Monday, February 14, 2011

Atheism as Non-theism

My friend Greggystills writes at his blog:
"As I understand it, strong atheism is the claim that there exists no god.  For such a claim to be true requires either complete knowledge of all that exists, or a really lucky guess."
He is on to something.  You cannot prove a negative assertion on existence because it requires omniscience.

I have a thought in response. And it is about the nature of certainty.  When you come to know something, it is always based on and abstracted/inferred from perceptual evidence.  You see and hear things interacting and you try to find explanations for the phenomena that you encounter.  And when you see things happening always C when A and B interact, then you form theories about the nature of that interaction and about the entities A and B.

Certainty can only arise from evidence provided by your senses when you are engaged in non-contradictory identification.

But what if you have no evidence at all, perceptual or otherwise?  I have no evidence that Martians will invade Herndon.  I don't believe that Martians exist.  Why?  No reason to.  No evidence, direct or inferred.

I don't believe in a god.  Why?  No reason to.  The label for this concept is "a-theist".  A "theist" is defined by Princeton Wordweb as "One who believes in the existence of a god or gods".  What then does it mean to be athiest?  It means that you are one who doesn't believe in the existence of a god, or more specifically, that you fail to meet the criteria of being a theist (in the full affirmative).

Accepting the label of athiest (properly understood) doesn't mean that you hold a belief that is not proved.  It means the opposite: that you refuse to hold a particular belief that is not proved.  And if you are a rational person, you will always consider new evidence presented by your senses and processed by your faculty of reason.

Non-existence doesn't have to be proved.  Arbitrary claims have no cognitive standing and the burden of proof always rests on the one whom asserts in the positive.  If you recognize this, then you understand that atheism is a term which shouldn't have to exist, in the way that a-martianism doesn't exist.

You'll note by the way that my definition for atheism does not include a moral component.  It says nothing about what you actually believe and which ideas you consider important.  This is the other thing that I believe Greggystills was standing against.

In common use, the term "atheism" is colored with baggage.  In the least, people consider atheists immoral.  At worst, evil.  Regardless, people somehow think they know a thing or two about you if they can paint you with the label "atheist".  But they misunderstand the term and so they misunderstand the consequences. Just as believing in God doesn't automatically make people engage in behavior you might call good, the opposite belief doesn't automatically result in what you might call bad.

There is no evidence on which to associate atheists with a specific moral code or the total absence thereof.