Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Atheism: The Null Hypothesis

I have heard it claimed recently by some theists that “Atheism is not the default position” and it puzzles me somewhat. When atheists talk about the default position what we are referring to is the scientific concept of the null hypothesis. A claim is made—in this case that a god exists— and the null hypothesis is to say that the claim is false. From Wikipedia: “The null hypothesis typically corresponds to a general or default position. For example, the null hypothesis might be that there is no relationship between two measured phenomena or that a potential treatment has no effect.” The null hypothesis is a negative statement, not a positive claim.

I have also seen many atheists try to ‘prove’ that god(s) do not exist. You cannot prove a null hypothesis. From Wikipedia: “It is important to understand that the null hypothesis can never be proven. A set of data can only reject a null hypothesis or fail to reject it.” The issue is widely misunderstood on both sides of the debate though, so it isn’t only atheists who are pushing the envelope too far. It has been claimed by theists that to be an atheist means you have to know everything. Again, this is false as atheism is the null hypothesis, and as atheists our position can merely be the data we have so far is not enough to reject the null hypothesis. Much to my dismay, one of favourite scientists Carl Sagan also seemed to misunderstand this. He once said: "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid."

So let it be known, atheism is not a claim to omniscience, nor can it ever be proved. Atheism is rejecting the existence of gods, not a claim to knowledge of their non-existence. People on all sides of this debate would do well to learn this, as it would make the debate much more enjoyable.


  1. I agree that atheism is not (necessarily) a claim to *knowledge* of the nonexistence of gods, or a claim to omniscience. But I'm not sure on what grounds you argue that a proof or logical deductive argument to the conclusion of gods' nonexistence is not possible--examples can be found in Richard M. Gale's _On the Nature and Existence of God_ and in Michael Martin's _Atheism: A Philosophical Justification_, for example. Do you also hold that evidential arguments to the conclusion that gods do not exist is also impossible? If so, on what grounds? Also see Jeff Lowder's "Is a Sound Argument for the Nonexistence of a God Even Possible?":

    I'm also not in agreement that atheism is not itself a claim or position that requires justification or is automatically favored by a burden of proof argument. I give some reasons here:

  2. Thanks for stopping by Jim!

    I probably should have stated, but the god concept I was thinking of while writing my blog post is not the God of Christianity, nor one with any specifically defined attributes, just a general god concept. Perhaps one that could be associated with deism or panentheism, just some amorphous transcendental first cause.

    I didn't find anything I disagreed with on your definitions of atheism post and I do think that logically contradictory god-hypotheses are disprovable.

    You've definitely given me some things to think about though, thanks again.

  3. How would you counter an argument that said it was just as valid to say that atheism is a hypothesis and theism is therefore the null hypothesis? Is there any scientific or philosophical law you could refer to that said that that was not the case?

    I find the situation I have described hard to argue against. Is the positive position always the hypothesis and the negative position always the null hypothesis?

    1. In science the null hypothesis is always the negation of the positive. For example if the hypothesis was that there was some effect on B by A being present, the null hypothesis would be that would be no effect. I am finding it very difficult to imagine a scenario right now where a some correlation would be the null and the negation would be the hypothesis being tested, as that's not how science works. Science doesn't work by proving things, it works by disproving things.