The Privative Thesis
Christopher Hitchens wrote of atheism that “our belief is unbelief.” A.C. Grayling wrote that atheism was merely a “privative thesis,” by which he meant that it is nothing more than the subtraction of supernatural reality from one’s conception of all of reality. This is a common point of view: belief in “nothing.”
But it’s nonsense.
If we subtract the supernatural from our conception of reality, it doesn’t leave us believing in “nothing.” It leaves us with affirmative beliefs such as: that matter comes from true nothing and self-develops into ever more complex matter; that we encounter the physical world without the aid of the supernatural imprinted into our consciousness; and that material self-development explains our hard-wired and shared orientation to the good, the true, and the beautiful. These beliefs are assuredly not belief in “nothing.” The atheist point of view is not a “privative thesis.”
Most atheists don’t say their entire worldview is one of unbelief. Instead, they reserve this void in their belief system only for God. About materialism, they’re believers. They may say, like Esqueleto, “I believe in science.” Now belief in “science” makes no sense, but belief that ultimate reality consists only in that which is empirically verifiable does. That’s what is really meant by “belief in science.”
And that is faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” as Hebrews 11:1 tells us. Matt Emerson points out in a piece for the Wall Street Journal that this definition for faith applies just as well for the enterprise of science, as when scientists patiently waited for confirmation of Einstein’s gravitational wave theory. The truth of that theory was the thing hoped for and for which they had conviction of truth. That truth was “unseen” until recently confirmed, 100 years later.
As Mr. Emerson pointed out,
The fundamental choice is not whether humans will have faith, but rather what the objects of their faith will be, and how far and into what dimensions this faith will extend.
Just so. Scientists are no more rational than religious believers, and may be less so. Religious hopes and convictions are as rooted in evidence as those of science. It is simply false to assert, as some loud atheists do, that faith is belief without evidence. Atheists disbelieve the evidence for God, but that is not mere disbelief. That is necessarily an affirmative belief that all of reality is explainable entirely through material causes. Atheists have to be saying, for example, that the universe is self-created; not just that no God created it.
An agnostic might effectively fall into the same trap of faulty reasoning as do atheists, declaring himself neutral on the basis of what he doesn’t believe. But agnostics don’t really believe in “nothing,” either. An agnostic may decide not to weigh the evidence on this question of God, and thus avoid it. Or he may decide that it is unknowable absent some gnostic, experiential, interior, knowing on the question, and so avoid it on that basis. He may conclude that avoidance of the question about ultimate reality is a rational position to take.
But this just amounts to staking out a position that doesn’t exist — a false neutrality. In the name of taking no position, the agnostic takes a position. The agnostic is actually adopting a belief in a kind of nothing-as-such — avoidance itself is the substantive belief on the central question of God’s existence, and remaining beliefs about reality are consequently drawn from the zeitgeist, not reason.
This phenomenon of complacent agnosticism can be abetted by a misguided desire for freedom. We want to live with no constraints. We may find doctrines of belief to be constraining, especially if they have implications for how we live. We may then desire to reject them all, so as to have complete freedom for ourselves. The mistake is that all doctrines of belief are not thus rejected. Only the inconvenient ones are. Those that remain may not even be rationally coherent.