Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Excerpt:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Dealing with persistent subjective atheists

What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.

And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.

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54 thoughts on “Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?”

  1. Wow, this post just went up, and we had four atheists comment seeking attention for their personal mental states. This is a blog about evidence. This is not the place for deluded people to call attention to their delusions.For people who want to talk about their beliefs but not about the evidence for those beliefs, I recommend paying a psychologist to listen. The rest of us don’t care about your delusions, we are into arguments and evidence.

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  2. Actually, this post struck me with the thought that for those who insist that their atheism is strictly a “lack of belief”, why should we be inclined to say anything more than, “Oh, okay”. I mean really, if that’s all they’re saying then they really aren’t making a claim to anything debatable. We could simply respond with, “that’s nice, I do have a belief in God”. If they reply with a request for evidence we could rightly say, “Why? You gave me no reason to believe otherwise.” It all becomes very trivial. If they refuse to bear the burden of their real position, we should not waste our time with them.

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    1. I got another FOUR of them today leaving comments basically saying that they don’t want to have to defend their personal preferences with evidence. It’s not a rational worldview, it’s just arbitrary autobiography. If they had reasons and evidence, I’d listen to that. They don’t. The “absence of belief in God” crowd are just too lazy to conform their beliefs to external states of affairs.

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      1. Doesn’t that mean that you have to justify your belief in God to atheists?

        WLC recognized that there are three positions you can take with regard to a proposition P. “I believe P,” “I believe not-P,” and the third, neutral stance “I don’t believe P or not-P.” What’s so hard about dealing with someone who says they take the third stance?

        What you’re doing is shifting the burden of proof. Both the first and second stances necessarily take that burden; they should demonstrate why they have a positive belief towards “P” or “not-P.” The third stance does not have that burden; they’re the ones looking to be convinced.

        I think you’re insisting that all atheists must have the second stance so you can foist the burden of proof on them. If you admitted that some atheists could take the third stance, that would mean putting your beliefs on the line and having to justify them. If you had reasons and evidence for your beliefs, this would be extremely easy. I guess its telling that you’d rather force atheists to justify themselves to you.

        (By the way, yes, I am an atheist, and one with the belief that no gods exist. My justification? I simply haven’t seen the evidence required for a belief in God. Every study on prayer fails to demonstrate its effectiveness, nobody has been able to show any evidence for communication with a deity, natural disasters that some claim are God’s wrath don’t target anybody in particular, and so on. Every expected piece of evidence that would demonstrate a God fails to appear.)

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        1. Good comment. The third category is called agnostic – someone who doesn’t know or doesn’t have enough evidence to decide either way.

          I am willing to bear the burden of proof for theism – to make the claim and to support it. But if a person is not willing to produce arguments and evidence for the claim that God does not exist, then they are not an atheist. An atheist makes the claim and supports it.

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          1. The way I’ve used the words, “atheist” and “agnostic” are not exclusive. One can be a “gnostic atheist” (knows that god doesn’t exist by reason and evidence) or an “agnostic atheist” (doesn’t believe God exists, but without evidence). I find this is better because it covers more ground.

            If someone asked me if I believed Baron Samedi, a haitian god, existed, I’d say no. Why would I believe in a god I’d never heard of before? But I’d have no positive evidence this god didn’t exist because again, I’d never heard of him. I’d be an “agnostic atheist,” which respects the fact that I lack belief that such a god exists, but I haven’t yet justified that belief. Even before I looked up Baron Samedi with a google search for “weird gods”, I’d have considered myself an agnostic atheist toward him, because I lacked the belief or the justification. “Agnostic” and “atheist” the way you’re using the words can’t describe that situation adequately.

            The reason many atheists don’t want to bother with justifying their atheism towards a particular god is the same reason that you probably wouldn’t bother answering me if I asked you to justify your non-belief in Baron Samedi. Why justify non-belief in something you had no reason to believe in the first place?

            There’s a default towards any proposition; not believing it. The alternative is believing everything, which doesn’t work. You might say that agnosticism is that alternative, which covers the neutral stance of waiting for more evidence, but that isn’t descriptive enough. If I asked you “Do you believe in Baron Samedi,” you could answer “no” even without evidence, because the belief itself is separate from the justification. That’s why I prefer “atheist” and “agnostic” being distinct; the first is the belief, and the second is the justification.

            Sorry for the wall of text… I had a lot to say.

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          2. By the way, I would actually be interested in your justification for your theism, if you’d like to share. I don’t know if it will be convincing to me, but I certainly am curious.

