Why a Failure to Defend Theism Does Not Support Atheism

Surely this should seem to be a rather simple matter regarding the fundamentals of argument. Consider the following dialogue:

Person A: Are you suggesting that God does exist?
Person B: Yes I am. God contains explanatory power that best fits not only why humans, morality, beauty and consciousness exists, to name a few examples, but why anything exists at all. I would say that it is reasonable to believe that God exists.
A: Perhaps you could clarify, but it seems as if you are begging the question here. If God contains explanatory power, then what criterion of explanation are you applying to justify your claim? Surely we could not apply an arbitrary principle of explanation that only applies to God and nothing else within our experience.
B: I suppose that I don’t know how He does. I believe that He interacts with creation and have only gone from there.
A: May I thence suppose that your lack of support for your position shows that my position is tenable? Given that we are unsure how God contains explanatory power, might we suppose that my position is now able to be supported within our own natural experience?

In regards to our mock dialogue above, we appear to have two opponents debating on the issue about the existence of God with respect to Person B‘s (theist) argument. Person A (atheist) with his position of disbelief in the existence of God, remains unconvinced by the theist’s argument. He therefore at the end of their exchange declares that the theist’s failure to support his position allows him to resurrect confidence in his disbelief – in other words, perhaps even support it. In this post, I hope to deal with the mistake of the atheist’s position.

Understanding Knowledge

In respect to warrant’s for claims, I wish to distinguish rather briefly the difference between “knowing” and “believing”. Surely, in regards to the former, when discussing some mathematical proof about two plus two equaling four, or all right triangles having a 90 degree angle, especially some empirical proof, it is often appropriate to say that “I know” in contrast to “I believe” two plus two equals four. The distinction between the two is in regards to the epistemic levels of certainty in light of the provided and consistent evidence of some mathematical or empirical proposition – which is more so in the case of “knowing”. Whereas believing might be a display of someone’s psychological subjectivity on some issue, or trusting that your teacher or text book’s authority is trust worthy on the information you are gathering.

However, and interestingly, some might be surprised to acknowledge that most of the knowledge that they do have or gain is from instances of authority. We trust our teachers, some book by an intelligent professor, our school textbooks, the testimony of others, and so on. For instance, though I have never been to Wyoming, and probably never plan to travel there in the future, I am confident that it is a place that exists in light of the consistent testimony and evidence available to me.

Some have asked as to whether or not we can “know” (in a certain sense) as to whether or not God exists – what has been called apodictic certainty (like Descartes’ certainty in the fact of his own existence) – or if we merely have “belief” (some preference or subjectivity on a given issue) in the existence of God. Though that matter is surely interesting and relevant to consider for a theist or Christian, in this post, I will not be dealing with them here, but rather have a focus on the discussion at hand regarding the atheist position and its warrant for holding the position that it does.

A Failure to Support a Position Provides Support for Another Position

To start, it is clear to say that a failure to provide arguments for theism does not constitute a support for atheism. In fact, in failing to affirm God’s existence, that failure does not show

  • (a) that God’s existence is disproved,
  • (b) God’s existence cannot be proved,
  • (c) that it is incorrect to think that God exists, and lastly
  • (d) that it is erroneous to believe that God exists.

As philosopher Mortimer J. Adler (himself an unbeliever) recognizes, “Failure to prove God’s existence concerns only the reasonableness of belief in God. Belief in God may be unreasonable without thereby being false” [1]. In other words, even if all the arguments for God’s existence fail, it still does not thereby follow that God does not exist. All that it shows is that in light of the inability to show arguments for the case of theism, we are not reasonable in holding our belief in God, though he may still exist.

In the same way against the atheist position. In order to hold a reasonable position in respect to the nonexistence of God, one must offer reasons in order to hold such a view. If a failure to do so is present, then the atheist position shows itself to be unreasonable and untenable of displaying reasons for considering it to be true.

This is why in regards to holding epistemic positions on some given proposition – especially when pertaining to the existence of God – one must offer reasons for holding it to be true. This is something some atheists tend to miss rather frequently [2].



