Myth: Atheists Believe in Unprovable Things Like Love

Irreligious Atheists No Different From Religious Theists in Believing on Faith?

Love
Love. Photography by Bobi/Moment/Getty

Myth:
Atheists and other so-called rationalists believe in many things they cherish, but which are unprovable: love, value, beauty, etc.

 

Response:
There are many different ways in which religious theists try to establish some sort of equivalence between themselves and atheists regarding their approach to matters of truth. Atheist critics of theistic religion frequently focus on how religious theists believe the truth of claims which cannot be supported through sound logic or verifiable evidence, so one tactic of religious apologists responding is to claim that atheists believe in some things in a similar manner.

This is not quite true.

 

Concepts vs. Things

It is indeed normal for an atheist to believe in the existence of things like love, values, beauty, and so forth. Perhaps there are few who don't, but they are in a small enough minority that it's justifiable to ignore them here. Does the existence of such beliefs mean, though, that atheists believe in "unprovable" things? No, because love, beauty, and value are concepts rather than things. They are abstractions created by the human mind rather than independently existing parts of the universe or reality.

In theory, it's possible that what the religious theist means to say that their god is like love, beauty, and value; how likely is it, though, that they truly mean to argue that their god is an abstract concept created by the human mind and without any sort of independent existence?

I suppose that there are a few such, but this is certainly not the position held by most religious theists and it's probably not what is intended by anyone repeating the above myth.

If it were, it's unlikely that atheists would disagree with them. Atheists don't believe in the existence of gods "out there," but they won't deny the existence of gods as concepts in the human mind. If that's all a god is supposed to be, then there's little or no difference between atheism and theism.

If the religious theist insists that their god is real and has an existence completely independent or the human mind, however, then the analogy simply falls apart. Such gods cannot be compared to abstract concepts in any manner that would justify concluding that belief in one is analogous to belief in the other, such that a person who criticizes belief in gods can be accused of believing in abstract concepts in a similar manner and is thus somehow guilty of hypocrisy.

 

Proving Love

The failure of the analogy to work in even a rudimentary sense isn't the only problem here — there is also the claim that concepts such as love, beauty, and value are not provable.

What is this 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.

Is it supposed to mean that the presence of love or beauty in any particular case cannot be proven, even if the concepts themselves do generally exist? That's also false, and for more than one reason. If the existence of love cannot be established in any particular case, that would undermine the idea that the concept can exist at all — and it's clear that the concept does indeed exist.

Moreover, there are empirical and biological tests that can be performed which would, to a reasonable degree, constitute "proof" of the existence in particular cases of the feelings we describe as "love." These proofs might not rise to the level of mathematical proofs, but they are more than enough in most situations, including this one, and they are far more evidence than can be mustered on behalf of any alleged gods.

Like so many other myths, this claim about atheists relies heavily upon misunderstandings not only about atheism itself, but also of basic logic and how to argue reasonably. Education in and experience with logic, fallacies, and how to construct valid arguments would help eliminate many myths like this, but unfortunately these are not subjects addressed with any real seriousness by most education systems.