Atheism is the default belief?

A popular claim I’ve heard touted by many atheists is that atheism (or lack of belief in any gods) is the default position for humanity. When we’re born, we lack any belief in gods or God. As we grow older we must come to that belief and grow into that belief. It is said that because atheism is the default position of humanity, all non-atheists therefore have the burden of proof (meaning scientific proof) and that atheists get to determine whether or not that burden has been met. There are, of course, a multitude of problems with this argument and I’m surprised few people have addressed this. The problems are:

1)   There’s no evidence that we’re born without a belief in gods or God – human history would serve to indicate that atheism is not the default position. The fact that a multitude of cultures have a belief in the supernatural would indicate that atheism is not a default starting point. While some religions might have been created to explain certain natural phenomena, this does not indicate atheism as the default position for humanity. Consider that all of these religions deal with the supernatural, or the immaterial world. The question we must ask is how did so many cultures imagine an immaterial world to begin with when they had no experience with anything immaterial (if we assume the naturalistic worldview)?


For instance, I can imagine a unicorn because I’ve encountered a horse. It’s not a far step for me to imagine a horse with a horn on it (or in the case of ancient unicorns, one that has a lions tale, a goats beard, and a horn). However, if the immaterial doesn’t exist and there is nothing like the immaterial in the world (since everything is material), it makes little to no sense that an immaterial answer could have arisen as an explanation for things. If nothing else, the gods should have been higher humans. While some polytheistic religions did have human-like gods, the advent of monotheism or even polytheistic religions with immaterial foundations (such as Hinduism) should have never arisen. There’s simply no way early humans could have imagined what they had no contact with (if we assume the naturalistic viewpoint).


2)   The idea that atheism is a default position isn’t an argument for atheism. Even if it’s true that atheism is the default position of humanity, this proves nothing. An infant has to be taught many things about reality – an infant has to learn that an iron is hot when turned on, that you can use your legs for more than crawling, how to speak, and other basic functions. Quite simply, the default status of an infant is ignorance; so to say that the default status of humans is the lack of belief in god is no different than saying at the default status of humans is the lack of belief in hot irons. Just because an infant is ignorant of a fact doesn’t mean the fact no longer exists.


If humans are born without a basic proper belief in something out there, ultimately the atheist has proven nothing. We can still turn to the evidence presented. We can still show that even if humans are born ignorant of God or gods that such ignorance proves nothing other than we should teach the human about God or the gods. In short, ending the argument “atheism is our default position” as an argument for atheism is silly.


3)   The argument ultimately fails because it has, in some ways, an obstacle that simply cannot be overcome. The argument says that since atheism is the default position of humans, all non-atheists now have the burden of proof in making claims. The only thing an atheist has to do is sit back and poke holes in the claim. In other words, atheism is eternally on trial and the theists must present evidence after evidence proving the existence of their particular god while all the atheists have to do is cast doubt onto the theists. But such a standard is ultimately arbitrary and based on the inherent biases within the individual atheist rather than based on any universal rational standard.


What is the epistemic threshold for the atheist to accept that God exists? How do we define this threshold in a universal manner, or do we assert that the threshold is subjective to each individual? If it is universal then why is it universal and what, exactly, makes it universal to begin with (and what makes it a good standard, and why does your criteria make it a good standard, ad infinitum)? If we say it is subjective then on what grounds are atheists able to criticize those who are not atheists? Obviously the epistemic threshold has been met for those who believe and if such a threshold is subjective, then who are we to judge and condemn those for relying on their subjectivity?


Even if non-atheists have the burden of proof, what would it matter if a non-arbitrary, non-absurd epistemic threshold doesn’t exist? If one doesn’t exist then from the beginning non-atheists cannot prove that they are rational or acceptable as a belief, much less convince the atheist that the burden of proof has been met and there is now no longer any need for atheism. Many atheists will say, “Then have God appear to me,” but such arguments are trite and absurd. This is tantamount to saying, “I’ll believe in dark matter and dark energy when I can observe it under a microscope.” Such an event cannot occur, mostly because we only know about the existence of dark matter and dark energy apophatically (through negation – we see its affects and know what it is not, but still don’t really know what it is). Likewise, as most theists would claim, we know God apophatically as well. The “why” is quite complex and I don’t have time to write on it, but suffice it to say that when dealing with God (unlike dealing with dark matter and dark energy) we are dealing with an intelligent being who has a plan and goals and will act in accordance with those plans and goals.


Ultimately any epistemic threshold the atheist gives us is going to be arbitrary – the threshold for Richard Dawkins is completely different than the threshold for the late Antony Flew (as Dawkins has admitted he will most likely never become a theist, while Flew did become a Theist in his final years). There will be no universal standard for when the burden of proof is met and the discrepancies between multiple thresholds will not be insignificant. In a courtroom there is a certain amount of subjectivity as to what each person considers the burden of proof, but the differences between each standard are not so vast that a consensus cannot be reached; in fact, if a consensus couldn’t be reached then our judicial system would fall apart. But the multiple thresholds among atheists differ so greatly that no consensus can be reached (as evidenced by the fact that some become theists after hearing an argument while others remain atheists).


