In the previous two essays in this essay series—namely, “Why It is Rational to Trust Atheists Less” and “Yes, We Should Trust Atheists Less”—it was argued that there do indeed exist good reasons to initially trust atheists and unbelievers to a relatively lesser degree than other individuals, such as religious believers. However, upon reading those two earlier essays, an atheist might complain that in those essays, atheism is, in fact, being straw-manned, thus negating the force of the arguments presented in those essays. And the reason that this straw-manning claim could be made is because an atheist could complain that those essays conflate mere atheism with atheistic-naturalism, which is just a different term for philosophical-naturalism. And the reason that such a conflation is a problem is because many atheists would argue that atheism is just a lack of a belief concerning the existence of God or gods, whereas atheistic-naturalism not only positively asserts that no gods exist, but it is also full of other positive beliefs as well. Thus, the atheist could argue that whereas atheistic-naturalism is a genuine worldview, atheism, by itself, is just a lack of belief, and so it is not a worldview nor even a positive belief. And since all the points in the last two essays deal more with atheistic-naturalism rather than with lack-of-belief atheism, then the arguments in those essays are not directly applicable to pure atheists. So this is the key complaint that mere atheists could make against those essays.
Now, in response to this objection, it should be immediately pointed out that I have argued in other works—namely, in my book Lack-of-Belief Atheism is Bullshit—that so-called lack-of-belief atheism is actually just a disingenuous tactic used by atheists to avoid their burden-of-proof when debating theists; additionally, my book also argues that there are very good reasons to never define atheism as a mere lack-of-belief concerning the existence of God. However, even if, for the sake of argument, it is accepted that atheism means just a lack-of-belief in God, does this fact negate the force of the arguments presented in the last two essays? In some respects, yes it does. But in other respects, it actually makes the situation much worse for atheists. Indeed, even if the above critique by atheists against the two previous essays is sound, it is still the case that it is rational to trust atheists less. And this claim will be argued for below.
Atheism as a Lack-of-Belief
Now, as stated above, if—for the sake of argument—atheism is indeed treated merely as a lack-of-belief in God and is not the same as atheistic-naturalism, and if the arguments in the last two essays focus mainly on the statements of atheistic-naturalists or atheists who positively deny the existence of God or gods, then yes, the arguments in those two previous essays are undermined when applied to strict lack-of-belief atheists. However, this issue is not nearly as damaging as it seems. Why? First, because many unbelievers are, in fact, atheistic-naturalists, and so even if the arguments of the past two essays apply only to atheistic-naturalists, they still apply to a wide swath of unbelievers. But to make matters even worse, while atheism and atheistic-naturalism are theoretically different, in daily-life, most unbelievers, whether atheistic-naturalists or just atheists, refer to themselves as atheists or unbelievers or even just skeptics. And so, what this means, is that when encountering an individual who calls himself an atheist or an unbeliever, it is not possible to know, based on that description alone, whether the person is a mere atheist or an atheistic-naturalist or something else. But this lack of knowledge about what the person truly believes does not increase our trust in him. Rather, it makes us more suspicious of such a person, and rightfully so. After all, since the atheist or unbeliever could range in his views from a mere atheist to an atheistic-naturalist who is also a moral relativist or moral nihilist, then until and unless these details are determined, then it is indeed rational to initially and pre-emptively trust such an individual less than, say, a person who calls himself a traditionalist Catholic, for at least with the traditional Catholic, his beliefs, both moral and otherwise, are clear and known.
Furthermore, even if we put the practical issue aside, the above point actually extends to lack-0f-belief atheism as a whole. After all, atheists like to claim that lack-of-belief atheism, since it is just a lack-of-belief, is compatible with any other non-God related beliefs. But again, this fact does not increase the initial and pre-emptive trust that a person has in an atheist, but rather it lowers it. Why? Because it means that lack-of-belief atheism is compatible not only with moral systems that other people would trust and see as good, but it is also compatible with moral systems that are dangerous, insidious, and treacherous. Thus, upon meeting a person who possesses a view which is amenable to either holding an honest and good moral system or a deceptive and evil one, it is perfectly rational to be more initially suspicious of such an individual than it would be compared to an individual, such as a Christian, who held to a moral system which clearly and unequivocally forbid lying, murder, theft, adultery, and so on.
