Recently, I googled ‘What does atheism mean,’ and the very first thing that came up was this:
If you were to search the online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary this is what you would come up with:
For now, I want to discount the notions of theory and doctrine to focus on a distinction captured by these definitions — the distinction between the “lack of belief in god” and the “belief that there is no god.” The former statement is akin to agnosticism, while the latter constitutes a positive claim. Why is this distinction important to think about? Well, because it seems to be one that a lot of people get hung up about. As well, Christian apologists (e.g. William Lane Craig) often argue that atheism encompasses the latter position (i.e., a belief that there is no god); going on to suggest that the burden of proof falls on someone making such a positive claim. In other words, such apologists use this to argue that atheists must provide proof of the non-existence of god. Although this is a very clever ploy, I believe it fails in the end.
Here is why it fails: It assumes the following two sequences are interchangeable:
Claim –> Rejection of Claim
Rejection of Claim –> Claim
In other words, these apologists are arguing that it’s possible for the rejection of a claim to precede the claim. Obviously, this is not logically possible.
To make this clearer, let’s look at a specific example:
There are unicorns –> There are no unicorns
There are no unicorns –> There are unicorns
As you can see, these sequences are not interchangeable. I cannot reject the possibility of unicorns without first being presented with the claim that they exist. Logically the rejection of any claim presupposes that claim — meaning that it is never possible to begin with the rejection of a claim. If you think about it, though, this is precisely what the apologists are asking us to do. Based on the argument presented above, it is apparent that one does not start out with rejecting the claim ‘there is a god’ without presupposing (or rather being presented) with the claim ’there is a god’.
Now if were to apply the scientific method to the question of god, the hypothesis would be the claim ‘there is a god’. The null hypothesis or rejection of the claim would therefore be ‘there is no god’. It becomes clear, when posed in this way, that the onus is on the claimant (i.e., the person proposing the existence of god) to provide evidence to reject the null hypothesis. If the apologists had their way, the scientific method would be flipped on its head! In effect, they are trying to make the null hypothesis become the hypothesis. But how can one generate evidence in support of a negative? Truly, it is beyond me.
What atheism means to me, and why I consider myself an atheist, boils down to the fact that there is no merit to the claim of god. Or, in the scientific terms discussed above, there are no data leading me to reject the null hypothesis. There has not been, to this day, any evidence in support of god, whether god be YHWH, Zeus, Thor, or Vishnu (or Thetans, if you want to refer to a relatively new religion – Scientology). This viewpoint negates even the “last stand” of the apologists — the Kalām Cosmological Argument (KCA), which I discussed in this post. As an aside, I throw this question out to my theist friends who utilize the KCA in support of their claim. Do they believe in god BECAUSE they read about the KCA? I suspect most do not. Rather, they come to belief by virtue of being born into a particular belief system.
Before I conclude, I must discuss what atheism is not. Atheism is not a religion, contrary to the assertion made by apologists and other religious folks. I find this tactic on the part of the religious to be curious. They are either trying to force the atheist to provide evidence of no god (since both theism and atheism are religions), which fails as shown above. Or perhaps they are trying to equate theism and atheism as being faith-based; you have to have faith to be an atheist. However, atheism requires faith as much as not believing in unicorns requires faith. The theist cannot use this argument to get around having to meet the burden of proof that there is a god.