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Mailbag: Atheism and Faith

By February 10, 2013

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From: "Lucas"
Subject: Atheism is a faith
Logically, you cannot have a "lack of belief in". What you have to do instead is "believe in the lack of" deity. If you want to be agnostic and simply say "I don't know if deity(ies) exist or not", then do so. It is easier, and better, to change your label than to try to change a definition all of us are using to try to communicate better.

This particular email is just incoherent nonsense. I don't think that the author understands the first thing about logic and only use the word "logically" because he thought it looked good. Of course it is logically possible to have a "lack of belief in" something. Every time you don't accept the truth of a claim, you lack belief in the truth of the claim. You might also go on to deny the truth of that claim and assert that something else is true, but you don't actually need to do so.

I submit that atheists are so busy trying to change the definition is because they do recognize that they are making a statement of faith, but don't have the courage to acknowledge it.

I submit that Christians like Lucas, ignorant of basic logic and philosophy, are so busy trying to change the definition of atheism and make it narrower because they need atheism to be a statement of faith in order to level the playing field. So long as atheism isn't a statement of faith (and, for most atheists, it isn't), theism and religion will be vulnerable to the charge that faith is an inferior means to truth than reason, logic, and critical thinking.

Christians and other religionists who recognize this have a very strong motivation to insist that atheism be defined narrowly and understood as a type of faith. If they can manage that, then they can argue that the atheistic faith is no better than the Christian faith (leaving them open to the challenge that the Christian faith is no better than the Muslim or Hindu faith, but I doubt they see that). If they cannot manage that, then they are forced to explain how and why their faith should be treated as better than reason and critical thinking - something they are quite unable to manage.

More selections from the Agnosticism / Atheism Mailbag...

August 19, 2007 at 9:09 am
(1) tracieh says:

>Logically, you cannot have a “lack of belief in”.

Hmmm. Why not, I wonder? How does Lucas explain our court system? A person is found guilty or not guilty. The jury is never asked to judge the defendent’s innocence–because in many cases “innocence” cannot possibly be established.

By asking the jury: “Did we get you to believe he’s guilty?” The answer can only be “yes” or “no.” They may never “know” if the defendent commited the crime or not–all that is asked is whether or not they were convinced–whether they _believe_ or do not believe the claim of guilt. They don’t have to believe the opposite–that the defendant has no guilt or, in other words, is innocent.

Not being convinced the defendant is guilty IS NOT THE SAME AS being convinced he has no guilt (i.e., he’s innocent). I may not be convinced he has no guilt–but I still may not have been convinced he IS guilty. In which case, I lack belief in his guilt–even though I’m not going to say I believe he has no guilt (since his innocence doesn’t have to be established).

Let’s say he has no alibi, but the prosecution presents shakey witnesses to his presence at the crime. Well, I’d have to find “not guilty”–but that doesn’t mean I think he didn’t do it. It means they didn’t present enough evidence to make me lean toward believing he _did_ do it–and we must make decisions based on a “preponderance of evidence” in real life as much as in a courtroom.

How is it that we understand this in our court system–that is in use day-in and day-out–but have such a really hard time applying it to other concepts? Well, not really–some of us just seem to have a really hard time applying it to religion, because, I suspect, we don’t like the outcome–which is that belief is unjustified even by a ton of “evidence”–if it’s all shakey evidence.

Anyway, a finding of “not guilty” doesn’t mean the jury believes he’s innocent (the opposite of guilty). It means they haven’t been convinced he’s guilty. We grasp that saying “After all your evidence was presented, I still lack belief in this man’s guilt”–is NOT THE SAME as saying, “Because I am not convinced of his guilt–then I believe he’s innocent (or could not be guilty).” I can–QUITE LOGICALLY–state that “I’ve not been convinced of his guilt–but I still believe he may be guilty”; and, if that is the case, I must find him “not guilty.” That’s the law because that’s a logical finding–that gives the defendant the benefit of the doubt–because proving innocence is just impossible too often. If you don’t prove your case, I don’t believe you.

