Saturday, August 21, 2010

Atheists Are Non-Believers, Even Explicit Atheists Like Me.

Pete Enns, Ph.D., Senior Fellow in Biblical Studies, The BioLogos Foundation, wrote an article "Atheists Are Believers, Too" published by Huffington Post on August 15 , asserting that "Atheists do not know God does not exist; they believe it."

Some self-declared atheists say they have no belief on this question, and I accept their characterization of themselves as non-believing atheists, but I am an atheist who positively believes that there are no gods. I am compelled to this belief by my understanding of the weight of the overall evidence. However, it is an equivocation on different definitions of belief to call atheists "believers", as Pete Enns does in his article. A believer is a person who is convinced that something exists, the person who is convinced that something does not exist is a non-believer. According to this common usage, atheists are non-believers. This distinction has some significance because it is the person who positively asserts that an entity exists who has the primary burden of providing the evidence and clear definitions to support their belief. The logical default starting position on any possible entity is that we shouldn't assume that it exists absent both a good definition of that entity and empirical evidence for its presence. However, atheists who, like me, positively believe that gods do not exist also have some responsibility to provide evidence in support of our belief. Accordingly, I cite physicist Victor Stenger who has also recently been writing articles for the Huffington Post. He makes such arguments on the evidence and Pete Enns would be doing better if he acknowledged those arguments.

Pete Enns goes astray again when he asserts "To say that God's existence is detectable with certainty through reason, logic, and evidence is a belief because it makes some crucial assumptions. For one thing, it assumes that our intellectual faculties are the best, or only, ways of accessing God." So what is this alternative way of "accessing God"? He explains "This is an assumption that privileges Western ways of knowing and excludes other wholly human qualities like emotion and intuition." Sure, emotion and intuition have their place because we often have to make decisions quickly without complete information and evaluating all of the evidence would take too long and take too much effort. But they are no substitutes for evidence and deliberation when there is no urgent need to make a quick decision. If appeal to emotion and intuition is the best that theists can do then the case for theism is very weak indeed. It is a fact that much of our modern understanding of the world is counter-intuitive, including the most important concepts of modern physics (quantum mechanics, general relativity) and biology (evolution).

This characterization of atheists as people who assert "certainty" of knowledge is a false negative stereotype. No one needs to claim an unattainable absolute knowledge to justify their belief that some conjectured entity does not exist. We justify our beliefs based on the overall weight of the available evidence. That is all that is needed and all that we claim.

He then tries to skip over the need for evidence with the assertion that "god is the source of all being". That is lame, we have no justification for accepting that. As an example of a belief that is allegedly justified without evidence he then states that "there is no compelling evidence whatsoever" for the widely accepted "principle of uniformity". Not true. There is plenty of evidence for uniformity. We witness the laws of nature and find that they appear to be the same everywhere and don't change. On all such questions we will follow the evidence wherever it takes us. So if and when we find evidence that the laws of nature differ in different locations or change over time then we will be compelled to conclude that the laws of nature vary by place and time.

Pete Enns writes 'I know some real live atheists, and they do not claim to know as much as some others do. The reason that they are atheists is that "God is" is a less compelling proposition to explain their reality than "God is not." They did not come to this sure and certain conclusion by a calm and logical assessment of the evidence (as opposed to the unreasonable and illogical faith of religious types). Rather, they came to their atheism for many different types of reasons, some of which are too subtle to quantify.'

He appears to now be contradicting his earlier argument that emotion and intuition was sufficient justification for belief since now he is suggesting a "calm" assessment of the evidence is essential. He also is simply mistaken here (although he is now correct regarding the need for evidence). Every belief is not "unreasonable and illogical faith". Some beliefs are justified by the weight of the evidence (based on a calm and logical assessment of the evidence), some beliefs are unjustified by the weight of the evidence, and some beliefs are contrary to the weight of the evidence. Atheism is the best justified belief here, it is a belief that is the result of a calm and logical assessment of the evidence. There is no solid empirical evidence for gods, all the empirical evidence that we do have is collectively a best fit with the conclusion that gods are made up entities that exist only in the minds of people and nowhere else. Atheists don't claim to "know more than anyone else", but atheism does appear to be the rationally compelled belief from the overall weight of the evidence, evidence that is equally available to many of us, although not necessarily equally consumed or equally followed, resulting in most people being theists. There is nothing in Pete Enns' article to support any assertion otherwise.


  1. It is quite wrong to claim that we cannot prove God does not exist and at the same time to accept claims of 'proof' made in legal cases and scientific laboratories. We CAN prove God does not exist to the highest standards of proof used anywhere on this planet for empirical propositions. If the theist thinks that's not enough it is up to them to explain why.

  2. Our disagreement is centered on terminology but I think it is a significant disagreement nevertheless. There are three levels of "standards of proof" in legal trials in the U.S.:

    1) beyond a reasonable doubt -- (highest level of proof, used mainly in criminal trials)
    2) clear and convincing evidence -- (intermediate level of proof, used mainly in civil trials in the U.S.)
    3) preponderance of evidence -- (lowest level of proof, used mainly in civil trials; typically means more likely than not)

    Despite the "standard of proof" label, these are not really proofs, technically they are weight of the evidence standards.

    So it is correct to claim that we cannot prove the non-existence of fictional entities which are not well defined. What is wrong is to claim that we need proof. We don't need proof, that just isn't an applicable standard here. What we need is weight of the evidence. For example, the weight of the evidence is that people have a tendency to have personal experiences that support their pre-existing beliefs therefore those experiences are belief driven and they don't justify the belief. The weight of the evidence is that people hold god beliefs for reasons that do not actually evidence the existence of the god they believe in, therefore those beliefs are not properly justified. Etc. etc. There is lot of evidence like this, in fact the overall weight of the available evidence is very much against gods being real phenomena. This is not "proof", its weight of the evidence, and THAT is all we need.

  3. Christopher Hitchens said: "That which can be asserted without proof can also be dismissed without proof."

  4. He said evidence, not proof. Christopher Hitchens is smart enough to know that assertions are frequently fully justified on the basis of weight of the evidence without meeting the completely impractical and unnecessary standard of being "proved":

    "What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." “Mommie Dearest”, by Christopher Hitchens, Slate magazine, 2003-10-20

  5. Grrr. Git some followers, dude --- I have found what few other human mortals on this playing field have yet to discover: a Way Home, past this violence and materialism that has so engulfed, so enveloped our populace on this journey to our demise; because you’re ignorant on how to rise above the whorizontal world and one-outta-one shall croak sometime, somewhere soon, God has set-up this magnificent feature on the Way either Upstairs or downtown: the Warning. Everyone (me, too) living on this planet will see and feel the Warning lasting about 20ish minutes, showing U.S. a gorgeous picture of Heaven, Purgatory (depending whether our sins demand a greater punishment before being allowed into the Great Beyond), and dagnasty Hell. Remember, God doesn’t condemn; we condemn ourselves by our sinful lifestyles of unbelief. The Warning’s just a wake-up call. Don’t believe me? Guhroovy. You will soon. God bless you with discernment: atheism is cool, isn't it, till you croak...