Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Two Kinds of Atheism

Those who reject theism often argue that atheism is the default position and that the burden rests with the theist to demonstrate that there are good reasons to believe in God. A reader named Mat sent along a link to a blog by a fellow named Jason Dulle who assesses this and a few related claims.

Jason makes several very good points, but part of what he says I find problematic. In order to understand his argument I should explain that I hold that atheism is literally the lack of belief in a God or gods and that there really are two ways to be an atheist. One could claim that one lacks such a belief because there simply are no such beings as gods. This is a strong claim which I call hard atheism.

The second type is to say that one lacks a belief in God because one can find no convincing reasons to think such a being exists. This view, which is usually called agnosticism, I call soft, atheism. It doesn't assert, as hard atheism does, that there is no God, it simply asserts that, whether there is or isn't, there's insufficient warrant for believing there is.

Dulle rejects this view. He argues instead that only the hard version of atheism qualifies as atheism and that agnosticism is not true atheism. I think he's mistaken about this, but I invite anyone interested in the matter to read his entire argument at the link.

Here's his objection to the position I hold:
This new definition of atheism as “non-theism,” or a mere “lack of belief in God” transforms atheism from an ontological claim to a mere epistemological claim. It reduces atheism to an autobiographical note, telling us only about the psychology of its adherent, but nothing about whether God, in fact, exists or not.
I agree but one doesn't need to make an ontological claim about God's existence in order to lack a belief in that existence. Whether a person claims there is no God or simply holds no belief on the matter he's still an a-theist.
As a result, this new definition ceases to be explanatorily meaningful. Indeed, it ceases to be a view at all. Babies, and even dogs would qualify as atheists according to this definition. That seems patently absurd.
Well, yes, but it's also absurd to treat babies and dogs as the sort of beings who have metaphysical beliefs in the first place. Would it be appropriate to call a baby, dog, tree, or rock an agnostic because none of these holds a belief about God? Of course not. It's only appropriate to use these terms to describe persons capable of holding the beliefs in question, so I don't think this objection has much force.

Dulle continues:
There is a cognitive element to atheism that this new definition does not take into consideration. If atheism is to be understood as a meaningful position on the question of God’s existence, it must be about the object, not the subject; ontology, not epistemology. Otherwise, the presumption of atheism is more akin to agnosticism than atheism in any meaningful sense of the word. Indeed, it is difficult to see any meaningful distinction between the two. It appears to be a distinction without a difference. In the end, [atheism] collapses into agnosticism.
This is true, at least insofar as we're speaking of soft atheism, but I fail to see the problem with it. Dulle's quite sure there is one, though:
This new definition of atheism seeks to shirk its epistemic responsibility by engaging in meaningless word games. Every negative claim is an affirmative claim in reverse. If I say "I don't believe in Santa Claus" (a negative claim), it reflects my positive affirmation that "I believe Santa Claus does not exist." The same goes for the claim, "I don't believe God exists." The contrapositive of that negative claim is the positive affirmation, "I believe God does not exist." Seeing that every negative claim is a positive claim in reverse, the presumptive atheist cannot avoid making a positive claim, and therefore must shoulder his burden of proof for that claim.
This is also true, but only for the hard atheist because only he is making a negative claim. It's why, in fact, even such atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, when pressed, will back away from the strong claim that there is no God. They realize that it's an intellectually indefensible position so they temporarily retreat from it until the challenge has passed and then they return to it.

But Dulle's critique only applies to the person who makes the strong claim. He goes astray, I think, when he says that "I don't believe in Santa Claus" is equivalent to "I believe Santa Claus does not exist." The claim could mean that, but it could also mean "I hold no beliefs about the existence of Santa Claus," or, as in the current case, God. Such a person is not saying, "I believe God does not exist," yet he is an atheist all the same. To see Dulle's error consider the proposition, "I hold no belief about whether Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016." This is a perfectly reasonable assertion, but it's not at all equivalent to "I believe Hillary Clinton will not run for president in 2016."

Perhaps this is all much ado about nothing, but I think it's important to be aware of the distinction between hard and soft atheism because a lot of people take refuge in agnosticism, thinking that it's more intellectually respectable to be called an agnostic than to be called an atheist. I suggest that it be pointed out to them that agnosticism is just atheism-lite.