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          3. Sure, look at the bottom of this post:
            https://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/dr-stephen-c-meyer-lectures-on-intelligent-design-and-the-origin-of-life-2/

            But do not respond to the arguments in this thread. This thread is about getting people who want the respect of being called an atheist to meet the burden of proof required by a claim to know what reality is like. I want to not be the only one in this discussion defending a view. I want a shared burden of proof – both sides producing arguments.

            I can list out a dozen arguments for atheism, but I shouldn’t be doing the work for the other side.

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          4. Do you have a response to my use of the words “atheist” and “agnostic?” From my perspective, there’s no respect necessary to call someone an atheist (and in many cases it is not used as a respectful term). “Atheist” as a label is not a formal recognition that the position is valid or justified, just a recognition of a state of mind.

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          5. I think words are being “minced” here.

            I fail to see any real difference between an “agnostic” and an “agnostic atheist”, unless it would be that the “agnostic atheist”, by calling himself that, is thereby admitting that his or her DENIAL of the existence of a divine being (“A” – no, “theos” – God) is a position that has been taken on some basis other than via reason or evidence, i.e. it is what he or she desires to be the case, not what is known (“A” – no, “gnosis” – knowledge) to be the case.

            JMG

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          6. @jmg123

            I’m using the word “agnostic” differently. My phrase “agnostic atheist” and your phrase “agnostic” could mean the same thing. The reason I like my usage better is because it separates out the justification from the belief. It also allows you to differentiate between a “gnostic theist” (someone who knows a god/gods exists through reason and evidence) from an “agnostic theist” (who believes a god/gods exists, but isn’t sure).

            You use strong words to describe a very reasonable position. Someone either believes or doesn’t believe, there are only two possibilities, orthogonal to whether that belief or lack of belief is justified. “Agnostic atheism” is simply saying “I don’t believe there is a god, but I’m not sure.”

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  3. There is a spectrum of belief/lack of belief….

    Strong theist – I know for a fact there is a god(s)
    De facto theist – I see evidence that leads me to think there is a god(s)
    Spiritual agnostic – I don’t know, but I think there may be a god(s)
    True agnostic – There might be a god(s), there might not. I have no instinct or leaning one way or the other
    Sceptical agnostic – I don’t know, but a god(s) doesn’t seem likely
    De facto atheist – I see no evidence that would lead me to think there is a god(s)
    Strong atheist – I know for a fact that there is not a god(s)

    This is a somewhat simplified list and there are different terms used by different people (eg. ‘de facto atheist’ is the same as ‘soft atheist’, ‘weak atheist’, ‘negative atheist’). I think having someone describe their personal opinion on belief is much less ambiguous than having them label themselves (different people have different ideas of what each of these terms mean).
    While I’m always interested in hearing evidence for or against the existence of god(s) by anyone along this spectrum, I feel that strong theists and strong atheists are REQUIRED to back up their certainty with evidence. Strong atheists are rare. Most people who claim to be atheist are aware of what is scientifically required to declare something a fact (or as close to a fact as we can get) and therefore can only be considered de facto atheists.
    Almost everyone is an atheist in some respect (eg. Christians usually do not believe in Mithras, Odin or Quetzalcoatl and Muslims don’t often believe in Apollo, Siva or Olorun and a Hindu probably doesn’t believe in Tapio, Danu or Horus etc.)

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    1. Every position between Strong theist and Strong atheist makes no claim to know anything, and so they are all agnostic. It’s just misunderstanding of epistemology. If you know God exists, you are a theist. If you know God does not exist, you are an atheist. Anything else is agnostic – you don’t know. Knowing (justified true belief) is the only thing relevant in a public debate about truth. I don’t care about people’s subjective states. I care about what people can prove to be true.

      If anything, I think that the atheist obsession with not defending their view shows that atheism is not about knowing the truth, it’s about something else – personal autonomy from the moral law, regardless of truth.

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      1. @Kw

        “Agnostic atheism” is simply saying “I don’t believe there is a god, but I’m not sure.”

        I like your definition of your terminology more than I like the terminology itself. The key point is that in reality there are no true atheists in an unqualified sense. All who are not theists are by default actually agnostic in some sense, for they can be nothing else since no mere human being can reasonably claim to have perfect knowledge of all possible evidence that is or ever could be available. The best that they can say is that the jury remains perpetually “out” on the matter for them. So, unless someone is a theist, if they are honest, they will certainly have to admit that they are an agnostic with whatever predicate term or phrase they so choose to tack on the end of that agnosticism.

        Those who claim to be sheer, unmitigated atheists are simply making a claim about themselves that cannot possibly be a settled and sure one. In light of that, and in line with what WK is saying, there are only Theists and those who don’t know (i.e. agnostics) with no other valid category.

