The Special Pleading of Atheism
But when atheists are asked ‘why not agnostic?’, they don’t have any equivalent reasons or arguments to justify their atheism. They tend to make strong claims about God’s non-existence, but when they’re asked to show their working, there’s no working to show. In their view, God’s non-existence simply wins by default, just like the non-existence of fairies at the bottom of the garden wins by default.
The problem with these kind of analogies, is that fairies at the bottom of the garden are so specific that we would know precisely what to look for (fairies) and where (at the bottom of the garden). By contrast, if God exists, then the only way we could ever know anything about him, is if he revealed himself to us. As C.S. Lewis observed:
“If there is a God who created the world and created us, I could no more “meet” Him, than Hamlet could meet Shakespeare. If Hamlet wants to prove there is a Shakespeare, he’s not going to be able to do it in a lab, nor is he going to be able to find Shakespeare by going up into the top of the stage. The only way he will know something about Shakespeare is if Shakespeare writes something about himself into the play.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Time Inc. 1961)
For this reason, the existence of fairies or other fictitious creatures is not comparable to the existence of God, unless of course, you assume that God is either fictitious (circular reasoning) or a creature (a straw-man argument). A better analogy is the existence of aliens. If aliens did exist, then the only way we could ever know anything about them is if they revealed themselves to us.
When someone claims that aliens exist, people typically ask them what they base that on, placing them under the burden of proof. Similarly, when someone claims that aliens do not exist (i.e. that we are alone in the universe), it’s just as appropriate to ask them what they base that on, placing them under the exact same burden of proof. The only one who is exempt from the burden of proof, is the person who says ‘I don’t know’.
However, when it comes to God’s existence, atheists would like to impose a different set of rules. Even though all claims can be subjected to the burden of proof, atheists would like the claim that God doesn’t exist, or perhaps the claim that God probably doesn’t exist, to be magically immune from the burden of proof. They would like to share in the shelter from the burden of proof that only impartial agnosticism enjoys.
But impartial agnosticism is neither partial towards theism nor atheism (by the definition of impartial). It is the neutral middle ground between the two, and it doesn’t favour atheism anymore than it favours theism. This spectrum is well laid out in Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion (pages 50-51) as follows:
When atheists argue that they don’t have the same burden of proof that theists have, they are committing the logical fallacy of special pleading (attempting to cite something as an exception without justifying it) on the burden of proof. Normally, this kind of error wouldn’t be such a big deal, but when atheists insist that other (theistic) worldviews meet such a high burden of proof, those is glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Moreover, the reason why this is such a major problem for atheism, is that rather than seeking reasons and arguments to justify their atheism, atheists typically double down on the logical fallacy of special pleading on the burden of proof. When you ask atheists ‘why not agnostic?’, they simply don’t have anything else to offer. They continuously put all of their eggs into one basket, and unfortunately their chosen basket is the logical fallacy of special pleading on the burden of proof. As Mike Dobbins (an agnostic) observes:
“From my experience reading atheist literature, debating atheists online, and actively listening to what atheists say, it is abundantly clear that most atheists want to have their cake and eat it too. They talk and debate like people who believe there is no God, literally saying ‘God doesn’t exist’ or ‘There is no God’, but once you point out this is merely another faith, they rush to their dictionary and loudly proclaim ‘atheism is the absence of belief!’ Agnostics and theists alike are not amused by the hypocrisy and deceit. We know that 2 + 2 = 4, even when an atheist calls it 5.
If today’s atheism continues to proclaim there is no God, without any evidence to support the belief as knowledge, then that atheism is based on faith. Theists and agnostics have every right and are correct when they label it as such. Modern atheists who try to embrace classical atheism long after they’ve abandoned the ship are in denial of their own beliefs. A long hard look in the mirror is long overdue. I know many atheists recoil at the sound of the word ‘faith’ but it’s time to face the facts. If you believe there isn’t a God your atheism is based on faith. It’s high time these atheists accept who they are and stop trying to sail both ships. We can see the classical atheism ship, and you’re not on it.” (Mike Dobbins, The Case Against Atheism, 30-31).