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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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Is atheism a belief?

No.

I really wish I could just leave it at that. Maybe post a funny story about Einstein instead, or show you some cute pictures of our cats.

But I suppose I can't just leave it at that.

Here's the thing. One of the most common accusations aimed at atheists is that atheism is an article of faith, a belief just like religion. Because atheism can't be proven with absolute 100-percent certainty, the accusation goes, therefore not believing in God means taking a leap of faith -- a leap of faith that's every bit as irrational and unjustified as religion.

It's a little odd to have this accusation hurled in such an accusatory manner by people who supposedly respect and value faith. But that's a puzzle for another time. Today, I want to talk about a different puzzle -- the puzzle of what atheism really is, and how it gets so misunderstood.

Let's start with this right off the bat: No, atheism is not a belief. For me, and for the overwhelming majority of atheists I know, atheism is not the a priori assumption that there is no God. Our atheism is not an article of faith, adhered to regardless of what evidence does or does not support it. Our atheism is not the absolute, 100 percent, unshakable certainty that there is no God.

For me, and for the overwhelming majority of atheists I know, our atheism is a provisional conclusion, based on careful reasoning and on the best available evidence we have. Our atheism is the conclusion that the God hypothesis is unsupported by any good evidence, and that unless we see better evidence, we're going to assume that God does not exist. If we see better evidence, we'll change our minds.

Look at it this way. Are you 100-percent certain that there are no unicorns? Are you 100-percent certain that the Earth is round? I assume the answer is a pretty heartfelt, "No." I assume you accept that it's hypothetically possible, however improbable, that unicorns really exist and that all physical traces of them have disappeared by magic. I assume you accept that it's hypothetically possible, however improbable, that the Earth really is a flat disc carried on the back of a giant turtle, and that all evidence to the contrary has been planted in our brains by hyper-intelligent space aliens as some sort of cosmic prank.

Does that mean your conclusions -- the "no unicorns/ round Earth" conclusions -- are articles of faith?

No. Of course not.

Your conclusion that there are no unicorns on this round Earth of ours is based on careful reasoning and the best available evidence you have. If you saw better evidence -- if there were a discovery of unicorns on a remote island of Madagascar, if you saw an article in the Times about an astonishing but well-substantiated archeological find of unicorn fossils -- you'd change your mind.

And that's the deal with atheism. If atheism is a belief, then any conclusion we can't be 100-percent certain of is a belief. And that's not a very useful definition of the word "belief." With the exception of certain mathematical and logic conclusions (along the lines of "if A and B are true, then C is true"), we don't know anything with 100-percent certainty. But we can still make reasonable conclusions about what is and is not likely to be true. We can still sift through our ideas, and test them, and make reasonable conclusions about how likely or unlikely they are. And those conclusions are not beliefs. If that's how you're defining belief, then just about everything we know is a belief.

 
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