Atheism’s BS Trilemma

The Reconquista Initiative


Atheism’s BS Trilemma

In the essay “The Positive Burden-Bearing Beliefs of Lack-of-Belief Atheists”, it was noted that many atheists, while overtly claiming to merely lack a belief about God’s existence, actually hold to a number of positive beliefs which are indirectly yet intimately related to the question of God’s existence (meaning both God and gods). For example, most atheists hold that God’s non-existence is more probable than not, that no one created the universe or sustains it in existence, that matter exists, that the universe was not designed, that life ultimately came naturally from non-life without guidance, that the evolutionary process was wholly random and without interference from divine beings, that consciousness ultimately arose from non-consciousness naturalistically, that a soul does not exist, that God-given moral commands and duties do not exist, and so on. Additionally, many atheists claim that there is no evidence for God’s existence nor any good arguments for his existence either. But if this is the case, and if the atheist does hold to such positive beliefs as the ones mentioned above, then it soon becomes clear that such an atheist is not some mere negative-atheist who lacks a belief in God’s existence in some literal or straightforward sense, but rather the atheist is an unbeliever who holds a number of beliefs which have a burden of proof and which he must thereby justify and defend.

But now note that if the unbeliever, suddenly realizing that his positive endorsement of many of the aforementioned naturalistic claims thereby puts a burden of proof on his shoulders, thus started to back-track his affirmative endorsement of those claims, then such a move would create some serious concerns for the unbeliever. Indeed, for if an unbeliever who previously affirmed the aforementioned naturalistic claims suddenly repudiated them, and thus began to state that now he neither believed nor disbelieved that anyone created and/or caused the universe, and/or he claimed to neither believe nor disbelieve that there was any evidence of God’s existence in nature, and/or that God was involved in the evolutionary process, and so on and so forth, then such a retreating move to neither believing nor disbelieving any of the aforementioned naturalistic claims would indeed generate two potential issues for such an unbeliever.

First, the aforementioned withdrawal from the various naturalistic claims mentioned above would strongly suggest that such an unbeliever was really more of an agnostic than a genuine atheist, at least when dealing with the deities that most modern theists believe in. But why this is so?

Well, as many atheists themselves admit, if a person neither positively believed nor disbelieved in the existence of God, and thus held a position of equal uncertainty and doubt about that issue, that person would be viewed as an agnostic by most people, not as an actual atheist. And both atheists and others admit that to move from the agnostic position towards atheism, the person would need to positively affirm, at least to some degree, that it is more probable than not that no God exists. For example, in his book The God Delusion, in the section titled “The Poverty of Agnosticism”, arch-unbeliever Richard Dawkins provides us with a seven-point scale for theistic belief with pure agnosticism in the middle of the scale and with an increasingly more probable belief in either God’s existence or non-existence forming opposite ends of the scale; and so Dawkins, at least, thinks that to be an atheist in a real world sense, an unbeliever would need to believe that God’s non-existence is much more probable than not. And Robert M. Martin, in his 2002 3rd Edition of The Philosopher’s Dictionary defines atheism, theism, and agnosticism as follows: “Atheists believe that God doesn’t exist. … Atheism is contrasted with its opposite, theism, the view that God does exist, and also with agnosticism, the view that there isn’t any good reason to believe either that God exists or that He doesn’t.” Thus, for Martin, like Dawkins, to move from agnosticism to either atheism or theism requires good reasons to do so, and the existence of such reasons would allow a person to claim that God’s existence is either more probable or less probable than not depending on the direction that the person moved in. So for Martin and Dawkins, and other atheists who agree with them, to be a real-world atheist is to view God’s existence as at least somewhat less probable than not.

