Some New Atheists have tried to shift the burden of proof in debates with Theists by arguing that while Theism has some definite content, to which the Theist is committed, Atheism does not. Now, while I don’t want to agree with Nagel, in whose opinion Atheism comes inexorably packaged with all these other commitments, such as materialism, a commitment to the scientific method, and perhaps even secular humanism, because I think Atheists are much freer than that, I do want to say that Atheism does have some definite content. I see no inconsistency between Atheism and the belief in life after death, or even the soul, or even a rejection of science and/or materialism. Nevermind that most Atheists don’t believe in the soul, the afterlife, or express profound reservations about materialism, the point is that they could. I agree, then, with the New Atheists at least to this degree: that Atheism is not a world-view. It does not paint a picture of the world, or tell a story about the world, or even propose a model of the world (I don’t think Theism on its own does this either, but that’s perhaps best left for another post). However, Atheism as a commitment obviously has some content which can distinguish it, and which, it seems to me, comes inexorably along with Atheism.
First, there is the obvious, that the Atheist is committed to the statement “God exists” being false, or alternatively is committed to the truth of the statement “God does not exist”. Against this an Atheist might argue that some brands of Atheism, such as agnosticism or positivism, make no such commitment. The agnostic simply refuses to commit herself to the truth of the statement “God exists” but that does not entail that she is committed to its falsity. The positivist argues that the sentences “God exists” and “God does not exist” are linguistically confused and meaningless. Only the bold and brave positive Atheists are committed unblushingly to the proposition that “God does not exist.” For the purposes of this post, I will address the claim made by many New Atheists to the effect that they can positively affirm that God does not exist, and yet that their ‘Atheism’ is without content. In other words, that their Atheism doesn’t tell you anything else about them or their views. That Atheism doesn’t bring along extra-baggage, but is, relative to Theism, modest.
I can think of some things to which the Atheist must be committed. For example, for all statements of the following form: ‘Theism if and only if X‘, a commitment to Atheism would entail a commitment to ‘~X‘. The theist claims that there are some values for X which satisfy the above form. For example, W.L. Craig argues that ‘Theism if and only if objective moral values and duties‘. I would also argue that ‘Theism if and only if there is some explanation for why there is something rather than nothing‘. Therefore, when somebody commits herself to Atheism, she is also committing herself to ‘~X‘ for all values of X which plug in to ‘Theism iff X‘. These are significantly significant. Atheism, then, does imply some commitments beyond merely ‘God does not exist‘. Even if Atheism isn’t a world view, as there are various world views (Buddhism, Mormonism, Naturalism, etc) which qualify as Atheistic, it still entails that whatever else is true, one’s world view will not include (of necessity) any value of X which plugs into ‘Theism iff X‘.
There may also be statements expressed with a material conditional instead of biconditional, such as ‘if ~Theism, then ~Y’, where a value for Y might be something like ‘Christianity’ or ‘Christianity being true’. There we get a great deal of commitment, for it’s hardly controversial to say that there are many values of Y satisfying the above expression.
Atheism, therefore, seems to involve more commitments than naive atheists are aware of.