#238: Certain Doubts

#238: Certain Doubts

I’ve always found the claim that you aren’t “really” an atheist unless you are 100% certain that no gods exist to be really annoying. It’s such a weird confusion. I can’t think of any other belief (including beliefs in the same domain, like theism) where we require 100% certainty to qualify as a “true” believer. Too many discussions devolve into issues related to this confusion, and too often this confusion is used to justify agnosticism as being more rational than atheism. Even Richard Dawkins has famously called himself an agnostic, in spite of the fact that he believes God doesn’t exist, and is “6.9 out of 7” sure of that belief.

A little while back Dan Fincke (of Camels with Hammers fame) made this point, noting that we don’t require 100% certainty of believers in order to count them as “true theists”, and it set the idea for this comic bouncing around in my head. For that matter, we don’t require of agnostics that they be 100% certain that nobody can know whether or not God exists. Instead of trying to play this weird “gotcha” game by pointing out that atheists lack complete 100% certainty (of course they do – we all do; we’re all fallible, and it would be foolish for any of us, whatever we believe, to deny that), it seems likely that much more productive conversations can be had if we just focus on trying to figure out which beliefs are best justified, even as we all acknowledge that at the end of the day any of our beliefs, no matter how well justified, could turn out to be mistaken.

Also hey look – new comic! It’s been a while since that happened.


Discussion (15)¬

  1. E.L.F. says:

    I don’t see why atheism should be defined as “belief that there is no god”. It should just be LACK of belief in god. That’s the default stance regarding god, just like “a-leprechaunism” – the lack of belief in leprechauns – is the default stance regarding leprechauns. If you just say that then you can avoid the whole mess about whether atheists have to have certainty in their belief that there is no god.

    That said this was a great comic – good to see some updates here again!

  2. d4 says:

    I can relate to this comic very much so. Thanks.

  3. Ben says:

    One reason why “belief that there’s no God” might be a better definition is that “to be an atheist is to lack a belief in God” implies, for example, that my parents’ cat is an atheist. (A conclusion that, while delightful, also feels a bit counter-intuitive. At least to me.)

    Another reason is that the passive definition eliminates the distinction between atheism and agnosticism, hence making the map of the debate less rather than more clear. (If we wanted to talk about that distinction after adopting the passive definition, we’d be forced to invent complicated new vocabulary, like “atheists who suspend judgment on the existence of God” vs. “atheists who reject belief in the existence of God.” It seems a lot simpler and cleaner just to talk about “atheism” vs. “agnosticism.”)

    If by ‘default stance,’ you mean that the burden of proof is on the other side, that seems like a somewhat different issue.

  4. Why is it counter-intuitive? It is not counter-intuitive to me perhaps because I’ve long defined “atheist” as ¬B(G). In so far as it even makes sense to say that a rock is atheist, I’m prepared to accept that as well.

    New vocabulary has been invented and it is necessary. I wrote something about it in 2009 (age 20) so it’s probably not that high quality, but see: http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/?p=1232

    I think he means that default stance is the one you’re born in. No one is born with a belief in gods, unicorns, aliens etc.. But of course negative atheism also is the default epistemological stance — if one has no evidence regarding P, the correct position to take is nonbelief either way [i.e. ¬B(P)Λ¬B(¬P)].

  5. chaospet says:

    I’m think I’m ok with lumping the “lack of belief-ers” under the atheist heading along with the “belief that there is no such thing-ers”. Then we just have to make a distinction between “strong” and “weak” (or positive and negative, hard and soft, etc) atheism. I’d prefer to reserve “agnosticism” for those people who actually hold a negative view about whether it is possible to know about the existence of god.

    In any case, I don’t think we’re going to avoid any issues whether or not we include “non-believers” under the “atheist” heading. There clearly are people who hold the stronger view (and in fact, I think a lot of people who advocate the “non-belief” form of atheism are being disingenuous; they’ve thought through the issues, and they have stronger views than “I just lack belief in god”). The point of the comic is that even when we’re just talking about atheism in the stronger sense (which clearly describes a lot of people), we shouldn’t make the confusion that such atheists are committed to any sort of absolute certainty.

  6. Ben says:

    Agreed on almost all counts, but–and here’s where I was being a bit disingenuous myself earlier, understating my position–I think the cat/rock sorts of examples are as decisive as any counter-example to any proposed conceptual analysis of anything ever could be. If you end up having to chow down in the bullet that a rock can be any sort of “atheist”, even a weak one, you’ve lost all contact

  7. Ben says:

    with the ordinary use of the term. Atheism just is B (~G).

    (And yes, I realize that none of this is relevant to Ryan’s excellent comic.)

  8. Mark says:

    I agree with Ben. I have a PhD in philosophy, so let’s just end the debate there, alright?

  9. chaospet says:

    I also have a PhD in philosophy, and I like the idea that rocks can be atheists. So there.

    (though actually I did have a pet rock once, and I always got the unsettling sense that it was a devout believer – in what, I could never figure out)

  10. Bunny says:

    I prefer the notion that cats could be athiests. In fact, I believe that they likely are, and that explains their murderous asshole behavior.

  11. chaospet says:

    Ok, but then what explains your murderous behavior?

  12. B says:

    Touché.

  13. Wm Tanksley says:

    I agree. Anyhow, certainty is an emotion.

    Hey, interesting new style — I like it. Perhaps you’re working at a higher DPI or something? Was that your New Year’s resolution? (Bah-dum-pshhhh!) Or maybe you’re just drawing faster.

  14. chaospet says:

    I’ve been playing with the fancy new pressure-sensitive ipad stylus that I got for Christmas, so far I am enjoying it a lot. I’m glad you like the results!

  15. Selvan says:

    Hi there! This is perfect! I have an old roommate who constantly kept preaching this argument against atheism. I’ll have to pass this along to him.