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Is Atheism a Belief?

One of the most common accusations aimed at atheists is that atheism is an article of faith, a belief just like religion.

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Religious belief, on the other hand, is a belief. If you ask most religious believers, "What would convince you that your belief was mistaken? What would convince you that God does not exist?", they typically reply, " Nothing. I have faith in my God. Nothing would persuade me that he was not real. That's what it means to have faith." This isn't true of all believers -- some will say that their religious belief is based on evidence and reason and could be falsified -- but when you press them hard on what evidence would persuade them out of their belief, they get very slippery indeed. They keep moving the goalposts again and again, or they keep changing their definitions of God to the point where he's so abstract he essentially can't be disproven, or they make their standards of evidence so impossible that they're laughably absurd. ("Come up with an alternate explanation for the existence of every single physical particle in the universe. Everything -- down to the minutest sub-atomic particle known or surmised presently, to everything yet to be discovered in the future -- must be accounted for up-front each with its own individual explanation." I'm not kidding. Someone actually said that.) Their belief might be falsifiable in theory... but in practice, it's anything but. In practice, it's an a priori assumption, an axiom they start with and are not willing to let go of, no matter how much overwhelming evidence there is contradicting it, or how many logical pretzels their axiom forces them into.

And that's conspicuously not the case for atheism.

Now, a few atheists will contradict this. A few atheists do say, "Yes, I'm 100-percent persuaded that atheism is correct." But when you press them on it, they almost always acknowledge that yes, hypothetically, there might be some God hypothesis that's correct. Even if it's not a God hypothesis that anyone actually believes in, or even if it's only the most detached, deistic, non-interventionist, "for all practical purposes non-existent" God you can think of... when pressed, even the ardent "100-percenters" acknowledge that there's a minuscule, entirely hypothetical possibility that God exists. When they say they're 100 percent convinced of their atheism, they mean that they're 100 percent convinced for all practical purposes , given the best information they currently have.

And that's still a conclusion -- not a belief.

So is atheism a belief?

No.

*****

Once again, I dearly wish I could just end it there. Fill out the rest of this piece with some tirades against the religious right, or tell you an inappropriate and irrelevant anecdote about my sex life. (Or show you some more pictures of my cats. They're very cute. I promise you.)

But I'm afraid I can't.

Because we have a somewhat knottier question here, a question that muddies this issue and makes conversations about it a giant, slippery mess.

We have the question of what the word "belief" even means.

The word "belief" has multiple meanings. It can mean a basic tenet -- in other words, a doctrine or dogma -- especially in a religious context. But it can also simply mean an opinion or conviction: something thought to be true or not true. It can mean "trust or confidence" -- such as, "I believe in my marriage." And, of course, it can mean "deeply held core value, something that's considered to be fundamentally good" -- such as, "I believe in democracy."

That's true for a lot of words, of course. Plenty of words have multiple meanings; some even have meanings that are almost the opposite of each other. But because this particular word is so central to religion and the debates about it, it come with an inordinate amount of problematic baggage.

 
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