Once again, I find myself poking through the “atheism” and “atheist” tags on wordpress to try to find more atheist blogs to read. Once again, a significant portion of the posts under these tags are written by Christians about atheists. And once again, a significant portion of these posts turn out to be straw man arguments against atheists.
The last time I did this, I ended up writing a very angry, ranty post about Christians telling atheists what atheism is, but I decided not to post it. I wrote it because I wanted to rant a bit, and because I wanted to reassure myself that I had good reason to be angry and upset. After I wrote it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted other people to read it in its raw, angry, ranty form. Here’s my attempt at a more calm, reasoned response to Christians telling atheists what atheism is.
One of the most common straw man arguments I see Christians use against atheists is to redefine atheism in a different way than atheists do. Often, this involves asserting that an atheist is someone who believes God does not exist, rather than someone who does not believe God exists. The difference between these two definitions is rather important, although the difference in wording seems quite subtle. The first is an active belief that something does not exist. The second is the absense of an active belief that something does exist. The first is an active belief. The second is a lack of belief. The first is a definition often imposed on atheists by non-atheists. The second is a definition atheists often use for themselves.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to argue against the position that there is definitely, absolutely, positively, no way that God possibly exists. It’s a lot harder to argue against the position that there are probably no gods. The second of these is the position I most commonly see atheists actually take. The first one is the straw man I commonly see Christians arguing against.
I could go on about the various ways I have seen some Christians trying to tell atheists what atheism is. Sometimes people go beyond conveniently ignoring the difference between belief-of-lack and lack-of-belief. One frustrating conversation I had was with a Christian friend I had just come out to as an atheist. She repeatedly described my atheism as “denying the existence of God”. Denial here implies that she is right and I am wrong–perhaps willfully wrong. Is it any wonder that I object to having my atheism described as denial? Next maybe we can talk about people who “deny the existence of unicorns” or “deny that the Earth is flat”.
Of course, I can’t really talk about lack-of-belief vs. belief-of-lack properly without also talking about the way the word “faith” gets used. I mean, it even seems silly to me sometimes to stress the difference between belief-of-lack and lack-of-belief. When people talk about leprechauns, they say things like “I believe in leprechauns” or “I don’t believe in leprechauns” or “There is no such thing as leprechauns”. No one ever emphasizes that their not believing in leprechauns is a lack-of-belief in leprechauns, not a belief-of-lack.
But then, people who don’t believe in leprechauns don’t also have to deal with people telling them that they “deny the existence of leprechauns” or that they “have faith that leprechauns aren’t real” or that “you can’t prove that leprechauns don’t exist”. By the way, it is true that you can’t prove leprechauns don’t exist (you also can’t prove that there is no celestial teapot orbiting the sun somewhere in the solar system). But you don’t need to prove that in order to assert that it is unreasonable to claim that leprechauns do exist. And if someone ever does challenge your non-belief in leprechauns, all you have to do to defend your position is to say that there is no evidence for the existence of leprechauns, and that there is plenty of evidence supporting the claim that leprechauns are something humans made up.
The reason I feel motivated to stress the distinction between belief-of-lack and lack-of-belief when it comes to deities is that I have seen so many people try to argue that atheism is a faith-based position. Doing so requires either redefining “atheism” (as belief-of-lack rather than lack-of-belief) or redefining “faith”. In arguments like these, I find it’s a lot easier to understand things if I substitute some other mythological being into the statements, and then work out what a reasonable person would say.
For example, if someone tried to tell me that unbelievers of Bigfoot have a faith based position, that would be absurd on the face of it. People don’t believe in the nonexistence of Bigfoot because they have faith. They lack belief in Bigfoot because there’s no evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. They look at the world around them and see that there are no reputable sightings of Bigfoot (and plenty of disreputable, ambiguous, or fictitious sightings), and conclude that Bigfoot is just a myth. Furthermore, if tomorrow there were one reputable, unambiguous Bigfoot sighting, with video and DNA evidence, then the abigfootists who lacked belief in Bigfoot would then concede that Bigfoot does, in fact, exist.
On second thought, I think I would have a much easier time talking about the straw man arguments that some Christians use if I just quoted and responded to real, live straw man arguments, rather than trying to outline how atheists define atheism vs. how some Christians impose their own definitions of atheism on atheists in order to more easily argue against atheism. After writing this it seems clear to me that I’m still getting my thoughts in order on this. Like maybe belief-of-lack vs. lack-of-belief isn’t that important of a distinction in and of itself. The reason I seem to care about that distinction is that some people use their insistence on atheism being a belief-of-lack to argue that atheism is a faith based position. But there are other ways I can argue that atheism is not a faith based position.
In conclusion, I still like my strategy of replacing deities with other mythological beings in statements about beliefs in order to better understand the structure and meaning of those statements, and to identify which statements do or do not make sense when talking about beings that might or might not exist (and the existence of which some people have faith in).
Actually, this is a strategy I have used quite a lot. For instance, if my position on unicorns is “while I cannot definitively prove that unicorns do no exist, the probability that unicorns do exist is negligibly small” and, when speaking of unicorns, I usually just say “there’s no such thing as unicorns”, then it would be reasonable to say “there are no gods” if I hold the same position on the existence of gods as I do on the existence of unicorns. And yet I usually still find myself saying stuff like “there are probably no gods” because I’ve learned to anticipate the sort of responses a statement like “there are no gods” gets (e.g. “atheism is a faith based position!” or “atheists are trying to suppress religion!”).
As a bonus, here’s the original raw, angry, ranty attempt at this post:
I am so fucking tired of Christians trying to define what atheism is so they can argue against it or dismiss it more easily, while completely fucking ignoring what atheists have to say about atheism, and then dismissing atheists’ complaints about how said Christians are mangling a label that does not apply to them, and which they have no right to redefine over the many and voiciferous objections of the people who actually use said label.
This isn’t all Christians. I know. I just run into this so fucking often, and I’ve fucking had it with this bullshit. Seriously. It is not ok for the people in a privileged majority (e.g. Christians in the US, or allosexuals) to take the label a minority uses to identify themselves (e.g. atheists, or asexuals), and redefine it whatever way they please (e.g. people who have faith in the non-existence of God, or humans who reproduce by mitosis) just so they can make some stupid argument to dismiss said minority (e.g. “atheism is just another religion”, or “people reproducing by mitosis is absurd, so human asexuality is absurd”).
The definition of a label used by the people who self-identify as that label matters, folks.
Anyway. Kudos to the Christians (and other religious folks) who don’t do this. I know there are a lot of you, it’s just that I always seem to find this bull crap, when I am, for fuck’s sake, looking for posts tagged with “atheism”. Or trying to discuss atheism. Or even just minding my own fucking business.