  • [1] Mortimer J. Adler, How To Think About God (United States: 1980) p. 14
  • [2] see George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Promotheus Books: 1979) for more on this subject. This is a contention in his book.

9 responses to “Why a Failure to Defend Theism Does Not Support Atheism

  1. You are correct in stating that lack of evidence to support the proposition “God exists” does not predicate the conclusion “therefore, God does not exist.”

    This is a correct response to the anti-theist position. However many atheists today are not asserting the positive position that God does not exist. Rather, they are rejecting the theistic claim that God exists. This is a subtle but important distinction.

    • Hello Skepticole and thank you for your comment.

      There is a lot of discussion in regards to that definition of atheism as a “denial of a claim” rather than a claim in itself. Seemingly, philosopher Paul Edwards and even George H. Smith take the same position. The problem with it however, is that it does not qualify as atheism.

      If you are insisting that atheism is position that rejects the claims of another position, then why call yourself an atheist? Surely, it seems as if you are expressing your “psychological ignorance” on the issue of God’s existence – “I have no concept of God until he has been defined. According to theism, I contend that that God does not exist”.

      That particular definition hasn’t been around for long, and is seen erroneously throughout the early British freethinkers such as Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant in the 19th century. To dispute your point, I would say that atheism, by definition, is an affirmative claim.

      • I think I personally go with the atheist label because it arrives at a fairly similar conclusion. At the end of the day, I do not believe in God.

        It sounds like you are strictly defining “atheism” as what is commonly called strong, or positive atheism. Out of curiosity, what would you call the position I proposed, if not atheism?

  2. Same thing here… Personally, I consider myself a blank sheet of paper. As long as nobody proves me that there is reason enough to believe in one god or another, I will assume that there is no reason to do so. Yes, of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – but it is more than enough to ASSUME absence.

    • I do respect your position on the matter, but you seem to be drawing a matter of inconsistency in front of yourself. Firstly, you say that you are a “blank sheet of paper” but hold the position that it “is more than enough to assume absence.” Also, I do not consider your sheet of paper claim to be quite honest, since, epistemically, no one quite functions in that manner – especially on the issue of God’s existence. But, perhaps something could be distinguished.

      There is an epistemic and a metaphysical problem at hand. For example, let us say that there is a very complex mathematical equation before us that we just don’t quite know how to solve. Epistemically we might state our ignorance in regards to an answer to the equation, but metaphysically, an answer to the equation exists. In other words (and to summarize), our [epistemic] ignorance does not state a metaphysical truth-hood.

      At best I would say that your position would be more humble if you were to say “I simply withhold judgement on the issue”, to which then we could handle doubt. I do not agree that your position is tenable.

      • Oh, I do think we all work that way. Nobody(!) is born a christian. If you were born in Afghanistan, you would now probably be a devout muslim. As a baby, you were a blank sheet of paper, until someone told you, that you should be a christian. So I simply went back to that default point of view – and waited until someone could give a better argument for any religion instead of just forcing a random one onto an innocent child. Until then, the default simply applied: Why assume a god? Why assume a dozen gods? Why assume the christian god? Why assume the hindu gods?

        Christianity is not something that somehow comes “naturally”. It’s complicated and often doesn’t make sense. It has to be taught. It’s nowhere near the default point of view. Not believing in any specific god is.

        And, honestly, the chances for such a ridiculous god like the christian one are pretty slim. If you take a look back then you’ll see the handiwork of humans all over him: Man created god in his image, not the other way round.

  3. Atomic Mutant touches on a good point. However, I would word it differently. Atheism is the null hypothesis; Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or what have you are alternative hypotheses. It would be unintelligible to state that, for example, Christianity is the null hypothesis whilst all other religions and atheism are alternatives. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and every other religion in the history of man share something that atheism doesn’t share with them–namely belief.

