“Inconceivable!” This is one of the more memorable words from the late eighties satirical comedy “The Princess Bride,” which continues to enjoy a thriving cult following. The line “inconceivable” is oft repeated throughout the film by the Sicilian villain Vizzini played by Wallace Shawn (the voice of Rex in Toy Story). After everything he deems inconceivable continues to, well, be conceived, he is encouraged to reconsider his use of the word. Here’s a funny montage from the movie.
I thought about the line “I do not think that word means what you think it means” recently after hearing atheism referred to as “the default position” by multiple skeptics. The use of this title is curious because the actual default position for the vast majority of humanity continuing through present day is belief in God. If by “default” they mean the predominate position of western academia, then I might affirm its use. This clearly does not seem to be the intended meaning, however.
As far as I can tell the term is used to illustrate the claim that we are all atheists in reference to at least some gods like Zeus or Hercules or even the infamous Flying Spaghetti Monster. They’re right. No one believes in all of the supposed claims of deities. Though Hinduism might come close, I doubt it would make room for the omnipotent pasta parody.
The most glaring problem with the default title comes from the basic definition of atheism itself, which is an affirmation that no God or gods exist. This is an ultimate position, and not a cafeteria style buffet. This is not a difference between one person choosing fried chicken and another person choosing meatloaf. It’s a world of difference.
Take Christianity for example. Christians are in no way atheistic simply because they don’t believe in Thor. Atheism is a categorical position that is much broader than the rejection of one specific supernatural claim. It is a denunciation of the existence of any deity. So just on a technical level the “default position” language doesn’t work. Apologist William Lane Craig provides a helpful response to this common claim in this video.
But even on an experiential level the use of this term seems flawed. What does seem to be the default position is belief in the supernatural. Though the counter argument could easily enough be offered critiquing the rival claims of world religions, the point still stands. It seems that humans believe in some version of god as their basic default worldview.
That’s why philosophers like Alvin Plantinga consider belief in God a properly basic belief. Properly basic beliefs are those things we intuitively believe in, apart from empirical evidence, such as other minds and the existence of the external world. For example, we can’t demonstrate that we aren’t merely a brain in a jar sitting on the shelf of a mad scientist’s lab. How would we know if our arguments and experiments to prove otherwise might really not be what is being pumped into our minds from the mad scientist’s super computer? It’s silly, I know, but we tend to take a more common sense approach to reality that fits with our lived experiences.
We can’t demonstrably prove the external world is real. We can always postulate a scenario in which our minds might be deceived. But we face everyday as though the external world is real. And I think for good reason.
There are some things we trust in as a basic way of life. And it seems belief in God could (should) be considered part of this basic belief set. It is part of the foundational way that humans see reality. This also fits with Romans 1 where the Apostle Paul says that God has revealed his invisible attributes to all people through the created world, namely his eternal power and divine nature (Romans 1:20).
Why do humans tend to believe in God? Because God has ordered the universe this way, the Apostle Paul tells us. Atheism is an important intellectual proposition, however, worthy of a studied and careful response. But the default position—it is not.
So the next time I hear someone describe their unbelief as the default position I won’t argue about it or try to correct them. But I will probably silently repeat the line to myself, “You keep using that word . . . I do not think it means what you think it means.” And it’s likely that it will be with the accent of Inigo Montoya.