By: Monique Zorzella
Revised: June 2021
Atheism Expert Austin Cline of atheism.about.com sets out to debunk an alleged myth touted by religious apologists in his article Myth: Atheists Believe in Lots of Unprovable Things, Like Love and Beauty. In the piece (it has since been removed) he addresses what he sees as a false claim leveled at non-believers: “Atheists and other so-called rationalists believe in many things they cherish, but which are unprovable: love, value, beauty, etc.” This this is done as an attempt to establish what he says is a false parallel between believers and non believers when it comes to their “approach to matters of truth” Despite his attempts to falsify the claim, the essay ultimately fails to make any 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).
Problematic is the inconsistency with which he makes the argument. While he starts off declaring Atheists do believe in such things as love and value, he then appears to deny that love and values are even things. 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 thing (that is, something existing apart from the mind). Its unclear how this is meant to disprove the alleged myth that atheists believe in unprovable things. It seems that he is simply making a semantic point. The distinction might be meaningful if he stated some proof was required to justify belief in things, but no proof is required to justify belief in the existence of a concept. However, Cline seems to argue 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.” Surely, then the mere belief that a concept exists is not justification for asserting the concept has been proven.
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 to accept the claim he stated earlier:
“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 to exist by mere virtue of its conception? He is in fact saying it still must be established to exist in a particular case. Cline does not offer a consistent criteria for determining whether a particular concept has any root in reality, nor how that differs from proving the existence of things. It is unclear why cline makes this distinction at all.
In any case, Cline seems to be misunderstood about the nature of the initial argument. Theists don’t disagree that its possible for one to attribute phenomena to a particular concept they conceive. The argument is that Atheists believe in such concepts despite the fact that they cannot be independently validated. That is to say, they cannot prove 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 is suggesting that concepts do not need to be independently validated in the same way that things do, in which case he would be conceding that the myth is actually true.