        It should also be kept in mind that, from a Biblical perspective, belief / faith is necessarily based upon evidence, and without evidence to form a foundation for belief / faith there is no belief / faith, but only conjecture or wishful thinking. Therefore, there are no Christians who “believe” there is a God, but who do not have any evidential, rational basis for doing so. Belief / faith is literally persuasion through evidence. No evidence, no persuasion, no belief / faith.

        JMG

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        1. “Faith” isn’t about evidence. “Faith” is the assurance that your views are correct independent of evidence. Doubting Thomas is said to have little faith because he needs to see the holes in Jesus’s hand in order to believe he has really been resurrected.

          And really, are you saying that no theist basis their beliefs on incomplete evidence? I highly doubt that. I’ve met plenty of actual theists who will freely claim that they aren’t positive about their belief, they just believe because, including one in particular who states their belief is illogical, but illogic is part of life.

          Also, I disagree that no atheist can claim to be what I call “gnostic.” I happen to be one. My reasoning is similar to what I described in my first post. Knowledge is a tricky subject, you can’t really be 100% sure of anything. Even if the voice of God tells you that He exists, there’s always the chance that you could be hallucinating, mistaken, or being tricked. So when I speak of “knowing” no gods exist, I mean it in the scientific sense; that all the evidence points that way, it models the world most accurately, and therefore we “know” it with as high a degree of certainty as we can “know” anything.

          People exist at every point on the spectrum of “gnostic, agnostic” and “believe, disbelieve.” That’s why I insist on my terminology.

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          1. That’s is the atheist definition of faith, no Christian believes that. It’s just something that atheists sort of project onto Christians because that’s how atheists formed their own views. They sort of say “this is how I want to live” and then the beliefs flow from that prior commitment.

            How do I know this? Because there is nowhere in the Bible where trusting in God is expected without evidence.

            Here is a post, you should read this and get this clear in your mind:
            https://winteryknight.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/is-the-bibles-definition-of-faith-opposed-to-logic-and-evidence-6/

            You don’t see this within the atheist community, but it’s good that you are here to learn it.

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          2. @Wintery Knight

            And Jesus shows Thomas his hands eventually. If you all are using “faith” to mean something like “trust,” then that’s fine. I’ve seen that definition before even in the atheist community :P.

            I’m curious about this though: “Because there is nowhere in the Bible where trusting in God is expected without evidence.” In Job, the devil claims that Job only worships God because He blesses Job with a good life, so God sends down plagues and death to test Job’s “faith.”

            Now, granted, maybe the expectation is that Job should know God has the best intentions, even through hardship, but that doesn’t seem to be a rational trust. If someone you know and love suddenly turns abusive and starts assaulting you, they’ve broken your trust. You shouldn’t trust them anymore, based on the evidence of their actions.

            In Job, though, the take-away message is that you should always trust God, even if he is cursing you. To me, that seems to be an expectation to trust God in spite of evidence to the contrary. It matches up with the less mythological idea that traumatic events shouldn’t shake your faith in God, that he has a plan and his ways are mysterious. At one point does God cross a line? If that line can never be crossed, is your trust really rational?

            Bit of a tangent, but anyway.

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          3. @Wintery Knight

            One last thing on faith. From Hebrews 11:

            “Faith means being sure of the things we hope for and knowing that something is real even if we do not see it.”

            “All these people are known for their faith, but none of them received what God had promised. God planned to give us something better so that they would be made perfect, but only together with us.”

            Hebrews 11 lists a bunch of people who are prized for their faith. In very few cases can you argue that the people had much evidence or justification for their faith. It wasn’t built upon a pattern of personally being saved by God, and Hebrews 11 specifically states that God did not deliver the expected result.

            Sorry, but this does not mesh with faith as justified trust. There is this element of “blindness” to faith, of believing because you believe what you believe is true. Again, I’m fine with you defining what you mean by “faith,” but I don’t accept that “no Christian” thinks otherwise, or wouldn’t have a reason to think otherwise.

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          4. Here you go:
            http://www.str.org/articles/is-faith-blind

            Honestly, don’t forget to read my post on this topic that I linked before. I think a lot of the problem comes from what you see pastors saying in churches and from ordinary Christians. But this is the age of hedonism – you should not be surprised that Christians want to make the Bible as much about selfish pleasure as they can. But the general pattern in the Bible is that evidence is required for faith, and Christians ought to be studying that evidence.

            You need to read this chapter of John and believe Jesus:
            https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+10

            Quote:

            37 Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”

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  4. “If anything, I think that the atheist obsession with not defending their view shows that atheism is not about knowing the truth, it’s about something else – personal autonomy from the moral law, regardless of truth.”

    I disagree that my position, that I do not believe in a god for lack of evidence, is not a statement about truth. The defence of the view lies in the very lack of evidence, however insufficient you deem this to be.

