Here’s a nice 27-minute video by atheist (and former fundamentalist) Matt Dillahunty, discussing the meaning of the terms “atheist” and “agnostic”. Matt makes a number of points, nearly all of which I support, but then says one thing that I want to chew over a bit. Here’s what I see as a summary of the talk:
- There’s a difference between “soft” and “hard” atheism, with the former being “I don’t believe in gods” and the latter being “I believe there are no gods.” This distinction sounds reasonable to me.
- A theist is someone who believes that a God exists, so an “a-theist” is someone who does not believe a god exists. That is, Matt sees an “atheist” as a “soft atheist.”
- However, he doesn’t feel strongly about terminology. What’s important to him, and I fully agree, is that in debates or arguments each person understands what everyone means by the term. Often, Matt thinks, people squabble about the meaning of “atheist” as a way of avoiding the substantive issues: the weight of evidence for the existence of gods.
- “Atheism” simply denotes the state of one’s belief in gods; it has nothing to do per se with secular humanism or social justice, which are separate movements. One might see a connection between all these movements, but the term “atheist” itself does not imply uniform positions on other issues, nor does it compel one to adopt positions on other issues.
- One shouldn’t define atheist as someone who “lacks a belief in God.” As Matt argues, that implies that atheists are missing something—and is a pejorative connotation.
- What about agnosticism, which Matt sees as some attempt to find a middle ground between “hard” and “soft” atheism? There’s a good discussion about why he sees this as a non-starter, because the idea behind agnosticism—that you ‘just don’t know’—is ambiguous. It could refer either to your refusal to answer the question, or to your dithering about what you really think about God’s existence. (If you don’t accept gods, you’re simply an atheist.) I, too, see the term “agnostic” as a weasel word, something that people use (sometimes admittedly) when they think the term “atheist” is too jarring or off-putting. (Matt sees it as a misguided attempt to claim intellectual superiority). We should just ditch the term. If you don’t accept gods, whether or not you aver that they don’t exist, you’re an a-theist: an atheist.
My one quibble with Matt’s discussion is his claim that atheism is superior because it abjures any burden of proof. Theists must adduce proof that their god exists; hard atheists, claiming that no gods exist, must also give evidence for their claim. I actually don’t like the word “proof”, as that’s a word scientists don’t use with respect to existence claims. We should simply talk about the degree and strength of the evidence, avoiding the usual theist demand that we must “prove” that God doesn’t exist.
Now is it often said that the burden of evidence lies solely on the theist, and without that the atheist can just reject claims about God. I think it’s a bit more complex than that. If a theist adduces evidence for God—say the “First Cause Argument,” the “Fine Tuning Argument” or miracles, or any of the other stuff they use to support a deity—then those arguments have to be met. And they’re often met with empirical arguments, say with the rejection of causality that is part of modern physics, or the possibility of multiverses that could overturn fine-tuning. This all requires evidence of a sort, or at least arguments about evidence that are the normal part of science.
My quibble, then, involves more than equating atheism with simple “nonacceptance of gods.” It can even involve atheists adducing positive evidence: evidence that the world is not structured in the way a beneficent or omnipotent God would have constructed it. The existence of unexplained physical evils, like leukemia in children, the “poor design” of many animals and plants—all of this, too, is a sort of “burden of disproof” that lies on atheist shoulders. As Victor Stenger emphasized: “The absence of evidence is evidence for absence—if that evidence should be there.” And that applies to gods as much as it does to Bigfoot or Nessie. Note that Stenger equated “absence of evidence” with a kind of “evidence.”
This may be parsing Matt’s argument too finely, but I didn’t want to let the claim persist that atheists don’t have to adduce evidence—that ours is just a movement of simple rejection. It’s not: we proceed using rationality and empiricism, like good scientists evaluating existence claims.