The debate on atheism and agnosticism is endless. A persuasive argument can be made that atheism should be the default position. Theism needs evidence to support itself, while atheism, since it is the default position, does not. This post shall provide two arguments to prove the latter point, then I will attempt to show that despite their persuasiveness, the arguments are fallacious.
When it comes to believing in the existence of things, we take the basic position that things do not exist until proven otherwise. Do unicorns exist? Of course not. Why? Because no one has ever seen a unicorn. Does a horse with three heads and four eyes on each hooves exist? Of course not. Anyone who is willing to doubt the three-headed horses non-existence would be plainly silly. We are all atheists. The only difference is that some of us are more consistent in his atheism than others. When asked if an Elvis Presley look-alike alien is playing a concert on the moon, none of us will hesitate to say no.
You enter your friend’s living room and he, in the kitchen, asks you if there are any unwashed plates next to the television. You look around and see no plates whatsoever, either washed or unwashed. You tell your friend so. Suppose your friend asks if there are any giraffes in the living room. You would also say no but this time with a laugh suspecting him to be pulling off a lame joke. Suppose your friend asks if there are any cyclopes in the living room. Your answer will still be the same, though you may be a little worried about your friend’s mental stability. The giraffe question is nonsensical even though giraffes actually exist. The cyclops question is one that only a lunatic can pose with seriousness. How, then, do theists fare when they claim that asking about a non-existent entity, God, is not only a fair question but also a question that can be answered in the affirmative?!
These two arguments persuasively show that every sane person should adopt an priori atheistic stance. After all, the atheistic stance is the one we adopt in our daily lives and in our common sense beliefs. If we didn’t, then what would our daily life be like? We commute to work believing unicorns exist, even perhaps wasting our time on the tube thinking about what the unicorns are doing right now instead of using our time to read the newspaper and learn about world events. If we were all not inherently atheists, we would then watch the television believing giraffes and cyclopes populated the sofa we sit on. By not presuming atheism in the instance of God, we are contradicting the basic foundations of rationality, of human decision making, and of social norms.
An argument can be persuasive, very much so, but it can also be fallacious. When I was first told that dropping out of a plane and falling into the sea without a parachute is equal to falling straight onto concrete, I laughed. It seemed implausible that water, much softer than concrete, will have the hardness of pavments. After going through the science, however, I realise that what I was told was true. The “water-is-softer-than-concrete” argument is persuasive on first encounter, but fallacious under careful scrutiny. The same could apply to the arguments supporting the presumption of atheism.
With regards to God’s existence, all the arguments revolves around a false dichotomy. The arguments assume that there are only two positions that can be taken: theism, or atheism. There is a third, agnosticism. Atheism denies the existence of God. Theism affirms the existence of God. Agnosticism says it does not know if God does or does not exist; it suspends judgement. The issue regards the basic stance a person should take before delving into any of the theistic arguments. That’s why we are talking about the presumption of atheism, and not the evidence for atheism. A person can deny God exists based on his assessment that the Problem of Evil is valid. This person’s atheism is not a presumption; it is a conclusion derived from a deduction. The two arguments I sketched above aim to show how atheism should be a presumption. This does not mean that atheism can also be a conclusion from a deduction. But if the two arguments support the presumption of atheism, then theists cannot claim, as they do, that theism is the more natural stance to take. If, however, agnosticism is found to be the basic stance we need to presume, then atheists have an obligation to prove their atheism and not simply wave the obligation aside.
There is a chasm of a difference between the following statements:
(1) Jack was not in the room right after the murder.
(2) I do not know if Jack was in the room right after the murder.
In a court of law, statement (1) would be taken as an affirmation that the witness knows that Jack was not in the room right after the murder. Statement (2) would be taken as the witness expressing their lack of knowledge regarding the matter. (1) has knowledge content while (2) is devoid of knowledge content. This holds even if Jack is not known to exist. The court of law may be trying a case where rumours were made that a mythical killer, Jack, could have been involved. In other words, (1) and (2) make sense, and a court of law would accept them, even if no one really knew if Jack was a real man or just a back-alley rumour, the validity of which is open to doubt. But let us recast the two statements:
(3) Tom Rutherford does not exist.
