Can Atheism Be Justified?

skeptic's only, justified, athiest

In October, I started conducting interviews in the “free speech zone” at the University of Missouri. I sit at a table with a sign inviting “Skeptics Only” to come and talk about why they are skeptical about God or religion, and I offer them $5 for their time. A line of waiting interviewees often forms next to the table. Some aren’t even interested in the $5! Some sound justified in their views, and some struggle to articulate the reasons for their skepticism.

Ironically, an atheist friend inspired me to try this. Anthony Magnabosco, a nationally-known practitioner of “Street Epistemology,” runs a YouTube channel with 28,000 followers. He expertly engages in Socratic conversation with people, encouraging them to re-examine the reasons for their most deeply-held beliefs. While I disagree with him about God, I applaud how he models friendly conversation about religion and other touchy subjects.

Pleasant Surprises

believe, belief, think, rationalThe biggest surprise has been people’s candor and willingness to have their story filmed and put on YouTube. I was also pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness and depth I heard in many of their responses. Some point to Christians behaving badly as evidence against the faith. Some bring up perceived conflicts between science and faith. Others suggest that a loving God would not allow good people to suffer. These can serve as justifications for atheism.

Some atheists and skeptics, in an effort to gain an edge in the debate about God, will insist that they don’t need to offer support for their view. But nearly all the people I’ve interviewed can offer coherent reasons for their disbelief. I think this is how any rational person ought to respond. Whatever your position is on God, you ought to have a rationally justified basis for that position. You ought to have reasons for your view. Otherwise, it’s no different than blind faith.

A Real-life Example

In the video below, Lacey raises several legitimate reasons for her skepticism.

  • Religion often seems to conflict with science.
  • Christians fail to live up to the ethic of Jesus.
  • Good people suffer for no apparent reason.

Based on her experience and reasoning, she seems quite justified in her rejection of the Christian faith. Her “total evidence” can be construed to point in the opposite direction. But she also seems open to acquiring new evidence and re-thinking her conclusions. This openness further demonstrates her rationality and intellectual virtue.

resurrection, justifiedI probed for further thoughts on a few points she made. For example, if we take bad Christians as evidence against Christianity, shouldn’t we also take good Christians as evidence in its favor? And if we reject the resurrection account, then what alternative explanation do we have for the data (e.g., empty tomb, resurrection appearances, changed lives, etc.)?

Conclusion

I think, given a certain set of total evidence, atheism can be rationally justified. We all possess a different set of total evidence, which makes it difficult to compare our conclusions. What is rational for me may not be rational for you. But openness to hearing one another can help improve our set of total evidence, which may mean revising our beliefs. Do you agree?

An Atheist, an Agnostic, and A Theist Walk Into A Bar

(That literally happened to me one time.) Ok, this joke still needs writing, and that’s not my thing. But I do want to try and tease out a related conversational knot that’s been giving me trouble. In short, the knot involves the answers to the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be an atheist?
  • What does it mean to be a theist?
  • What does it mean to be an agnostic?

Why does this matter? Because labels matter to us. If someone called me a “feminist,” my reaction might depend on what they mean by the term. If it just means “someone who advocates for the complete social, economic, and political equality of the sexes,” then I’m happy to carry the label. But if they mean it pejoratively to mean “someone who hates men and wants women to take over the world,” then I’m going have a problem with that. So which is the correct definition of feminist?

Similarly, if someone calls you an atheist, what exactly does that mean? You might accept the term when defined a certain way, but not when defined in another way. Also, if I say something like, “atheism is irrational,” the reasonableness (or truth) of that claim depends on the definition being used. If it means, “someone who knows with certainty that no gods exist,” then few people will accept the label, and rightly so.

What I want to do here is compare two approaches to defining these terms, and explain why I recommend one over the other. I’ll start with what I call the “four quadrants” model.

