Lack-Theism Limbo: How Low Can Intellectual Engagement Go?

Published on 21 December 2023 at 10:41

For over a decade, I've proudly identified as an atheist. During this time, I've not only penned a comprehensive book on atheism but also initiated and maintained this blog. Throughout the years, my perspectives have undergone several transformations, with one notable shift being a complete paradigm change in how I perceive and apply atheism. I am, without reservation, an atheist in the philosophical sense—I firmly hold the belief that no gods exist.


It's astonishing to reflect on my journey, especially considering that I now find myself compelled to write a post defending atheism, not against theists, but from fellow atheists. There was a time when I was a lack-theist, embracing some of the seemingly absurd positions we're about to delve into. While I maintain a level of understanding for those perspectives, it's become apparent that our community has ventured too far, and it's imperative that we engage in a candid discussion about it.


The impetus for this post stems from recent events surrounding Jeffrey Lowder of "Secular Outpost." Known for his intellectual honesty as a philosopher, Lowder made two seemingly uncontroversial statements that stirred the pot among lack-theists. Specifically, he asserted the existence of Jesus as a historical figure and posited the existence of evidence for God. These statements, rather innocuous in a broader context, inexplicably ignited a backlash, with some going so far as to dub him a crypto-theist.


While Lowder certainly doesn't require my—or anyone else's—defense, the incident serves as a microcosm of a more profound issue that I cannot remain silent on. The attempts to lambast him highlight a deeper problem within the atheist community, prompting the need for a candid discussion.

Far too long has lack-theism commandeered atheism, arrogantly assuming a monopoly not only on the term itself but also on the realms of intelligentsia and rationality. They audaciously claim to possess the exclusive rights to all evidence, dismissing logic and philosophy with disdain. When confronted with reasoned arguments, they respond with intellectual arrogance, undermining the foundations of meaningful discourse. This overreaching attitude extends to attacks on figures like Mr. Lowder and Dr. Oppy, a trend that demands immediate attention and discussion.


Regarding the distinction between atheism and lack-theism, I initially aimed to be charitable towards those who assert a mere lack of belief in God. Having occupied that position not too long ago, I never entertained the idea of adopting the confrontational to atheists stance now prevalent among some. The current trend involves lack-theists actively biting at philosophical atheists, launching unwarranted attacks. It's high time we reciprocate. I've extensively covered this topic in my previous writings, so I won't delve into it again in this post—this discussion is bound to be lengthy as it is.


Steve McRae forcefully—and convincingly—argues that atheism, devoid of a propositional stance, lacks logical coherence. He contends that using atheism to denote a mere lack of belief causes the term to collapse in on itself. Initially, I attempted to step back from this line of thinking, given the supposed kinship with lack-theists, especially when they choose to identify under the label of atheism. However, when they devolve into foolish attacks, branding honest philosophical atheists as elitist or, in Mr. Lowder's case, a crypto-theist merely for honesty, it's time to discard the gloves and engage in a more assertive discussion.


An important side note: I acknowledge that not all lack-theists share the confrontational stance or participate in the events discussed here. If this doesn't apply to you individually, then it doesn't apply to you. I appreciate those who engage in constructive dialogue and respect diverse perspectives within the atheist community.


It's rather amusing that, when addressing McRae's argument, critics seldom pinpoint a specific flaw. While I'm no expert in formal logic, a thorough examination of his work didn't reveal any apparent errors. The standard response to Steve often seems to boil down to a dismissive "I don't like or understand your argument, so you're wrong." Notably, the primary objections revolve around the acknowledgment that words have various usages and are descriptive rather than prescriptive. Both Steve and I concur with these points, and neither of us has argued otherwise.


The main contentions lie in the belief that, in a technical argument, debate, or academic setting, the precise technical application of the term should be adhered to. Another point of contention is that individuals can adopt the label of atheist for any reason they choose. However, some usages may lack coherence, and this forms the core of Steve's argument, as outlined in the linked paper.


In the realms of philosophy and academia, the prevailing understanding of atheism aligns with the belief that no gods exist, directly contrasting the colloquial usage that equates atheism with a simple lack of belief. This distinction has been a cornerstone of my philosophical studies. While I initially adhered to what is colloquially termed "strong atheism" concerning the god of Abraham, a more comprehensive adoption of philosophical atheism unfolded through a convergence of forces. Engaging in reflective musings and simultaneous conversations with figures like Steve McRae and Dr. Graham Oppy solidified my stance—I am a "strong atheist" in the global sense, firmly asserting the belief that no gods exist.