That doesn’t mean I believe the opposite of what you’re claiming. In fact, I can say quite logically believe that you may be right–but that your case fails to prove your point. But even if I think you _may_ be right–I still am not saying “I believe you.” So, with regard to religion, even a person who says, “There may be a god, but I’m not sure,” is an atheist–because he doesn’t believe in god. And that’s NOT trying “to change a definition” to suit anyone. As far back as I can recall, a person who does not believe in god has been referred to as an “atheist.”

August 20, 2007 at 6:25 pm
(2) Gotweirdness says:

I wonder why so many theists keep sending in e-mails claiming that “atheism is a faith” yet provide no evidence to support it. I’ve perused this site over the past few years and see of lot similar e-mails making the topic headlines.

August 21, 2007 at 9:44 am
(3) tracieh says:


Their logic is based on a narrow definition of atheism and a unique definition of faith.

Generally it goes something like this:

Since nobody can know whether or not there is a god, it’s wrong to say there is no god–that takes faith.

They claim they have faith/belief in god–but that atheists say they know there is no god. But claims of knowledge are in gnosticism/agnosticism–not atheism/theism–which encompass belief only.

There are atheists who do say: Define your god, and I’ll explain why it doesn’t exist. But most atheists are content to say “I don’t believe god exists.”

The theists you’re describing will then equate “belief” with “faith.” However, it’s only “faith” in the same context that I have “faith” leprechauns, fairies, unicorns don’t exist. When there is no evidence for the existence of X, except unsupported claims–most of us recognize it’s not rational to believe X exists. Even theists get this–when we’re talking about nearly everything in the universe EXCEPT their god.

In logical terms, it’s true there could be leprechauns, and my disbelief is founded–based on the utter lack of evidence that leprechauns exist–but wrong.

However, in practical reality, such an utter lack of evidence is generally accepted as a solid reason to disbelieve. So, in practical terms, we normally wouldn’t consider a person who claims leprechauns don’t exist–or that he doesn’t believe in leprechauns–to be speaking from inner faith. We consider it to be based in reason: The _reason_ he rejects the claim leprechauns exist is that the claim appears to be baseless (not founded in evidence or rationality).

August 30, 2007 at 2:05 pm
(4) skeptic griggsy says:

Faith is the I just say so of credulity!We ignostics deny any meaning to God; one has to define him with evidence.[ Google ignosticism.].

January 18, 2008 at 11:21 am
(5) Marc says:

I suppose if there was even a little bit of evidence to support the notion that “God” exists, and atheists STILL didn’t believe, then I would argue that yes, it takes faith not to believe in “God”. But because there is no evidnece to support the idea of “God” then it does not take faith to not believe in it…or maybe I’m wrong.

June 14, 2008 at 6:36 pm
(6) born-again atheist says:

An ignostic? I’ve never come across an ignostic before. I know what it means, though: someone who regards the question of the existence of deities to be meaningless because they deny any definition of ‘god’.

October 23, 2008 at 9:41 pm
(7) path says:

Excellent blog. Please keep this up and running!

February 10, 2013 at 9:49 am
(8) Cousin Ricky says:

@Gotweirdness – They probably have faith that atheism is a faith.

There is another possibility. Have you ever heard Catholics talk about “the faith”? They talk about learning “the faith.” You cannot believe something that you haven’t learned yet, so obviously, they are using a different definition of the word faith. In this sense, “the faith” is their body of doctrine.

I have debated a theist who incorrectly categorized atheism as “our faith” in this sense. (I’m sure you’ve run across theists who believe that atheism has its own body of dogma.) It is possible that some theists will go on to commit the fallacy of equivocation and declare that we have faith in atheism.

@born-again atheist – I do not deny any definition of god. However, I do insist that the theist provide a definition before we proceed. I suppose you could describe me as a “temporary ignostic in practice” (TIP) to paraphrase Dawkins.

February 10, 2013 at 12:06 pm
(9) David says:

I prefer simply to say:

“I lack belief in a god or gods”.

Lacking a belief of a god is clumsy and would
have been corrected by my UK English teacher!

February 11, 2013 at 12:39 pm
(10) Dean J. Smith says:

I hate to over-generalize, but I’ve never seen a statement by a theist about atheism that begins with ‘logically’ and is followed by a logical statement.

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