Posted: Jan 02, 2018 6:36 pm
by Thomas Eshuis

"I don't believe that Sweden exists," my friend suddenly declared from across the coffee shop table. He took a sip of espresso and stared intently at me, clearly awaiting a response. I paused, my cinnamon roll halfway to my mouth, as I digested what he'd just said.


"I don't believe that Sweden exists," he repeated. "I think it's just a political conspiracy, designed to motivate other European citizens to work harder. All that talk of the best health care system, the highest standard of living, of tall and beautiful people. It sounds like a myth and I'm not buying it. I don't believe in Sweden."

I stared at my friend silently for a moment, allowing the sounds of the coffee shop to drift over us as I pondered. In the background, the radio began playing 'Dancing Queen' by Abba.

"What do you mean, 'You don't believe in Sweden'?" I finally replied. "That's insane. If Sweden doesn't exist, how do you explain IKEA furniture, or the Swedish chef on The Muppet Show, or what glues Norway to Finland? That's a staggering claim! What's your evidence?"

"What do you mean 'evidence'?" he asked.

"Evidence," I said. "You must have more than just a hunch but some pretty impressive evidence for your belief. I know Sweden only has 9.5 million inhabitants, but you can't simply deny outright that it exists!"

"Aha," said my friend sagely, "I see your confusion. You think that my denial of Sweden is a belief. But it's simply a non-belief and so I don't need to give evidence for it."

"Come again?" I said.

"Yes," he continued, warming to his theme, "I don't have to provide evidence for my non-belief in Atlantis, El Dorado, or Shangri-La and nor do I need to do so for my non-belief in Sweden. You see I'm not making a claim of any kind—quite the opposite: I'm claiming nothing, I'm merely rejecting one of your beliefs—your belief in Sweden."

That story was, of course, entirely fictional but the response that I described from my friend concerning his Scandinavian scepticism does have some real world parallels, especially in the way that many contemporary atheists describe their non-belief in God. As one atheist put it recently: "I don't believe in God and I don't need to justify this, just as I don't need to give reasons for my non-belief in the tooth fairy or the Flying Spaghetti Monster." The late New Atheist writer, Christopher Hitchens, put it even more succinctly when he wrote:[1]

Our belief is not a belief.

In recent weeks, the merry bunch of atheists who like to hang out on my Twitter feed have posted similar examples, my favourite being:

Atheism isn't a claim. It's just non-belief in the claim 'There is a god'.

Since this idea is heard increasingly frequently, often when the atheist making it is asked to give reasons or evidence for their position, it's worth taking the time to briefly explore six problems with the idea that atheism is not a claim or a belief—and that to argue otherwise is to place oneself on the same level as my Sweden-denying friend.