Again, it must be remembered that all that is being dealt with here is the initial, pre-emptive, and essentially a priori level of trust that a person should have concerning atheists in the general sense. This level of trust could change given the accumulation of evidence concerning a specific atheist, so it is not as if a level of suspicion needs to be maintained against specific atheists and unbelievers even in the face of evidence of their clear trustworthiness and honesty. At the same time, it also needs to be remembered that this is a comparative issue, which means that it is not necessarily rational to initially distrust atheists completely, but it is rational to trust them less than other individuals, such as Christians.
Now, to understand the above argument analogically, imagine that you have to invite one of two different people into your home to watch your dog. All you know about these two individuals is that one is a committed and devote ‘petter’, while the other is a committed and devote ‘apetter’. Now, a petter is a person who believes that pets are created by God and have a spark of the divine in them. Furthermore, all petter’s believe that since pets are created by God, then human beings have a profound moral responsibility to treat pets fairly and with kindness. Additionally, petters believe that it is a profound moral evil to maliciously harm, abuse or neglect a pet. By contrast, an apetter lacks a belief concerning the claim that pets are created by God or that they have a spark of the divine in them. Thus, being nothing more than a lack of belief, apetterism is actually compatible with any moral beliefs about pets. And, in the past, some self-professed apetters have argued that humans have no moral responsibility to pets. Indeed, some apetters have even argued that bestiality, or animal torture, or animal neglect are not morally wrong in any real sense, and that no human being can be morally condemned for such actions. Some apetters have even gone so far as to claim that purposely harming pets can be justified so long as it brings the person harming the pet a great deal of happiness. And some apetters have claimed that a pet is nothing more than a sack of chemicals and meat, with no intrinsic worth or dignity beyond that which a regular sack of meat receives. Of course, there are apetters who argue otherwise, but it is nevertheless the case that apetterism is compatible with all these views, and an apetter could hold any one of them.
So, in such a situation, and knowing nothing else about the two individuals who are supposed to look after your dog except that one is a petter and one is an apetter, who would you initially trust more with your dog? The answer is obvious: the petter. Now, you might not trust either one very much, but comparatively-speaking, if you had to allow one of these individuals to watch your dog even though you had no further information about them, then it would be rational for you to choose the petter rather than the apetter. Again, this does not mean that your trust for either person would necessarily be high, nor would it mean that you might not be wrong in that specific case if the petter you choose happened to be an immoral fake, but the point is that with the information that you would have at hand, and with no further specific evidence concerning the trustworthiness of the specific petter or apetter, then it would be rational for you to entrust your dog to the petter rather than the apetter. Well, the same sort of reasoning is true when it comes to atheists and their ilk. And this is why even for so-called lack-of-belief atheists, initially trusting them less in comparison to other individual is a reasonable and rational thing to do.
Lack-of-Belief Atheism as a Disingenuous Position
In addition to the above considerations, there is one other point about lack-of-belief atheism that also provides some grounds to trust so-called lack-of-belief atheists less than other groups of people. And this point is that there is evidence that such atheists actually lie about what their atheism truly entails. Indeed, consider that I have been following the New Atheist movement in earnest for approximately a decade of time, and during this time I have read and/or interacted with dozens if not hundreds of atheists. And what this experience has shown me is that atheism, when defined as a lack-of-belief, is all too often little more than a debate tactic used by atheists to deny that they positively believe anything about the God question, thereby allowing atheists to appear intellectually legitimate when they avoid the burden of proof for their position. However, when push comes to shove, many of these lack-of-belief atheists betray the fact that they are, in fact, atheistic-naturalists who simply did not wish to admit this fact due to the burden that it places on them (although, in fairness, it should be noted that most of my detailed interactions with atheists has been through the internet, and so a self-selection effect may have been in play in my particular case). So this has been my experience with lack-of-belief atheists.