But now, with all of the above in mind, note that if the unbeliever is a broad atheist who positively disbelieves, whether tentatively or with certainty, that no God of any type exists, then, by necessary extension, such a person would, for example, also need to positively disbelieve, whether tentatively or with certainty, that no personal being created or sustains the universe—where ‘the universe’ means all of physical reality—for any being capable of doing so would easily be classified as at least a lower-case god. Thus, to positively and broadly affirm, at least to some probable degree, that no Gods exists is to implicitly and simultaneously affirm that no personal being created or sustains the universe. And so, the point of all this is to show that it is indeed the case that if a person claims to neither believe nor disbelieve the assertion that a personal being created the universe and sustains it in existence, then this means that the person cannot be a broad atheist who believes that the non-existence of all Gods is more likely than not, for to do so he could not be agnostic about the existence of a possible creator and sustainer of the universe. Consequently, this shows that the more agnostic a person is on the God-related questions and issues mentioned earlier, then the more agnostic-like the person appears to be in general. And just think of this in a common-sense manner: if a person told you that 1) he neither believed nor disbelieved that Gods exist, and 2) he neither believed nor disbelieved that a personal being created and sustains the universe, and 3) he neither believed nor disbelieved that a personal supernatural being created life, guided evolution, created consciousness, left evidence of his existence in nature, and so on, you would rightly come to see such a person as much more agnostic-like than atheist-like. Such a person might indeed be an atheist about certain deities, but it would be reasonable to hold that such a person, generally-speaking, would best be described as an agnostic, or at least as someone who was mainly an agnostic, rather than describing the person as a tentative or certain atheist in the broad sense. And so again, if an unbeliever back-tracks into agnosticism concerning all the relevant God-related questions, then such an unbeliever, by extension, gives others good grounds to see him as more of an agnostic than an atheist.

So the above issue is the first one to note if you find that an unbeliever is back-tracking from making any kind of positive claim concerning the various God-related questions and topics that are normally and naturally associated with atheism. But now the second issue is that if the aforementioned back-tracking unbeliever does indeed appear more agnostic than atheistic concerning all the God-related questions, and yet that unbeliever refused to countenance the fact that his views, to others, would suggest agnosticism much more strongly than atheism, and if the unbeliever continued to insist that his views were nevertheless still atheistic in nature—as many lack-of-belief atheists do—then such a stance would readily and reasonably make an outside observer come to believe that such an unbeliever disingenuously wished to make use of the intellectual and burden-free benefits of an agnostic-like position while still being able to rhetorically label himself as an atheist. Indeed, such a move would make the unbeliever’s intellectual integrity and motives suspect, and quite rightly so.

And so, the long and short of it is this:  whether he wants to be or not, the self-described atheistic unbeliever is stuck in a bit of a trilemma. First, if the unbeliever waters down his views to the point where he makes no real positive or committed claims about any God-related questions, then this strongly indicates that such an unbeliever really would be more appropriately regarded as an agnostic rather than as an atheist, regardless of what the unbeliever’s self-label is. However, if the unbeliever does answer certain God-related questions positively, then his atheism is indirectly shown to not merely be a lack-of-belief, but rather it is an actual positive point-of-view which denies the existence of certain types of gods—usually the most popular ones—and this means that the atheist has a burden of proof which he must meet and cannot avoid. And finally, if the unbeliever makes no real positive claims about any God-related questions and is thus rightly seen as an agnostic rather than an atheist, but if such an unbeliever nevertheless adamantly maintains and proclaims that he is an atheist regardless of the fact that he holds to a position which everyone else sees as more agnostic than atheist, then this situation creates the grounds to make it reasonable to suspect that such an unbeliever is simply trying to bullshit the rest of us into accepting the rhetorical maneuvers which are most advantageous to him, and this is something that we need not do. And so, for the self-described atheist who wants to be called an atheist but who nevertheless wants to avoid the burden of proof, the choices are grim: either he admits he is actually best classified as an agnostic, not an atheist, or he admits he is an atheist but then shoulders his share of the burden of proof, or he gets called out as a mere rhetorical bullshitter who is trying to have his atheistic cake and eat it too.

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One thought on “Atheism’s BS Trilemma

  1. There’s a rather strong lack of nuance in the way you write. Take, for example, this passage from your opening paragraph:

    “most atheists hold that God’s non-existence is more probable than not, that no one created the universe or sustains it in existence, that matter exists, that the universe was not designed, that life ultimately came naturally from non-life without guidance, that the evolutionary process was wholly random and without interference from divine beings, that consciousness ultimately arose from non-consciousness naturalistically, that a soul does not exist, that God-given moral commands and duties do not exist”

    I note that you hedge your bets by saying ‘most atheists’, but you do imply that all these claims have to be accepted, rejected or undecided as a group; that if one accepts one, one accepts them all. That’s simply not true. Here’s my stance on each of those claims.

