August 25, 2006

Response to My Free Thoughts: Proving a Negative

SH at My Free Thoughts recently posted a response to my previous post about reclaiming the meaning of atheism. Here I will examine the point on which we appear to disagree.

SH indicated that he was in agreement with me until I made the following statement:
"...if we make the mistake of defining atheism as the conviction that there are no gods (as many atheists do), we are now guilty of making the same type of truth claim as the theist, namely one for which we are able to offer no evidence. Besides, it is highly doubtful that proving the non-existence of something is logically possible."
SH disagrees with my claim that it is a mistake to define atheism as the conviction that there are no gods. Since this is going to be a fairly common source of disagreement among atheists, some elaboration may be useful.

SH makes the case that it is possible to prove a negative (i.e., to prove that something does not exist). As long as we limit this to the idea of showing that something is logically impossible such as the example SH offers of parallel lines with a shared point, I must agree. A common example I've encountered in philosophical texts is the notion of a square circle. Since the meaning of "square" and "circle" contradict each other, we can say that the existence of a square circle is logically impossible and thus cannot exist by definition.

If we follow this line of reasoning, we can argue (as many have) that the concept of god offered by Christians is logically impossible. If we can show that the god concept is logically impossible, we can safely conclude that god does not exist because god cannot exist. This is exactly where SH wants to take us.

I agree. The concept of god, at least as offered by Christians, is logically impossible, and that this is sufficient to conclude that no entity with the properties they claim can exist. At the same time, I don't want to make the unnecessary assumption that all atheists must agree with this in order to be counted as atheists.

My test of atheism is quite simple and has among its advantages that of parsimony. An individual is asked, "Do you believe in any sort of god or gods?" If the answer is anything other than an unqualified "yes," this person is an atheist. People abandon theism for many different reasons. Some will hang their hat on the logically impossibility of religious doctrine; others will focus on the consequences of belief. The definition I have advocated includes all those who SH refers to as "positive (or strong)" atheists, but it also includes those who do not belief the theistic claim for a variety of other reasons. Thus, I suggest that the assertion that god does not or cannot exist is sufficient but not necessary to be counted as an atheist. All that is necessary is the lack of belief in the theistic truth claim.

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