The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Please stop saying “Atheism is not a belief”


A lack of belief

It’s become excruciatingly predictable for atheists who operate on a pop level to clarify that atheism, for them, is not a belief. It is, as they say, a lack of belief. They will point out that there is a difference between saying “I believe there is no God” (which is a belief) and saying “I do not believe there is a God” (which is a mere lack of belief). Many atheists will say they only lack a belief and this defines their atheism.

Now I’m not sure where this came from, but the talking point memo has spread far and wide.

Why does the atheist claim atheism is the mere lack of belief? The reason for this is that atheists don’t think they need to justify their atheism. Beliefs are the sorts of things that need to be justified by reason and evidence. If atheism isn’t a belief, then they need not shoulder any burden of proof for their atheism. So the theist is stuck having to meet some (usually extraordinarily high) burden of proof while the atheist gets to sit back and poke holes in whatever the theist says. It’s really quite brilliant as a rhetorical dodge.

They will often say that most of us are a-Santa-Clausists or a-tooth-fairyists, but it is not like we’ve justified these beliefs. There simply is no evidence for Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy and so we lack these beliefs.

A plea

If I may, may I talk with you, the atheist, for a minute. Please stop saying this! Let me give you a couple of reasons why.

For one, it shuts down rather than fosters dialogue. It is way easier to shoot holes in a view than it is to defend a view. If you are engaged in a formal debate (especially if there’s prize money involved!), then it makes sense to put yourself in the best possible position to win the debate. However, if you and I are dialogue partners, both attempting to know truth about these matters, then it seems infinitely better for both of us to lay out a case for our respective views and then we can, you know, talk about the case for both positions.

Second, I suspect you do have beliefs about God’s existence.

To see this, let’s first say what a belief is. A belief is simply the affirmation of a proposition or claim. Belief states always have a propositional content picked out by a “that clause.” A belief is always in the form of “I believe that p.” I believe that grass, when living, is green. Or I believe that Coke is better than Pepsi. Or I believe that the Tooth Fairy does not exist. Or I believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The contents of these beliefs are the following propositions:

  • grass, when living, is green
  • Coke is better than Pepsi
  • the Tooth Fairy does not exist
  • Jesus rose from the dead

Notice that one can wonder about or consider the truth of these propositions/claims without affirming that they are true. But once one comes to assent or affirm a proposition’s truth, then it is a belief.

Beliefs do not have to be held with 100% certainty. I believe that my car is in the parking lot outside of my office building. I affirm this proposition, but I am quite aware I could be wrong about this. The car could have been stolen or towed or my wife could have picked it up, and my belief would be false. I don’t have anything close to 100% certainty, but it would be absurd to say that I don’t thereby believe it.

Beliefs held with less than 100% certainty also do not require faith. I get it, you do not want to have anything that smacks of faith. Rest assured, one can intellectually assent to something (i.e., believe it) without placing one’s faith in that thing. Indeed I can believe that airplanes are a safe mode of travel without ever getting aboard.

So a belief is simply the assent to a claim/proposition.

Don’t you, the atheist, think that it is true that there is no God (even if you are not 100% certain about this)? You’ve reflected on this claim, you’ve considered the evidence for and against. Haven’t you concluded that there is no God?

Not identical states

Now it’s true that believing something is not the case and lacking a belief about something are not identical states. It is logically possible for one to say it is true “I do not believe p” but it is false that “I believe that not p.” But when is this the case? This only seems to be the case when we haven’t sufficiently reflected on some issue. There are a lot of historical controversies about which I don’t have beliefs simply because I don’t know enough about them (e.g., who was involved with the JFK assassination).

But this doesn’t seem to be where most atheists are at. They seem to have made up their mind that there is no God. I mean I could be wrong, but their tone (especially in internet groups) suggests that they have some very strong beliefs about the existence of God and it is not just a lack of belief that they spend so much time going on about.

I do not believe in the Tooth Fairy, but I also believe that there is no Tooth Fairy. Do I have justification for this belief? Of course I do! My kids have lost about 40 teeth thus far and I’ve got good reason to think there is no one (but me!) that’s providing candy in exchange for a tooth.