This brings up a crucial point: intellectual honesty and integrity demand a thorough examination of all sides, following logical and philosophical chains to reach well-founded conclusions. Initially, I was puzzled by the seemingly harsh stance of figures like Dr. Oppy and many other academics and philosophers toward the notion of atheism as a mere lack of belief. Instead of dismissing philosophical atheism with a wave of the hand, as many lack-theists tend to NOT do, I found individuals who were willing to engage in profound discussions with someone like me—essentially a nobody—about these complex topics.


Ironically, rather than being met with resistance, I encountered openness and a willingness to help me understand their perspectives. Through these conversations, I gained insights that led me to agree with and ultimately adopt their positions. It underscores the importance of engaging in thoughtful dialogue and considering diverse viewpoints to arrive at well-informed conclusions.


Regrettably, many lack-theists not only refrain from engaging in the thorough examination of diverse viewpoints but also display an aversion to doing so. This reluctance becomes so pronounced that individuals diverging from their specific standpoint face derision, gatekeeping, and accusations of being theistic impostors. The irony is stark—a group that touts itself as freethinkers readily succumbs to sophomoric groupthink, undermining the very principles they claim to champion. It's a comical twist of fate that exposes the limitations of intellectual openness within certain segments of the lack-theist community.


It's not uncommon for people to label Dr. Oppy as an academic and philosophical elitist due to his clear reservations about the concept of lack of belief. Dr. Oppy, much like others deeply immersed in philosophy, tends to share this perspective. It's crucial to recognize that, yes, Dr. Oppy can be considered an elitist, given his roles as a professor and a professional academic. In Australia, where higher education holds substantial significance, being a professor carries considerable prestige. Dr. Oppy also serves as the CEO of the Australian Association of Philosophy and is actively involved with various philosophy-related boards, including Philo, Philosopher's Compass, and Sophia.


It's only natural for someone who has devoted their life to a particular field of study to take pride in their expertise and display a certain bias toward the academic rigor of their discipline. This isn't a negative trait; rather, it underscores the depth of commitment and passion Dr. Oppy has for his life's work. In this context, the term "elitist" serves as a descriptor of his extensive experience and involvement in the academic realm.


Given this context, it comes as no surprise that someone like Dr. Oppy might feel indignant when confronted by an uneducated individual attempting to assert superiority by claiming to know better, all while expressing simplistic notions like "nah bro, atheism is only the lack of belief." In the realm of Dr. Oppy's extensive expertise and dedication to philosophy, such oversimplified declarations can understandably evoke a strong reaction.


Let's revisit the incident that triggered the attempted character assassination of Mr. Lowder. Does evidence for God exist, as he and many philosophers posit? According to a significant portion of the population, the answer is affirmative. This isn't because the majority necessarily subscribes to the belief in a deity, but because most individuals are not strict empiricists. They consider a variety of factors, including logical proofs, philosophical arguments, anecdotal evidence, testimonials, and personal experiences.


It's crucial to clarify that I'm not making an appeal to popularity by asserting evidence for God based on the beliefs of the majority. Rather, I'm highlighting that most people arrive at the conclusion that there is evidence for God because they perceive various forms of evidence through logical reasoning, philosophical discourse, personal anecdotes, testimonials, and personal experiences.


Let me be unequivocal: while personal experience holds immense power and is often compelling, it remains inherently subjective and cannot be shared. This leads me to prioritize empirical evidence as the most robust form of evidence. However, it's important to recognize that empirical evidence, while more reliable due to its testability and repeatability, is not infallible and is not immune to refutation.


Strict empiricism faces two significant challenges. Firstly, it falls into the trap of special pleading—it assumes that only empirical evidence is valid while dismissing all other forms. This is a fallacy, as strict empiricism itself cannot be empirically justified. It relies, at a minimum, on logical justification grounded in personal experiences of the world to function. In essence, empiricism cannot establish itself empirically, leading to a collapse within its own logical framework. You simply need logic, which means you also need philosophy and personal experience. Even when logic is presupposed.


If someone were to assert that there is no empirical evidence, though controversial, I can appreciate the nuance in that position. However, deeming this perceived lack of empirical evidence as equivalent to a total absence of evidence is a form of absurd sophistry that perplexes me. From my perspective, the preponderance of evidence overwhelmingly favors atheism, but this doesn't imply a monopoly on the truth.


It's worth noting that while the majority of philosophers of religion are theistic, in the broader realm of philosophy, a significant proportion of philosophers identify as atheists. Degrading philosophy inadvertently diminishes the contributions of those very individuals who advocate for positions aligned with atheism. It's essential to acknowledge the diversity of perspectives within the philosophical landscape and appreciate the intellectual richness that contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the world.


