Friday, January 22, 2010

Atheism is a Religion? and The Burden of Proof UPDATED

This blog will address 2 claims I see made with respect to atheism:

1) Atheism is (or has become) a religion.

2) It takes as much faith to be an atheist as it does a theist (ie, to not believe in a god requires evidence) aka The burden of proof argument, or the ''You can't prove god doesn't exist'' argument.

These of course aren't posited by all (probably not even most) believers, but they do come up often enough in online (and other) discourse.

However, before I get to the two main points, I would just like to operationally define atheism. It's actually quite simple, as atheism is not a worldvidew; it has no edicts, dogma, or tenets. It is literally and simply the lack of a belief in god(s).

Theism=belief in god(s) (deities)

Add the prefix 'a', which denotes lacking, or being without, to it, and you get:

A-theism, or atheism, the lack of a belief in god(s) (deities)

And that's it.

We can talk about agnosticism (which is not a 3rd option, but that's for another day), antitheism, secular humanism, stron atheism (aka there is no god) aka gnostic atheism, etc etc but do not let these ideas become red herrings in discussion. No matter what the Ray Comforts or the Pat Robertsons of the world tell you, that right there is atheism, and any and all beliefs in addition to this are extraneous (not that they cannot be built upon/from it, they can be, and are). All I have in common with other atheists is my atheism. After that, our ideologies will differ as will anybody else's. I might meet an atheist tomorrow who is socially conservative and thinks religion is a positive influence (aka my total opposite), etc.

Anyways, now that we have that under wraps, let's get to the two claims, shall we?

Claim #1: Atheism is a Religion

Point me to:
1) our church
2) our tenets
3) any atheist pageantry
4) where I pay my tithes

Claim #2: ''You can't prove god doesn't exist'' argument

The burden of proof is on the claimant. Not believing claims is not a claim. The burden of proof is on the theist, not the atheist. The ONLY atheists who must shoulder that burden are the gnostic (aka I know there is no god) atheists. The 99% of us that are rational don't claim knowledge. We lack the belief.
Saying I believe no gods exist is a statement that follows from my examination, and subsequent rejection of, the ''evidence'' for the existence of a god(s). I am not making a positive claim; I do NOT have the burden of proof. How would an atheist prove such a negative?

Russell's Teapot exemplifies this nicely:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. -Bertrand Russell, 1952 (unpublished article for Illustrated magazine)

Another way of looking at it is to ask yourself if you believe in the Loch Ness monster, and then ask yourself if it's up to you to prove it doesn't exist, or up to the people claiming it does to prove it. Remember, the lack of evidence is evidence. Not proof, mind you, not definitive, but certainly evidence.

Theists and atheists are not on equal ground. Saying ''I believe god exists'' is NOT equal to saying ''I believe no gods exist'' in terms of the burden of proof. I believe no gods exist because I have not been convinced otherwise. If no one had proposed a god, you would never say I have to prove this position. Now, because gods have been proposed, we're on equal ground?

No way. As soon as these gods were proposed, the burden of proof was on the ones making said propositions. If they fail to prove this claim is true, the person who continues to disbelieve is not suddenly required to provide evidence to show that this unbelief is justified.

This is why, in court, the crown has to prove the defendant is guilty. The defendant is NOT required to prove their innocence, and neither is the jury. The burden is on those making the claim. Until the person was brought up on charges, they were presumed innocent. As soon as the gulty claim was made, the burden of proof was created, and it rests on those making the claim. If this burden is not met (aka reasonable doubt) the propsoal is rejected aka disbelieved, without any further burden on the disbelievers.

This is allegorical to the atheists. Until a god is posited, I'm an atheist. Once a theist comes by and makes their case, the burden is on them. If, at the end of their presentation, I say ''I find the evidence lacking, I do not believe you,'' they don't get to say ''but you didn't PROVE that he doesn't exist!'' That job is theirs.
Theirs and theirs alone.

Unless of course I retort with "I know there is no god!" In that case, I say, good luck, pal ;)


  1. The presence of faith is an experience that all humans share to some extent. I have faith that my friends love me, I have faith that there is more good in the world than evil. I have faith that there is more to the symmetry and mystery of the earth than our human minds have begun to imagine.

    When asked to "prove" god's existence, I mainly smile and pleasantly decline. I cannot prove god's existence. In order to prove god's existence to someone, I must agree with their definition of god. Philosophically speaking, god means something different to everyone, depending on life experiences and moral foundations. "God" is the elusive perfection, the calm peaceful center of my soul that allows me to strive for more and still appreciate the moment.

    I have faith in my "God". Doesn't mean I'm right, just provides perspective when contemplating the meaning of life.

  2. My issue is that the definition of faith is being distorted when it is aplied to atheism and things like the fact that your friends love you. It's not really faith as it is belief based upon evidence. I have evidence that my friedns love me. They tell me so, they act in certain ways. I can read their expressions and their gestures.

    This is much different than religious faith.

    The fact that you put 'prove' in quotation marks tells me you recognize this, since if proof was possible, you wouldn't hesitate to give it.

    As for yoyr definition of god, that's interesting. It's obviously something I cannot understand, and I don't see how one would arrive at such a definition, but it's interesting nonetheless.

    Thanks for the thougthful comment :)

  3. Atheism is a Religion

    Point me to:

    1) our church
    2) our tenets
    3) any atheist pageantry
    4) where I pay my tithes

    LOL! That's the shortest argument I have ever seen, yet it's actuallt pretty much the perfect response.

  4. Heh, I don't know about perfect, but it's certainly succinct :)


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