The irony of this dodge is twofold. For one, the atheist begs off of having to provide justification for his or her atheism while simultaneously acting as if theirs is the position of reason and evidence. If the atheist is all about reason and evidence, then he or she shouldn’t be reticent to provide reason and evidence for his or her atheism.

Second, there is indeed reason and evidence for atheism. I’m happy to admit that! Now I obviously don’t think the case for atheism is, all things considered, persuasive. However, there are some objections to theism that I think have some punch and there are plenty of very intelligent atheists who think these justify their atheism. So why not just lay out the case for atheism and let’s have a dialogue?

A way forward

Even if you, the atheist, are not convinced, I think I have a way forward. Maybe you merely lack a belief in God.  I don’t think so, but okay. What about the likelihood of there being a God? Do you think that it’s likely the case that God exists? Or do you just lack this belief too? It seems odd indeed for to say that one lacks a belief about the likelihood of their being a God.

I suspect that you do believe that God likely does not exist. If so, it seems we could then have a productive conversation. Let me lay out why I think there is good evidence to believe that God exists and you can lay out reasons and justification for why you believe this is likely false. Before you know it, we may just have a dialogue!

[for more info on this issue see Beliefmap’s post on this issue]


Thanks for reading! If you like this content, subscribe below to recieve new posts in your inbox.

12 Replies

  1. Peter/Ethel Thurston

    “But this doesn’t seem to be where most atheists are at. They seem to have made up their mind that there is no God. I mean I could be wrong, but their tone (especially in internet groups) suggests that they have some very strong beliefs about the existence of God and it is not just a lack of belief that they spend so much time going on about.”

    You are very wrong indeed. A tone doesn’t make a rejection of your proposition on the basis that you failed to supply evidence a proposition itself. It merely means we’re sick and tired of you trying to dictate public policy with a proposition you have failed to substantiate. So rather than actually deal with what we say you set out to strawman the lot of us because you can’t supply said evidence. This is a typical conversation;

    Theist: “God exists!”
    Atheist: “Prove it.”
    Theist “Prove there isn’t a god!”
    Atheist: “That’s not how philosophy/science operates. You have given me no reason to believe, that’s all I require to suspend belief.”

    Your response to this? Claiming that the atheist should stick to what is correct both philosophically and scientifically because reality treats you unfairly. The only way forward is for you to stop lying about atheists and start supplying evidence. As for everything else, people are already having dialogues so that can’t possibly be your reasons for making this video. It can only be that said dialogues with theists always end up with us pointing out your complete lack of evidence which is a deal breaker for the intellectually honest.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      My response is this would never be a conversation I would have. There’s too much evidence for theism to not talk your ear off. So I fully accept the burden of proof for my position. The point of the post is to say that you should too. As I concede, there’s some good evidence for atheism. I don’t find it, at the end of the day, persuasive but it is a much more interesting conversation when we can both lay out our positions and begin an actually dialogue.

  2. Chuck McWhirter

    Such truth in what you’ve written. There are times I feel like I’m speaking to a brick wall with a family member of mine that is a “hostile” atheist. Even when trying to work through her position logically she regularly uses the “escape hatches” to dodge a deep conversation for truth.

  3. EXACTLY! Thank you for your post! I love this! I can’t tell you how many times I have had this discussion with friends! It’s amazing to me that on the one hand many atheists claim that it is “not a belief” and on the other hand atheism is being represented in the military with chaplains (Secular Humanists) because there has been an outcry that atheists do not have representation for religious activities. This is a great post and encourages honest dialogue! Well done!

  4. Payne

    Very little of substance in this article why we should stop saying atheism isn’t a belief. It doesn’t stop dialogues at all. Atheists are just not convinced that what you believe is true. Why is it so damn hard for theists to prove their claims when they supposedly have a real deity supporting them? With a real personal god that can help you find your car keys this should be trivial to accomplish. Some are even trying to shift the burden of proof, with which they indirectly admit their belief has no substance. And you say atheists trying to dodge?

