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Public service announcement: Atheism is not saying “God is impossible.”

May 2, 2009

So, I’ve written (what I believe to be) an awesome post at Mormon Matters concerning who should go to church (and how should we treat them?) that I’ve talked about in a previous post here.

And I’ll tell you something. I value organic conversations. If the comments of a post go in a different direction than the original discussion, I know some people who will want to reign in the topic to the original discussion. While I can understand this in some situations (obviously, you don’t want to feed trolls), my mindset on the issue is: more comments = more awesome. So, I let my topic drift to atheism in the comments a bit. And then I read this comment that has this idea that many people suspect about atheism:

I’m sure that I don’t believe in a lot of things that are true even without my endorsement. To me, atheists usually seem to be saying, “If this thing doesn’t make sense to me right now, then it can never be true.” How thankful I am that the world’s greatest thinkers and innovators don’t limit their achievements to whatever Bill Maher thinks is possible.


I know what Greg means to do in this comment. In a previous comment, I had discussed the idea of weak or negative atheism — which is simply the lack of belief in God. This, I think, is intuitive. If someone asks, “Do you believe in God?” and you say, “No,” then you should be recognized atheist. You shouldn’t have to positively (or strongly) assert, “I believe there is no God.” The lack of belief that there is a god should be enough, and I think that etymologically, this fits the word as well.

Greg takes aim at that. He’s sure he doesn’t believe in a lot of things without having to endorse it. (When he slips in that caveat “that are true…” I begin to wonder if I’m falling for trollbait myself…but I’m just going to ignore this part). Taking his idea, this is precisely what the atheist point is. Every person is atheist…the atheist just rejects one more god than most. The goal indeed is to have a society where we shouldn’t have to make this a specifically endorsed position — in the very same way we don’t have to say we are a-unicornist if we do not believe in unicorns, we also should not have to set ourselves apart as atheist if we do not believe in gods. Because, at least in this ideal world of atheist dreams, people should recognize that unicorns and gods are made of the same stuff and nonbelief in either of these shouldn’t be problematic.

But this isn’t all that Greg says. Greg goes forward and suggests that atheists aren’t merely people who do not believe in god (because there would be no need to make an “endorsement” and call yourself “atheist” in that case)…instead, atheists “usually seem to be saying” God could not be true. Or God is impossible.

This is not atheism.

Even a strong atheist would not suggest God is impossible (unless you have a strong atheist whose argument is that God is logically fallacious and self-defeating — then you might have such an argument). Rather, atheists are people who do not believe in God because we do not see reason or evidence to. Some of us say to theists, “Present the evidence,” and we’re still waiting.

Now, what Greg might be getting confused is that theists have been trying to present stuff they call evidence for a long time, and yet there are still atheists. That’s because atheists don’t want just any piece of evidence. Evidence has to be persuasive and conclusive. This is the hangup for theism that makes atheism persist. And why is that? Because the entire point of it all is FAITH. To believe in things which are not SEEN (and I guess Greg would answer the scripture “but yet, which are true.”) One particular sticking point is in the vantage point of the respective groups. Many atheists are going to want something that is empirically sound.

But this isn’t to say that atheists are saying God is impossible. This idea does great disservice even to theists, because it suggests that some theists believe merely because they believe God is possible.

Let’s take an atheist “argument.” Like Russell’s Celestial Teapot. Russell’s teapot is an idea that cannot be disproven, because all of our lasers and sciences and radars and telescopes cannot reduce its nonexistance into a crystal ball. So, it is certainly possible that the teapot exists, undetectable…but at this point, we should ask: WHO CARES?! Who cares if this teapot does exist because we have now just defined it in a way that it has no meaningful impact on our lives. We have no reason to believe in this teapot and no one would second-guess our nonbelief. In fact, many of us might take a stronger or positive position and suggest that not only do we not believe the teapot does exist, but we believe it does not, and STILL, no one would bat an eye at us.

This has been a public service announcement, not just to theists, but to any atheists who might think atheism is saying god is impossible.

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  1. JTJ permalink

    I sense the ghost of Hitchens and Harris.

  2. Much like your second-to-last post on MMatters, I’m not quite sure how to interpret this.

  3. JTJ permalink

    They have good arguments. I wonder if there’s anyone out there who can match them.

  4. oh, ho ho, I definitely don’t deserve that!

    Also, isn’t it strange then that Christianity has William Lane Craig, who has routinely “beaten” everyone he’s debated (esp. Hitchens…egh, the man is not made for debate)? That guy is infamous for debate skills (even if the SOUNDNESS of his arguments is suspect).

    One of the things I’ve learned from watching and reading debate that a vital part of it is more of a marketing or “selling” of the argument, instead of the actual content of the argument. This human factor is why I think things like faith persist.

  5. JTJ permalink

    I think WLC met his match against Bart Ehrman.

    My favorite part was when Ehrman asks WLC to insert his fictitious story into WLC’s probability calculator and see how it compares to his. Brilliant….

    I still like to watch Hitchens though. I think he did well against the lambs den

  6. I think one of the reasons ehrman was able to do so well against WLC (just judging if I remember the debate from a while back) is because wasn’t the topic only about the resurrection of Christ?

    I mean, it seems like that should make a trivial difference, but in other debates, because the topic isn’t so narrowly defined, what WLC’s favorite tactic is is to frame the argument, “Ok, mr. atheist, you have to beat all 5 of my arguments and then successfully present 1 of your own to win.” And of course, the resurrection is just *one* of his arguments (and not one of his stronger ones, I don’t think)…but because he’s so able to set the stage and then extend 5 arguments, if his opponent drops any of them, he’ll call them out on it and “win” the debate.

    In fact, he tried a little bit of that in the panel debate, but it was kinda ridiculous when he tried to call hitchens out on it because…IT WAS A PANEL DEBATE — of course people ‘drop’ arguments in such a scenario.

  7. JTJ permalink

    Yes, you’re spot on. It’s actually difficult to stay awake when he’s speaking for that same reason. I have been following Loftus’ campaign for a debate against WLC on
    I would like to see someone specifically prepare for his style of attack.

  8. Actually, Loftus’s campaign was what got me looking at Andrew’s series of needed atheist debate strategies at Evaluating Christianity.

    Unfortunately, I’m on Andrew’s side in thinking that although Loftus may be willing, he may be too headstrong and not trained enough to handle the formality of WLC. Really, though, if he could establish that the debate must *only* focus on one narrow topic, then that would be great.

  9. The question of whether you can prove God exists is actually irrelevant to matters of faith.

    The big mistake the “new atheists” make is assuming that proof of God is the only question that ought to matter to the religious – when in fact, it’s really beside the point.

  10. well summed, Seth R. This, along with ideas about what it means to fulfill “spiritual needs” creates massive ‘angst’ in atheist communities when trying to figure out why people search for churches (as I wrote in my latest article “Wherein atheists BAWW…”)

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  2. Strong atheism vs. weak atheism part 1 « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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