A friend of mine asked me about being an atheist recently, and I realized that I had written very little directly on that subject, especially in recent years. I typically just refer someone to what others have written on the subject. For instance, I found “Atheism: The Case Against God” by George H. Smith to be a fairly thorough explanation, and to be largely correct, although I haven’t read it since 1994, so I don’t know to what extent I might now have disagreements with that book.
I am a proponent of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. I am also fully convinced that it is inconsistent to be an Objectivist and be anything other than an atheist, but that is not actually an explanation for why I am an atheist. After all, maybe Objectivism is right on that one issue, and wrong on everything else, or vice-versa, or somewhere in between. So, in my mind, simply saying: “I am Objectivist, therefore I am atheist,” is not a satisfactory explanation to give to someone regarding why I am, specifically, an atheist. In this essay, I will explain why I am an atheist, but I will do so in the context of a related issue: Why I am not an agnostic.
For me, being an atheist rests on a logical principle that is known as “the onus of proof” principle. This is generally defined as something like: “He who asserts a claim has the burden of proof.” Every statement has a truth-value. That statement can be true, it can be false, or it can be “arbitrary”. A statement is “true” if there is evidence to establish that the statement is in accordance with reality. A statement is “false” if there is evidence to show that that the statement is not in accordance with reality. For instance, imagine that person A says: “All swans are white,” and then he shows person B ten white swans to prove it. However, person B then shows person A an eleventh swan that is black, thereby establishing that A’s statement is “false”. Or, Person A says: “All men are law-abiders,” and person A shows person B ten men who are obeying the law. But, person B then shows person A an eleventh man that is breaking the law, thereby showing person A’s statement to be “false”.
It is also possible to make a statement and offer no proof regarding that statement. Such a statement is neither “true” nor “false”, but “arbitrary”. For instance, person A says: “All swans are white,” and B asks for proof, and A says: “Prove that it isn’t so.” As far as B is concerned, A has made an “arbitrary” statement. In B’s mind, there is no evidence to establish it. Notice that unlike the example above, person A did not show ten white swans to prove his statement. He just “arbitrarily” asserted it.
Another example of an arbitrary statement would be if person A says: “Portland is a city in Oregon.” Person B then asks for proof, and A says: “Prove that it isn’t so.” As far as B is concerned, assuming that B didn’t already have any independent proof of this statement, this is an “arbitrary” statement. In B’s mind, there is no evidence to establish it. (In this case, it can be established that Portland is a city in Oregon, but the evidence simply hasn’t been presented to B.)
A more common example of an arbitrary statement will be something more mystical, along these lines: Person A says: “I was Julius Ceasar in a past life.” Person B then asks for proof, and person A says: “Prove that it isn’t so.” A has made an “arbitrary” statement. In B’s mind, there is no evidence to establish it.
So, if someone asserts: “There is a little gremlin standing on my shoulder, but he is invisible, and you cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell him, nor can you use any sort of logical reasoning or deduction to establish that he exists, now prove that it isn’t so,” then they have violated the onus of proof principle. Their statement is neither “true” nor “false”. It is merely “arbitrary”.
How should such an “arbitrary” statement by a person be dealt with by the listener? This question depends on what you think the purpose of knowledge is. I assert that human beings use their rational faculties –that they think- in order to maintain or enhance their individual lives. Knowledge, in general terms, is about grasping causal relationships between perceived entities in order to effectively use those things to maintain or enhance your own life. For instance, people study Biology and human anatomy so that they can understand how a particular entity, the human body, works, and how it interacts with things in its environment like viruses and bacteria. This enables them to develop means of curing disease, which maintains and enhances human life. Or, we study planetary motion, which gives us the ability to understand the nature of gravity, which, thanks to Isaac Newton, gave us the law of Universal Gravitation, which eventually, along with other knowledge, let us build rockets. This allowed us to launch weather satellites that we can use to predict hurricanes. Such technology gives us the ability to evacuate cities in the path of a hurricane, thereby saving countless human lives. One last example that isn’t from the natural sciences: We study man’s fundamental nature in order to understand and grasp certain general principles of action that will enhance or maintain his life. These general principles of action for maintaining one’s life are what Ayn Rand called “ethics” or “morality”.