    I quite like the clean slate analogy; it makes sense when you consider religion as a part of culture–which it is. From the time that we’re deemed fit to learn culture, we are enculturated; religion is part of this enculturation process. This is one point of agreement I have with Dawkins. On probability, it is likely true that if you’re born in India, you’ll be a Sikh or Hindu; if you’re born in Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh, you’ll likely be a Muslim. Likewise, if you’re born in the US or in Australia, you are likely to be Christian. These are the reasons the clean slate works because when viewed as a part of culture, religion is an integral part of enculturation.

    • My response would be the same to the both of you:

      This definition of atheism as “lack of belief” is not the historical definition of atheism. It wasn’t until the mid to late 19th century that a movement of “Free Thinkers” came to understand that fashion of atheism as “a lack of belief in the existence of God”. Atheists like George H. Smith (cited above) and Gordon Stein adhere to this definition in line with those early Free Thinkers (Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, Charles Watts, etc.) in order to show that the failure to demonstrate theism is the argument or defense for atheism (Smith, 17).

      This is clearly an attempt to abandon any intellectual responsibility to defend a position. For, even if I were to accept atheism as a “null hypothesis”, that would still be quite meaningless unless theism were there to make it a null hypothesis (side note, I am talking about general monotheism, not any particular religious theism). In other words, atheism presupposes theism. If that is the case, then atheism is a mere matter of psychological ignorance or subjectivity on some given issue (since, it asserts nothing). Atheists like Ernest Nagel (see Philosophical Concepts of Atheism, section VI, 1959) and Michael Martin (see The Impossibility of God, 2003) have taken this hard position in terms of the existence of God.

      In regards to your clean slate comment, I hope that you do not mean in the Lockean sense of the term. Locke had understood that man when he enters the world is born with an objective state of mind known as “clean slate”. This denies that any matter of knowledge is a priori, and thus was a consequence of his empiricism (which, is a person who believes that all knowledge is a posteriori) – which was an unbelievable injustice to the empiricist school of thought. You can see Thomas Nagel’s book “The View From Nowhere” where he addresses this sort of question on objective knowledge.

      • “This definition of atheism as “lack of belief” is not the historical definition of atheism.” This is a genetic fallacy.

        “This is clearly an attempt to abandon any intellectual responsibility to defend a position.” You’re familiar with my approach. This is definitely not true of me or of plenty of other atheists. Atheists defend their position. In accordance with Daniel Dennett, I want to highlight the use of the word “clearly” in this sentence. Words like clearly and surely actually imply that the idea being put forth isn’t so certain or clear.

        “Still be quite meaningless unless theism were there to make it a null hypothesis.” This goes back to the genetic fallacy you started with. Atheism encompasses something much broader than a negative position against theism. Atheism is the disbelief in gods. I maintain that this definition is harder to defend because it involves all forms of theism, deism, pantheism, etc. An atheist disbelieves in all of these things. While it is true that the historical definition was a stance against theism (particularly Greek forms of theism), it is not true of atheism in the modern day. Even if your appeal to atheism’s original definition wasn’t fallacious, it still wouldn’t help your case being that atheism comes from the Greek term ἄθεος; this term described people who didn’t believe in the Greek gods. As you know, this is long before Christianity.

        By clean slate, I am not implying Locke’s tabula rasa. I am speaking in terms of religion and more broadly of culture. It is usually the case that a child learns to believe by way of his/her culture. Islamic culture will lead a child down a Muslim path; Judaic culture will lead a child down a Jewish path. Ultimately, the reason atheism is the null hypothesis is due to agnosticism. If we don’t know about x or y god, how can we believe in x or y god? It follows that since we can’t believe, we don’t believe. I would maintain that knowledge of god(s)–whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or what have you–is aposteriori. You cannot argue that knowledge of any god is apriori; culture would have no say in what god one believes in if that were the case. Culture plays other roles and not just the role of enculturation. Negative aspects of culture can lead one down divergent paths. For instance, Hindu Untouchables weren’t permitted to practice Hinduism; this, in turn, led them to embrace other religions.

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