I follow Ratio Christi on Twitter, which, occasionally, actually engages in rational Christian apologetics, to which I’m always amenable. That is, instead of saying insipid things to the effect of “Believe, or else …” these folks actually engage in logical and epistemic proofs of God. They all fail for various reasons, if one holds to the evidential hegemony of epistemology.

OK, OK! I hear the groans and see the puzzled looks. There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence. “The evidential hegemony of epistemology.” What the fuck is that?

The evidential hegemony of epistemology is the dominance in epistemology of using evidence to evaluate knowledge-claims. The contrast is fideism, or deducing knowledge-claims from a group of atomic beliefs. In most areas of study, knowledge-claims with evidentiary support are accepted and those without evidentiary support are rejected.

And here is where we get into some problems in terms of the epistemic nature of belief. What it is to believe something is a question that philosophy, theology, psychology and neuroscience are trying desperately to answer.

Furthermore, the nature of disagreements between the rational Christian apologist and the rational atheist stem from more obscure dialectic on the nature of belief. Most of the relevant discussion about religion and acceptance of religious tenets and behavior comes from how people define the term ‘faith’.

In this sense, atheists and theists talk past each other quite often. That is because both groups have different epistemological commitments. Atheists tend to be evidentialists, whereas theists don’t. The epistemological commitments that a theist holds onto may very well differ from theist to theist.

There are religious epistemologies where people actively reject any sort of knowledge claims that aren’t logically consistent with their deeply held beliefs (fideism). Fideism serves as the other bookend to evidentialism, with differing mixes of allowing for evidence and accommodating deeply held beliefs to varying degrees between these two.

Much of the American Evangelical Christian rhetoric takes a strict fideistic stance, especially with regards to scientific knowledge claims. Evolution seems to be the target of such fideism as evolution tends to call into question deeply held Christian beliefs regarding the origin of man.

Objections to evolution aren’t so much based on a lack of understanding of theory of evolution, though a lack of understanding of evolution is near universal in such objections. Objections to evolution are the logical consequence of having a fideistic epistemology.

Fideism, by definition, requires any knowledge claims that contradict deeply held beliefs to be rejected. There is a powerful psychology behind fideism. And the behavior of American Evangelicals engaged in quasi-apologetics owes most of its vitriol to that powerful psychology.

However, back to the matter I wanted to write about: Nate Sala’s blogpost “Why Atheism Is Not A ‘Lack of Belief’”. The crux of Nate Sala’s argument deals with a logical breakdown of one Twitter exchange between himself and a Twitter atheist.

Twitter is what I pithily refer to as The House of Pith. Twitter isn’t really a forum to get into serious philosophical debates. Anybody with any reasonable exposure to philosophy knows that 140 characters is hardly enough to fully explicate a nuanced argument, and the argument evaluated by Sala is nuanced.

Still, we atheists and apologists do engage one another on Twitter, so I offer this analysis up with that caveat in mind.  Sala discusses his analysis by offering a logical rendition of what it is to be a Christian. He discusses being a Christian in terms of both necessary and sufficient conditions and implicature.

On the one hand, Christians and atheists define ‘being a Christian’  in terms of holding core propositions of Christianity as true AND being saved by God. These are individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for being a Christian. Another definition is that in order to hold these core propositions true, one must be saved by God, which means that being saved by God implies that one holds the core propositions true. Hence, the implicature.

Sala uses the implicature definition to highlight a “logical difficulty” for people claiming to be ex-Christians. While Sala fails to expand on this, my assumption has to be that this logical difficulty is that once someone is saved by God, then they must hold that set of Christian propositions to be true for all time.

Of course, this is absurd. But this absurdity owes its existence to a couple of things. The use of sentential logic to dissect nuanced claims about belief, and a fideistic epistemological commitment. The P’s and Q’s and conjunctions and implications of sentential logic are too gross to deal with the subtleties of belief. Beliefs do change over time. One only need remember the shock of learning the truth about Santa Claus to know that shifting from believing in a person’s existence and not believing in a person’s existence is something that happens.

In order for Sala’s sentential logic to work, belief must be static and eternal. If this is not the case, then a different type of logic is needed when discussing belief. It is not the case. That is precisely why philosophers and logicians use modal logic when talking about belief, specifically epistemic modal logic. Sentential logic is insufficient to capture the actuality of belief.

Sala betrays his fideistic epistemological commitment in one passage, “We (theists) believe that God exists and they (atheists) believe that God does not exist. Both groups believe something.” It is incomprehensible to Sala that an atheist doesn’t believe something. And it would be easier to demonstrate this if the English language were capable of precisely expressing the nuance here. However, it is difficult to express in natural language and Sala’s dissection of this statement demonstrates the difficulties.

