Recently a commenter calling him or herself “thinking philosophy”, which in my opinion is a highly ironic name for a theist, insisted that my description of atheism, which is a lack of belief in all gods, is itself a belief; in other words that atheism is a belief system. Try as I might, I could not convince this person otherwise. Here’s the problem: There are beliefs where disbelieving involves an alternate belief, and I’ll get to one of those later, but atheism is not one of them.
There is indeed a significant problem inherent to arguing against belief in a deity… There is no single accepted definition of such a deity that is accepted by all theists, even among those of the same religion. Thus I have nothing to refute. Any argument I make that uses any specifics of any religion can be called a straw man, or strident rhetoric, because you can turn around and say, “But I don’t believe that”.
If I write about the origin of any religion, that can be called a genetic fallacy. Never mind that believing in any religion involves accepting that your particular religion was not simply a product of superstition and the explaining of the unknown in terms of magic by primitive people, you can still make your fallacy of fallacies and insist that my argument is a genetic fallacy. It’s one of the most annoying tactics used by religious apologists… in that it is OK for them to make generic arguments for a creator/designer, and then conclude (via a non sequitur) that their particular god is real. But argue against a specific religion and it becomes a genetic fallacy.
The fact is, when making a claim, the burden of proof lies on those who make the claim, not those who refute it. There is no evidence for any god. That’s where the argument should end, because disproving a negative is impossible. No god is going to solve this dilemma by showing up, and apologists rationalize other things to be evidence of their gods, while skeptics continually ask for evidence that will never be forthcoming. Thus this debate remains deadlocked, even though it shouldn’t be. As long as people continue to believe without evidence, there will always be those like me who point out the absurdity of such beliefs…
In any case, looking at the history of a more recent religion can be useful… For example, Joseph Smith started the Church of Latter-day Saints, essentially with the claim that he was able to write his holy text, dictated by god through some magic rocks. Anybody who hasn’t been indoctrinated as a Mormon should have enough common sense to know that magic rocks aren’t real. Yet to believe in one of the older, more established Abrahamic religions, such a person must suspend such disbelief and accept that a long time ago, equally magical means were normal, and that the Bible, Torah or Quran are legitimate holy books.
Getting back to my argument that not holding a belief is not the same as holding an alternate belief, let’s consider an absurd hypothetical belief: The belief that pigs can fly. I’m not an expert on pigs. I have not studied them. I don’t know if different kinds of pigs are different species, or subspecies. I have never seen a flying pig though, and even though I can not rule out that there is some special pig somewhere that can fly, I don’t believe that pigs do fly. But saying that “I don’t believe pigs do fly” doesn’t mean that I have some other belief about the flight of pigs. In fact, I have no opinion about flying pigs, and no beliefs regarding whether or not they fly. If one day, I see a flying pig, I’ll form a belief then. Likewise, although I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six years old, I didn’t replace that belief with a belief in an evil Santa (Krampus?). I simply didn’t hold that belief any longer.
In much the same way, when I stopped believing in god, I didn’t start believing in something else. I simply don’t hold any belief on that subject. Since I don’t believe that we were created, that does not mean I believe that we came from nothing… I have zero opinion on that subject just like you have no idea where your particular god came from. (But by the way, if he always existed… way to duck the question… Why not apply that same logic to the universe?) And don’t tell me I’m agnostic… Sure, I can not eliminate the possibility that there is some sort of intelligent designer that has nothing to do with any known religion, since all such religions and gods were invented by man, but neither can I refute that fairies, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, bigfoot, flying saucers, or the boogeyman under the bed might exist. Maybe when I look under the bed, he is in the cupboard? My lack of belief in all of those things is not itself a belief… I just don’t hold those beliefs. Why is this so difficult to understand?
Of course there are beliefs which, if not held, imply a different belief. Let’s get back to those pigs… I used to argue against vegetarianism, and my argument came down to this: We are omnivores. We evolved to eat meat and vegetables, and the structure of our teeth alone proves this. And besides, I love bacon! But the truth is, pigs are sentient beings, just like us, and I have come to believe that we no longer need to eat meat, and in fact it may well be morally wrong to do so in these times. I still eat meat though, so I am somewhat conflicted, but I do believe that it would be better not to, and one day, hopefully soon, I will stop eating meat. Here, I have switched one belief for another, but not every belief works that way.