Conflated and Misunderstood Terms terms atheist science morality belief

The null hypothesis is used in science, and we atheists tend to have a lot of respect for science, the scientific method, scientific and empirical evidence. We think of ourselves as logical and rational people. We feel we know a lot about the topics we discuss, especially when it comes to science.

In conversations with religious folks, especially many young-earth creationists, we will correct their misrepresentation and misuse of terms like evolution and scientific theory and demand they “learn the science.”

It might come as a surprise to you, then, that there are many of us atheists that also misuse scientific terminology and when explained to them how these terms are used in science can often act no differently than the creationist.

If we atheists are going to hold others to a standard where scientific language should be used correctly then we ought to hold ourselves to that same standard and instead of using the scientific language in a colloquial way, find a different way to describe our thoughts.

So what are these mistakes we make? Well, whether theist, atheist or other non-theist we all have blind spots, biases and things we misunderstand and I try to help with those that I’m aware of.

This article hopes to address some of the errors made using scientific terminology.

The Null Hypothesis

The ‘Null Hypothesis’ is something frequently misunderstood by us atheists. We make statements that don’t really follow. Some atheists who use atheism as a lack of belief in gods say atheism is the null hypothesis whilst others will say the null hypothesis is that gods do not exist.

So let’s actually consider what a hypothesis is.

In short, a scientific hypothesis is a falsifiable tentative explanation of a phenomenon or a narrow set of phenomena observed in the natural world. For more detail check: ‘Forming a Hypothesis‘.

Is Lacking Belief in Gods the Null Hypothesis?

Is lacking belief in something a falsifiable explanation? No, no it’s not. You might lack belief in a hypothesis or all hypotheses in a set but that’s still not the same thing as the null.

So what is a Null Hypothesis?

A null hypothesis is when there isn’t any significant statistical difference between variables. It gets falsified (or at least rejected) by another hypothesis being accepted if there is a significant statistical difference. H0 does not stand alone and belongs to H1-n. Without H1-n there is no H0 and it only belongs to the variables set out as measurable. Making a jump from H0 being the base or default state of an untestable H1 requires quite a bit of something that just isn’t there.

close up photo of peanuts

Let’s assume for a moment that someone had a hypothesis that not all calories were equal. They proposed that in an otherwise perfectly balanced diet, people would gain more weight eating 500 calories of sugar than they would by eating 500 calories of peanuts.

Now, assuming this is operationalised effectively, all variables controlled and the like we would be left with 2 hypotheses

H1. Eating 500 calories of sugar causes more weight gain than 500 calories of peanuts
H2. Eating 500 calories of peanuts causes more weight gain than 500 calories of sugar

And we are left with our null

H0. There is no significant difference between the weight gain caused by eating either sugar or peanuts.

Assuming there is no difference, the null isn’t actually accepted, it’s just not rejected for now. The null is never really considered accepted, though one could argue if you exhausted every type of food on the planet and there was no significant difference between any of it then all that remains is the null.

So, I think it is pretty clear that lacking belief in gods is not the null hypothesis. Not without changing both what hypothesis and null hypothesis mean.

It can be quite ironic to see comments like this:

Yes, learn about the default position.

When they follow it up with statements like this:

So What About The Null Hypothesis Being “No God Exists”?

Matt Dillahunty recently made a very confusing statement about the null hypothesis, theism, atheism, agnosticism, and the law of excluded middle.

I’m going to do my best to be as charitable with his words here and describe a few ways to look at what he’s saying.

Matt is one of the proponents of “only one definition of atheism” – he views theism and atheism purely in the terms of the psychological state of believing and not believing in gods respectively. He then might use the terms implicit and explicit atheism or weak and strong atheism or any other modifier to separate different positions.

So, what he’s saying here is “you either do or don’t believe in gods” which isn’t exactly wrong. You believe something or you don’t but that doesn’t describe your whole position. An -ism also isn’t usually a psychological state, it’s the -ist that holds a psychological state in regard to or follows an -ism.

I cover off this relationship between -ism and ist in more detail in: Why Agnostic and not Agnostist?

We’ve also discussed how psychological systems or beliefs are not hypotheses. So using this definition, neither atheism nor theism are hypotheses and therefore cannot be the null hypothesis.

He does mention, “The null hypothesis is that no god exists.”

Another definition of atheism is the proposition gods do not exist with the atheist accepting (aka believing) this proposition true. Here we see a more typical relationship between an -ist and -ism.

In fact, using the propositional definition of theism (at least one god exists) and atheism (no god do not exists) you also have a dichotomy of theism and atheism in the sense that only one or the other can be true.

If p = theism = at least one god exists is false then ¬p = atheism = gods do not exist is true and vice versa.

However, our belief positions in relation to these propositions are not quite as binary. There are a few different types of not believing but the one I will focus on is the suspense of judgement. Essentially, if you cannot decide if you think a proposition is true or false then the appropriate response is to suspend judgement, this could be described as uncertainty or by someone saying “I don’t know” and is also known as the psychological state of being agnostic or weak agnosticism.

Rational Belief

So, where Matt speaks off agnostic not being some middle ground, he’s sort of missing the point around how agnostic is usually applied in regard to propositions.

It’s not a middle ground in a straight line format, though it can be described that way for ease, but theism and atheism are regarded as ontological positions because they speak directly to the nature of God’s being, whereas agnosticism is an epistemic position about an ontological position.

