Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"Atheists Lack Belief in God" is a Deepity

Many atheists are fond of saying that they "lack belief in God". Unfortunately, this is a vague phrase that can be read in two ways. It's widely accepted and has been the source of much confusion because it is what Daniel Dennett has coined, a deepity. I have written about deepities before here and here.

A deepity is a phrase that balances precariously between two interpretations. On one reading, the phrase is true, but trivially so. On the second reading, the phrase would be profound if it were true, but that second interpretation is actually false. Somehow, the truth of the first reading seems to rub off on the second one, making it seem profound and true.

Here's Dennett's explanation:

Let's face it, most atheists think that God's existence is more likely false than true. What else could it possibly mean when they quote their wise sage, Carl Sagan, and tell believers that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"? To say that they lack belief is, in that case, trivially true. It's trivially true because failure of ascent to the claim "theism is more likely true than false" is entailed by (even mildly) holding the opposite belief.

But the phrase "atheists lack belief in God" can be also be interpreted as follows: atheists have no opinion on whether theism is true or false. Now if that's true, then there's a very profound implication that atheist's seem to love: they have no burden of proof.



Unfortunately, for atheists, it's false*.

Deepities are beguiling, but fallacious. Atheists, who normally take great pride in avoiding fallacies of reasoning, would do well to avoid this deepity and do something that should come easily to those who so strongly endorse rationality: they should take on the burden to defend exactly what they believe.

Philosopher Dan Dennett
*Folks for whom the latter interpretation is true include those who haven't thought about it enough, like a baby, but who in their right mind would call such a person an atheist? Isn't the term supposed to pack even a little bit of a punch? People commonly known as agnostics also have no burden to support the notion that God's existence is more likely false than true, but they do have a burden of rejoinder.


  1. I think you are conflating the burden of evidence with the burden of rejoinder.
    The person making the positive claim always holds the burden of evidence. If they address that burden, anyone in disagreement holds the burden of rejoinder. If the evidence provided is easily disputed, that burden is light, but it's not on them to address anything other than the evidence on hand.

  2. Thanks for your interest, Worldslaziestbusker. I hadn’t herd those terms before, but I will use them in the future. While I completely agree with the concepts you shared, I do not think that I am conflating the two.

    Notice that whenever somebody meets their burden of rejoinder, all they can say is that the positive claim is unjustified, or irrational. This line of argumentation goes no distance whatsoever in justifying the notion that the claim is false to any (even the mildest) degree. Most people would call someone who fails ascent to a claim because they have met the burden of rejoinder an agnostic, and that’s certainly how I use the word. But however you use the word, these people are not the ones I’m addressing in my post.

    No, I’m addressing most atheists who, it seems to me, usually believe much more than the claim that theism is irrational; they believe that theism is more likely false than true. That is a claim that goes beyond merely meeting the burden of rejoinder, and has it’s own burden.

    The notion that the burden of proof is only on the one making a positive claim is false, and I will soon be finished an upcoming blog entry where I explain why. I hope that you’ll stay tuned.

    Thanks again.

    1. You are imposing the world of knowledge claims onto the realm of belief. It doesn't work. A belief that something is more likely than something else still doesn't not require evidence. Belief in god/s also does not require evidence, it is ONLY because theists claim to KNOW that gods exist that they have a burden of proof at all.

    2. I agree that meeting the burden of rejoinder doesn't mean the claim is false, only that the claim can't be asserted as valid on the basis of the evidence to hand.

      I don't see that as problematic. The best evidence for deities yet presented to me has been easy to refute. The burden of rejoinder has never been heavy, so I continue to not believe in the deities people have proposed.

      I am an atheist because I do not believe in a deity. It's not necessary that I assert that no deities exist. My lack of belief is sufficient to warrant the label.

      I am agnostic because I will change my position regarding the existence of deities if someone presents evidence that is compelling - ie. for which no rejoinder exists. The burden of evidence still lies with anyone claiming a deity exists. My agnosticism isn't a tacit acknowledgement of a deity existing as a default position, just one I can't rule out for the same reason I can't categorically state trilobites are extinct. I can't access all the information I would need to prove a negative.

      The step from not believing in deities to stating no deities exist is philosophically invalid, but no more practically problematic than the equivalent step we might make in stating no unicorns exist. Of course, no-one's ever made death threats against me for my position regarding unicorns, so I am a little more lax in my wording on that front.

    3. Glad that we agree that meeting the burden of rejoinder leads to agnosticism.

      The fact that you seem to lump in your disbelief in God in with your disbelief in trilobites and unicorns tells me that while you certainly don’t claim to know with certainty that God doesn’t exist, you do think that the probability of God’s existence is < 0.5. In fact, I suspect that you think that the probability of God’s existence is << 0.5, since I’m sure that’s how you feel about the existence of trilobites and unicorns. If I’m right, then you have as much of a burden to support *that* belief as those who believe that God probably exists do.

      So while we agree that the step from not believing in deities to stating categorically that no deities exist is philosophically invalid, the step to believing that God probably doesn’t exist is entirely philosophically valid, probably represents what you actually believe, and very much places upon you a burden – the burden to support what you believe about the probability of God’s existence. Since we already agree that meeting the burden of rejoinder goes no distance whatsoever in meeting that burden, you would seem to have some work to do.

      I’ve clearly explained why I think this is the case at my blog here:

      Now, if I’m wrong, and you think that the probability of God’s existence is 0.5, then we agree that all you have is the burden of rejoinder.


    4. Where did you get the idea that assessing the existence of anything starts with a probability of 0.5?

      It starts with 0.0 and you build from there according to the merits of the evidence to hand.
      It's not fifty-fifty that unicorns exist until you've got some evidence. In the absence of that evidence, the null position holds.
      The null position doesn't state that unicorns do not exist, but the 0.0 probability doesn't give us reason to think that they do.

      The popularity of the misconception you apply doesn't make it valid - not accepting the existence of X is not the same as denying the existence of X.

    5. Nice to hear back from you, 'W'.

      I encourage you to read my other post ( ) wherein I address your comments.

      Thanks for your interest.

    6. Worldslaziestbusker:

      Here's what I wrote about "default" position regarding existential claims: "Notice that the only real "default position", which isn't a position at all, but rather, is the psychological state that exists when someone hasn't yet formulated a belief, isn't even on [Dawkins' scale of belief]."

  3. "A belief that something is more likely than something else still doesn't not require evidence."

    Why would you say that, Sky?

    If I believe that I should probably pay down my mortgage rather than invest for my retirement, or probably become a vegetarian, or probably support the Against Malaria Foundation rather than Unicef, would you say that I don't need any reasons (arguments and evidence) to support those probabilistic beliefs? Many (most?) of our beliefs are probabilistic, don't you think?