The Four Quadrants Model

Some people propose we renovate these terms (atheist, agnostic, theist) a bit to make things clearer and avoid foisting burdensome views upon others. Here is the renovation proposal:

atheism, agnosticism, belief grid

There is a certain elegance and symmetry to this model. You have ‘theism’ and ‘a-theism’ juxtaposed with ‘gnostic’ and ‘a-gnostic.’ Very nice.

This “quadrant model” carries other advantages as well. First, it takes some pressure off of atheists who don’t want to claim that they “know” there are no gods. Second, it also takes pressure off of theists in exactly the same way. Third, it uses the term ‘agnostic’ in a way more true to the original meaning of the Greek word. In ancient Greek, ‘gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’ and the prefix ‘a’ mean ‘without’ or negation. So, to say that I am “agnostic” literally means “I don’t know.”

Cons of the Quadrant Model

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to this model. For one, the unconventional use of ‘gnostic’ and ‘agnostic.’ While I do love etymologies (word origins), most people find them rather pedantic. The simple truth about language is that meanings change over time. A word gets it’s meaning from usage. If we were arguing about what technical term philosophers should use, that might be a different story. But if we want an ordinary term for common usage, it is simpler to use the word conventionally. So, when it come to ‘agnostic,’ most people understand this to describe someone who is undecided about God’s existence. And when it comes to ‘gnostic,’ this term gnostic, mysticalrefers to followers of an religion that revolves around the possession of esoteric, mystical knowledge (Gnosticism). For Christians, this is especially important, because ‘gnostic’ carries a heavy negative connotation, and has for thousands of years. To be a “gnostic theist” is to be a heretic, for most Christians. So, shifting meanings in this way muddies the waters.

Secondly, this model suggests that knowledge and belief are like height and width–two separate dimensions of thought. But belief and knowledge relate more like acceleration and force. Belief is a component of knowledge, just as acceleration is a component of force (F = ma). So it is misleading to represent them on two perpendicular axes.

This quadrant model also fails to provide a safe conceptual space for the truly undecided. True undecidedness is a real position on many important questions, including scientific ones. In numerous cases (e.g., the multiverse), the most rational thing to say is “I neither believe there is an X, nor do I believe there is not an X.” But the diagram above tells me that I must pick a quadrant.  I must either believe (the space below the ‘x’ axis) or not believe (the space above the ‘x’ axis). If we revised it to allow people to be on the axis, perhaps right at (0,0), then what do we call them? There is no in-between because the model is binary in principle.

confused, atheist, agnosticFinally, the fellow in the upper-left quadrant confuses a few things. He wants to say “I don’t believe any god exists,” but he also wants to say “I’m not CLAIMING that–I might be wrong.” I understand the discomfort here. He doesn’t want to make a strong claim, because that would require a strong defense, which is a burden he doesn’t want. Fair enough. But he isn’t like a helicopter that has yet to land. He has landed, even if tentatively. He thinks there are no gods. He’s not saying he is certain, or that he can prove anything, he is simply describing where he has landed. And he admits that he may have landed on the wrong spot. That’s fine. But even a tentative landing represents a claim about what you think is true about the universe. I’ll say a bit more beloe about the the difference between “having no belief about p” and “not believing p.”

The Sliding-Scale Model

Instead of a binary-based model, and the restrictions that entails, I prefer a sliding-scale approach.  This non-binary model allows for a wide range of possibilities, grouped into three natural categories. Rather than being forced to choose from only four possible positions, people can personalize their position based on their beliefs and confidence level.

I didn’t have a cute graphic for mine, so I made this:

belief scale, agnostic

On this view, you can be anywhere between 0-100% confidence about a certain idea or claim. (“p” refers to any claim, or proposition, like “God exists.”) If you find yourself hovering around the 50% mark, we’ll say you neither believe it nor disbelieve it. This is where we should fall on claims like “this fair coin will land on heads when flipped.” Sometimes we say things, loosely, like “I don’t know.” But this conversationally implies that we simply don’t have a belief one way or the other.

pool jump, confidence, beliefIf you land roughly between 65-100% confident that p, then you clearly believe it is true.  At 100% confidence, you have no doubts and think there is no chance that p is false. (Notice that we’re saying nothing about knowledge here. This is only about beliefs, just to keep things simple and clear.)  If you fall anywhere in between 0-35%, you think that p is false, though the closer you get to 50%, the more you lean toward thinking there’s some chance it could be true. For example, suppose I’m looking over a balcony, wondering if I could jump safely into the pool. I give myself about a 15% chance of plunging safely into the water. So, if you ask me, “Do you believe you can make it?” I’d say, “no.”  If you have 0% confidence that p, then you have no doubt it is false–you disbelieve it with maximum confidence of its falsehood.

