This is not really a question
Let me first examine the question in its functionality. It is essentially a move “theists” (today a term atheist are keeping alive) might make to vex atheists over their particular problems with agnosticism. It is hence primarily discussed on atheist websites in a simulation of argumentative strikes and counter-strikes.
It rests on the assumption that atheists will defend their position as the only rational choice. Religious beliefs, are intrinsically irrational – this is what you will realise whenever you join the theist on a visit to his homeland. Theism is never just a belief in transcendence. It is about a God in a world of miracles and strange dispositions: God has a favourite nation (Jews and US-Americans are rivals on this ground). He has his favourite language (most certainly the Arabic he used in the Quran). When he decided to spend a couple of years on earth, he took care that he was born by a virgin in the Holy Land where he performed loads of miracles (before he departed to the US where he had to take care of a lost Jewish tribe according to the Book of Mormon). Scriptures are one thing, real life is the real thing: You can pray to God. He should arrange things according to your desires. He will still turn wine into his blood in Catholic church services or have his female colleague Ganga purify the polluted river of her name while you can still see corpses flowing by.
Once a belief is gone you should be without that belief
Get rid of all these religious beliefs, become an atheist and you should note the absence of belief, a lack of belief. Atheism is hence no belief. And here comes the catch:
But atheists believe that there is no God?
Moderate theists will welcome the atheist with this question (religious fundamentalists are only too happy to have the atheist confess his being a detested “unbeliever”). If atheists believe that God does not exist…
…well, then they are believers!
If the atheist concedes that he actually does not know for sure whether God exists he will be welcomed by all moderate theists not only as an agnostic but basically as one the larger party of believers. They speak of themselves as “believers”, since they too proclaim that they do not know for sure.
If the atheist rejects the agnostic’s position he finds himself just in the same embrace: “See, atheist, you are just a believer like us. We believe that God exists, you believe he does not. It is one belief against another, and you have no good reason why you should feel superior over your belief.”
Atheists are lousy philosophers
…practically and I would say: intentionally. The philosopher will analyse the debate he cannot end. He will think of a system in which such a debate will no longer occur.
Instead we see New Atheists arguing in dimensions no philosopher would want to reach. Scientific probabilities enter the argument. God is supposedly unlikely, like there is a 5% chance of rain today. You can bring the probability argument right in into the homes of the believers if you turn it: “Venus, Vishnu, Xipe, Yam, Ymir or Zeus? No? OK, so you believe in only one of the 100 gods in our survey, I’ll put you down as a 99% atheist.”
The atheist’s best counter-move is a positivist argument, though it is one we never see in a more systemic approach: He will claim that he does not believe in God, because he has not received any evidence why he should.
The theist should in this calamity simply insist on his first observation: This is one belief against another. The atheist should be able to prove that his whatever-he-wants-to-call-it is is not a belief by proving that he “knows” what he claims – there is no God, no transcendence. It is this kind of knowledge a thing atheists demand from agnostics:
If atheists were not such lousy philosophers, or if they were not thus clearly interested to be in this particular debate, they would reject it as intellectual nonsense. A debate that does not offer any further insight is a “Scheinproblem”, a “pseudo problem”. Spend your time together with Ernst Mach and Ludwig Wittgenstein in a consideration of the essential qualities of scientific knowledge and you will not enter this battleground. The alternative should be radical and self-critical: the confession that this debate is nonsensical, yet a classical win/win situation for all who enter it.
The theological debate
Theologians invented the atheist position in the Middle Ages in order to test their skills in theoretical refutations of atheism. Preachers loved the category that allowed them to reprimand godless churchgoers who chatted with their neighbours or who murdered them outside. Anyone who did not take God seriously was godless, an “atheist”. The figure of the atheist philosopher remained a scholastic invention as long as historians and scientists – Newton for one – did not have the slightest rational reason to doubt the creation of Genesis 1 and with it the understanding that God acted here as the first mover. The world had sprung into existence more or less exactly 4000 years before Christ. The Bible was the only account with that time frame – the time frame that explained our lack of earlier data, and the Bible gave a detailed account of what had happened at the creation.