    Call me non-believer if you want. Or are you then going to say non-believers are believers? It doesn’t help your position at all. Provide evidence or good arguments and then you can have a dialogue about its validity. What theists can do so far is presenting flawed arguments that only sound convincing to gullible people or someone not trained in logic.

    Atheism isn’t a belief.
    Please stop saying “stop saying atheism is not a belief”.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      There’s definitely a lot of bad arguments out there on both sides. You say “What theists can do so far is presenting flawed arguments that only sound convincing to gullible people or someone not trained in logic.” But this is simply untrue. Quite a number of the smartest and best trained people in the world (and in history) are theists. Sounds like you already have your mind made up that there is no God…oh sorry…that you lack the belief there is a God.

  5. Philmonomer

    First, I am an atheist. Second, I’ve certainly said “I lack a belief in God.”

    I think that’s because, the statement “I believe there is no God,” seems, well, not accurate. [This is just some thinking aloud. Maybe my thinking is all bollocks.] It’s too strong. I would say something like “I believe that the most likely state of affairs is that God (as understood by Christianity) doesn’t exist.”

    Indeed, the Deist God absolutely could exist. God got the whole thing started, and walked away. The Universe looks exactly the same as if there is no God (or at least no interventionist God) exists. So I lack a belief in God, but I don’t think I believe “There is no God.”

    I see this as having parallel to “Last Thursdayism.” I think the most likely state of things is that Last Thursdayism is not true. Would I say “I believe that last Thursdayism is false.” Again, I don’t really have an opinion on the matter. I don’t care. I don’t see how “Last Thursdayism” could be proven one way or the other, and see it as an empty proposition.

    Just some thoughts.

    1. Travis Dickinson

      Thanks for the thoughts. All I’m saying is that most atheists have beliefs about God and his/her/its non existence. So when you say “I believe that the most likely state of affairs is that God (as understood by Christianity) doesn’t exist.” That’s all I’m going for in this piece (if you read to the end, that’s exactly what I recommend). There’s no trick or gotcha coming. It just seems silly for atheists to say they simply lack beliefs about God or gods. Maybe they do for some obscure deity but it seems most have considered the case for Christianity and found it wanting. On the basis of this and other evidence, they believe that the (Christian) God most likely doesn’t exist and this goes for every God they have considered. Why not just say this and then we can dialogue about the evidence.

      1. Philmonomer

        First, thanks for the response. Second, I think we (largely) agree. Finally, I suspect most all thoughtful atheists (essentially) take this position.

        But maybe I’m wrong. Did you have well known atheists you were thinking of? Or were you just sort of directing it at internet atheists in general? Thx.

        1. Travis Dickinson

          Well I don’t know of any professional atheist philosophers who say this. But I have found it to be very common and the reason for the post. Just from my experience, I have heard/read Peter Bogohossian, David Smalley, etc., taking this line. I’m not sure if those are “thoughtful atheists” in your book, but they are definitely well known. Glad we agree! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Panikos Of Grays

    The reason we say that Atheism is not a belief is more straightforward than that. We say #atheism is not a belief because it isn’t.

    It’s the default position and the only rational one. After all there are many definitions of god. Nearly as many as there are believers.
    Someone once told me that their god created the conditions that led to the universe existing, but then went away without leaving any evidence for his existence. What can you say to that?
    I’ve also been assured that god is that feeling you get when you think about god and that “god is all around us” whatever that means.
    To believe god does NOT exist you’d need to familiarise yourself with every god ever described.. You did that I assume before picking your god? Didn’t you find it very time consuming?

  7. This post s true, and it gets worse for the atheist. Logically,

    1. One either makes a truth statement, or not. (Excluded middle)
    2. If anyone, theist or atheist, makes a truth statement, then we have a meaningful statement that can be discussed.
    3. If anyone does not make a meaningful statement, they have said nothing and nothing can be discussed.
    4. Therefore atheists are either making meaningful truth statements and are part of the discussion or they are not saying anything that can be responded to.

    The claim by atheists that they have nothing to justify is, as this post says, a rhetorical dodge. It’s been my experience that atheists make statements all the time and try to defend them. They obviously believe what they say.