    Atheism of this form is not about subjective states or personal autonomy from moral law, rather it is based on the philosophy of Positivism. Positivism was an important stage in scientific thinking – recognising that explanations for phenomena were not very helpful if there were not supported by observation and data. The search for truth, therefore, lies in developing a consistent interpretation of all data. Apparent contradictions in theory are indications that the interpretations are insufficiently robust: the search for truth is never ending. The rapid progress in our understanding of our world in the last two centuries demonstrates the power of this approach.

    I agree with you that a lack of belief in god affects one’s moral stance. It places the responsibility for the welfare of our world and its inhabitants directly on our own shoulders, because there is no basis to take comfort in a divine plan.

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  5. I’m not sure from reading your post what you would accept as “proof” but I can tell you one of the steps in my becoming an atheist. I grew up attending the Presbyterian church. We were given a certain understanding of God, which may, or may not, coincide with your own understanding. That in itself (the definition of “god”) is one of the problems but we’ll stick to my first issue. We were told that prayer works… that God answers prayers. But here’s the kind of thing that happened: Sister Sarah was stricken with cancer and we prayed that she would be healed. She died. Brother Bob had a heart attack. We prayed that he would recover and he did. Brother Dave had a back injury and though we prayed for him for 10 years he continued to suffer excruciating back pain. The minister then said, “well, God works in mysterious ways”, or “sometimes the answer is NO”, or “God had other plans”. This didn’t seem like a reasonable answer… If prayer works then it should work… but as a youth I accepted the minister’s “knowledge” about these matters. As I grew up though, I looked around the world and saw that the same thing was happening in all religions. Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, it didn’t matter. All prayed for their sick brethren and some died, some got better and some were long suffering. If one of the religions had the correct, true God, it wasn’t apparent. In fact, it appeared more likely that they were all wrong. They had either (A) made up a god who didn’t really exist, or (B) were doing the worship and rituals in the wrong manner because they weren’t working. Based on the evidence I saw around me in the world, how was I to pick the correct god in conjunction with the correct rituals? Statistically, they all looked the same. No matter which religion, which sect of a given religion, there were some adherents who were rich/poor, healthy/sick, happy/sad, died young/lived long, suffered catastrophes/lived uneventful lives, were saintly/were criminal. Nowhere did I see evidence of a god much less a specific god and certainly not the Abrahamic God I learned about in my American Protestant upbringing.

    Eat well, stay fit, Die Anyway

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      1. Responding to this sentence: “Similarly, God cannot force free creatures to do his will.”

        God “hardens the heart” of the pharaoh in Exodus, causing him to reverse his decision to let the enslaved Israelites go free. Twice. Also in Exodus, God rains down plagues on the Egyptians until they agree to free the slaves. This isn’t direct mental force, but overwhelming physical force to make the Egyptians do what He wants. If the events in the bible are true, God certainly does force free creatures to do his will.

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          1. Welp, I don’t have the personal authority to argue if the “hardened heart” was idiomatic or not. So I’ll concede that point simply because it doesn’t address the plagues.

            It’s pretty common knowledge that if you hold a gun to someones head and demand they do something, and they do it, you are the one responsible for their actions even though technically they freely made a choice. The Egyptians let the slaves go, not because of their own free will, but because God kept killing them. I don’t think that is open to idiomatic interpretation.

            To take another example, hell. If God tells you “you have free will. Do as I say, or I will cast you into the pit of fire for eternity,” you don’t exactly have much of a choice. Even if hell isn’t literally fire and brimstone, but mere separation from God or something, it is still supposed to be an overwhelmingly terrible punishment for wrong-doing.

            Granted, we have prisons for people who commit crimes in the mortal world. But we do not pretend that the government or the legal system wants to give everyone completely free will. Some things we want to force people not to do, like murder. God, if he truly doesn’t wish to infringe on our free will, can’t also hold the stick that is hell (or by the same token, the carrot that is heaven).

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          2. Just to tie in my previous comment with the problem of evil, God has demonstrated that he will intervene in human affairs. Prayer is another example, if prayer worked. Why, then, can’t he intervene to prevent evil? He directly freed slaves in Exodus, yet didn’t bother before the Civil War. He saved Daniel from lions, and yet people are attacked and eaten by wild animals all the time. In Daniel 5, he literally reaches down and writes on the wall of Belshazzar’s banquet hall, chastising him, and yet we never see that sort of direct involvement in modern times.

            God in the bible didn’t just snap his fingers and banish evil forever, he was an active participant in protecting his chosen ones and demonstrating his power. To me, this is the heart of the problem of evil. It isn’t simply that people are upset that God apparently allows atrocities to happen, although that’s part of it. It’s that we’d expect God to intervene, to do something, but we don’t see it. Because that expectation isn’t filled, the most reasonable thing to conclude is that that God doesn’t exist.

