraces atheism as central to his identity, he makes a negative belief central to his life and character. Generally speaking, that's a good way to waste a life. In some circumstances, some positive belief might lead a person to emphasize a negative belief a great deal -- as abolitionists emphasize the injustice of slavery, say. But in those cases, the negative belief is clearly predicated on some positive ideal. The best that New Atheists have is a very emaciated ideal of 'rationality' that even other genuine atheists wouldn't have anything to do with. In fact, their very ideal of rationality itself seems largely predicated on negation -- whatever it is, it *isn't* superstition, dogmatism, wishful thinking, irrationality. As for what it is, who knows. *That* kind of negative belief, even if it's right, is just a way of being a slave to what you reject.

I honestly don't see the problem. "Atheism" would not even exist as a term if "theism" did not, in the first place. Why indeed would it not be sensible for atheism to be construed in the sense which applies to all those who employ the term, namely that they lack belief in God? This applies equally to positive atheists, who additionally hold the explicit belief that God does not exist. Agnosticism entails negative atheism, but negative atheism does not entail agnosticism. It seems that the distinction preserves important nuances.

As for the concern of there being a "linguistic trick", I don't see how the negative atheist can escape a burden of sorts. Certainly he is not making a claim which itself requires evidence, but he still has to answer the arguments of the theist. To force people into the category of denying the existence of God simply because they are not theists, does not seem very helpful.

I complimented a Pastafarian for making a better argument for the flying spaghetti monster than I'd ever seen made for atheism.

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