The situation changed with the disintegration of the biblical time-frame in the course of the 19th century. Once it was gone it became clearer that all the other arguments one had used against atheists would fall as easily. Atheist appeared now in person, ready to act in the old theological debates; and they knew that they could not be proven wrong.
Atheism was turning into a fashionable position when Auguste Comte stated his dismay over the theological debate in 1848. Ludwig Feuerbach was just giving his 30 lectures on the Essence of Religion in Heidelberg’s town hall after the university had denied him the use of their lecture hall. Students had asked Feuerbach to expand on his previous book on The Essence of Christianity. Karl Marx was publishing his Communist Manifesto that very year. The revolution had started, and Comte felt the itch to discredit the entire debate with all his skepticism over more revolutions. Why would the new proponents of atheism enter the theological debate? Because it would become their revolutionary platform in a succession of endless controversy. We needed, so Comte, much rather a new philosophy of knowledge. We had to discredit all this search for last causes. All this search for a why had to be revealed as theological. Scientists can only study how things happen:
Atheism, even from the intellectual point of view, is a very imperfect form of emancipation; for its tendency is to prolong the metaphysical stage indefinitely, by continuing to seek for new solutions of Theological problems, instead of setting aside all inaccessible researches on the ground of their utter inutility. The true Positive spirit consists in substituting the study of the invariable Laws of phenomena for that of their so-called Causes, whether proximate or primary; in a word, in studying the How instead of the Why. Now this is wholly incompatible with the ambitious and visionary attempts of Atheism to explain the formation of the Universe, the origin of animal life, etc. The Positivist comparing the various phases of human speculation, looks upon these scientific chimeras as far less valuable even from the intellectual point of view than the first spontaneous inspirations of primeval times. The principle of Theology is to explain everything by supernatural Wills. That principle can never be set aside until we acknowledge the search for Causes to be beyond our reach, and limit ourselves to the knowledge of Laws.Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism  (London: Routledge & Sons, 1908), p.50-51.
It is this the paradigm of scientific research today, whether you are studying quantum mechanics as a physicist or as a historian beliefs in the end of world in groups of religious dissenters at the beginning of the 18th century. The question whether there is a God or not will not become part of your research or the book you are writing.
Most New Atheists are Kantian idealists posing as rationalists, realists or naturalists
The New Atheist’s deeper problem is the trouble he has with his hidden Kantian idealism – an idealism he is hiding under the new (and not so new) labels of “rationalism”, “realism”, and “naturalism”. Kant had reasoned over “reality as it really is”, over all those “things out there as they really are”. The realist paradigm says that the world is out there and that we are trying to understand it as it really is. Logic is helping us here. To get back to the picture with the two pools: It is clear that only one thing can be true. There either is a God or there is no God out there. Logic tells you that there is no third option. Why then should you not laugh about the agnostic up there who does not want to see the world as it really is – as it can only logically be?
The positivist’s question is simple: Do you really see both pools? Are they really out there? Do you have any data for the entire choice you are making up? No. A theist has given you this choice and now you are using your logic to confirm it. You are actually not standing down there, you are presenting me this foolish theological pic, and the agnostic on this pic is just the fool you want me to be on this your picture: puzzled about the question you and your theological friends are posing. Get back to the data we have, they do not require any word in this debate, nor can logic require such a debate. Positivism is neither theist, nor atheist nor agnostic – it is, if anything, anti-metaphysical. (And logic is by the way nothing but a system of tautologies you can move into any debate whatsoever, it does not prove anything.)
New Atheism behaves like a religious belief
Beliefs are not just beliefs, and disbelief is not just disbelief. I do not believe in the existence of the Star Trek universe – which will not induce me to label myself as an atrekkian. Disbelief is multifaceted and so is atheism. We should say it is fitting like a glove over its respective inherent theological premises.
(1) As any religious belief, the atheist’s disbelief stands in need of constant confirmation. These are images from typical atheist Facebook pages. Who would need them? It’s atheists, not theists, who subscribe to these pages.
(2) The atheist book market is largely a market of books exposing religion(s).