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        1. Kw,

          Regarding Pharaoh, the record says that Pharaoh “hardened” his own heart numerous times before God ratified Pharaoh’s own choice with divine hardening that simply gave him more of what he had already chosen. The irony of the point that you attempt to make is that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was a hardening AGAINST releasing the jews from slavery, yet you say God actually forced him to let them go. So which is it? Did God harden his heart against releasing them, or did God use the plagues to force Pharaoh to release them? It cannot be both, can it? To put it simply, God did not harden Pharaoh into a choice that he did not want. God simply hardened the heart of someone already guilty of repeated resistance to a divine command to the point that he would not escape suffering the consequences dictated by his obstinate behavior.

          Regarding evil, God did not act against Pharaoh and for the Jewish slaves as a raw divine action against evil. This was not simply a show of divine justice. Israel, being God’s chosen people, figured prominently in the divine historical plan for the redemption of mankind, and it was at this juncture in their existence that God moved them toward that ultimate purpose, and that move entailed taking them from bondage in Egypt to another place. Had they not figured so importantly in His plans, they might still be there today (or they may have never been there in the first place (see multiple steps in their history leading up to their slavery in Egypt – the birth of Isaac to very elderly parents, the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers, etc.). The action of God in seeing that the Jews were released from slavery in Egypt was not the work of God, the moral crusader, but rather the work of God the redeemer, pushing his plan to the next step.

          Prayer does work in that it does what it is supposed to do. It places before God in a volitional and active way the concerns of the people that He has redeemed, but leaves the ultimate answer to those prayers up to the wisdom of God. Prayer is not the handle on a divine vending machine that you pull to get what you have specified once you insert the proper words. God does not use prayer as a way for people to “check Him out” and see if He really is out there somewhere. He has already attested Himself as being “out there” more than adequately by things such as the meticulous creation that surrounds everyone of us, and even injecting into human history via the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as proof. not only of His existence, but His endorsement of Christianity as the conveyor of His direct revelation to mankind.

          Regardless of how much evil there is in the world, evil itself cannot trump the reality of a creation teeming life, and the historical fact of Christ’s bodily resurrection as God’s real activity in the time and space occupied by mankind. The continued presence of evil in the world may leave one puzzled as to what a good God’s intentions might be, but it cannot change history or explain away creation and the life contained therein. These things stand as undeniable testimonies to the reality of God. In truth, the presence of evil can only raise a question concerning God’s goodness, not His existence. It provides no sanctuary to any self-proclaimed atheists (there-is-no-God ists)

          JMG

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          1. “So which is it? Did God harden his heart against releasing them, or did God use the plagues to force Pharaoh to release them? It cannot be both, can it?”

            Sure it can. It’s just a pretty awful thing for a divine being to do. But I’ll concede that it wasn’t God who hardened the pharaoh’s heart. The plagues still present a case of God directly intervening in human affairs, violating the Pharaoh’s free will to keep the Israelites enslaved by threatening and carrying out force. You may argue that the plagues were a consequence, not force, that Pharaoh still freely chose one way or the other. Refer to our other conversation about force. If the consequences of one action versus another are overwhelmingly bad, you cannot say you could freely choose.

            Re: Prayer. Every study on prayer has shown that the outcomes prayed for are no more or less likely to happen then would be expected through chance derived from a purely naturalistic world. That’s how I can say prayer does not work. Maybe God’s will is that everything happens according to natural processes only. If so, then many theists would be profoundly disappointed.

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          2. ” This was not simply a show of divine justice. Israel, being God’s chosen people, figured prominently in the divine historical plan for the redemption of mankind, and it was at this juncture in their existence that God moved them toward that ultimate purpose, and that move entailed taking them from bondage in Egypt to another place. Had they not figured so importantly in His plans, they might still be there today (or they may have never been there in the first place (see multiple steps in their history leading up to their slavery in Egypt – the birth of Isaac to very elderly parents, the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers, etc.).”

            But in carrying out this divine plan that involved the movement of an entire group of people never once violated anyone’s free will… Sorry, but the biblical God doesn’t seem particularly interested in letting people choose their own fate, at least when there’s a plan to accomplish. And I mention this only to go back to the refutation of the problem of evil, namely that God can’t prevent evil without violating human free will. Couldn’t God craft a divine plan that didn’t include so much suffering? Especially since we wouldn’t even exist to suffer without him?

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      2. “To take another example, hell. If God tells you “you have free will. Do as I say, or I will cast you into the pit of fire for eternity,” you don’t exactly have much of a choice.”

