05 June 2010

Atheism: Weak or Strong?

If you've read my blog, you probably know by now that I'm an atheist - I display the "Scarlet A" prominently and proudly, for one thing.

I often hear discussion about the definition of the term 'atheist', usually contrasting it against a bemusing array of other terms like 'agnostic', 'non-theist', and so on. My most recent encounter with this subject was when I watched the video 3.1 Atheism: Definitions by a YouTuber called Evid3nc3. (By the way, everyone should watch his riveting series of videos, Why I am no longer a Christian.)

In the video, the distinction is made between atheism in the "weak" and "strong" senses. Put simply, an atheist in the strong sense "believes that there is/are no God(s)" while an atheist in the weak sense "lacks a belief in God(s)". In the video, Evid3nc3 also says that it's been his experience that most atheists will either readily admit or concede after a little pressing that they are atheists in the weak sense. This has been my experience, too.

So which am I? Well, I don't think that the distinction between the two senses actually exists. The whole deal smacks of sophistry to me. Of course, I'm willing to be shown that I'm mistaken, but let me make my case.

First, though, let's get some other definitions straight.

  • By "God" I mean the personal, interventionist deities described by almost all of the world's religions. The deistic and pantheistic ideas of God are not to be considered, nor the fatuous "Generation, Organisation, Delivery" mumbo-jumbo spouted by Deepak Chopra. If one wishes to name their dog, "God" and then claim that "God" exists, they are begging to be expansively ignored.
  • By "believe" I mean exactly what is usually implied, "to accept as true". In this sense, everyone must have beliefs; atheists are not exempt. "Believe" is not to be conflated with "take on faith".

So every atheist believes "that there is/are no God(s)", myself included, which makes us atheists in the strong sense. I can show this with an example.

  • I have seen plenty of evidence that suggests Harry Potter is a fictional character.
  • I am convinced by said evidence.
  • I believe (accept as true) that Harry Potter is a fictional character.
  • The status "fictional" is mutually exclusive with the status "factual".
  • If I believe that Harry Potter is fictional, then I must believe that Harry Potter is not factual.
  • Therefore I believe Harry Potter doesn't exist (waggish exceptions such as people who happen to be named Harry Potter, "Harry Potter" as a concept, et al excluded).
  • To say that I don't believe "there is no Harry Potter" but instead suggest that I "lack a belief in Harry Potter" is semantic hair-splitting of the grossest category.

Replace "Harry Potter" with the name of any religion's God and you'll see the point I'm making.

The distinction between "weak" and "strong" atheism is, it seems to me, meaningless at this point. However, there is a sense in which it might still be useful, if we recast strong atheism as "knowing that there is/are no God(s)". Replace "believe" with "know", and you've got something that, on the face of it, seems a lot more unreasonable, unyielding, and much more similar to the faith of theistic thinking.

Theists, or at least most of them, will claim to "know" God is real. Atheists, who often come to their lack of faith through critical thinking, will usually be reluctant to claim to "know" anything. Many of them (such as I) also have a great love for the scientific method and logical thought, and understand that all conclusions are provisional.

Therefore it's not unusual to hear an argument proceed somewhat like this:

Theist: "Blah blah, Jesus, blah blah, God, etc."
Atheist: "God doesn't exist!"
Theist: "Oh yeah? Well, how do you know? He might!"
Atheist: "Well, I don't know. You're right; he might indeed - "
Theist: "Ah hah!" stops listening

The score is Theist: 1, Atheist: 0, at least in the theist's eyes. The atheist's allegiance to the central tenets of science, bet-hedging and open-mindedness, has totally hamstrung his or her argument from the getgo.

However, if the atheist instead responded by saying, "I know for sure that God isn't real, and I can prove it," gasps would be drawn all round, even from atheists. Even someone as "strident" as Richard Dawkins would never dream of such a rejoinder.

But would the atheist be wrong to respond in such a way? I'm not so sure that he or she would be. While I'm aware of the importance of the scientific method, and love it as much as Richard Dawkins does, we need to realise what is meant by words like "know" and "prove".