The argument concerning the “atheism as default” is superfluous and even when used properly (to show that non-atheists hold the burden of proof) only shows itself to be a red herring. It distracts from the issue of whether or not God exists. If arguments can be brought forth based on evidence (or arguments that are purely logical) that present a solid case for theism (or in a broader sense, spirituality), then that particular belief should be treated as rational. Once it’s treated as rational, both sides should have to bring proof forward as competing claims, not as one trying to disprove the status quo and the other simply upholding it. Even if atheism is default, it could be that theism is still true, but acquired through knowledge. Once theism is proven rational, both atheists and theists are then on equal footing in terms of hashing out what is true and what is not. One does not enjoy an advantage of being the eternal skeptic once faced with a rational position.

Unfortunately, so long as atheists continue to complain and say that non-atheists have the burden of proof, the conversation will go nowhere. No amount of logic or evidence will ever work to convince the atheist the burden of proof has been met. While viewing this issue as a competition between claims (in which both sides need to use proof – evidential or otherwise) is beneficial and encourages education and learning, most atheists will simply take the easy road and claim they don’t have the burden of proof. This is, of course, why atheism will (and is) die in philosophical circles, because it essentially becomes anti-intellectual, closed off to learning and discussion with opposing viewpoints.


5 thoughts on “Atheism is the default belief?

  1. I find this discussion more often than not leads to a rather frustrating debate over the meaning of the word “atheism”. However, the facts of the matter seem to be quite evident. There appear to be three positions, the atheist, the theist, and the agnostic. While the atheist does not believe that god exists, neither does the agnostic, but certainly their positions are not the same. Agnosticism asserts ignorance and atheism asserts positive knowledge. Yes, this knowledge is of a negative but that’s irrelevant. Positive assertions are positive assertions no matter how you cut it. So then, it seems misleading to talk about belief IN god as opposed to the belief of whether or not god exists. Even this distinction is slippery since its conceivable that a person could believe god exists and not believe *in* that god. All this allows the atheist to wiggle around in semantics since their position is considered a lack of belief in god, but, as it is clear, a lack of belief could be atheist, agnostic, and, unlikely but possibly, theist.

    I think this distinction is why William Lane Craig is so specific in his rhetoric when he debates reasons to believe the existence of God as opposed to debating the reasons to believe in God. Yes, it is semantics but its partially clarifying to your post and besides, without semantics we wouldnt be able to discuss this in the first place.

  2. The Theist can debate with the A-Theist and the Agnostic over the existence of God. As a Theist I have done this myself and established many different proofs of this and enjoyed conversation while doing so with those A-Theists and Agnostics that don’t default to anger and character assasination. However, although this discussion is stimulating and can lead to an understanding of God from a human perspective it will not save them by itself, or lead them to a relationship with the God of the Bible.

    Proving God exists and becoming regenerate are 2 different processes although one can be used of the Spirit to lead to the other

  3. I would have to say that yes atheism is a default belief. When we are born we are learning things for the first 8 (please correct me if i am wrong on the years) years or our lives, one of those things is the beliefe in god, threw the bible or our parents or how ever it is learned. Once that teaching it tought we decide whether to accept it or not. Once it is accepted tho the beliefe in god is their. It seems like the answer to this question is simpiler then it is made out to be, but until we know whether or not we are born with knowledge or not, that will decide the answer to the question. If their is knowledge at the point you are born then atheism is not the default but if their isnt knowledge then atheism would be the only thing to make sense until religion is learned/found.

  4. If by ‘atheism’ something akin to agnosticism is meant, then I would agree (I don’t know what you would call this, ‘soft-atheism’?). If, however, by ‘atheism’ an atheism of the Dawkins or Hitchens sort is meant, then obviously the claim is disagreeable (and quite frankly ludicrous). But beyond this an atheist is someone who, to my mind, has weighed the evidence and proofs for and against God, subsequently arriving at some sort of conclusion. Such weighing of evidence is obviously beyond the capabilities of a baby, so how can this be the default? Furthermore no baby that I know of is capable of possessing, until it is taught, a post-Enlightenment worldview. That is, no baby that I know of is born thinking, “Well I reject the supernatural until sufficient evidence is proffered. Until such time, I will reject out of hand any and all claims to god, gods, goddesses, etc. existing – the burden of proof is on theists!” On the contrary, the ‘default’ position would seem to be having ones mind undecided in all areas of knowledge. Given this the default would seem quite apparently not to be atheism, it certainly isn’t a post-Enlightenment worldview – so I’d reject the claim as failing on multiple levels.

  5. Bein born into a condition of Total Depravity, our default condition is against God regardless of thought. Whether A-Theism spawns from this would be how the person uses knowledge of God, or lack thereof, in this state. Believing that there is no God is different then being against Him. So my conclusion would be that A-Theism would not be the default as it is defined.

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