        You most certainly do, and the world is filled with people who choose to ignore the warning and face the consequences every day based upon their possession of a free will to do so.

        From what I read in some of your other posts, you seem to confuse complete free will with an absence of consequences for the choices you might make with that free will. The two are not the same and should not be confused. The other issue that comes into play is that our will is not totally free, but rather it is inclined to choose in opposition to God because of the fall in Eden.

        JMG

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        1. “You most certainly do, and the world is filled with people who choose to ignore the warning and face the consequences every day based upon their possession of a free will to do so.”

          Again, I have to go back to the example of holding a gun to someone’s head. In this case, we don’t see the gun, and the gun doesn’t go off the moment you make a false step. The appearance of free will comes from our ignorance.

          If this is not a violation of free will, then why can’t God use the threat of consequences to prevent evil? Keep in mind only a fraction of the world’s population actually believes in the Christian hell. God would have to be more explicit in his involvement and his laws so that people wouldn’t be ignorant of his existence or the consequences, and it would be in his interest as a good being to do so. And now we’re back to the problem of evil again.

          If such a being wishes to protect our free will and prevent evil (as is his nature), either there is a means of doing both or the threat of hell (and any other intervention) is a violation of His desire to preserve free will. Either way, the refutation doesn’t succeed.

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          1. “Again, I have to go back to the example of holding a gun to someone’s head. In this case, we don’t see the gun, and the gun doesn’t go off the moment you make a false step. The appearance of free will comes from our ignorance.”

            Again, you are equating the fact that there are consequences for certain choices with an inability to make those choices. What you are attempting to define as “free will” is not “free will” at all, but the equality of all choices. So, in order for there to be “free will” in your mind, God must see to it that all your choices are good ones, not by making them for you, but by making sure that there are no bad consequences for any of them. If that is your definition of “free will”, then what you have done is to redefine the term to your liking and then fault God for not making it to be so. God never promises any sort of thing like that, so you are mistaken to try to hold Him to what He never promised.

            It seems that you are quite offended that God would warn anyone of consequences for their actions (or for their inherent status for that matter). He is “cramping” their “free will” style, yes? So, you would consider God to be more considerate to mankind if He instead kept the unpleasant consequences for sinful choices a secret until its too late for them to do anything about it? It sounds like that is exactly what you are asking for, but, as I’m sure you can imagine,I have a hard time believing that that is what you really want.

            JMG

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          2. “But in carrying out this divine plan that involved the movement of an entire group of people never once violated anyone’s free will… ”

            You are missing a distinction that needs to be made here. God has never made a promise to avoid violating anyone’s free will when it comes to temporal matters.

            He does it all the time, and you have given plenty of examples of that. But even there, He does not make the choice for them, but only indicates that one course has good consequences that will follow and the other has the opposite. You mention in one of your comments that the reason so many people chose in opposition to what God has specified as “good” is that they don’t believe due to their ignorance of His existence and His specifications. Yet, what of the very people we have been talking about in the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Are you not aware that many of them (who had seen all the plagues, crossed the Red Sea and witnessed many other multiple divine evidences on their trek), ended up falling in the wilderness due to disobedience to God’s instructions. You cannot claim ignorance on their part. Yet, they disobeyed anyway. Sounds like your loaded gun is not so despotic when people decide they will do want they want regardless of the consequences. not because they are unaware that there are any. In our day, you can look at smokers. No rational person can claim that there are no serious health risks involved with the act of smoking. Yet, millions willingly make the free choice to smoke DESPITE THE FACT that they know there are deadly consequences involved with smoking. Ignorance is NOT the reason they do what they do. “Free will” is.

            In contrast, it is when it comes to matters of eternal destiny (and on those matters only), that God does not violate man’s free will (although you might get some arguments from the reformed camp on this point). If that distinction is observed, your “no free will” argument is really a “no basis” argument.