The Sliding-scale & God

Now, if we apply this to our debate about definitions, here’s how I think it works in terms of belief about God. If you have ~65% or more confidence that God exists, then you believe that God exists and we call you a theist.  (I think most of us agree with that.) But theists, like atheists, can possess little or much confidence. If you are ~35% or less confident that God exists, then you disbelieve that God exists and we call you an atheist. (Nothing about knowledge here!)

Both segments (red and green) of the scale represent a “belief state,” two sides of the same coin.

coin flip, tails, beliefBut that’s ok because merely believing or disbelieving that p doesn’t saddle you with an undue burden. I call them both belief states because disbelieving that p is roughly synonymous with believing that p is false. I.e., “I disbelieve that God exists” is the same as “I believe there is no God.” It’s like someone saying, “I don’t think the coin will be heads”– you wouldn’t need to ask whether they believe it will be tails. It’s just a belief! No big deal. Whether it is rational or whether you know is a different ball game and will require more justification. But the atheist need not attain certainty or prove there is no God in order to be a rational atheist.

Questions & Concerns

Some atheists prefer the quadrant model because they are more comfortable saying “I don’t have a belief about God–I lack belief in God.” But saying you lack a belief about God’s existence is not accurate. Atheists lack an affirmation of God’s existence, but they have a belief state (doxastic attitude), and that belief state is disbelief. They take the claim “God exists” to be false. If you don’t take it to be false, then you are either undecided or a theist. The only people who truly lack a belief about God are those who have never considered God’s existence, like my dog Duke or my friend’s baby. They just have no belief state about God whatsoever.

Huxley, agnostic, agnosticismWhat about agnostics? Now, I admit that the term ‘agnostic’ as a label for the undecided is somewhat regrettable, given the literal Greek meaning. Coined by Thomas Huxley in the late 19th century, the term served to contrast his position against those who felt they had attained “gnosis” or knowledge of answers to the big questions. Huxley used the term to express either skepticism or humility or both. But regardless of Huxley’s intentions, the term now refers to someone who is undecided on a matter, religious or otherwise. For now, it works. Launch a campaign to shift the usage if you dislike it, but it isn’t quite right to tell people that they’re using it wrong now.

To avoid mixing up atheism and agnosticism, note that the claim “I don’t believe that any gods exist” (as in the four quadrant graphic above) can mean several different things. Consider the claim E: “the number of stars in the universe is even.” If I say that “I don’t believe E,” that could mean: (1) I think E is false, which implies that I hold the odd-number-stars view; or (2) I don’t believe E, but I don’t think it’s false either. I’m just undecided, or agnostic on the matter. So when you want to express atheism and NOT agnosticism, it is better to say something like, “I believe there are no gods,” or more simply “I disbelieve theism.”

If you discover that the belief-state you are in is difficult to defend, welcome to the club! Each position has its unique challenges and weaknesses. There’s no problem with redefining your position in order to make it more defensible, as long as the changes are not “Ad hoc” and the new definition is coherent and unconfusing.

Are There Good Reasons To Be An Atheist?

disagreement, rational, atheistI debated whether to even write this post. Here’s why: many people think that ANY concession to the “other side” amounts to total defeat. For many, to admit that atheist beliefs are reasonable amounts to admitting they are correct. But this is just plain wrong, and I’ll explain why below. Nevertheless, this post may disturb some theists.

Setting the Intellectual Stage

I’m going to set the stage here with a few concepts. Then I’ll tell you whether there are good reasons for atheism and what they might be (if there are any).