Sala goes on to give the reader three options as to how to parse the “lack of belief” predicate. In the first one, he describes “lack of belief” as a “missing mental property”. And states that if this is what a “lack of belief” is, then the definition is too broad to be meaningful. Of course it is. “A missing mental property” is too vague of a description, not to mention a straw man definition for the argument. Here’s where the Twitter caveat comes into effect. 140 characters isn’t enough to fully flesh out the nuance here.

The second option Sala offers is that the term ‘atheism’ denotes a lack of belief. Sala argues that this could be parsed as an absence of opinion, and therefore one can’t support such absence with any good reasons. Sala equates this with an aversion to lima beans, or a mere psychological preference. Clearly, the lack of belief is not the absence of an opinion. It seems that Sala isn’t quite able to differentiate between an opinion and an existential claim. They are quite different.

The third option is a bit of a stumper. If there is no God, Sala asserts, why did atheists like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens go to the trouble of writing books about a “missing mental property”. Again with the “missing mental property”. I find it highly probable that Sala doesn’t understand evidentiary epistemology due to the fideistic commitments belief in God requires.

It’s pretty simple to refute Sala’s arguments. A lack of belief is not a missing mental property. It is the rejection of a specific existential claim based on the preponderance of the evidence.And evidence can change over time in both quantity and quality. Dawkins writing about “Why There Almost Certainly is No God” demonstrates this perfectly.

The reason that Dawkins phrases that chapter title in that way is because Dawkins realizes that his argument is inductive. As study progresses, new or better evidence may arise. Dawkins is not arguing from some axiom deductively, as theists usually do. He is arguing from observations of the natural world to an assertion. There will always be some doubt (however infinitesimal) incorporated into this type of epistemic statement. Sala needs to read some Hume to understand the vagaries of induction.

Sala asserts that atheism is a truth-claim about the world and the claim is that God does not exist. It is not that at all. It is the assigning of a different truth-value to the claim that ‘(Insert religion’s deity/deities) exist(s)’. We atheists assign a truth-value of false. Notice that I didn’t parse his statement as “God exists.”

That’s because the set of all gods worshipped on Earth, even those that aren’t worshipped today but were in the past, is a clearly finite set. The term God exists, refers to an infinitely realizable set. There may actually be evidence for an as-yet-unknown deity that has yet to be discovered.

Atheists also realize that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. We also understand that our knowledge of the universe is currently limited. And this is the true difference between evidentiary atheists and fideistic theists.  We don’t rule out that evidence may be found that proves the existence of a deity. A fideistic theist must rule out some basic evidence and their associated propositions about the world, because they directly contradict the core tenets of whatever religion they belong to.

What we have done is evaluated the numerous existential claims to a finite set of gods, along with the evidence provided by apologists from all different religions and rejected those existential claims. That is not the same as denying the existence of any gods whatsoever. Was Jesus God? No. Was Mohammed? No. Yahweh? No. None of them were. The same with Zeus, Buddha, Krishna and the entire set of gods worshipped by humans to date.

The question may arise “How can you really evaluate arguments and evidence for the set of all gods worshipped by men?” There are a couple of answers to this. One, we read … a lot. Those books by Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens Sala mentioned offer up concise evaluations of such arguments and evidence.

The other is that the arguments and evidence for the existence of these gods fall into broad categories, which makes evaluating them much simpler than an apologist might believe. Groups of similar problems appear throughout the entire apologetic exegesis. Some of these problems stem from the intellectual dishonesty which seems to attach itself most to the most vehement proselytizers of religions around the world.

However, it is the height of intellectual dishonest to state that rejecting existential claims is identical to positing a non-existential claim. And therein lies the subtlety of the difference. If any existential claim to a god garners enough evidence, atheists will very likely accept the claim.

To date, no such existential claim has received sufficient, or even quality evidence. In fact, the evidence offered to this point has been riddled with problems. Atheists also examine the evidence more rigorously than fideistic theists do. If the evidence is dubious, we reject that as well. Many of the core tenets of any given religious belief find their provenance in dubious evidence, like the Bible.

Sala claims that atheists’ “semantic gymnastics” are “transparent” to “those of us who know better.” The only thing transparent in Sala’s article is his lack of understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of epistemology. Sala doesn’t understand the difference between the rejection of multiple existential claims and epistemic neutrality on one existential claim. Sala’s use of sentential logic when talking about belief paints belief with too broad a brush and betrays his own epistemological commitment, which themselves are in need of philosophical justification. In short, Sala is preaching to a choir that not only doesn’t know any better, but cannot know any better

I’m Michael, and I’m the Philosophical Gaytheist. Gaytheist? Is that a gay theist, or a gay atheist? Well I like f*#ikng men and I don’t believe in God. My philosophical sophistication will intrigue you, and then make undergrads everywhere realize to never major in philosophy.

One Comment on “What does an atheist mean by a ‘lack of belief’?: A response to bad Christian apologetics

  1. Pingback: Why the Burden of Proof is important | Philosophical Gaytheist

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