            JMG

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      3. WK, I think maybe you misunderstood my point because I used the prayer example with regard to illness. Rather, I can not find any attribute in the real world that allows me to determine which god is real and therefor deserving of my worship/belief. I did go read your linked article about the problem of evil but it starts off begging the question. You immediately assume attributes of God such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omni-benevolence but that hasn’t been determined yet. This goes to my parenthetical statement in my original post about defining god(s). Maybe the gods are similar to the ones on Mount Olympus…barely more powerful than mortals with quirks and foibles similar to ours but exaggerated. Maybe there are multiple gods, each with their own sphere of influence. Or maybe a lot like Abraham’s god as described in the Old Testament…very powerful but not completely omnipotent nor omniscient. The thing is that as I look for evidence of which of these (or some other set of attributes) is true, I find nothing that will help me determine the answer. More to the point, everything seems to indicate that the world operates without divine guidance. You mention the “problem of evil” so let’s go there for a moment. I normally wouldn’t use the word evil due to its religious connotations. I might use tragedy or catastrophe or even unfortunate event but for our purposes here I think we are talking about very similar occurrences. A mud slide wipes out a village, a tsunami kills tens of thousands, a child runs into the street and is hit. Did God make this happen (or allow it to happen) as part of his benevolent plan which we are too dumb to understand, or is there no God and these are just normal, somewhat random events? I can’t tell the difference and I submit that you can’t either. There is another option, which I’m sure you’ve heard, and that is that there is a God but she’s a mean, nasty witch who doesn’t want to be worshipped but created us just to torment us. Again, I can’t tell the difference but without evidence to the contrary, I’m going with no God, random natural events.

        Eat well, stay fit, Die Anyway

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  6. Since there are other comment chains dedicated to arguments against theism, I thought I might try starting a chain dedicated to arguments for atheism, one where the atheists are on the defensive. It isn’t fair to only have one side justifying their beliefs, right?

    I happen to hold a particularly strong stance as a naturalist. In other words, I don’t believe there exists any supernatural thing; no gods, spirits, souls, psychics, mystics, afterlife, etc, nothing beyond the matter and energy we observe (or can observe, or can observe the effects of). I believe this simply because there has been a pattern of failing to demonstrate the existence of a supernatural entity, and I don’t think someone should simply believe something without a good reason, especially if it goes against previous experience or knowledge.

    So yeah, if you want to get a naturalist’s perspective on things like origins or morality, or how I “know” no supernatural things exist, ask away! If the “problem of evil” is designed to poke holes in the theory of god as omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent, then there are probably similar things to poke holes at the theory that matter and energy are all that is in this world.

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    1. Let me guess…the evidence you accept is all of a scientific nature. Well, one wouldn’t expect to find anything supernatural with a method that is designed to only detect natural phenomena. Science is limited to the study of the natural world. It can’t detect anything supernatural, by definition.

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      1. I disagree with that. I think science can discover effects that exceed the capabilities of natural mechanisms, e.g. – origin of the universe, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, galactic habitability, stellar habitability, blah blah and on and on.

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        1. Yes, science can detect the EFFECTS of supernatural causes. But it cannot detect the supernatural causes themselves. You can’t see God under a microscope or through a telescope. We can reason that a supernatural cause must exist by studying its effects in the natural world. But science doesn’t detect the supernatural directly.

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          1. I fail to see how this point bolsters your argument, since what you say about God and science’s inability to detect supernatural causes directly is also true of some natural causes. Scientists are highly confident that there exists in the universe both a form of matter and an energy source (dark matter and dark energy) that can’t be detected directly. But we know of the existence indirectly, even though we don’t yet know exactly what they are, by their effects on the universe. We know of dark matter because of its effects on the motion of stars in the outermost parts of galaxies. We know of dark energy because of the fact that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating. God as an explanation for any observable phenomena, the motion of stars in galaxies and the expansion of the universe is simply superfluous.

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      2. “It can’t detect anything supernatural, by definition.”

        If science can’t detect the supernatural, then humans can’t either. If humans can’t detect the supernatural, how do we know it exists?

        Science isn’t special. All you need to do is be able to observe the effects of something, model why those effects happen, and explore the ramifications of that model. If you can see it, smell it, taste it, feel it, hear it, or experience it, you can observe it in a scientific way.

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  7. When people tell me they “just lack a belief in God” I tell them I just “Lack a belief in an uncreated universe” then i ask which one of our lack of beliefs has the most evidence to support it. I find that this helps get around the atheist claim that he dose not need to provide evidence for his veiw.

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    1. So, you form your views based on evidence of the universe coming into being. Some people aren’t like that. Some people choose the actions they want, and then by force of will, they simply “lack” the beliefs that will cause them to feel guilty about those actions.

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      1. Wintery Knight, lacking belief in a deity and having sociopathic tendencies are not interchangeable. Think of child-abusing clerics, if you will. This is not a thought experiment; there was one in my own past (I was lucky that people were onto him).

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          1. I can guarantee you that those child-abusing clerics knew God would forgive them if they felt bad enough.

            See, I can be snide too. How about we stop implying atheists are just hedonists who deny god so they can feel good and sin more, hmm? You’ve got literal atheists here telling you why they believe the way they do, and it has nothing to do with trying to avoid feeling guilty.

            I’ve tried to be polite here, I’d expect you all to do the same.

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    2. Here’s the problem with the framing. There is a question: “How did the universe originate?” Was there a natural origin? Was there a god or some other being that created it?