Castaway, island, belief, atheistThe first idea that needs stating is this: you aren’t obligated (epistemically) to believe X simply because there are some good reasons to think X is true. The equation is more complex than that. Imagine you are Tom Hanks’ character in the film Castaway. You hear on a radio that there were no survivors from your plane crash, and they even claim to have found your body! You now have two excellent reasons to believe you are dead. But you have one HUGE, overruling reason to believe the opposite: your own (physical) self-awareness. So, having good reasons for X doesn’t settle the matter.

The second idea we need to get straight is what counts as a “good reason.” We can say more than just “whatever reasons I like/agree with.” Good reasons should be those that give some rational support to your position. Put another way, good reasons (if true) should be things that increase the probability that your position is correct. Example: I believe that Dylan will win this tennis match against Austin because Dylan has never lost a tennis match against Austin. (Even though these are independent events, the inference comes from Dylan’s apparent superior skill.) Believing that Dylan will win because he wears orange shorts would not be a good reason because the color of his shorts, presumably, has no bearing on his probability of winning.

Rationality and Reasons

dreams, rational, atheistThirdly, rationality.* The problem people have with understanding rationality is this: they assume that if Joe’s belief is false, then it can’t be rational. (People also assume the contrapositive: if it is rational, it is true. Sort of the logical Field of Dreams.)  This misses the mark completely. Rationality and truth come apart all the time. We aim to be rational or reasonable because it increases our chances of believing what is true. But being rational cannot guarantee we are right.

Throughout history, and even today, people have rationally and reasonably believed false things. Many intelligent people rationally believed the earth was the center of the universe. Heck, I read an encyclopedia from the 1950s that claimed space travel to be impossible. Bottom line: it’s OK to concede that people can be rationally wrong.

Think of it another way. There can be good reasons to believe something, even when it’s false. Think of a murder trial. Juries sometimes convict a person of a crime because there is a good case against them, only to be proven wrong by new evidence later. The jury may have been completely rational in their decision, given that they did not yet have the new evidence.

Pro-atheist?

cancer, child, evil, faith, atheistSo are there good reasons for atheism? I think so.  First, if God exists, then you’d think he would prevent small children from getting cancer, or from being sexually abused. But these things still happen. This counts as prima facie evidence against God’s existence, I think. Second, much of what we attribute to God can be explained other ways. Religious experience, alleged miracles, changed lives. Alternate explanations for these things give us reason to doubt the reality of God. Third, if one already has strong reasons to accept an atoms-only view of the universe (i.e., physicalism), then one has a reason to deny God’s existence. These three brief, good reasons fall short of a total survey of arguments for atheism, but it’s a start. Suggestions welcome.

There are also many awful reasons to be an atheist. In my research for this post, I found several websites about “reasons to be an atheist,” and they were, to be honest, mostly atrocious. People routinely conflate theism with Christianity, and mistakenly think that an argument against the Bible or the church is ipso facto an argument against God. Some claim that there’s “no evidence,” which is obviously false, since billions of people would line up to give testimony of their experience of God (some have even written it down). You may discount this evidence, but it is evidence nevertheless. Some even go so far as to say that since we don’t “need” God, then we shouldn’t believe in God! That argument fails in exactly the same way that the “we need to believe in God or else we won’t have meaning/morality/happiness” argument fails.

Conclusion

respect, disagree, belief, atheistIn conclusion, many theists ought to reevaluate their attitude toward their atheist acquaintances. Some atheists may believe irrationally (as many theists do), but many of them actually have good reasons behind their disbelief. In fact, I’d wager a small amount that the percentage of (evidentially) irrational atheists out of all atheists is smaller than the percentage of (evidentially) irrational theists! So, approach your conversations with respect, and assume the best, until proven otherwise. (The same goes for you atheists!)

*I’m using the term ‘rationality’ quite loosely here. I’m taking ‘rational belief’ to be roughly synonymous with ‘reasonable belief’ or ‘justified belief.’

