By: Monique Zorzella
Atheism Expert Austin Cline of atheism.about.com sets out to debunk an alleged myth expounded by religious apologists in his work entitled Myth: Atheists Believe in Lots of Unprovable Things, Like Love and Beauty. Cline proposes that a false claim thrown about by theists is that: “Atheists and other so-called rationalists believe in many things they cherish, but which are unprovable: love, value, beauty, etc.” He suggests this is done as an attempt to establish a false parallel between themselves and atheists when it comes to their “approach to matters of truth”; more specifically, that both Theists and Atheists believe in things that cannot be justified by logic or evidence. Despite his attempts to falsify the claim, the essay ultimately fails to make any cogent argument that would successfully refute the proposed myth.
Cline admits that the majority of Atheists do “believe in the existence of things like love, values, beauty, and so forth”, but argues this does not mean they believe in ‘unprovable things’. The first reason offered is there is some kind of category error being committed by believers. He explains that love and values are concepts (an abstraction of the mind) as opposed to things (existing independently from the mind). An apparent flaw in this argument is the inconsistent manner it is articulated. While he starts off declaring Atheists do believe in such things as love and value, he then proceeds to deny that love and values are even things. This wavering makes the argument difficult to follow; does Cline concede that there is such a thing as love or does he not? For the sake of charity, we can assume that he does not. Let us then examine the distinction he lays out that he claims shows the initial contention is false. He asserts that Atheists believe in love but see it as merely a mental construct, unlike those who believe in God who is alleged to be a real object (that is, something existing apart from the mind). Perhaps the distinction is meaningful if he insists there is a requirement to justify belief in the existence of a real object with logic or evidence, but is not required to justify belief in a mental construct. However, Cline does not seem to claim this and in a way says the opposite when he writes “If the existence of love cannot be established in any particular case, that would undermine the idea that the concept can exist at all.” The difference is ultimately irrelevant to the initial argument given there is the same epistemic requirement to justify belief in a concept as there is to justify belief in a real object. It may be that Cline is making a semantic argument–that he simply intends to reject that love and values are things, in which case he would be failing to address the heart of the argument: Atheists believe in love and values without having logic or evidence that may justify such beliefs. Altogether, Cline fails to articulate why it is more incredulous to believe in things without evidence and logic than to believe concepts that likewise cannot be justified by such means.
After this point, he argues it simply isn’t true concepts such as love are unprovable. He offers this reason:
“What is [unprovable] supposed to mean? Is it not provable that they exist at all? This is obviously false because a concept exists so long as one person says that they have a conception of it. They may conceive of the subject in an incoherent, contradictory, or illogical manner, but it’s still a concept in their mind.”
In other words, the existence of a concept is proven by virtue of its conception. Yet, if we are also expected to accept the claim If the existence of love cannot be established in any particular case, that would undermine the idea that the concept can exist at all, is he not suggesting the concept can’t be proven by virtue of its existence? For if the legitimacy of the concept rests on whether it can be properly attributed to a particular event in reality, then simply conceiving of a concept in ones mind does not prove that the concept exists. Furthermore, the author seems to be misunderstood about the nature of the initial argument. Theists do not disagree it is possible for one to attribute phenomena to a particular concept they conceive. The argument is that Atheists will believe concepts despite acknowledging that they cannot be independently validated by logic or evidence (e.g. logic, evidentialism); that is to say, they cannot validate whether the concepts are true (being that which is the case; conforming to reality). Instead, believers argue the concepts are merely presumed to be true by Atheists. Perhaps Cline really is suggesting that concepts do not need to be independently validated, in which case he would only be conceding to the initial myth. In all, Cline’s counter-apologetic fails to successfully rebut the argument that Atheists believe in things that are unprovable.