      Science has gone a long way to exploring the natural origins of the universe. It did not start from a conclusion and work backwards, it made observations. “There is background radiation, there is light shift in star light, this implies the universe came from a point at some point in the past, etc.” This is what scientists do. If there were evidence of a created universe, then scientists would believe in a creator.

      The theist has started with a known conclusion. “God created the universe.” The theist has to reconcile observations about the world with this conclusion, leading some to outright deny the observations scientists have made.

      So all this nonsense about “lack of belief” or “lack of lack of belief” is just linguistic tricks. The question we are all trying to answer is “what is the nature of the universe.” If you have a theory for an aspect of the universe, it is on you to demonstrate it. The people who came up with the big bang model needed to demonstrate that that model worked. The people who came up with quantum physics needed to demonstrate that their model was accurate. Theists need to demonstrate that their model of God is accurate. The “atheist” label simply labels those people who don’t believe in the God model.

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      1. Kw,

        “If you have a theory for an aspect of the universe, it is on you to demonstrate it.”

        I’d be very interested to hear your suggestion for a demonstrable, naturalist answer for how non-living material became living? As a committed naturalist, I assume you hold some theory about this and can readily demonstrate how you understand it to have happened. As you say, “Its on you to demonstrate it” or at the very least to admit that no plausible naturalistic theory exists.

        I really don’t need to ask the question of where did the universe come from to imply a creator, all I need to ask is what is the origin of LIVING things. The problem naturalists have in answering this question is, of course, once they suggest an answer, they must then demonstrate the validity of their theory, and, to date, they invariably tend to shy away from any real answer (unless you want to suggest the very “scientific” idea of the seeding of life on planet earth from alien visitors) precisely because they know in advance that anything they may suggest will fail its lab test.

        JMG

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        1. I am not speaking for KW, but I do have an answer to offer. The answer is that at the present time science does not have enough data or evidence to settle on an explanation, although several different possible ones have been offered and are areas of current research.

          But this is not a weakness of science and it is not a weakness in the scientific, non-theistic, explanations of the universe. Not having an answer at the moment does not mean that there is no answer to be had. We certainly don’t assume the answer as you are doing with your belief that God originated life.

          Furthermore, science’s inability to answer this question at the present does not invalidate the answers science has determined to other questions, such as the origin of the universe. And those answers provide a sufficient and reasonable basis for assuming that whatever the answer is to how life originated, it most likely did not require a supernatural agent to initiate the process.

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          1. Dog,

            So what you are saying is that science is quite sure that there is no supernatural explanation for the origin of life, but it simply does not know what that alternative explanation is. Therefore, according to your comment, science has reached a certain conclusion based on unproven and unrepeatable theories. And I would agree, what you have here is belief based on nothing but sheer willpower. This is not the classic definition of science at all. Science is supposed to be based on postulations that are confirmed by observable, repeatable testing. Instead what you have said here is that this area of science (one that is unsatisfied with attempting to determine the properties of what does exist, but is instead focused on why those things are and where they have come from), is based on little more than wishful thinking. Again that is not science.

            Truly remarkable is the just how oblivious those who attempt to champion such thinking are in regards to its sheer lack of credibility. Even though the full weight of scientific knowledge combined with any amount of human oversight that might be suggested fails to produce life from non-life, yet we are asked to believe that the whole thing happened on the basis of little more than a fortunate accident, even though we cannot with all the resources at our disposal recreate that accident, and even more because we don’t even know what that accident was. Preposterous!

            Further, since science “doesn’t know for sure” how life originated, then science cannot dismiss a supernatural origin for it, and even more is at present (and this has ALWAYS been so, not just “currently”) unable to explain something that by its own observational findings (living things do not arise from non-living ones) and, therefore, it should reject its own wishful thinking on that scientific basis alone. What you describe here is a “science” that is basically schizophrenic: pounding the table for naturalism on one hand, while contradicting naturalism on the other. These two parallel but opposing positions do not intersect despite the desires of some who persist in wishing otherwise.

            The best explanations for anything are those that conform to what has been observed (not necessarily by you and I, but by someone) and also those that most adequately answer the largest number of open questions.

            What I always find most interesting is that those who attempt to approach everything in a scientific or shall we say forensic manner are usually loathe to examine history in which we have events that took place within human experience, events for which we have the benefit of human observation and reporting. If there is a point in history in which a supernatural entity has made its existence known (and there is), then those unprovable groping postulations of a wishful science attempting to dismiss that entity are what are truly superfluous.

            Give me a million scientific “proofs” that say George Washington never existed, and on the basis of history and the historical record, I can confidently say “bunk” to each and every one of them.

            JMG

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