The next topic to address is the historical existence of Jesus. Almost every scholar who has delved into the subject, with the exception of Richard Carrier, has arrived at a consensus: someone named Jesus did live in and preach in Judea around the time when Christianity began. This consensus spans scholars across the spectrum, from atheist figures like Bart Ehrman to theistic scholars like Dale Allison. It's crucial to emphasize that these are not arbitrary individuals but esteemed professors who have dedicated a lifetime to studying and teaching these topics. Their collective expertise lends weight to the historical acknowledgment of Jesus as a real historical figure.


Furthermore, it is perplexing that some individuals believe you cannot acknowledge the historical existence of a rabbi named Jesus within the correct time period while also identifying as an atheist. Dr. Ehrman has built a career on precisely this perspective. He asserts that Jesus was indeed a historical figure while concurrently maintaining a belief that Jesus was not divine, did not perform miracles, and did not rise from the dead. This stance ought to be the default position for any honest atheist. It is rooted in sound historiography, supported by various pseudo-contemporary sources and beliefs.


As atheists, we can readily concede that Jesus was a historical figure, leaving the Christian with the substantial task of justifying the theological framework surrounding him. In my perspective, no one has convincingly justified the beliefs related to Jesus' divinity or resurrection. These are the pivotal aspects that demand robust scrutiny and thoughtful examination, not whether or not the individual existed at all.


It's somewhat amusing that when I inquire about the lack-theist definition of evidence, few provide an answer, and even fewer offer a coherent one. When questioning their rejection of the historicity of Jesus, the typical response often involves vague statements like "I've seen no evidence," which is essentially vacuous. Claiming a lack of evidence or reason to accept Jesus as a historical figure often reflects intellectual laziness—an active avoidance of scholarly work and historiography on the subject. While I hesitate to make such a blunt statement, there's no delicate way to address this issue.


Regarding Carrier, he occupies a fringe position, and his credibility is questionable. Columbia University might consider rescinding his PhD, as he attempts to leverage his credentials to assert authority in a field he is not actively engaged in. While his academic background is in history, his thesis, "Attitudes Towards the Natural Philosopher in the Early Roman Empire," is detached from the specific time and region under consideration. It raises legitimate concerns about the applicability of his expertise to the field of ancient Judea and the relevant historical period.


While the critique may come across as harsh, it appears warranted given Carrier's propensity to challenge actual experts in relevant fields. This has escalated to the point where he and his followers assert that dissenting voices simply don't understand him or the subject matter. I highly recommend watching two specific debates involving Carrier—against William Lane Craig and against Bart Ehrman. In the Craig debate, Dr. Craig directly told Carrier that his entire case was based on crank exegesis, prompting a less-than-enthusiastic "na-uh" from Dr. Carrier in response. Dr. Ehrman, in another debate, remarked that it seems as though Carrier has no clue about the field he is speaking on. These instances highlight the challenges and skepticism surrounding Carrier's credibility in engaging with established experts.


I want to clarify that anyone can indeed study a subject and attain a deep understanding of it without formal education in that specific field. However, the issue with Carrier runs deeper than this. His problem lies in consistently asserting that only he (Carrier) possesses the correct understanding, even when engaging with other academics who conduct serious work on the relevant topic. This is compounded by Carrier's tendency to give the impression that his education is specifically focused on this topic, despite his PhD thesis indicating otherwise. The concern is not about self-directed learning, but rather about an overconfident and dismissive attitude towards established scholars in the field.


This discussion serves as a representation of a broader issue observed among lack-theists, particularly when they make claims like "there is no evidence for God." It's intriguing how a group that frequently asserts a lack of position on God's existence and claims to have no beliefs often finds itself making numerous assertions about the existence of God and adopting some peculiar beliefs. The discrepancy between their professed lack of belief and the assertive statements they make underscores a notable contradiction within this particular segment of the atheist community.


The assertion of simply lacking belief implies a neutral position, suggesting neither belief nor disbelief in God, a stance traditionally known as agnosticism. However, these individuals often go beyond this neutral stance and make positive disbelief claims, such as stating that God is a fairy tale. This behavior reveals a desire to have the best of both worlds—to claim neutrality while simultaneously making assertive statements. Consistency and intellectual honesty would dictate refraining from making any claims and simply maintaining a position of requesting convincing evidence. While they do often ask for persuasion, they concurrently assert that their conversational partners are wrong and that God does not exist, moving away from a simple lack of belief.


Lack-theists often attempt to rationalize this apparent contradiction by contorting their position. They vehemently assert that they make no claims, merely expressing a lack of conviction. However, when they make statements like "God is a fairy tale" or "religion is all made up," or assert there is no evidence for God, these are, in fact, positive claims. There's a desire to engage in a debate while simultaneously avoiding a genuine exchange. They want their conversation partners to shoulder the burden of persuasion (even if they know they won't change their minds), all the while sitting back with a dismissive "nah, Bra."


