Atheism Is Not A Lack of Belief: Followup
I received quite a bit of denunciations for my recent dialogue between the imaginary Atheist (let’s call him Carlo) and myself. One too many straw-men apparently came from my pen. The problem is that I don’t ever recall big bundles of straw beings crawling out of the nib of my pen or my lips, though perhaps I was sleeping when they did. That may not be what they meant. It was claimed that I misrepresented someone. I can’t say I misrepresented Carlo; I would be surely mad if so, and Carlo would be angry as well (that should be a warning). I imagine no one meant that either though. Did I misrepresent Atheists? I’m not sure if I did. I didn’t mean to. At the very least, I can excuse any faults by claiming one or more of three things: (i) Carlo made me do it, (ii) I wrote it in ten or so minutes, or (iii) I had a very similar discussion online. The last two are true, and the first shall not be affirmed or denied.
Our imaginary Atheist has re-entered my home and sat before my roaring fire in a deep leather chair, waiting for me to engage him. Off with it then:
B.. I noticed that you wished to challenge some of the points I made the last time we spoke.
A. For what other reason would I bother you at this hour?
B. Oh yes, I nearly forgot about your fondness of the night, you night owl. When you come at this hour, discussion and much of it is the only thing to expect.
A. I dare not think of coming for any other reason.
B. Well, now that you are here, perhaps I should ask you some questions again, to jog your memory and all that rubbish.
A. Yes, yes, get on with it.
B. Is Atheism a proposition? Can it be expressed in propositional form?
A. Indeed, there are two ways to express it. Either, (1) There is no being known as God, or (2) The lack of belief in God.
B. Aha! This is what I was after all along. I’m not so sure those are the only ways to express it, but––
A. I do imagine there are other ways and we might just introduce those further along, but for now I don’t suspect we need to be doing that. And before you do ask, I would subscribe to (2).
B. That’s quite alright. For now that will do. So the first one concerns real being––that which exists extra-mentally––and the second one concerns mental being. Do you agree?
A. What do you mean?
B. Mental being concerns strictly the objects of the mind, and real being concerns, as I noted, those beings which exist extra-mentally. An example of mental being: my beliefs or concepts existing in my mind. An example of real being: you, Carlo. When (1) involves agents and their beliefs, it is both concerned with mental being and real being. (2) would be concerned with the lack of mental being and not real being.
A. That sounds right.
B. But a problem seems to arise.
A. I suspected you might think so.
B. If one held exclusively to (2), it would be a description of their lack of some such mental being. The question I have, and what I find quite damning, is just how this works. Can someone strictly lack a belief in, say, Santa Clause, when they have existentially considered the proposition that Santa Clause exists? That is to say, would we not need to say more?
A. What are you getting at?
B. The act of considering some proposition x’s truth value executes in either (a) belief that x, (b) belief that not-x, or (c) belief in neither x or not-x (knowledge that one does not believe either x nor not-x).
A. There is a fourth option. I can also simply lack a belief that x.
B. But lacking a belief after considering some proposition x’s truth values is not enough. One does more than only lack a belief that x. Lacking a belief after considering the truth value of some proposition x leaves one with either (b) or (c). For in the case of (b), one lacks belief in x by believing the opposite, and, in the case of (c), one lacks belief in x by believing neither x or not-x. With (c), one has no burden of proof because one is describing his own mental life (“I know that I do not believe in either x or not-x”), whereas with (b) one does have a burden of proof, for where x = extra-mental being, one is making a claim about real being. Those are the sorts of claims that need, under certain epistemic systems, proof, or proper justification.
A. So you deny my fourth option?
B. No, I don’t consider it a fourth option to begin with. It is contained in (b) and (c). The crucial point involves the act of considering some proposition x’s truth value. In describing babies and others who have never considered the truth value of the proposition that God exists, it is true that babies and these others strictly speaking lack belief in God. They do not say that (a), (b), or (c).
A. I understand that. I would say that I hold to (c). I would call that weak atheism.
B. If the position is called weak atheism, does that make you a weak atheist?
A. I suppose it does.
B. I suppose every atheist is a weak atheist.
B. Is not every atheist weak?
A. Oh, how very funny. You always get sassy at this time of night.
B. I do try. I have to keep you on your toes after all.
A. Yes, “after all.”
B. Perhaps my problem with this understanding of atheism is quite minor. Atheism becomes this pitifully annoying neighbor that keeps claiming his neighbors home as his own. The atheist becomes a squatter.
A. You aren’t kidding are you?
B. No, I’m done kidding for now. I do mean that. Weak atheism is synonymous with weak agnosticism: the position concerned strictly with mental being that says that a fellow neither believes in x, nor not-x.
A. That sounds quite right.
B. If that’s what you will, then so will it. Please do be more specific from now on, however.
A. You weren’t all that specific the last time we spoke either.
B. I’ll grant that I was not.
A. I thought at first that you were suggesting that it is impossible to lack a belief in x, if you are aware of the proposition x.
B. Yes, that wouldn’t have been very good. I might have given that false impression by not crafting my words well enough during key moments in our short conversation.
A. You nearly did give that impression.
B. It is late, Carlo; I need to bathe in my glorious metal toed tub, and read a chapter of the Summa.
A. So it is late, you need to bath in your ridiculous tub, and you need to read a chapter of that old scholastic ho hum?
B. You are very observant tonight, Carlo. All of those facts taken together implicitly exclude you. Goodnight.
A. Very well. Goodnight.