    “God’s non-existence is more probable than not”
    Undecided. There is a position called ‘ignosticism’. It seems to relate to the question of God’s existence only, in most people’s minds. But I think it is a worthy position to hold in relation to any knowledge claim, it is this: the subject of the knowledge claim (in this case, God) does not have a sufficiently unambiguous definition to have its validity examined.
    You’ve probably heard versions of this before, when atheists claim that the definition of a God is too flexible, or that people change their definition if a rebuttal is offered. For generic claims of a God, this is, in fact, a perfectly sensible position. It is also compatible with (not exclusive of) atheism: if you don’t have sufficient details of what the term means, you can not believe in the claim.
    You may well offer a more precise claim of a God, like one of a literal Biblical interpretation. And then one is perfectly capable of applying Bayesian reasoning (if not the actual numbers) and a little model dependent realism to demonstrate which option is more likely.

    “that no one created the universe or sustains it in existence”
    I am not convinced of the contrary. I know nothing substantial really about cosmogony. I’m aware of some models, but not the maths of them. I am aware of Sean Carroll’s claim that there are dozens of closed mathematical models for how the universe could have begun from nothing, meaning they are plausible and do not rely anything from the outside. It’s not that I believe ‘no one created it’, it’s that I don’t know how it came about and am still awaiting credible arguments. The only credible arguments are from physics and are complete mathematical models without a ‘someone’.
    Am I convinced? Well, yes actually. I am convinced no one created the universe, because I am convinced there are sufficient naturalist explanations for the universe, and literally no explanatory theistic model. The details are still provisional.
    My position on this still relates back to ignosticism. What does one mean when one say ‘someone’ created the universe?

    “life ultimately came naturally from non-life without guidance”
    This is a lot like the universe question. We have chemical models and protocells and organic replicators that inform models of abiogenesis. These models do not require guidance.
    We have no reason to assume guidance. So I don’t accept the claim of guidance. I do accept that naturalist explanations are possible. I can’t accept religious claims are even possible until we have a well defined God to assess. Again, ignosticism.

    “the evolutionary process was wholly random and without interference from divine beings”
    Several things:
    (1) Evolution is not random. Variation is. Allele frequency and selection are not. So the claim that it is ‘wholly random’ doesn’t map onto a accurate presentation of the scientific understanding of evolution.
    (2) The model of biological evolution does not require interference to account for the process and results.
    (3) There is no evidence of interference.
    (4) Likelihood of interference cannot be established without fully defining what would interfere and why. #ignosticism.

    “consciousness ultimately arose from non-consciousness naturalistically”
    I know nothing about this. I lack beliefs relating to this topic.
    I also have elements of ignosticism. What is consciousness? Is an ant conscious? What about a rat? Or a dog? Or a chimp? If it’s a spectrum, doesn’t that imply naturalism.

    “a soul does not exist”
    There are actually good arguments against the idea that a soul exists, if one claims that the soul actually does anything. (And if one argues that the soul doesn’t do anything, then we can reject the claim of a soul by noting that there can’t be evidence for it.)
    The argument is this: all actions and interactions have an energy level, relating to particle and an energy field. We have technology that can detect energy levels at an absolutely tiny scale (that’s what the Large Hadron Collide does!). If there’s no energy from an interaction, despite looking at this resolution, there’s probably no interaction.
    Luckily, there’s a way around that by claiming that’s not what the souls is or how it works. But, guess what, that leads me back to the ‘ignosticism’ defence; what is a soul? What do you claim it does? If it does anything, where will we find evidence? If it doesn’t do anything, how do you know it exists?

    “God-given moral commands and duties do not exist”
    Define God.
    That definition should probably include enough information to decide whether that God would care and give commands, but should also be well defined enough to know what we’re looking for in terms of evidence for its existence.
    Once you’ve defined God, we can discuss whether we have reason and evidence to believe in its existence.
    Then we can discuss whether it hands down moral commands and duties.
    You see how far down the rabbit hole you are, here? There’s a lot more to cover before the question of God’s morals are even slightly relevant.

    Liked by 1 person

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