By Mathew Goldstein
John Loftus argues that "atheism therefore is not a belief ..." in a 7/22 post titled "Once Again, Atheism is Not a Belief Nor a Religion" on his blog Debunking Christianity. This is wrong. Atheism certainly can be, and often is, a belief. Also, implicit in this argument that atheism is not a belief, which is usually made by atheists on behalf of atheism, is a mistaken notion that having beliefs is bad. Belief is an essential means to an end and as such a belief can be wrong or right, justified or unjustified. However, belief as a phenomena has no intrinsic property of being bad or good.
Beliefs are the basis for our making our decisions. We plan for tomorrow because we believe that tomorrow will follow after today. Beliefs are a property of being human. Every educated adult has thousands of beliefs. We are arguably born with certain basic beliefs, a result of evolution giving us the means to navigate our world and survive to eventually become experienced, educated adults. We can't eliminate the phenomena of beliefs anymore than we can eliminate the phenomena of chemistry and physics.
Mr. Loftus appears to incorrectly equate beliefs with religion. I think it should be obvious that while religion is rooted in beliefs, many beliefs have nothing to do with religion. Mr. Loftus is correct when he says that atheism is not a religion. Indeed, modern atheism tends to have an anti-religion orientation. Serious followers of ancient philosophical Eastern religions that were initially atheistic have tended to add theistic beliefs to those traditions whereas today's atheists are probably going to be less likely to take such religious traditions seriously as having any special merit over more modern and competing philosophies that are better rooted in modern knowledge. But it doesn't follow that atheism is not a belief.
Atheists can, and do, believe that there are no gods. I don't think an insistence that everyone say we don't believe in gods and stop there is either realistic or proper, nor is doing that what atheism is all about. When the overall direction of evidence weighs in favor of a conclusion we shouldn't shy away from that conclusion just because by asserting a conclusion we are taking sides. There is nothing wrong with taking sides. Having a belief, as long as the belief is properly justified by the available evidence, is not a mistake, its not a problem. The mistake, in the context of holding beliefs, is not following the evidence, which is synonymous with having unjustified beliefs.
Having no belief where a belief is justified is thus also a mistake. The evidence always comes first, the belief is compelled from the evidence. We don't choose our properly justified beliefs. The evidence chooses our beliefs, all we can do is follow. If we find that the evidence is positively against X then it follows accordingly that we positively believe that X is false and we should say so. Refusing to take a position in the name of having no beliefs is not a way of upholding an ethical value. On the contrary, its the mirror image of the mistake of having a belief where no belief is warranted and is equally wrong.
People who don't take the disciplined approach of basing their beliefs in the overall evidence, people for whom adopting belief is a method of self-defining oneself, are going to be promiscuous in adopting beliefs. Anyone who embraces the notion that it is one of the highest virtues to rely on faith, and thus important to avoid being constrained by the evidence, is clearly taking a promiscuous approach to adopting beliefs. Taking such a promiscuous approach to adopting beliefs is a mistake simply because we have excellent reason to think beliefs not anchored in the evidence are most likely false. While it is true that we do define ourselves in part by our beliefs, it doesn't follow that we should adopt beliefs for the purpose of defining ourselves. On the contrary, it is a common, and big, mistake to adopt our true/false beliefs about how the world beyond ourselves functions for the self-centered, inward focused, purpose of self-definition.
We should be trying to hold our beliefs in proportion to the evidence, without bias, so that our belief is weaker where the evidence is ambiguous and our belief is stronger where the evidence is unequivocal. If we see no direction to the evidence with respect to answering a question then we should have no belief. Sometimes we need to make decisions, but the need to make decisions doesn't always correspond well with the availability of relevant evidence. So in those situations we may need to rely on intuition, on faith, and the like. Due to the misfortune of such necessity, we rely on intuition, as an inferior fall-back, to make decisions. As a practical matter, we are often operating with incomplete and/or ambiguous evidence. Also, the available evidence can be misleading. So some humility regarding what we know is called for. A common mis-perception is that atheism requires unwarranted certainty, when in fact atheism only requires that the overall weight and direction of the available evidence favor the conclusion that there are no gods.
It is common to refer to non-believing atheists as weak atheists and believing atheists as strong atheists. The terms weak and strong suggest a strength of conviction continuem, but this is more of an either one or also the other choice (believing atheists also don't believe there is a god, we just don't stop with that). I prefer the terms implicit atheist and explicit atheist. The non-believing atheist is an atheist implicitly while the believing atheist is an atheist explicitly. In practice, as demonstrated by Mr. Loftus's blog article, implicit and explicit atheists don't necessarily have any real disagreement about the overall direction of the evidence. Mr. Loftus actually states in his article that "the evidence is against that belief", he just isn't willing to acknowledge that when the evidence is actively against an assertion then we rationally believe the assertion is false, we don't normally or properly stop at merely refusing to believe the assertion, nor should we stop there.