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Friday, August 19, 2011

Is Atheism a Belief System?





I usually say that Atheism is not belief system. That is, there is no positive claim within atheism which could lend to any particular system of belief. However, atheists need to be careful, especially those who say atheism is not a *belief (singular). In the past I too made the mistake of claiming atheism is not a "belief" in an of itself, but I have come to see that this reasoning is wrong. Atheism is, in fact, the belief that there are no gods.


Before you jump down my throat and try to explain Strong (Positive) atheism and Weak (Negative) atheism to me, let me inform you that I am not arguing about the definition of atheism, but rather, testing whether or not it fits the definition of what a Formal belief is. 


If we find that atheism does fit the definition of a Formal belief, then we must be willing to admit that it has the properties of a belief. As such, it is important to make the distinction based on what analytic philosophers have defined as a Formal belief.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Most contemporary philosophers characterize belief as a “propositional attitude”. Propositions are generally taken to be whatever it is that sentences express (see the entry on propositions). For example, if two sentences mean the same thing (e.g., “snow is white” in English, “Schneeist weiss” in German), they express the same proposition, and if two sentences differ in meaning, they express different propositions. (Here we are setting aside some complications about that might arise in connection with indexicals; see the entry on indexicals.)

A propositional attitude, then, is the mental state of having some attitude, stance, take, or opinion about a proposition or about the potential state of affairs in which that proposition is true—a mental state of the sort canonically expressible in the form “S A that P”, where S picks out the individual possessing the mental state, A picks out the attitude, and P is a sentence expressing a proposition.

As such, Atheism appears to be a belief in the non-existence of God, the rejection of theism, and the proposition that God does not exist.



This complicates matters when trying to define what atheism is, because having concluded that it is, in point of fact, a Formal belief, we can't claim atheism isn't a belief. In actuality, it is.


Can Atheism Be "A Lack of Belief" in Something? 
Lacking a proper belief in something means you are ignorant as to the properties of what it is you are supposed to believe. Many nonbelievers, and secular Free Thinkers, lack the belief in a god or gods specifically because they have never heard anything about them. I am willing to bet that almost everyone is an atheist with regard to other culture's gods and godesses. This doesn't mean they don't know what the concept of god is, but they may be completely in the dark as to the quality or nature of any particular specified god concept (e.g., the Christian God, the Hindu Pantheon, or the gods and goddesses of the Australian aborigines, and so on). 

Not knowing something, then, cannot properly inform us as to anything which would constitute a belief. The simple matter is, if we don't know anything about said god then we can't have a belief in it--we would lack the belief in that thing. 


As such, if I were to ask you whether or not you believed in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you would probably respond, "No." 


"Why not?"


"Because there is no evidence for it."


"Well," I'd say, "That doesn't prove the FSM doesn't exist!"


"No, it doesn't. But zero knowledge amounts to zero belief--I can't honestly believe in something I know absolutely nothing about. Even if it did exist, my belief in it would be unfounded."


"So you admit the FSM could exist!"


"It's a possibility, but in order for me to believe in the reality that it exists, I would need to examine and test real evidence first. Something to prove the referent is real and not just imagined. Until then, the odds are equal to none that it's imaginary."


"You're wrong! You just have to have faith!"


"I thought we were talking about facts. After all, you can't believe in something that is imaginary, other than to believe it's not real. In which case, you'd be an atheist just like me."

We must be careful here not to confuse the lack of belief with agnosticism. Agnosticism is based on the quality of knowledge available, and whether it is convincing enough to make a decision either way. Lack of belief, as we are to understand it, means there is zero knowledge to be had. If you know nothing of god, then you cannot claim to believe in god. 

This is why most professions of faith are logically unsound. People are claiming to believe in something they cannot possibly believe in because they have no knowledge of the thing they supposedly believe in. They have no valid reference for god. And no, Holy books such as the Bible and Koran do not count as evidence for God. What they are, mainly, are stories about god. The same goes for spiritual experiences, which when tested, universally fail to stand up to scrutiny. The so-called testimony of believers doesn't amount to anything when we are considering the empirical facts, sorry to say.

Additionally, because atheism does not require a referent, it is not a belief in an existing thing, rather, it's simply the rejection of the belief of said thing--hence the belief that said thing does not exist. 

The Burden of Proof 
The burden of proof is on the Believer to establish a referent in order to qualify the Belief as an actual belief in something real. What theists are referring to when they state "I believe in God" is the concept of God. The concept here is the referent, not actually God, since there is no defensible evidence for the existence of God. In other words, when the theist claims to believe in God they are technically stating they believe in the idea of God, and more often than not, they confuse this with the belief in an actual God (even as they fail to establish the referent to any actual God). The Philosopher Dan Dennett calls this the "belief of the belief in God."


This brings us back to Formal Beliefs. Proper beliefs usually depend on something being true, or having true properties, in order to be believed as true.  For example, we cannot say we believe in delicious Smapples, because, to our knowledge, there is no such thing as a Smapple, hence no referent. Therefore we have no way to detect the truth properties of Smapples, delicious or not. The burden of proof would be on the person who thinks a Smapple is a real thing. They would need to produce one, so that their truth claim about the delectable quality of Smapples could be validated, or else, disproved.

Without providing a Smapple, however, we are only left with--well--nothing. No belief in the flavor of Smapples can be made based on nothing, and unable to imagine what a Smapple ought to taste like, it is impossible to claim we believe them, let alone believe them to be delicious. 

In such instances, we can use intuition and experience to determine whether or not it is possible, and therefore likely, for mysterious fruit nobody has ever heard of to spontaneously pop into existence. But since our intuition and experience tells us this is never the case, we can safely formulate the belief that Smapples don't exist.


Same goes for God. Atheism is simply the rational response to not being able to find any referent in reality which would qualify as God, and consequently formulating the belief that God does not exist. 

Consequently, theists still have the burden to provide a tangible referent, or their belief erodes to a delusion rather quickly--hence the burden of proof isn't just necessary in proving the belief in the existence of God, it becomes an imperative for the person of faith. Believers must establish a justifiable means to properly believe there is a referent, usually in the form of trustworthy evidence, or admit they have failed to do so. They can't have it both ways.

Advocatus Athesit

Advocatus Athesit