Are They Crazy?

saxophone, talent, rationalMy junior year of college (I was studying to be a band director), I met Steve. Steve was, by all accounts, a talented, intelligent, rational person. Like me, he played the saxophone, but unlike me, he *played* the saxophone. I mean, he flew up and down the scales unconsciously, as if he were playing with 14 fingers instead of the standard 10. Oddly, despite his intelligence and talent, he was a conservative Christian. I thought that was crazy. At the time, I viewed religion and God as ridiculous, only for the weak-minded. Despite this, we became fast friends.

I still recall a conversation (we often got into religious and political debates) in which I said to him, “I don’t know how any intelligent person could believe in God.” To which he replied, without flinching, “I don’t know how any intelligent person could NOT believe in God!” Most of the Christians I had talked to would have been reduced to a puddle of religious sentiment at this point, but Steve held his ground.

Conditional Craziness

horses, crazy, rationalFast forward 25 years. I no longer consider Steve to be crazy.  But I look back on my 20 year old self and I understand why I saw it that way. I also understand the view from the “other side.” For a couple years in my 20s, after crossing over to faith in God, I flipped. That is, I thought atheists, my former brethren, were the crazy ones. I no longer believe that, either. But why do we usually look at our counterparts across the “aisle of faith” and wag our heads, thinking, “Those poor fools”?

I think I can explain this phenomenon. It comes down to conditional probability. You see, when you consider whether to believe something, you often weigh the probability that it is true. For example, suppose Julie tells you that she’s been a bridesmaid in over 100 weddings. You’re skeptical. The probability of this is quite low, say 5%, and the reasonable response is disbelief. But what if you learn that Julie is a professional bridesmaid? Now you weigh the probability that she is telling the truth, conditional on this new information. This conditional probability would be quite high, say 80%, which is high enough to warrant acceptance.

bridesmaid, conditional probability, rationalNotice that we ignore, for the moment, the possibility that the information about Julie’s unusual occupation is false. We simply form the belief that, assuming she is a professional bridesmaid, the likelihood of her having been a bridesmaid 100 times is quite high. We stand well within our epistemic or rational rights to believe her. But another person who lacks this extra bit of information would not be rational to uncritically accept Julie’s “100 weddings” boast.

That “Extra Bit”

So what does this have to do with rational theism or atheism? The reason that theists or atheists appear so crazy to us is that we are often judging them without that extra bit of information. Without that “extra bit,” we simply estimate the subjective probability for the “bare” version of their position. For example, if you’re an atheist, the subjective probability of theism is quite low. Which means that theism shouldn’t be believed by rational persons! Thus, from the atheist perspective, theism appears quite irrational, and vice versa.

believe, belief, think, rationalBut if we could explore the minds of each person, we would find that we aren’t believing simple, bare propositions. (Let’s say that ‘A’ = “atheism is true,” and ‘T’ = “theism is true.”) We are usually believing A or T conditional on a certain set of reasons–reasons that, presumably, increase the likelihood of A or T. These reasons may include a whole host of things: scientific discoveries, experiences, beliefs about the coherence or incoherence of divine revelation and action, testimony, etc. So, for any theist or atheist, given the set of reasons they have, their belief may very well be rational.

Resist the temptation to perform a summary execution on another person’s rationality.

Keep in mind that while you enjoy access to your own set of reasons, you lack access to the reasons of others. You don’t really know whether the set of reasons they’re working with justifies their belief or not. So, like the American legal system, I think it better to presume rational innocence. Resist the temptation to perform a summary execution on another person’s rationality.

Conclusion

Mr. T, pity, rationalNow some of you are thinking, “How can their reasons make their belief rational if their reasons are all wrong or crazy?!” That’s the funny thing about rationality–it doesn’t guarantee truth. It only increases our chances of getting truth (usually). For hundreds of years, people rationally believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth. So the truth of our beliefs is not what I’m talking about. I just want to show that people can be rational even if they’re wrong. So, you may still pity the fool who believes (theism/atheism), but you shouldn’t automatically peg them as irrational. And you absolutely shouldn’t peg them as “beneath you” on the intelligence or ethical scale.

