An atheist logical fallacy. Step by step.
This article is about those of you who define your atheism as this website https://www.atheists.org/activism/resources/what-is-atheism does, “Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.” I know lots of you who are atheists don’t hold to this definition. Those of you who do, shouldn’t. And here’s why.
Beliefs are not like hair color or eye color, something readily observable by other people. We all know this and we know it implicitly. Trying to determine whether someone believes something is a matter of making an inference based on the available evidence. We get a good piece of evidence when someone says, “I believe X.” Other bits on the evidence trail can be collected by observing the person’s behavior. Actions consistent with the professed belief can be used as evidence that the person holds that belief. Actions inconsistent with the belief would lead an observer to conclude that it is less likely that the person holds that belief.
Inconsistent actions could lead an observer to conclude that the person professing a belief also holds the contrary belief. Since it is common for people to hold conflicting beliefs like, “I believe X” and, “I believe not-X,” inconsistent actions would be evidence of this internal conflict. It is also possible that the person professing the belief is lying. He actually does not hold the professed belief, only the contrary belief.
So what am I to think of the statement, “I lack belief in gods.”? There are lots of problems with such a statement, but lets grant that it is absolutely true of the person making the statement. It’s a fact. Suppose our observer is a skeptic. It’s in his nature to disbelieve assertions made by others unless they provide some evidence that the assertion might be true. He’s not asking for proof, mind you, just some evidence, any evidence, that the statement might be true. Then he’ll take the statement under consideration.
The fact of the matter is that the person claiming a lack of belief in gods can not provide our skeptic with any evidence that he lacks that belief. Even thought we’ve granted that he does, in fact, lack belief in gods, the claimant cannot provide any evidence of any kind. But let’s say he tries anyway. This is where the logical error occurs. The claimant says that his statement, “I lack belief in gods,” is evidence of his lack of belief. And he tells us that just as we would take as evidence a profession of belief from someone who believes in god we should also accept his profession as evidence that he lacks that same belief.
This is the fallacy of false cause. It’s a hard one to see because those who lack belief think that they should be able to do the same thing as those who believe in gods or those who disbelieve in gods. They can’t. The profession, “I lack belief in gods,” is evidence of the belief that you lack belief in gods (or is evidence of something else). It is not evidence of the lack itself as that would be a violation of causality. The absence of a belief cannot be a cause of a behavior. In particular, it cannot be the cause of the statement, “I lack belief in gods.”
So what is our skeptic supposed to do about someone who says “I lack belief in X,” where X replaces “gods”? (Because the problem with this assertion actually has nothing to do with gods.) The thing to do is to realize that the person talking to you doesn’t understand that you must accept his statement on blind faith alone, even if it is factually true.
So what’s the problem? How did we get to a place where people who rail against religious faith characterize themselves in a way that requires that same kind of blind faith from others? The original fallacy is one of false analogy. It goes like this, “A belief is a property of a person that can be used to classify that person. So, for instance, let’s say a lens is either concave or convex. The logical complement of the set of convex lenses is the set of concave lenses. In the same way, some people have certain beliefs and are called ‘whatever-ists’ and other people lack those beliefs and can call themselves ‘a-whatever-ists.’”
All of this sounds completely logical until you realize that there is no way to enumerate the members of the “whatever-ists” set because their beliefs can only be inferred, not observed. And it is impossible to enumerate the members of the “a-whatever-ists” set because you can’t infer a lack of belief from the absence of behavior and the behavior of professing one’s lack of belief cannot be evidence of that lack of belief. The classic example here is the person who lacks belief in gods but lives his entire life in a manner indistinguishable from a god-fearing worshiper. The fact of his lack of belief is completely undetectable and completely irrelevant to how he lives his life.
You can believe someone when they tell you that they lack belief in gods, but your belief in their statement is an act of blind faith.
Copyright 2016 Leonard Timmons
My name is Leonard Timmons and I live in the metropolitan Atlanta area. I've worked as an engineer here since 1983. I have a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering (BEE) degree from Georgia Institute of Technology. I graduated in 1982. I work with computers, networks and network security. I also manage Oracle databases among other things. I have studied the Bible closely for many years. The Bible writers were practical, make-it-work kind of people and it takes an engineering perspective to understand what they wrote. I think that having an engineering perspective when reading the Bible is more useful in understanding it than any other perspective.