People have bad things to say about atheism. Popular among criticisms is the widespread belief that atheism itself is dogmatic. The agnostic might build himself up upon a pillar of moral superiority and proclaim it foolish to pick a side in a matter of uncertainties. The devout will claim that the atheist is one who does not know... yet believes regardless. From the point of view of the devout we are all in the same boat, religious or otherwise. We all believe something. The devout believe that God exists and the atheist believes that God does not exist. Herein lays the source of the confusion. The first part of the italicized sentence above is true… but the second part ‘atheists believe that God does not exist’ represents a complete misusage of the term ‘belief’. An atheist does not ‘believe’ that God does not exist… the atheist merely ‘suspects’ that God does not exist. That is to say that the atheist is actually quite uncertain about whether God exists or not… that is to say, the atheist is quite agnostic as to whether God exists or not. Atheism is not about affirming a belief, which the italicized sentence implies… atheism is about suspending a belief. The atheist does not say ‘I believe that God does not exist’ which affirms the belief that God does not exist, rather, the atheist says ‘I do not believe that God exists’ which properly understood is meant to convey a state in which one has failed to be convinced of the particular truth candidate in question. I know this may seem dizzying to some so I have prepared a thought experiment to help make the fallacy more clear.
Let’s say I have a box. I tell you there is a hundred dollar bill in the box… Do you ‘believe’ there is really a hundred dollar bill in the box? Well, you haven’t seen the hundred dollar bill. You haven’t even seen me with a hundred dollar bill in recent memory. I tell you this long story about how I went to the bank and got the bill and brought it home and folded it neatly and placed it into the box. Are you now convinced? Have the fine details of my trip home from the bank persuaded you that there just must be a hundred dollar bill in the box? The question is ‘are you convinced’. This is not one of those special cases where there could be three or more secret answers starring us in the face that might otherwise go undetected… there really are only two acceptable answers to this question. You can’t say ‘maybe I’m convinced’. You are either convinced that there is a hundred dollar bill in the box or you are unconvinced. To answer ‘no’ meaning that you are not convinced that there is a hundred dollar bill in the box, is not the same thing as affirming the belief that there is no hundred dollar bill in the box. There could very well be a hundred dollar bill in the box it’s just that I have simply failed to convince you of that truth candidate.
Hopefully, the above thought experiment helps demystify just what atheism is NOT about. Atheism is not about being convinced that God does not exist… it is about not being convinced that God does exist. The atheist suspends belief and thus remains uncertain as to whether God exists just as you might have suspended belief and remained unconvinced by me simply telling you that I placed a hundred dollar bill in a box.
By suspending belief and opting to remain uncertain regarding the matter, the atheist is quite precisely occupying a position on the opposite end of the spectrum from dogmatism. Atheism and dogmatism aren’t even remotely in the same ball park. Atheism is not a belief it is a non belief and non belief is the default state of any brain regarding any truth candidate. If I tell you I have a hundred dollar bill in a box do you blindly believe me? What about if I told you I had a potato in a box? Let us admit that any person who just blindly accepts every truth candidate presented to them is not functioning at a normal or desirable level. Most people, if approached by a stranger with a mystery box, would remain uncertain as to the contents of the box at least until some evidence or persuasive narrative is given. Belief has to be earned and persuasion is the means by which this occurs. The atheist simply occupies a default state, not having been arrived at or learned, of uncertainty, suspicion, and non belief. The devout, on the other hand, come to acquire their beliefs and hardened convictions through a lengthy commitment of enculturation. The devout have been convinced that God exists, the atheist simply has not…. Now whose fault is that?
The atheist waits in anticipation for some sort of evidence or argument that might convince him or herself that God does in fact exist. Science is incapable of telling us whether or not God is behind the wonders of nature or if that kind of talk is merely metaphoric. We can spend the rest of our lives talking about how great science is and how religion contradicts scientific findings… but the appropriate setting for this debate is philosophical. Well, actually, there is one other setting in which evidence may arise, and that is of course experience. If Jesus or some angels decide to reveal themselves to atheists than that of course would be awfully convincing and I would expect many spontaneous conversions… but this of course raises the question of whose fault is it exactly that atheists remain unconvinced… it might very well be Jesus’ fault… he never visited my bedside. So, I’m afraid, if the devout wish to convince the atheists of their beliefs than they are going to have to do it philosophically. They can’t shortcut the process and try to argue that belief in God is desirable… they have to actually demonstrate that the idea of a supernatural anything is not completely absurd.
Now I want to move on to clear up some misconceptions concerning our friends the agnostics. An atheist is one that does not believe in God. An agnostic is one that does not know if God exists. Atheism seems to be about belief and agnosticism seems to be about knowledge. But, if you do not have knowledge of something can you be said to believe it? If you do not know whether or not there is a hundred dollar bill in the box can you be said to believe that there is? If you do not know than you can’t possibly believe. The agnostic that does not know cannot be said to believe and if you do not believe than you’re an atheist. All agnostics are atheists.
So what we have here is another misuse of language to paint one group as morally superior to another. The agnostic, in attempting to seem more liberal, actually diminishes his or herself by denying their own atheism and exposing their cowardice. The devout, in desperation, and realizing that they can gain no upper hand, resort to feeble attempts at painting atheism with the same stain of dogma that covers them. In both cases atheism is being diminished to raise the ideas of the believers and those sympathetic to them. There is a concentrated effort to deny atheism its rightful respect and honor as the default state toward the God Hypothesis… we were all atheists once… until some of us were convinced otherwise. To demonize people for continuing to occupy this default state is to engage in desperate and petty tactics, to assert the will of one in-group over its out-group.