Does God exist? In discussions between atheists and believers that question always seems to be on hold, because we seldom get past the other question, the one about who has the burden of proof in that debate. …and yes, these discussions are usually debates, at least in a very general sense of the term. So, we start with a simple (seemingly perfunctory question) who is going to prove what, but the burden of settling that very question proves to be our undoing. It seems absurd, really, like reading the preface to a book that turns out to last until the final page. Still, there is no point in wishing the whole thing away. There is a reason we keep getting hung up on this question.
Oddly enough, it matters.
One of the things that makes this question interesting is that this question resides at the intersection between reasoning and social practice. It’s one of many ways in which what we do when we talk to each other spills out a little past the range of what we actually manage to say in that conversation. What makes that especially interesting is that these are precisely the sort of conversations that are supposed to be maximally transparent. Were there something about a poem or a theatrical performance that escaped our immediate ability to describe its significance, well that would be just as many might expect, but in the realm of theoretical discussion and debate ineffables are horribles.
Bad burden of proof!
You spoil everything.
The topic of burdens of proof is often folded into questions about the meaning of ‘atheism’. Here, the question is whether or not atheism denotes the mere absence of belief in God or a belief that God does not exist. The first is usually considered the weak atheist position and second the strong one. While many in the atheist community will opt for one or the other as the best term to denote our own individual stance, Christian apologists often object to the use of ‘atheist’ in the weak sense at all. Countless Christian bloggers insist that the term ‘atheist’ ought not to be used for those who merely lack belief in God. So, we end up with two different vocabularies and a lot of bitterness between them.
The crux of the theist objection is usually a sense that atheists using the term to denote a mere absence of belief in God are effectively disavowing any burden of proof. Using the term in this way enables people to take a stance that will reject belief in God unless given sufficient reason to change his or her mind. They do not hope to provide a proof themselves to the effect that God does not exist. But is this fair? Apologists often suggest that those unsatisfied with arguments in favor of God ought to consider ourselves ‘agnostic’ instead of ‘atheist’. That many of us call ourselves ‘agnostic atheists’ doesn’t seem to help matters. So, countless Christian apologists insist that the only acceptable default position in this instance is ‘agnostic’ and that those of us adopting the label ‘atheist’ on the basis of no more than an absence of belief in God are shirking our responsibilities to any discussion we may have on the subject.
Alright! All that’s old hat for most us, right? So, why am I thinking about it lately? Actually, I have a range of observations on my mind. They may not be entirely new to others, but (thinking my keyboard), I am trying to explain them in a way that is at least a little new for me.
First, I still think much of the debate leans far too heavily on vocabulary, and as part of that tendency, an awful lot of people engaged in this topic resort to prescriptivist readings of ‘thuh dictionary‘. The term ‘atheist’ can be used to denote either of the positions mentioned above. It has in times past even been used to denote a lack of morals. We could probably find a few other uses of the term if we look hard enough, but my point at present is that there is only so much value that we are going to get out of debate over what the term itself means. If someone wishes to use the term atheist to mean the rafters of an abandoned structure, then we can probably say that’s a little too ideosyncratic to be all that helpful, but if someone uses one of its conventional meanings to describe himself, a reasonable discussion ought to take it from there. The refusal to accept that kind of self-application is I think little other than an act of social aggression and indication of bad faith, …to wit, a sign that one might want to end the conversation soon.
Second, a burden of proof (BOP) is not the sole responsibility driving a debate of this type. I have often seen apologists speak of the issue as though the entire debate begins and ends with the assignment of a BOP. More to the point, folks often seem to assume that a party without a burden of proof has no responsibilities and thus enjoys an unfair advantage in the discussion.
Here, I think formal debate (especially collegiate debate systems) may be an instructive analogy. In CEDA debate, for example, the burden of proof is commonly placed on the affirmative side (i.e. that which advances a resolution). Theoretically, this means that they must produce a compelling case for that resolution whereas the negative side may win either by advancing a case of its own or by simply picking apart the affirmative side. Does that give an advantage to the negs? Yes. But along with that, affirmative position gets the privilege of tacking the first crack at the issue. Yes, this means they speak first. It also means they get to define key terms and values. The other side may certainly take issue with any aspect of the case, including those terms and values, but it may not simply ignore them and construct a case using a completely different vocabulary and value system (at least not without first presenting a compelling reason to reject those of the affirmative side). Simply put, the negative side of such a debate carries a burden to respond to the case laid out by the affirmative position.
