Ask An Atheist: Don’t you have to acknowledge God to deny God?

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By Jim Downard

How can you claim to have no belief in God and be an atheist? You have to acknowledge that there is a God to be able to deny the very God you claim doesn’t exist.

Well, it had to happen eventually, a genuinely silly question has come my way.  Prior ones have been thoughtful and legitimate.  This one isn’t.  But perhaps even more than the others, it deserves a proper reply.

The notion that professing to lack belief in something presupposes you had to believe in the existence of that to begin with (and moreover, that the object had to be real also) falls completely on its face.  Does being an atheist regarding Quetzalcoatl mean you really believed in the Feathered Serpent to begin with, or that the god had to be deemed real no matter what?  That people cannot ponder the existence of gods without their having to really buy into their being real?  We can’t evaluate Marduk or Thor without presuming them real too?  Does that apply to Bigfoot and Ogopogo and unicorns and trolls?

Buried in the question is a grand presupposition: that there is just the one “God” on the table (presumably the particular local faith the questioner accepts).  We know this argument is fallacious; that there are now and have been many different gods believed in by humans (mutually contradictory ones, in fact), and that whatever god the questioner embraces is merely one of that field.

Buried beneath that assumption, though, at least in the conventional Christian perspective, is another one: the notion that all people know in their hearts the true God, and so rejection of that must be willful disobedience and pique, a departure from the innate faith position.  So all the questioner is doing is reprising a doctrinal position, not offering a logical or empirical argument.

While this attitude may make the questioner feel more certain about their own beliefs, it is routinely counterfactual for the many atheists (including this one) who literally had no prior faith convictions, and have come to not embrace any of the available ones for reasons of close inspection, not some hypothesized backsliding from a hidden internal belief.

The majority of atheists were raised in religious faith, however, but again if you chose to ask them, their experiences trend along the line of coming to realize that the rote training of their upbringing didn’t ring true in the end, that what they took to be the unassailable doctrines failed to live up to the experience of their own lives or the study of their religion’s history and practice.  To attempt to flick away all that consideration as irrelevant, based on the circular presumption of the truth of the “God” that is being wondered about, is an argument that falls very flat indeed for atheists, who know better than anyone what’s going on in their own minds.

By all means grapple with the criteria for determining whether supernatural entities exist, and evaluate whether any of them can pass muster.  But this particular question is not one of them.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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