Immediately, I wish to counter several strawman assumptions some may make about an essay with this title. This essay is NOT an apologetic. It does NOT assert that God exists or attempt to persuade the reader to accept any religious faith or any claim made by any religion. This essay is only about the stated title, so please leave any and all other presumptions behind.
My primary interest since I have been a college professor has been why people believe what they do. After years of exploring religious belief I started to look at its companion, if not fraternal twin, atheism. I found rather quickly that the structures of religious belief are duplicated in atheist belief. But this lead to the fascinating question of why atheists try to deny this basic fact which in turn opened up the realization of how atheism is an inherently illogical belief, even more illogical than religious belief. So, this work is attempting to understand why and hopefully establish a theory with the power to explain atheist belief.
Part One: Demonstrating that atheism is a belief and a truth claim
Theism is the belief that the proposition God Exists (GE) is true. Theism is a truth claim for GE since, for any proposition P, to believe P is to take P to hold in the actual world. Beliefs are active assertions that a state of affairs is true in the actual world. To believe something is to believe that it is true and it is the height of irrationality to believe something yet think it is false, or to not believe something yet think it is true. The proposition GE is an existential proposition (the question of existence) and such propositions are different from propositions such as “democracy is the best political system.” All existential propositions are binary: necessarily either absolutely true or absolutely false. You can’t be a little pregnant or kind of dead, you either are or you are not. The existential proposition GE is objectively either true or false in the actual world and if it is false then its negation is necessarily true. To deny any existential proposition is to necessarily assume its negation, for example, you must say that the Loch Ness Monster either exists or does not exist, there are no other options for you to choose. The negation of GE is the proposition God Does Not Exist (Not-GE). Rational beings either believe that GE is true, believe that GE is false and thus necessarily believe Not-GE is true, or say they do not know, claiming neither. The first position is Theism, the second Atheism, the third Agnosticism. Atheism is to deny that the proposition GE is true and thus to necessarily assume Not-GE is true. To withhold assent to both GE and not-GE—assert that one does not know—is agnosticism. It is necessarily the case that unless one claims ignorance, agnosticism, then one is assenting to either GE or not-GE—logical use of language prevents other possibilities.
Atheism is clearly withholding assent to GE, which is self-evident because it is a logical contradiction to be an atheist and believe in god (GE). Similarly, it would be contradictory for someone to believe GE is true yet withhold assent to GE. So to withhold assent to GE means you believe GE is false. Again, an existential question is binary, an either-or without a middle ground. When someone says “I am an atheist” that atheist is claiming that (1) GE is objectively not true (god does not exist), (2) the atheist believes GE is not true, and (3) the atheist is in a satisfactory relationship with the truth value of GE to claim 1 and 2. (All of this is also true for the theist and their claims for the truth of GE.) Atheism is a term that encompasses these three claims that are necessary equivalents to the statement, “I am an atheist.” Atheism is the belief that GE is false, meaning the belief that Not-GE is true, which means atheism is a truth claim for the proposition Not-GE.
One objection some atheists make to this is to say that the Atheist makes no claim but simply does not believe the claim GE. That this objection is absurd is easily seen when we ask if one can disbelieve claim GE while holding that GE is still true. This would, of course, be nonsense. If someone where to say “I do not believe it is raining but it is raining” we immediately see the contradiction. If one does not believe it is raining that is only because they think the proposition “it is raining” is not true. Likewise one does not say “I do not believe the claim that Santa Claus exists” while still believing that Santa Claus does exist. You cannot be an aclausist without believing that there is no Claus. Again, existential questions are either-or and pro and anti positions to an existential question are equivalent to “yes” and “no” claims to the question. For the atheist to say that atheism makes no claim is intellectual dishonesty. The atheist is not simply living without belief in god because living without belief requires no label, it is simply living. Adopting the label “atheist” is adopting an antagonistic stance against religion and religious people.
It cannot be the case that atheists do not have a belief. It is not the case that they are simply entertaining a certain state of affairs, for example, imagining there is no god. (Though some philosophers contend, with some neuroscience findings backing them up, that imagining a proposition equates to a belief.) But if imagining is all they are doing then there would be no adoption of the label “atheist.” The adoption of a label is a commitment to a position, a judgment, not an imagining. So unless the person adopting the label is being dishonest, their use of the label expresses their adherence to a position, expressing that “I have decided that there is no god.” (Not-GE) So anyone who calls him or herself an “atheist” is either committing to a belief or being dishonest in their self portrayal. For the atheist to claim that atheism is not a belief is intellectual dishonesty.