(4) I do not know if Tom Rutherford exists.
Imagine a case of identity fraud. The court wants to know if Tom Rutherford, the name of the man who stole private information from a bank, is a real person or not. Statement (3) informs us of something in the real world, that the world does not include a person called Tom Rutherford. Statement (4) tells us nothing about the real world; rather, it only informs us about the knowledge levels of the witness in question; it tells us the witness does not know. To equate (3) and (4), thus, is fallacious.
When a person says, “I do not know if God exists” he is not saying that “I know God does not exist”. The person is merely informing us of his own personal state of knowledge; he is telling us he is an agnostic. It is wrong, thus, to claim that atheism is the basic stance people take in their daily lives. Agnosticism is. In our lives, we do not actively think of existence of X, Y, Z, because our minds are blank regarding X, Y, Z. It is not as if our minds have the knowledge regarding the status of X, Y, Z. Let us define X as “a precious stone at the centre of the earth that is more valuable than all the gold in the world”. We do not have knowledge regarding this; so, we do not even think about it. And if we do think about it, we dismiss the thought because we do not know and it would be a waste of time think about what we have no knowledge of. Us not knowing X does not mean we affirm that we know that X does not exist. Thus, agnosticism and not atheism is the basic stance humans take.
The unicorn, three headed horse, Elvis-Presley alien, giraffe, and cyclops examples have two hidden premises. Each of these example have defined the location to search for these entities; each of these examples acknowledge that after searching these locations the entities could not be found. When we talk about unicorns, we imagine that they are some forest in the world, albeit hidden. The three headed horse, presumably, lives on planet earth and not on Middle Earth. The concert is held on Mars. The giraffe and cyclops are supposed to be found in the living room. The question of God’s existence is different. There is no defined location to search for God; since, God by definition transcends spatial locations. If He transcends spatial locations, then He cannot be searched for by us humans who exist only within a spatial location. If an alien concert was held on Mars, then some evidence of this should be left behind. The satellites probing the moon, and the drones exploring it, would stumble upon left over alien popcorn, perhaps. Or at least signs of life. But to our best of knowledge, after searching the moon, we found no evidence of life, especially of complex organisms capable of roaming the moon and applying gel to their hair. When watching the television, we do not presume the non-existence of giraffes on the sofa. We conclude so. If giraffes were on the sofa, we would be able to see them, sense their weight, and so on…
Someone may cheekily assert that the giraffes in question are invisible and have no weight. Such additional qualifications essentially make the giraffes unlike giraffes. A giraffe, by definition, has a long neck; hence, it can be seen. A giraffe, by definition, isn’t weightless. To say that a giraffe may be sitting next to you on a sofa but it is invisible, weightless, etc…is to say a logically contradictory statement. It is like saying a cat is a mollusc. Qadhi Abdel-Jabbar, the famous Muslim philosopher, said that “a stone that can speak is no longer a stone.” The same applies to the giraffes. And the cyclopes.
The default position, thus, that humans should take is agnosticism. We do not know if God exists or not. From this default position, we can then look into the arguments for atheism, and the arguments for theism. From very early on in the Muslim civilization, Muslim scholars have maintained that agnosticism is the default position. That is why a famous maxim in Muslim philosophy is “the first obligation on a person is to doubt God exists”. This maxim is an agnostic maxim and not an atheistic one, because it does not affirm that God does not exist. It merely says that we do not know if God exists. This maxim is in line with the monotheism of Islam. As Dr. Hasan Mahmud Abdel-Latif explained, the maxim espouses methodological doubt. This doubt is the first step in a proper learning methodology. If we presume A or B when seeking the truth, we would have lost our search from the very beginning. But if we start our search by admitting “we do not know” then we are open to both A or B.