If the purpose of knowledge is to allow human beings to understand laws of nature, i.e., causal relationships, then any assertion which is not backed up by proof or evidence is an attempt to get people to act on ideas that have no established connection to reality. Acting contrary to the facts in this way is typically not life-enhancing. It is more likely to lead to self-destruction. For instance, if I decided that I could flap my unaided arms and fly like a bird, then went to the roof of a building and jumped off, that will likely end badly for me. This is why it is important that all ideas, statements, and assertions be established in your own mind to be in accordance with reality before you act on them.
The onus of proof principle is the primary reason I self-describe as an “atheist”. When someone makes any statement, I expect proof, if I don’t already have it. Thus, if someone says: “There is a god,” I want proof, just like if someone said: “There is a little green man on Mars.” It just happens to be that within our culture, belief in some sort of god is so common that there is a word for what I am: “a-theist”. But, I am also “a-little-green-man-on-Mars”(ist). (If the majority of the human population were “atheist”, then there probably wouldn’t even be a word for it. That would just be considered “normal”.)
I once explained this “onus of proof” basis for being an atheist to someone who was generally a “secular humanist”, and he said that sounded like “agnosticism”. I must disagree. Let’s look at the definitions of “atheist” and “agnostic” found via a “define: atheist” and “define: agnostic” in Google’s search engine:
Atheist: a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.
Agnostic: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.
My interpretation of these two contrasting definitions is that agnosticism says: “I don’t know if there is a god or not, so I am not going to take a position one way or the other.” But, the truth-status of every assertion of fact matters, if you want to live. Imagine if this were done in some other area, such as if you worked at a construction site. If someone said: “There is a crane about to drop a ton of bricks on you,” the truth or falsity of this statement matters. If you look up and don’t see any crane or bricks, then you’re going to think: “This person is a liar. I am going to distance myself from him and not listen to him.” You might also investigate why he said that. Perhaps you will discover that you were standing on a hundred dollar bill you had dropped, and he wanted you to move so that he could get it without telling you the real reason. This says something about his character.
On the other hand, if you look up and see that there is a ton of bricks about to fall on you, then you will take action: you will get out of the way. (In that scenario, you’re more likely to take that person’s word for it, and jump out of the way. But, after the fact, if you see that he was lying, then, if you want to live, it will affect your opinion of him, and how you deal with him -or don’t deal with him- in the future. My point here is that the truth-status of his assertion matters to your life.)
Imagine what agnosticism would mean to your life in practice. Imagine that an advocate of Sharia Law came to an agnostic and said to her: “God says all women should wear a burka.” Is the agnostic going to think: “I don’t want to take a position on this, so I’ll cover my head half of the time, and not cover it the other half of the time,” or: “I will just cover half my head”? The agnostic can’t say: “Prove that there is a god, and until you do, I am going to disregard everything you say on this subject,” because that would be taking a position. If she does that, then she isn’t actually an agnostic in that situation. She is an atheist. Whether she wants to use the word “agnostic” to describe herself to others is a different issue, but in her mind the truth-status of the assertion matters to her, and she refuses to act on arbitrary assertions. She is an atheist, at least on that issue.
I suspect that there are several reasons why most secularists tend to want to self-describe as “agnostic” rather than “atheist”. “Atheist” is synonymous with “immoral” in our culture because most people believe that any sort of respect for the rights of others must necessarily rest in religious faith. (“Religion” and “morality” are synonymous in many people’s minds, although I don’t think that is correct, if morality means “principles of action necessary for living your life”.) Agnosticism also seems more “reasonable” or “middle of the road”, and our culture tends to promote “the golden mean” between two “extremes” as an ideal, but it is not actually more reasonable. Not if you care about living, because that is why we must adhere our minds to reality on all issues.