Defining Atheism and the Burden of Proof
by Shoaib A Malik
2018, Philosophy
DOI: 10.1017/S0031819118000074

So, you can see by this use it doesn’t violate the law of excluded middle as Matt asserts, and seeing as LEM is used for propositions rather than beliefs (though you can phrase a belief propositionally) it makes more sense than the way Matt is using it too.

So, if we are using propositional theism and atheism, does this change if atheism (gods do not exist) is the null hypothesis?

Well, let’s pretend for the moment that theism (not just a specific claim but theism in general) is both falsifiable and can be operationalised. This means we’d be able to fully describe all the qualities of God, and how we would test and measure the results that would demonstrate existence. The design ought to be as such that we are looking for a significant difference between existence and nonexistence.

With this in mind, the null hypothesis is not that God does not exist, it’s that there is no significant difference between God existing and God not existing. You might then conclude that God does not exist, but that is not the null hypothesis. You might also conclude there isn’t enough evidence to make a decision either way and suspend judgement, aka be agnostic and again, this is not the null hypothesis.

Is Agnostic ‘only’ About Knowledge?

Lastly is Matt’s claim that “agnostic is about knowledge”, and he’s only partially right here, he’s missing the bigger picture.

Firstly, agnosticism was an epistemic principle coined by the late TH Huxley as a response to both the theist and atheist folks of his time and their arrogance towards metaphysical claims.

agnosticism TH Huxley Quote2

He has said it a few different ways but essentially it boils down to: “We shall not say we know or believe that which we have no scientific evidence for”.

Basically, even if you lean one way, you should externally suspend judgement until there is scientific evidence for your position. (This is essentially represented by evidentialism today.)

I’m sure you also noticed the “or believe” too. So, in its coining, it wasn’t only about knowledge, and in epistemology, knowledge is usually considered a subset of belief.

Speaking of epistemology, it comes from the Greek episteme meaning knowledge. Whereas the root of agnostic is Gno which means to know. What you have to understand though, is the use of know here wasn’t necessarily speaking of knowledge in a propositional sense but could be speaking of; certainty (I know it will rain tomorrow), to perceive (I know I am being watched), awareness (I am aware the Qur’an is believed to be perfect), understanding (yeah, I know what you mean mate) and so on.

Now, we could refer to at least some of these examples as knowledge-of, but not knowledge-how or knowledge-that. Knowledge-of isn’t propositional, at least in any meaningful external way. It’s basically just an acknowledgement of holding information. Knowledge-how isn’t propositional either, it is ability based. Knowledge-how can, at times, lead to propositional knowledge (knowledge-that), but not always.

Let’s give you an example.

A friend tells you about something you’ve not heard of before, and that it’s widely accepted in the scientific community… Perhaps he even shows you a few papers and peer reviews where they conclude this is the case, but not the whole papers themselves.

You have knowledge-of this conclusion, you might believe it is generally accepted but you don’t believe it yourself.

Next, let’s say you learn how they came to this conclusion by reading the papers in more detail. If you still don’t believe this conclusion it is likely because you have “knowledge-of-how” than actually understand what they are saying. Perhaps it is something that you actively need to try yourself to gain that knowledge-how.

Let’s say you have access to a lab and can perform the experiment. You see how it all works and get the same results. You now have knowledge-how. Not only that but do you try a number of different experiments to try and prove this hypothesis false. After much experimentation and analysis, you realise that this hypothesis is true. You know have knowledge-that this hypothesis is true.

Just one thing to clarify though, science tends to take a fallibilistic take on knowledge, that is to say, it never considers anything absolutely true, just that there’s enough evidence showing something works and, as yet, has not been proven false.

To bring things us back around to the point about “agnostic dealing with knowledge” it is the knowledge-of kind. You are uncertain if you think god exists or god does not exist.

Now, I do agree we are in a living language and we could be using these scientific terms in non-scientific ways and these philosophical terms in non-philosophical ways, and everyone is within their right to do so. The only danger is when they start:

  1. Demanding other people get their terminology right (e.g. telling a creationist to learn about evolution and theory) whilst not holding themselves to the same standard. (Special Pleading)
  2. insist other people use these colloquialisms in a prescriptive manner, especially if they start arguing for these colloquialisms being the only one that is correct. (Prescriptivism)
  3. if people fail to do 2. or challenge the “only” definition, reasserting it in a dogmatic way instead of showing a degree of scepticism. (Dogmatism)
  4. Othering folks who don’t adhere to your dogma. (Poisoning the well, tribalism, no true Scotsman)
  5. Accusing those who suggest there is more than one definition of a word as being prescriptive when you’re actually being prescriptive yourself. (Projection, lack of self awareness)


It seems quite clear to me that folks use their language in a flexible way that they feel strengthens their position. That is why they will use a colloquial version of the null hypothesis when it suits them yet demand the scientific use of the evolution or theory at other times.

The irony, of course, is that other than the people that are already their undying fans, they are not strengthening their position at all. In fact, when big named atheists like Matt make these arguments, his reach has a negative impact on how all non-atheist folk see us. It also causes unnecessary infighting when folks try to correct them, but that can’t be avoided… especially when folks claim that when they are wrong, they want to know, or that they want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

So how are we to act when the people that claim evidence will change their minds, and they want to believe as many true things as possible turn out to reject evidence and prefer to believe false things?