But you do not just have to take my word for the fact that this occurs. Instead, consider the words of atheist Luke Muehlhauser, the author of the website ‘commonsenseatheism.com’, which was very popular during New Atheism’s heyday. In his 23rd of February 2009 article “Atheism and the Burden of Proof”, which was accessed on the 8th of August 2016, Muehlhauser states the following:
[Quote] But most intellectually-inclined atheists I know do not merely “lack” a belief in God – as, say, my dog lacks a belief in God. Atheists like to avoid the burden of proof during debates, so they say they merely “lack” a belief in God. But this is not what their writings usually suggest. No, most intellectual atheists positively believe that God does not exist. In fact, most of them will say – at least to other atheists – that it’s “obvious” there is no God, or that they “know” – as well as we can “know” anything – that God does not exist. Thus, if the atheist wants to defend what he really believes, then he, too, has a burden of proof. He should give reasons for why he thinks that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=597%5D
Note how Muehlhauser—who did indeed run a very popular atheist blog with numerous commentators and who interviewed dozens of atheists and theists alike—states that 1) most of the intellectually-inclined atheists that he knows do not merely lack a belief in God, and that 2) atheists will admit to other atheists that they know that there is no God, and also that 3) atheists like to avoid the burden of proof in debates, so they have a strong motivation to deceive theists about their true beliefs in order to achieve that end. So here we have an atheist with a solid number of connections in the atheist community, tacitly admitting that self-proclaimed lack-of-belief atheists are potentially two-faced about their true beliefs in order to gain an advantage over theists when debating the latter. Is it thus any wonder that, with admissions like this, people might trust atheists less than other people?
But Muelhauser is not the only individual to notice these points about atheists. For example, the author of the ‘Shadow to Light’ blog—which is a blog that has been keeping a critical eye on the New Atheist movement since 2012—has offered the following observation in a blog post titled ‘“There is no God!” – A Common Atheist Belief’, which was written on the 4th of January 2017 and accessed on the 11th of January 2017:
[Quote] In the previous posting, I showed that atheist activist leaders subscribe to the belief that “there are no gods.” That is, their atheism is not a lack of god belief. Their atheism is a belief that God does not exist. But just how common is this? There is actually quite a bit of evidence to support the contention that atheism as a belief – a belief there is no God – is actually very common. And I base this is on my own experience interacting with many, many atheists over the years. If you yourself have similar experience, consider how well this evidence resonates. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/there-is-no-god-a-common-atheist-belief/#more-4618, bold emphasis added]
And after providing a number of arguments to support his contention, the author of that blog post concludes with a point that is critical to the issue of trusting atheists:
[Quote] Add it all up. Atheist activists proudly proclaim “there are no gods” and give each other awards for doing this. Their atheist followers cheer all of this. Those who follow the atheist activists likewise preach that religion is delusion, score themselves as a 6.9-7 on Dawkins scale, and have trouble articulating what evidence for God would even look like. The evidence clearly indicates the atheist activist community is a community of believers – people who believe “there is no God.” It’s time for this community to be honest with itself and with others. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2017/01/04/there-is-no-god-a-common-atheist-belief/#more-4618, bold emphasis added]
So again, the point here is that an individual with a large amount of experience in monitoring and commenting on atheist issues shows us that there are reasons to call into question the honesty of so-called lack-of-belief atheists, at least when it comes to their atheism being merely a lack-of-belief.
In the end, there are good grounds to be suspicious that lack-of-belief atheists are not exactly what they say they are; rather, they are potentially atheistic-naturalist in disguise, and thus the arguments from the last two essays do apply to them. However, as this essay has also argued, even if an individual is a legitimate lack-of-belief atheist, this fact does not mean that such atheists should be trusted more than atheistic-naturalists; indeed, this point does nothing to negate the fact that it is still rational to trust atheists less than other individuals, such as certain religious believers. And so, whether we are speaking of atheists or atheistic-naturalists, it is still rational to trust such individuals less.