 

 

Hearing from Jesus?

Jesus Christ, hearing GodIn the wake of recent noise about Mike Pence and his alleged conversations with the Son of God, I though I’d offer an epistemological perspective. How do we evaluate claims like “God spoke to me?”

Some Guidelines

First, these claims can only be evaluated inductively. That is, we can’t “prove” them true or false. We can only gather reasons and evidence for or against the claim, and then see where these reasons point us. The evidence may point so strongly in one direction as to virtually settle the matter, or it may be closer to 50/50. I’ll discuss what reasons for or against might look like below.

Second, claims about hearing from God can’t be evaluated without first assuming either that God exists or that God does not exist. So which assumption should we make? The far more interesting discussion arises from assuming God exists. If we assume the opposite, then the debate is over — Pence is kidding himself. Given that neither assumption is proven fact, and the vast majority of people in the world affirm some sort of god, it seems better to start with theism. (If you’re an atheist, this may annoy you. Your time might be better spent debating the existence of gods, rather than the veracity of heavenly messages.)

Jesus, hearing Jesus speak, Mike PenceThird, even religious people will disagree about how to evaluate “God spoke to me” claims. Since the Pence discussion revolves around the Christian faith, we should start there. (Again, assuming Christianity is true, what should we make of Pence’s chats with Jesus?) At minimum, Christians should admit that divine communication is clearly possible. Multiple precedents exist in the Bible and in church tradition, after all. The details get sketchy, though. (Also see this web comic: Coffee with Jesus.)

I can’t evaluate Pence’s personal experiences, because I don’t have nearly enough details. All we have is a second-hand account that Pence said that “Jesus tells him to say things.” Such testimonial evidence wouldn’t even be admissible in court. So instead I offer some criteria for evaluating such claims, from a Christian perspective.

Criteria that Increase Likelihood of Veridicality

  1. Coherence: Is the content of the message consistent with itself and with the consensus* of Christian teaching? (*”Mere Christianity” as C. S. Lewis might say.) If the voice says, “Iggily biggily, gollygoops,” or “Hate thy neighbor,” I don’t think it was Jesus.
  2. listening, intellectual virtue, corroboration Corroboration: Do other Christians, after discussion and prayer, agree that this was God’s voice? Pence should seek out several wise and knowledgeable believers and share the details with them for evaluation.
  3. Clarity: Is the message clear or vague? Historically, quintessential instances of God speaking to humans occur in unmistakable fashion. Burning bushes, blinding visions, human-like manifestations, terrifying angelic messengers, etc. God also appears to speak in indirect ways, but those are harder to verify and distinguish from one’s own conscience or thoughts. The clearer the message and medium, the more confidence we can have that it is divine.
  4. Character: Is the person making the claim generally reliable and truthful? Are they prone to over-interpret their own thoughts? Have they made spurious claims of divine dialogue in the past?
  5. Better explanations: Assuming Christianity is true, is there a better way to explain the experience? Were you drunk or on drugs? Are you suffering from any diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness? Did someone plant a radio transmitter in your braces? (Here’s a great essay by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrman explaining how to distinguish religious experience from mental illness.)

The Bottom Line

Whatever the case may be, we should avoid knee-jerk reactions to claims of hearing from God. Leave room for possibility. Investigate and reflect. It never helps anyone to mock or deride others for their beliefs. “The View” host Joy Behar reacted by suggesting that Mike Pence is “mentally ill.” If you think someone’s beliefs are bad, show their error with love and logic, not ridicule. Ridicule is the weapon of those who lack the ability to wield reason.

MLK, King, hearing JesusPerhaps the best argument for taking such claims seriously is this:

If you say that everyone claiming to hear Jesus speak to them is delusional, then you must call Martin Luther King, Jr. delusional. 

In a well-known story, King claimed to hear the voice of Jesus telling him to stand up for truth and justice. His neice, Alveda King, relates this in her response to Joy Behar here. And MLK isn’t the only credible or heroic person who claimed to hear from God. Have there also been frauds and crazies? Absolutely. But it seems hasty and unreasonable to dump every sincere “hearer” into the epistemic trash heap. 