(3) Atheists are – just as believers – ready to create a scale of strength in their belief from “strong atheism” to “weak atheism” with agnosticism and religious belief at the end of the scale to strong atheism as fully developed creed.
(4) Though atheists try to imply that their position is plain and simple – the rejection of all religious beliefs – they live in cultural diversity along the lines of their previous religions. US-American atheism – and British Commonwealth Atheism under the conditions of the wider Anglophone market – is strategically anti-evangelical, anti-Pentecostal. Why should anyone try to prove that the Bible is full of contradictions? Both Catholic and Lutheran Protestant theologians will shrug their shoulders. This is what they have tried to make clear since the days of David Strauss. The Bible is human work, it reflects not just one faith but hundreds of faiths as they developed from the tribal days of the oldest Testament to the days of the failing state under Roman occupation. It reflects changing world views under various cultural influences – Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman, Greek. Any rational and impartial reader would love the unique historical source in all its layers. What we have here is a religion in its development – in a development that linked a society with its religion. The US-American atheist who is detecting inconsistencies is as lonely as the Biblical literalist whom he keeps attacking.
The spiritual world of born again Christians breeds stories of new believers who are now awakening to atheism. Clergyproject.org is running a website to help pastors and “religious professionals” on this way. What they need is inspirational stories of believers who have already gone their new path. The English Wikipedia has a List of converts to nontheism. Is it a coincidence that this list has remained uninteresting on the parallel French and German Wikipedias where readers will not expect to be moved by stories of a personal reformation?
Jewish Atheism is different – with its roots in the Bible and its experience of the holocaust. It has longer traditions and far more humour, since any Jew can easily lose his faith whilst he will still remain a Jew.
The East German atheism surrounding me – the majority stance – is comparatively silent. It is, if I may use the historian’s perspective, ex-Lutheran protestant atheism that had already been disinterested in the personal interpretation of God’s word in the 17th century. Lutheran Protestants formed alliances with their worldly authorities and went with them through thick and thin no matter whether Nazi or Communist with growing disinterest in all these matters of belief. East Germany’s atheism is – to stay in the picture the glove that fits over its source religion – the atheist belief of those who would otherwise be simply irreligious after all these changes.
But why should atheists want to act in a theological debate?
Comte’s answer was radical: they want to institutionalise their own revolutionary war. They are not interested in the liberation that should come with fully developed secular societies.
I am not a fan of Comte’s utopia – it was openly French-Catholic post revolutionary atheism with its very rejection of atheism. Yet I confess I find the idea of a debate that falls in love with its inevitable stalemate – intriguing, interesting, a concept to consider.
Debates between atheists and believers create win/win situations. What do you risk? The atheist will not win any of your theist followers, the theists will be just as impotent among the atheist’s fans. The debate will be safe as a wrestling competition. Both parties will gain the media presence of the debate they can only generate together. Fans are waiting out there to see the famous “Four Horsemen” Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennet. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Lawrence M. Krauss, Bill Maher stand in their positions to take over. Bertrand Russel and Carl Sagan have become the great ancestors of the movement.
Bad? No not at all. The new atheist movement has brought up a fresh and international political agenda in the interest of the scientific community.
The idea that atheism is essentially a theological position will be impractical where it invites strange bedfellows; it will be, on the other hand, the idea that allows the far wider spectrum of observations.
- David Nicholls, “Is Atheism a Belief?”, Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, 2012-04-10 atheistfoundation.org.au
- Trent Horn “Is Atheism a Belief or a Lack of Belief?” Strange Notions. The Digital Areopagus – Reason. Faith. Dialogue, 2013-09-04 strangenotions.com also (with different commentaries) in Catholic Answers to explain & Defend the Faith, 2013-09-04 catholic.com
- Andy Bannister, “The Scandanavian Sceptic (or Why Atheism Is a Belief System)”, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), 2013-10-14. rzim.eu
- “What is Atheism? No one asks this question enough.”, American Atheists, 2013-10-31 atheists.org
- Sean Li, “Atheist or Agnostic: A confusion of terms?”, A Reasoner’s Miscellany, 2014-03-27 nargaque.com
- “Is atheism a belief?” Quora first answered on 2014-06-11 quora.com
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