Yep. I’m an atheist, for those of you who hadn’t picked up on that, and atheism is a belief system.
Even this is apparently controversial among many atheists, who insist that their position is simply a “lack” of one particular belief, but I don’t know why the idea of a “belief system” is something so many people find off-putting. Presumably anyone who believes anything in any non-random fashion has a system of some sort. I know I do.
I’ve seen some atheists get unnecessarily defensive in asserting that their position isn’t a positive claim. I say “unnecessarily” because there’s nothing shameful about making positive claims about the nature of the universe and things beyond. I positively consider the idea of a creator god very improbable, and the likelihood of the Christian god as described in the Bible to be negligible. But even if I were just to say that I am without god-belief, this doesn’t get me off the hook from having to defend my position.
It is an intellectual position even to withhold from professing a belief in a god, and inherent in that position is the assertion that your position is a tenable one. Unless you’re completely abstaining from any sort of decision, and only claiming not to have any knowledge or opinion about anything, this position (sometimes labelled “weak atheism”) can really be expressed as, “I don’t have a belief in any particular god, and this is a reasonable belief for me not to have.”
To see why this is true, imagine that my friend Bob were to say:
I profess a lack of belief that the Sun exists. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but while everyone else sees a bright fiery ball crossing the sky in perfect order every day and leaps to conclusions about some kind of “Sun”, I’m staying on the fence.
I’d be quite comfortable labelling this as ridiculous. To refuse to take a position on something so apparently unequivocal as whether the Sun exists is silly; actively believing that it’s really there is the only reasonable way to think. (Assume that Bob’s not suggesting we’re in the Matrix, or that he’s dreaming, or anything like that which would throw the whole of reality into question; it’s just the Sun he’s doubtful about.)
Someone else might claim to not know whether, say, the Holocaust really happened – they might not deny it, as such, but they don’t know enough on the matter to actually profess a belief in it. And I think you have to allow for the possibility that this might be fair. My own conviction is that the extermination of millions of Jews in Nazi Germany was a genuine event, but this is based largely on the historical and scientific consensus among people who’ve studied it and seem to know what they’re talking about, more than my knowledge of the actual facts. Although I’ve read Michael Shermer’s explanations of why Holocaust denialism is bunk, and have a reasoned trust in the academic research methods that have almost unanimously reached this conclusion, I couldn’t personally argue the case at all well right now. If I were even less informed, and had given it even less thought, I probably wouldn’t even be comfortable asserting a belief one way or the other.
And then there’s atheism, in which people do not profess a belief in any particular god, or in the concept of God in any general terms. And part of the belief system of anyone who calls themself an atheist in this way is the claim that this is not like maintaining a lack of belief in the Sun, it’s not obvious that I ought to believe based on what’s right before my eyes, I can reasonably and rationally make the claim that I don’t have to believe in a god if I want to avoid being ridiculous.
Unless your lack of belief stems entirely from a lack of interest, this is a belief that needs to be justified.
As an atheist, I think this can be done, and that exploring the justifications can only be enlightening, and get me better acquainted with my belief system.
Let’s go back to Bob for a second. Bob’s not denying the Sun might exist, but he’s not willing to stick his neck out and take a side on the issue. Chances are, if he ever brings this up in conversation, the reaction he gets will be a rather confused one. His buddy Dave, for instance, might say:
What the hell do you mean, you “don’t believe in the Sun?” It’s right there, for frig’s sake! It’s in the sky, you can see it! Also, after millennia of observing the heavens and decades of sending stuff up there to take pictures and look around, we have a pretty good idea of our place in the solar system, specifically that our roughly spherical planet is held in an elliptical orbit around the Sun by the gravitational force suggested by Newtonian mechanics, but more important, it’s right sodding there up in the sky, you cretin.
Dave’s a little tetchy. He thinks Bob’s being ridiculous, because he thinks that his arguments in favour of believing in the existence of the Sun are sufficient that you really should believe in it; anyone who doesn’t must be either completely irrational, or deeply uninformed, unintelligent, or uninterested, to an extent rarely seen in modern humans with full mental faculties. And I’d be inclined to agree. I mean, the Sun’s right there.
For Bob to have any chance of being taken seriously, there must be some reason why Dave’s argument doesn’t convince him. If he can’t explain why he maintains his position, in the face of any new argument or evidence presented that might undermine it, he can’t claim to be using sound reasoning. He’s not obliged to explain himself again in detail every time, to everyone who ever brings up any objection, but there must be a reason, in each case, why this new argument doesn’t make him change his mind. And “The Sun’s right there, why wouldn’t you believe in it?” is something I think he’d struggle to answer.
Similarly, atheists need to have a reason for maintaining a lack of belief. We might be starting off from the default position, but as soon as someone asks, “Where did the Universe and all this cool stuff it’s got come from?” we need to have a reason for not being persuaded by this to believe in a god.
(It’s important to note that this is not the same as saying we need to answer the question. The question itself isn’t an argument for a god’s existence, because a question can’t be declaring anything. The argument implicit in the question might go something like: The Universe exists, and has all this cool stuff in it, which couldn’t have come from nothing, and couldn’t just be here with no reason, therefore it must have been (or probably was) created by some divine being. Atheism needs a reason why it doesn’t reach this same conclusion. Yes, the arguments do get a lot more intricate and sophisticated and complex than this, and address all manner of different subjects; I’m just describing the framework.)
I won’t get into the details here of where the rest of that argument goes. The point is that atheism is a position which needs to be able to logically support itself against any theistic arguments, and we atheists positively assert that this can be done. Further, I claim that the theistic belief system does not adequately address atheistic counter-arguments which suggest that a belief in a god is unfounded, or even that many particular gods are highly unlikely to exist. To me, this is what the atheist belief system is.
1. Am I full of shit? If so, do we at least agree on the processes of thinking that ought to be employed, and just differ in our ideas of the justifiable conclusions that can be reached? Or am I really just wrong about everything?
2. What’s so great about being rational anyway? I’m acting like it’s such a big deal, but is it really that important?
3. Can you prove that the Sun really does exist? I mean, maybe there’s actually a big conspiracy and it’s all just done with mirrors, like in that film where Jim Carrey pretends he has an emotional range.