That atheists believe that Not-GE is true is obvious in and beyond their embrace of the term atheism. The term is used by atheists to differentiate themselves from believers, a differentiation only desired if they reject what the believers believe; rejection equates to saying the believers in GE are wrong which is the assertion that the negation of the belief in GE (i.e. – Not-GE) is true. The derisive assertions of Atheists that religious believers believe in “fairy tales” or “imaginary friends” and are “irrational” are strong assertions that religious belief is wrong. No sane person asserts that a belief is wrong without believing the opposite is correct, so to criticize GE prima facie is to assert Not-GE. In addition, the atheist reaction to expressions of belief in GE show they are a believer in Not-GE. If one is neutral on the subject then one has no cause to oppose expression of a belief. That atheists are frequently openly critical of religious belief shows that they are indeed not neutral on the subject and in fact have committed to the position of Not-GE. They believe that there is no god. For the atheist to claim that they don’t believe Not-GE is intellectual dishonesty.
One evasion atheists try is to say that their atheism is a judgment not a belief or truth claim. This is just a semantic game. A judgment is a commitment to the truth of a proposition. As Merleau-Ponty wisely observed: “judgment is the taking of a position, it aims at knowing something valid for me at every moment of my life, and for other minds.” If the atheist tries to say they are not making an implicit claim to objective truth about Not-GE then they are just expressing subjective opinion, no more meaningful than “I like blue.” The atheist can only adopt that position if he/she also forfeits any basis for judging the validity of their own or others’ positions on GE, meaning being atheist is no better than being a theist. This clearly the atheist does not accept because they do make the judgment that theism is incorrect and their atheism a superior position. The atheist is making the judgment that their belief is more true than the belief of the theist. In forming the judgment “I am an atheist,” the atheist commits to the truth of the proposition that is asserted by the judgment: Not-GE.
Another evasion atheists try is to say that everyone is an atheist because everyone can say there is a religion they reject. To say that a Christian is an atheist because they reject Shiva is beyond ridiculous. Besides, if atheism is just “I don’t believe in *your* god” then atheism literally has nothing positive to offer, just egocentric nay saying. Plus, if everyone is an atheist then the term has no explanatory power and there would be no reason for anyone to claim “I am an atheist.” No, atheism is clearly something meaningful to those who adopt it and their adoption of it is as an alternative to all religious belief because atheism IS the belief that Not-GE is true where G stands for any and all meanings of “god.”
Yet another evasion used by some atheists is the neologism “agnostic atheist.” This is an inherently contradictory construction. Agnostic means “does not know.” If one does not know then to make a judgment such as Not-GE is illogical. As we have seen before, “I do not know if it is raining, but it is not raining” is absurd. But “agnostic atheist” means “I do not know if there is a god but there is no god.” One attempt to dodge this is for the atheist to claim he does indeed not know if there is a god and therefore he is justified, given an alleged lack of conclusive evidence, to hold Not-GE. This is the fallacy of appealing to epistemic luck. If one says “I do not know if it is raining, but it is not raining” and then runs outside and does not get wet, this lucky circumstance does not validate the illogic of her hypothesis. We also can see the absurdity of the “agnostic atheist” claim if we look at the atheist response to a claim to be an “agnostic theist.” This would be the claim “I do not know if there is a god but there is a god.” Atheists are extremely fond of condemning belief in god with the claim there is no evidence for god, “you do not know there is a god so you are illogical to believe there is a god.” Well, if the atheist wants to make that argument, they must also accept that the argument also refutes “agnostic atheist.” I will talk more about evidence issues in Part 3. But we can conclude that to claim the title of “agnostic atheist” is completely illogical.
Finally, we must deal with the evasion that atheism is simply non-belief not a belief. This is absurd on the face of it as shown above: to not believe GE is to believe Not-GE. However, this objection points to a corollary position of the person neutral on GE and Not-GE who we could call a non-believer, but is in fact an agnostic. Agnosticism is an honorable position and perhaps the only logical position in regard to GE and Not-GE since both beliefs are unprovable. This atheist evasion is to try to pretend that atheism is really agnosticism, a simple open-minded lack of belief. The difference between the atheist and the agnostic non-believer is that the agnostic does not feel any need to oppose the believer, he or she simply does not believe and has no need to make an issue of it. If one was truly non-religious one would have no desire for the label “atheist” and no desire to make the derisive assertions about believers that atheists do. Again, atheists reveal their belief in Not-GE every time they criticize those who believe GE is true.
This leaves the interesting question of why atheists try to pretend they haven’t made the intellectual commitment they clearly have made. Why aren’t atheists, who so loudly and proudly denounce religious beliefs, not equally loudly and proudly championing their own belief in Not-GE? What are atheists afraid of? The answer is because they seek to escape critical inquiry of their position—to be blunt, it is a coward’s way out to say “atheism isn’t a belief.” It is easier to criticize others than to defend yourself, so the atheist tries to exercise the right to criticize others while seeking to be above criticism. For the atheist to claim that atheism is not a belief is not just intellectual dishonesty it is fearfulness and an admission that they know their position of Not-GE is difficult if not impossible to defend. In my next essay in this series on why atheism is illogical I explore in more depth the intellectual dishonesty of atheists in their use of terms.
Then, in Part Three, having established that Atheism is a truth claim we come to the question of whether the Atheist assertion of Not-GE is viable. Finally, Part Four, I address the issue of evidence about the propositions GE and Not-GE and the atheist fallacies concerning the issue.