I’ve always felt that a similar burden applies in debates over the existence of God. If I am talking to a theist, I can of course say all manner of things about God (or rather ‘God’) as I understand the term. Heck, I could probably even try to prove that God doesn’t exist. The problem of course is that in doing so, I will have to have to define that God, and since I don’t believe in Her, it would be fair to ask where I got my definition? I can’t answer that question on the basis of metaphysics, because I can’t point to an underlying reality as the entity I wish to reference with that term. The basis for my answer must be drawn from the way other people talk about ‘God’, and it would probably be helpful if those people were folks who believed in Her. I can of course take a crack at it. I can use conventional definitions as I understand them, but this would put any believer who wished to take issue with my proofs in the ever-so-easy position of simply advocating God according to a different definition of the term. He wouldn’t even have to show that there was anything wrong with my own definition.
…suffice to say, I think such conversations go much better when the discussion is taylored to the views of the person I am talking to. I may expect him to take the lead in establishing a reason to believe as he understands Her, but I am also accepting responsibility to address that reason in terms he uses, or I find those terms unacceptable, to produce an argument to that effect. The responsibilities of each party in such a discussion are not uniformly equivalent for both parties, but neither have they been unifomrly dumped on one party alone. Is this the only way that we can set-up such a discussion? Definitely not. Is it a reasonable approach to the topic? Well, I certainly think so.
Third: The fact that we (yes, even atheists) commonly speak of God using the conventions of a proper noun is a problem. This presupposes a level of familiarity that seems out of place with an entity whose existence is in question and whose nature is unknown. I can certainly understand how this manner of speaking would work for theists, but debating the subject in those terms does have the effect of injecting a circularity into the subject. It’s at least a little odd to presuppose direct familiarity with the very entity whose existence is in dispute.
Fourth: Speaking of names, and labels, there is an aspect to the label of atheism of atheism that I think apologists often miss. Specifically, it is the reason for my own preference for using the term ‘atheist’ as opposed to ‘agnostic’. What does it mean when you don’t have a reason to believe in
God a god? Often I am told that if this alone, absent a specific reason to disbelieve in such an entity, the mere absence of a good reason to believer in one should leave me in an agnostic position. No reason good reason to believe and no good reason to disbelieve should leave me in a default stance, and many take it as obvious that that default stance is best viewed as agnosticism. It’s a pretty common argument. Suffice to say that I don’t find it convincing.
One concern I have here is that ‘agnostic’ too is an ambiguous term. Many take it as obvious that an ‘agnostic’ is simply someone who doesn’t claim to know whether or not a god exists. But of course that is simply the soft version of agnosticism. The term ‘agnostic’ is also used to refer to people who claim the existence of such an entity is inherently unknowable. I would not want to be associated with that position. Admittedly this problem is easily resolved with a single point of clarification, but frankly, I think the same is true of the term ‘atheist’. Either way, the vocabulary is going to take some clarification.
So, why do I prefer atheist? Because these labels do not merely refer to a stance in a debate. This brings us back to the notion of a burden of proof as something that connects our discourse about the world to our social actions in that world. We can say of a debate or a meditation on a claim that it ends in neutral position, that one is left without a compelling reason to believe one way or another. But of course the labels we used to denote our stance on these issues are not limited in their significance to the stance we have taken on any given intellectual question. They also give some sense of how we relate to the themes as they arise in our daily conduct.