Adding to the confusion, lack-theists may target individuals like Lowder and Oppy, who actively present arguments for atheism and against theism, branding them as crypto-theists. Making sense of this seemingly contradictory stance proves challenging and underscores the need for clarity in discussions around belief positions.


If someone claims to simply lack a belief, they should stick to that position and merely ask others to present convincing arguments. However, the moment they assert that someone is wrong or that God is not real, they transition from a position of mere lack of belief to one of active disbelief. This shift becomes problematic when lack-theists go beyond simple disbelief and make assertions like "God is imaginary" or dismiss God in various ways. When pressed to justify these claims, they often try to retreat behind the shield of lacking belief.


This dual stance creates a contradiction, embodying a form of the Dunning-Kruger effect where individuals overestimate their understanding while simultaneously demonstrating hypocrisy. It's a complex situation where lack-theists are contradicting themselves and undermining the intellectual consistency of their position.


The intellectually honest approach involves recognizing that the failure of one person to convince you does not invalidate the possibility that others might succeed or that the position itself is inherently wrong. This is where the discipline of atheology becomes relevant. Asserting that God isn't real requires constructing your own argumentation, presenting evidence, and providing justification. The responsibility of providing reasoned support for one's atheistic stance mirrors the expectation placed on those advocating for theism.


It's important to acknowledge that justifying your position doesn't necessarily mean convincing the person in front of you. The intellectual justification for atheism can stand independently of convincing others in a specific conversation. This nuanced perspective emphasizes the importance of thoughtful engagement, rigorous argumentation, and a commitment to intellectual honesty in discussions about belief and non-belief.


The heart of much of this confusion seems to lie in a misunderstanding of how debates, the burden of proof, and justification function. In past engagements with lack-theists on this topic, I encountered instances where individuals would insist on statements like "prove God does not exist right now." It's important to clarify that this isn't the correct approach. The burden of proof doesn't demand unequivocal evidence to justify a position or to be considered rational in holding that stance.


When theists request debates on the existence of God, they aren't seeking a courtroom scenario beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt. Rather, they are simply asking for the same thing that lack-theists claim to desire—to be convinced of a particular position. This is particularly true for educated and intelligent theists who are interested in engaging in meaningful dialogue and exploration of ideas. Clarifying these points can help foster more productive and respectful discussions between individuals holding different belief positions.


It's an interesting observation that the stance of "I'm not making claims" and "I'm just unconvinced" may not effectively sway anyone. In the realm of debate, the crucial aspect, aside from personal enjoyment, is often to persuade others to consider your perspective or, at the very least, present a compelling case for why your position deserves serious consideration. Just insisting ad nauseum that you're unconvinced, is not a serious position, and should not be taken seriously. While individuals may disagree with theistic arguments, it's notable that theists typically make an earnest effort to present their case with arguments and lines of reasoning.


Criticism is directed, however, at certain lack-theist figures, like Matt Dillahunty, who openly state that they are not there (at debates) to make arguments or defend a position. Instead, their approach is to assert that others are not convincing and tell them they are wrong. This approach is perceived as profoundly unproductive and missing the fundamental purpose of a debate. The observation raises questions about how such lack-theist figures, and their approach, are taken seriously within the discourse.


In the grand theater of philosophical discourse, the lack-theist drama unfolds like a tragic comedy. Their refusal to don the armor of argumentation, their reluctance to dance with the rigors of debate, leaves them in the shadows of intellectual mediocrity. As theists earnestly wield their rhetorical swords, lack-theists cling to the feeble shield of "I'm unconvinced" like a tattered security blanket.


While theists engage in the exhilarating battle of ideas, lack-theist icons like Matt Dillahunty proudly proclaim their lack of interest in making arguments. Instead, they gleefully revel in the role of the dismissive critic, declaring others "unconvincing" with an air of intellectual superiority.


Perhaps, in the carnival of convictions, lack-theists are content to be spectators, jeering from the sidelines, shielded by the illusion of non-committal neutrality. Yet, as the saying goes, "the sidelines are for cheerleaders, not thinkers." And in the grand game of belief, those who refuse to play find themselves left in the dust of their own lackluster non-position.


So, to the lack-theists who scoff at the vibrant dance of ideas, who shy away from the intellectual battleground—may your lack of belief be as satisfying as the empty echo of a one-sided conversation, drowned out by the thunderous applause of those unafraid to engage in the raucous symphony of meaningful debate. Cheers to the thinkers, and may the intellectually timid find solace in their lack of conviction.

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