Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Why “I Don’t Believe God Exists” Really Is the Same as “I Believe God Doesn’t Exist”

I have noticed a very odd phenomena while observing theists interacting with atheists. To wit, atheists tend to say they don’t believe that God exists, whereas theists are constantly trying to get them to admit that they actually do believe that God doesn’t exist.

Sure, there are some subtle differences between the two statements. It is certainly possible to have no opinion whatsoever on a subject and, in that case, it would only be accurate to say you don’t believe anything about that subject. After all, you can’t affirmatively believe something is false if you haven’t ever considered it in the first place. For example, you might say that a newborn baby does not believe in God because that baby can’t even grasp the concept, and it would be incorrect to sat that a newborn baby believes that God doesn’t exist.

Similarly, it is possible that there is so little information available to actually form a belief in something — no claims of evidence for or against — that it’s really only possible to say you don’t believe it and not that you actually believe it is false. For example, most people would probably say they don’t actually have a belief that there is a technologically advanced alien civilization on a planet orbiting the star Antares, but wouldn’t go so far to say that they believe there isn’t such a civilization there. There’s simply no evidence one way or another, so the default position is to lack belief without affirmatively disbelieving.

But what about when atheists talk about their lack of belief in God? Is it really any different from having a belief that God doesn’t exist? I would argue that the two statements are functionally equivalent since (a) atheists who talk about such things certainly have an opinion on the subject (or else they wouldn’t be talking about such things) and (b) there are plenty of arguments and claims of evidence used to support a belief in God as well as plenty of counter-arguments and counter-evidence to support an active disbelief in God. So, when an atheist claims that he or she does not believe in God, it is usually because they are aware of the claims for God’s existence and they have actively rejected those claims as lacking in evidence and logical soundness.

So, why do so many atheists hate to admit they believe God doesn’t exist? And why do so many theists desperately try to get them to say that they do? Well, as far as I can tell, it all comes down to a mistaken notion of the burden of proof. As one atheist I had a discussion with recently put it:
[Stating a belief that God does not exist] is a description of a strong or militant atheist, because you believe there are no gods. It is a brave statement. A belief in the existence or nonexistence of something logically requires proof or evidence, otherwise it is subject to contradiction. I am a plain vanilla atheist, one who just does not believe that gods exist. The lack of belief in anything does not require proof or evidence and is not subject to contradiction. [Emphasis added]
So, apparently, some atheists believe that stating they believe God does not exist somehow shifts the burden of proof onto them to somehow justify their affirmative belief in the non-existence of God. And, apparently, this is exactly what theists have in mind when they insist that atheists don’t just lack a belief in God but actually believe God doesn’t exist.

Except, this is not how the burden of proof actually works.

Yes, it is true that the burden of proof lies upon the person making a claim, but it’s crucially important to understand when somebody is actually making a claim in the first place.

For example, if a theist states that she believes that God exists and an atheist responds that he does not believe that God exists (or, if you prefer, that he believes that God does not exist), neither party has any burden of proof whatsoever since neither one has actually made a claim. Stating a belief is not the same as making a claim, and a statement of belief does not require justification (except, perhaps, to validate that you do, in fact, believe what you say you believe and aren’t just lying).

Here’s the thing, though. Many theists don’t just state that they “believe” that God exists. Instead, they claim that God does exist. And, not only that, they have all sorts of “proof” (including logical arguments) to support this claim that God exists. And, since they are actually making a claim, they have the burden of proof to actually provide the evidence and arguments in support of that claim and defend that evidence and arguments against any and all evidence and arguments to the contrary.

Most atheists, on the other hand, don’t ever claim that God does not exist. They claim that they don’t believe God exists, or that they believe that God doesn’t exist, but once again a statement of belief — even an affirmative statement of belief (“I believe God does not exist”) — is not a claim that carries with it any burden of proof whatsoever.

Even when atheists get into debates with theists, atheists rarely assert that “God does not exist.” At most, the atheist will provide evidence and arguments to rebut the claim by theists that God does exist and then conclude that the complete lack of good evidence and sound arguments to support a belief in God should rationally lead to a lack of belief in God.

So the whole idea of atheists who claim that God does not exist is basically a straw man cooked up by theists. But it’s a good topic for discussion, since many theists think that they can shift the burden of proof onto atheists simply by getting them to admit that they affirmatively believe there is no God instead of just that they lack a belief in God. As discussed above, however, it doesn’t matter if you assert a belief or a lack of belief, since neither statement carries with it any burden of proof whatsoever.

Having said all that, let me acknowledge that some atheists do, in fact, make the actual claim that God (at least the God described in the holy books of any world religion and actually worshiped by anybody) does not exist. And yes, any atheist making this claim would absolutely have the burden of proof to back up his claim. Fortunately, for these atheists, the burden of proof is actually quite easy to meet, since all one needs to do is show that (a) all logical arguments used to prove the existence of God are unsound and (b) that evidence that should be there if such a God existed is, in fact, not there. See, for example, the following:

Absence of Evidence IS Evidence of Absence
Keep in mind this only applies to the God described in the holy books of any world religion and actually worshiped by anybody. Few, if any, atheists will ever claim that no possible concept of God exists, since there are concepts of God out there that are so amorphous as to be wholly incapable of being proved or disproved. You know, the omniscient, omnipotent, intangible “spirit” God who exists wholly outside of time and space and who created the universe and then does not interact with it in any way. Sure, that sort of God could exist, but who really cares if it does or doesn’t, since it doesn’t answer prayers, doesn’t perform miracles, doesn’t proscribe moral laws, doesn’t reward good deeds, doesn’t punish bad deeds, doesn’t provide for an afterlife or a path to salvation, etc., and really only exists conceptually as a means of plugging current gaps in human knowledge (e.g., “where did the universe come from?”).

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