Recently I’ve been reading Julian Baggini’s little book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2003). While the book aims to provide a general introduction to the topic, Baggini includes some interesting philosophical analysis which is worth commenting on. In this article I’ll focus on one section in which Baggini enters the debate about whether it is proper to think atheism exists only as a negation of theism or whether one might view it as a positive position that exists independently of theism. Baggini believes the latter is true and he offers a thought experiment to argue his case.
Baggini’s Loch Ness Thought Experiment
Let’s start with an extended quotation from Baggini where he presents his thought experiment:
“In Scotland there is a deep lake called Loch Ness. Many people in Scotland — almost certainly the majority — believe that the lake is like other lochs in the country. Their beliefs about the lake are what we might call normal. But that is not to say they have no particular beliefs. It’s just that the beliefs they have are so ordinary that they do not require elucidation. They believe that the lake is a natural phenomenon of a certain size, that certain fish live in it, and so on.
“However, some people believe that the loch contains a strange creature, known as the Loch Ness Monster. Many claim to have seen it, although no firm evidence of its existence has ever been presented. So far our story is simple fact. Now imagine how the story could develop.
“The number of believers in the monster starts to grow. Soon, a word is coined to describe them: they are part-mockingly called ‘Nessies.’ […] However, the number of Nessies continues to increase and the name ceases to become [sic] a joke. Despite the fact that the evidence for the monster’s existence is still lacking, soon being a Nessie is the norm and it is the people previously thought of as normal who are in the minority. They soon get their own name, ‘Anessies’ — those who don’t believe in the monster.
“Is it true to say that the beliefs of Anessies are parasitic on those of the Nessies? That can’t be true, because the Anessies’ beliefs predate those of the Nessies. They key point is not one of chronology, however. The key is that the Anessies would believe exactly the same as they do now even if Nessies had never existed. What the rise of the Nessies did was to give a name to a set of beliefs that had always existed but which was considered so unexceptional that it required no special label.
“The moral of the story should be clear. Atheists subscribe to a certain world view that includes numerous beliefs about the world and what is in it. Theists say that there is something else that also exists–God. If theists did not exist, atheists still would, but perhaps there would be no special name for them. But since theism has become so dominant in our world, with so many people believing in God or gods, atheism has come to be defined in contrast to theism. That makes it no more parasitic on religion than the belief of the Anessies are parasitic on those of the Nessies.” (8-9)
Why this matters
You might be wondering what exactly the point of the debate is. We get a tip off in Baggini’s statement that prior to the appearance of Nessie belief, “beliefs about the lake are what we might call normal.” (emphasis added) By contrast, Nessie belief is abnormal. In addition, Baggini insists that Anessie belief really is the same as the pre-Nessie normal belief. Clearly Baggini wants us to view Anessism as a normal and default position while construing Nessism as an abnormal, unusual position. By analogy, he wants us to view atheism as a normal, default position while theism is the abnormal, unusual position. And the implication, presumably, is that theism has an evidential burden it must meet to attain rational respectability which does not apply to atheism.
The spirit of the argument is stated with typical rhetorical flare by Sam Harris:
“Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” (Letter to a Christian Nation, (2006), 51).
Why Baggini’s analysis is flawed
Baggini’s analysis depends critically on the claim that the people who existed before the appearance of Nessie belief hold the same beliefs as the Anessie people hold after the appearance of Nessie belief. The extent to which there is difference between the two is the extent to which Baggini’s thesis fails and Anessieism is shown to be dependent on Nessism (and by analogy, atheism is shown to be dependent on theism).
Let’s begin with a belief that Baggini explicitly mentions which concerns Loch Ness: “the lake is like other lochs in the country.” He claims that people believed this before Nessieism arose, and the Anessieites continue to believe it afterward.
But this seems to me to be doubtful. To see why, we need to consider two different doxastic states:
(1) The lack of belief that Loch Ness holds any unusual creatures.
(2) The belief that Loch Ness holds no unusual creatures.
Proposition (1) represents the doxastic state of people before the appearance of Nessieism. Proposition (2) represents the doxastic state of Anessieites. These doxastic states are not the same for at least two reasons. First, (1) represents the failure to hold a proposition while (2) represents the holding of a proposition. Second, (1) does not require awareness of the concept of “unusual creature” whilst (2) does.
In conclusion, Baggini’s claim that Anessieism is the same doxastic state as that of people before Nessieism is clearly wrong. Anessieism is a new kind of belief, and one which exists only in relation to and as a denial of Nessieism.
The implications are significant. Baggini (and Harris) can’t claim that atheism is a default or “normal” position.
Why Baggini’s thesis is correct (sort of)
Now that I’ve demonstrated Baggini is wrong, let me extend an olive branch by showing that he is correct in one sense: atheism could emerge independently of theism. Consider: atheism is a denial that God exists. It is, as Baggini says, “the belief that there is no God or gods.” (3) In other words, atheism is the view that the ultimate explanation for existence is non-personal or non-mind.
With that in mind, we could drop the term “atheism” and instead call this position impersonalism. And it is certainly possible for impersonalism to arise independently of theism whilst a-impersonalism (aka theism) could then arise as a denial of the impersonalist position.
So Baggini is correct in one sense: atheism is not merely parasitic of theism. It is, instead, an independent philosophical position. From that perspective one might say that it is something of a historical accident that the position we call “atheism” ended up with the alpha privative. Theism could just as well have been dubbed “aimpersonalism”, a denial of the impersonalist (atheist) position.
But this doesn’t give Baggini the consequence he wanted. You see, his end goal was to present the atheist position as the sensible, default position from which theism represents a contentious deviation. In point of fact, what we find is that both atheism and theism are positive assertions about the ultimate nature of reality and each must be defended.