It’s kind of funny. Questions about the existence of God can be raised in such an abstract way. In most debates, we hardly know what a yes or a no will mean in terms of our daily lives, but of course that’s only if we stick to what is considered in such an argument. In the real world, or more to the point, in our daily lives, we know very well what these things will mean, at least for ourselves. The answers appear when folks take hands to pray at the dinner table, when they invoke God in support of a political candidate, in opposition to abortion or the teaching of evolution. They appear in countless moral decisions, and countless explanations for the decisions make in their daily lives. It isn’t that any of this flows neatly from an efficient cause argument or Pascal’s Wager, but it’s part of what God means to believers (and yes, I’m back to personal-pronouning the deity). In a very real sense, it is for many, precisely what is at issue in those debates about the existence of God. It may well be that we can never really get from Paley’s watchmaker or Anselm’s being than which nothing greater can be conceived to the dictates of any particular believer’s personal faith, but it would be foolish to think the issue ends at QED.
It doesn’t for atheists either.
The time comes when you are asked to bow your head for a public prayer, to vote a political agenda predicated on the basis of scripture, or to refrain from this or that sexual act because of something else supposedly in a holy book somewhere.These moments do not wait patiently for us to resolve the intellectual questions we ask in philosophy class or to finally produce that one proof that settles the (non-)existence of God one way or another. We may not know if there is a god, or if that god really wants us to speak to him on Sundays, but sooner or later we are going to have to decide how we will act in this and countless other instances where folks typically invoke the the name of a deity. When such questions arise, we expect theists to act in certain ways, even those who may not be able to provide a single reason for their beliefs. A believer who has never once thought about to prove the existence of their god, one who may even be hostile to the notion that such a proof is valuable, will simply act on the basis of their beliefs, and it will be accepted that their behavior is partly a function of their belief in a god.
In such moments, I find the absence of God to be oddly significant, and I don’t think I am alone in this. Countless times I have stood respectfully by as a room full of people talk to someone I don’t believe to be there. I may have no particular proof that this person doesn’t exist, but I know very well that he has no current place in my worldview and that I will not be taking him into account in my behavior. I will not be consulting on moral questions. I will not be voting on the basis His will. I won’t even be experiencing nature on the basis of Her presence.I most certainly won’t be talking to him as the others do in these moments of prayer. At such moments, I am not suspended in indecision. Agnosticism has no bearing on these matters. And that is why the term ‘agnostic’ doesn’t resonate with me, and it never has. However one might characterize the default judgement of debates about the significance of god, in my daily live I am an atheist.
Fifth: It isn’t just self-described atheists who treat the mere absence of an affirmative belief as sufficient reason to invoke the term. In politics, one need to do no more than to oppose an explicitly Christian policy to find his stance labeled as atheism. Take for instance, David Barton’s claims that Barack Obama is really an atheist (a ‘Christian atheist‘) because he acts as if God is not alive. How often have pastors denounced the inability to lead prayer in the public schools as an atheistic policy? How often have apologists described modern evolutionary theory as atheistic because it did not incorporate references to god within it? Conservative Christians routinely rail against the atheism in policy debates when speaking of positions which seek only to remove active reference to God from public institutions. It’s easy enough to dismiss this sort of thing as a mere mistake, especially when so many who do believe in a god actively support some of these same policies and sciences, and yet there is a sense in which they are right. One can use ‘atheist’ to refer simply to the absence of god in a life, a belief, or a policy. How that relates to the sort of atheism that emerges as an intellectual commitment is a different question. I don’t expect many conservative Christians are asking it, but then again, perhaps they are not the only ones who seem to miss this question.
What makes this issue, or this cluster of issues, so difficult to resolve is the occurrence of a subtlety in the midst of a polemic storm. It’s not really a problem of vocabulary so much as it is marking relationships. Sign systems are full of instances in which one or another category becomes a sort of default value, and then problems arise when we have to sort just how much the default really tells us about any given case. It’s a bit like pronouns wherein the common fashion of using ‘he’ to denote a person whose gender we don’t know or don’t care about can well cause confusion (or worse!). What do you do when evidence and reason don’t quite resolve an issue one way or another? The answer isn’t quite a function of logic itself, but neither is it an entirely arbitrary choice. It’s a sort of judgement call. We have just enough leverage to reason over the issue, but not enough to resolve it achieve a reasonable solution of the problem.