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Tuesday, April 22

Lack of belief is still a Belief

A lack of belief is still a belief, so atheism is a belief and atheists by definition believe that God does not exist.

As a fellow atheist, I have seen this argument brought up many times. I have always had a sense that it fell short of giving any credence to religious belief but haven't been able to explain it very well.

Today, on the atheism.about.com site by Austin Cline, I found a discussion of this claim that I found to be unsatisfying. It also gave me some idea of how I might explain my own feeling that the claim, when made by theists, is a bit deceptive.

What's especially disconcerting about the above myth, commonly offered in response to being told that atheism is just a lack of belief in gods, is how insanely incoherent it is. If I told someone that lacking hair is still having hair, or lacking a hobby is itself a hobby, they'd probably ask whether I've been feeling OK and might even suggest counseling.

This analogy doesn't quite work.

Belief has a very different meaning from "having hair" or "hobby" such that an analogy can be tricky.

A more precise way to give an analogy would be to say that "one is lacking red hair." A lack of a belief in atheism is a lack of a particular belief but not necessarily a lack of any kind of belief.

So, technically, the theist isn't automatically logically inconsistent by making such a claim about atheists.

To take this further, I looked at a definition of belief:

Assent to a proposition or affirmation.

By this definition, it would be difficult to be a thinking person at all without having some sort of belief. Additionally, one who lacks a belief in a God could reasonably be said to have a belief (assent to the proposition) that "There is no God".

Ok, so what is the real problem with this claim?

I suspect it has to do with one's reasons for a belief and one's degree of certainty. A believer in God bases his belief on FAITH (no evidence based reason).

A believer in the idea "There is no God" or more tentatively "There very likely is no God" considers him/herself to be basing this on reason.

One might say that the belief of Austin Cline's is something like "I don't think anything exists unless there is good reason to think so." And likely, he has good reasons for thinking so (at least, I believe something like that, and I think my reasons for it are pretty good).

A theist would still be correct that he, indeed, has a belief, but it isn't a real argument. It is begging the question of whether one's reasons for having a belief are good.

Additionally, the claim is deceptive because there is another definition of belief which is based on faith or that it is about religion. In this sense, the meaning of belief is different when applied to theism (statement of religion or faith) than when applied to atheism (assent of a proposition).

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