Three Popular Atheist Arguments: Part 1

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The Presumption of Atheism

These arguments or objections to God are all associated with high profile atheists. They are also very popular among atheists and frequently crop up in discussions about God. Often though, they are not presented as arguments, but are simply presupposed by atheists and frequently asserted as though they were obvious truths. They are also related to each other, so part of the purpose of these articles is to disentangle them, as well as respond to them.

The first is the presumption of atheism, which is associated with the late Antony Flew; the second is not so much an argument, but the claim that there is insufficient evidence for God, which is associated with the late Bertrand Russell; the third is the improbability argument (or ultimate Boeing 747 argument) of Richard Dawkins.

According to Flew’s famous statement of the presumption of atheism:

“Until or unless [good grounds] are produced we have literally no reason at all for believing; and in that situation the only reasonable posture must be that of either the negative atheist or the agnostic.”[1]

His comment here suggests that perhaps it should really be a presumption of agnosticism, but what exactly is the difference between atheism and agnosticism? The obvious answer is that an atheist believes that there is no God, while an agnostic is undecided. In reality, however, there is a spectrum of views. Richard Dawkins helpfully describes this in the God Delusion in terms of a spectrum of belief ranging from the strong theist, who is certain God does exist, at one on the scale to the strong atheist, who is certain God doesn’t exist, at seven on the scale, while the completely impartial agnostic, who is at four, considers God’s existence and non-existence to be equally likely. Dawkins puts himself at six, although leaning towards a seven. So, if the term ‘agnostic’ applies to anyone who is not completely certain, then Dawkins would be an agnostic. However, for all practical purposes he can be considered an atheist.

Why is this relevant? A reasonable way to make sense of the presumption of agnosticism would be to say that in the absence of any evidence for God you should be neutral, i.e. at point four on Dawkins’ scale. By contrast, the presumption of atheism would then be the claim that in the absence of any evidence for God you should take on a value greater than four on the scale, i.e. leaning towards atheism. Another way to put this is to say that according to the presumption of atheism, there is a greater burden of proof on the theist to make a case for God than for the atheist to make a case against God. By contrast, the presumption of agnosticism would place an equal burden on both the theist and the atheist.

Put in these terms, it is clear that Flew did indeed have the presumption of atheism in mind, and this is the view that atheists often appeal to. But should it be accepted? Before addressing this question, it is worth noting that many theists do in fact accept the presumption of atheism, but then go on to argue that belief in God is more reasonable on the basis of the evidence. Whether there is enough evidence will be the subject of the next article. Interestingly, however, this seems to be the conclusion that Flew himself came to. He did not reject the presumption of atheism, but concluded that there was sufficient evidence to reject atheism.

With that aside, let’s now think about whether the presumption of atheism should be accepted. In the absence of evidence one way or the other, is atheism more reasonable than theism? That certainly isn’t obvious. Appealing to some scenarios it appears to be obvious, however. For example, atheists often like to point out that in the absence of evidence for Santa Claus, disbelief is the most reasonable position. This case suggests that the presumption of atheism does make sense. But consider alternatively the claim that ‘life exists elsewhere in the Universe’. In the absence of evidence one way or the other, it seems more reasonable to be agnostic rather than to disbelieve this claim. So this case suggests that the presumption of atheism isn’t so plausible.

The upshot of this discussion is that whether disbelief rather than neutrality is the appropriate response to absence of evidence depends on the context. So, it can’t simply be assumed that disbelief is more reasonable than agnosticism in the absence of evidence for God. Or to put it another way, there can be no presumption of the presumption of atheism. An argument is needed to show that this is the most reasonable viewpoint.

This already weakens the appeal of the presumption of atheism. If it were simply an obvious truth, that would provide a straightforward advantage to atheism in any discussion about God before evidence and arguments are considered. But if an argument is needed for the presumption of atheism, then it can’t simply be assumed from the outset without begging the question.

What sort of argument would be needed? That depends on what makes disbelief more reasonable than neutrality in some cases, e.g. Santa Claus, and not so reasonable in other cases, e.g. ‘life exists elsewhere in the Universe’. Why does neutrality not make more sense in the first case? As the philosopher Peter van Inwagen has pointed out,[2] the reason adults disbelieve in Santa Claus is not simply that there is no evidence for his existence, but that there is evidence against his existence. He writes

“If you want to collect a small part of the inconceivably vast body of relevant evidence in your own person, you have only to stay awake by the Christmas tree all through Christmas Eve and Christmas morning or collect testimony from parents about the source of the presents under the tree”.

So this isn’t a scenario where there is no evidence either way. (Why did anyone ever think this was a good example to motivate the presumption of atheism?) In the case of God, the atheist may well believe that there is evidence against God’s existence, but that needs to be argued for rather than smuggled into the presumption of atheism.

By contrast, the claim that ‘life exists elsewhere in the Universe’ does seem like a much more plausible candidate since it is easy to conceive that there might be no evidence either way and in that case neutrality rather than disbelief seems more appropriate. This might be used to motivate a presumption of agnosticism in the sense spelled out earlier, but not a presumption of atheism. This means that there is no special burden of proof on the theist. Both the theist and atheist need to make their respective cases on a level playing field.

The related objection that there is insufficient evidence to believe in God will be considered in the next article.[3]


[1] Antony Flew, The Presumption of Atheism (London: Pemberton, 1976), p. 22.

[3] For a more detailed article on the presumption of atheism, which looks at it from an explanatory point of view, see my ‘Probability and the Presumption of Atheism’.

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