 

Burden of Proof

genes, microbes, evidence, burden of proofMatt, a PhD student, studies how microbes influence the immune system. Matt is also an atheist, and since he’s exceptionally smart, I thought it would be interesting to interview him about his beliefs. I wondered about the “whys” behind his atheism. During our conversation, the concept of the “burden of proof” came up. Matt believes that in the dispute over God’s existence, it is the theist who bears the burden of proof. In other words, atheism is the simpler, more natural position, and the theist has a lot of extra work to do in defending claims about gods. After all, “extraordinary” claims about supernatural entities and miracles should require extraordinary evidence.

Is this right? I pushed back a little on this claim in my interview with Matt, but I needed more time to think and research a bit. So, now after further reflection, I’m blogging my thoughts on the subject. I want to challenge, maybe even “debunk” this assumption that theists bear a burden of proof. I think that even if there is a burden of proof, theists have already satisfied it. But, in matters like theism/atheism, I don’t think there is any such thing as a burden of proof to begin with. This means that theists and atheists stand on equal footing, and both viewpoints must offer reasons to support their position.

Setting the Table

setting table, burden of proofNow, if you’re an atheist, don’t flip out here. I’m not trying to “shift the burden of proof,” as they say. We all want our beliefs to be rational, and we all want the same standards of rationality to apply to everyone—that’s fairness. So, to set the table for this discussion, bear with me for two quick bits of epistemic silverware:

  1. A proposition is a claim about reality, expressed by a declarative sentence.
  2. There are three (doxastic) attitudes one can take in considering a proposition: belief, withholding (undecided), and disbelief.

Here are some examples of propositions and my attitude toward each:

PROPOSITION MY (DOXASTIC) ATTITUDE
The earth has two moons. Disbelief
The universe contains an even number of stars. Withhold
All triangles have three sides. Belief

children, teacher, burden of proof, beliefsFor any given proposition that you’ve thought about, you “take” one of these three attitudes, sometimes without even realizing it. If someone asks you why you take that position, you ought to be able to say something in response if you want to be considered rational. Even if everyone in the world holds the same attitude as you, you still ought to be able to offer some reason (unless, perhaps, the belief is “basic”—see below). I think we can all agree that saying, “Well, that’s what everyone believes,” or “that’s what my teacher told me,” is no good unless you can explain why those are reliable sources of knowledge on the matter. Easy answers like those are fine for children, but once you begin an adult inquiry about the rationality of your belief, they will no longer do.

So let’s agree to endorse this principle of epistemic fairness:

Whatever attitude you take toward a proposition, you ought to have some good reasons for taking that attitude.

(Exception: some beliefs may be “basic,” which is to say that they are special in not needing the support of reasons to be rational, such as my belief that I exist. I may have reasons for this belief, but even if I didn’t, I’d be rational in believing that I exist.) This isn’t a trick, or some kind of apologetic sleight-of-hand. And I’m going to set aside the possibility that belief in God is basic, just for argument’s sake.

Applying the Principle

reasons, atheist, burden of proofSo, according to our principle, theists ought to have some good reasons for their belief in God, right? Fair enough. What about atheists? Do they need some good reasons for their atheism? Some argue that atheism is not a “belief,” but merely the “lack of belief” in gods. Well, that could be true, but atheists do take some attitude on the proposition “God exists.” They disbelieve it. So, in all epistemic fairness, they should possess some reasons for their position. This means that theists, atheists, and “agnostics” (those who withhold–neither believe nor disbelieve*) are all on even epistemic ground.

In my next post, I’ll address several questions and objections.

  • Is “not enough evidence” a good reason for disbelief?
  • Is atheism the “default” position?
  • Should we consider theism an “extraordinary” claim?
  • Is atheism simply “lack of belief” in gods?

*I know this use of the term ‘agnostic’ is controversial. But this is inconsequential.