Scientists will often point out that it's impossible to truly "know" anything. They're right of course, by the strictest and most rigourous standards of science. There is an infinitude of unfalsifiable assertions, such as "we're all in the Matrix", or "the world was conjured into being five minutes ago by the Flying Spaghetti Monster".

So if we can't truly "know" anything, why have the word at all? Take "proof" for example. It's impossible to positively prove anything, except perhaps in mathematics and logic. But would it not be a grievous assault on the language to totally eschew the word apart from those contexts? I consider it fair to use these words sans caveat, because if they mean anything at all then their implicated limitations must be intrinsic to them.

This is why it is generally agreed that when we say "we know something and can prove it" that we can only do so within the realm of our limits to do so, shackled as we are to the peculiars of reality. If someone asks for your name, and after your ready answer were to ask you how you knew and if you could prove it, you wouldn't dream for a nanosecond to say, "Well, I don't really know, and it's simply impossible to prove."

Dawkins will often say that we need to stop automatically privileging religion. His cheeky quote, "But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?" is brilliant. But as much as I admire him, I have to accuse him (and countless other atheists) of paying only lip-service to this concept (at least in some situations). Because when it comes to the question of God's existance, the crux of atheism itself, the steely resolve becomes spongey. To privilege that question so highly, that it must always be met with hems and haws and a mountain of caveats is ridiculous.

The germane thing to remember here is that most atheists are as sure about the non-existance of God(s) as they are about any other certainty in their lives. It would be nice if they could start acting like it. We have to abide by the rules of reason - not even the tiniest slip is laudable - but this self-imposed inability to claim to know doesn't seem that reasonable to me.

So... I know for sure that God isn't real. And I can prove it.


  1. Great commentary overall.

    "as sure about the non-existance of God(s) as they are about any other certainty in their lives"

    Don't worry, the considerable strength of the atheistic position will be expressed in the series. Your conviction in this strength and my own are one in the same.

    However, we have a slight philosophical disagreement in that I don't believe that we have to use the words "know" and "prove" to express the extreme magnitude that strength.

  2. To expand on this a bit, "proof" has its proper meaning in Mathematics and I feel it should retain that meaning because mathematical proofs are indeed the strongest type of knowing.

    And "know" has its proper meaning among theists who subscribe to fideism. When an atheist says they "know" God doesn't exist, a fideistic theist will take this to mean the same thing as what they mean when they say that they "know" he does. In reality, atheists like yourself mean something entirely different, and so I feel this word too should retain its original meaning.

    Because, while we agnostic atheists and scientists may realize that you can't really "know" very much at all, a large percentage of the world population doesn't.

    But as I will attempt to show in the series, we can express the extreme soundness and evidential strength of our atheistic position without resorting to the use of the words "know" and "prove".

  3. I hope I didn't come across as though I was attacking the tone of your videos; it was furthest from my intention.

    I don't think that "proof" should be used only for mathematical proof (which is why we have the phrase "mathematical proof") - the more general meaning of "convincing evidence" is useful, and shouldn't be ignored.

    Also, I don't think it's fair that "know" should be surrendered to the fideists, as it seems to me that it's they who misuse the term; but I agree that it can be misleading when arguing directly with one, much like how we seem to have to continually explain what "theory" actually means.

    I guess my point - which is one of tone and so kind of trivial, I admit - put more succinctly is that basically all words imply volumes. Take "up" for instance. There really is no such thing - when the word is used it is automatically understood that the vector being described is relative to some agreed point. The same is true for "know".

    So, I'm okay with qualifying words like "proof" and "know" on occasion, to further refine a point. But I'm not okay with negative claims like "we don't know" when we're obviously certain. No scientist would say, unless they were being glib, that they don't know anything, which is technically true using the extreme definition of "know".

  4. And I look forward to the rest of the series. :)

  5. Evid3nc3 said...
    "Christ. Talk about multiple postings. Sorry about that! "

    I don't know what's wrong with Blogger's commenting system sometimes. When I removed the duplicate posts, all the others disappeared along with them!

    I wouldn't otherwise be making this comment, but making a new comment seems to bring them back somehow.