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Sep 28, 2011

Strong vs. Weak Atheism

The confusion of these terms, as well as the disagreement as to whether or not these terms should exist or be used, is something that crops up from time to time in discussions about atheism.

I recently came across such on a USENET group and was thinking about how to address this point that has been addressed time and time again.
To wit, a Strong atheist is a person that has a positive belief in the non-existence of a god. They actively and affirmatively state said god "does not exist."
A Weak atheist is a person that simply lacks the positive belief in the existence of a god. They neither actively state that said god "exists" nor "does not exist."
The latter position is often ignored, or dismissed, and atheists are generally categorized as "Strong." I feel that this is inappropriate, and I will illustrate this with an analogy:

We could conceive of people who, as a matter of principle, and deliberate action, actively avoid Disney World. We will call these people "Strong a-Disney-ists."

We could also conceive of people who, as a simple matter of fact, have not been to Disney World, but not necessarily because they are actively avoiding it, but because the course of their life has yet to bring them there. We will call these people "Weak a-Disney-ists."

This, to me, doesn't see like an unreasonable distinction to make and the distinction seems clear. In order to have never been to a place, it isn't necessary for you to actively avoid it. I've never been to Paris, but that isn't because I'm actively avoiding it; In fact, I'd like to go there some day.

Yet, a person who actively avoids Disney World and a person who has simply never been there could both be categorized as people who have never been to Disney World (a-Disney-ists). Furthermore, it would be inappropriate to characterize everyone based upon the "Strong" model and then, therefore, assume that everyone who has never been to Disney World is actively avoiding it.

This corresponds to atheism. An atheist is a person who doesn't believe in god. This could because they are actively denying a god's existence, or simply because they have no reason to accept god's existence. Likewise it would be inappropriate to characterize all atheists as Strong.

8 comments:

Shripathi Kamath said...

The distinction serves only weak atheists who somehow accord an undue respect to the matter. And because it serves weak atheists, it sets them up to be subjected to deliberate dishonesty from theists. They purposely distort the two.

As a strong atheist, I do not deny them that, but I also find it as distracting.

We do not have strong anarchists and weak anarchists. We have anarchists.

We call people bald, even if we have not examined to make sure that they do not have a single hair, at least visible to us at some distance. Technically we'd be required to say that.

We say that the radioactive decay of a mass of nuclei occurs at random, not "I do not believe it is caused". We say it is impossible (not "almost impossible", or "I believe it is not possible") to determine simultaneously the position and momentum of a sub-atomic particle.

We accept that all humans will certainly die, not "there is evidence to believe that humans will die"

We accept that "I believe that humans are not immortal" and not "I do not believe that humans are immortal" or "I do not believe that humans can be immortal"

Face it, weak atheists are not precise with propositions that demand a far higher level of rigor than atheism. Insisting on the nuance specifically and almost exclusively for a position of atheism is at best inconsistent.

I find it more accurate to say that there is no god. That's way I act, I live, I think. How can I know? The same way I know other things. The same I know something does not exist.

Could I be wrong? Of course.

Could a weak theist be wrong in his or her position?

The same "of course".

In both cases, only when there is evidence presented that convinces us.

Democurus said...

I think that's an oversimplification. A person can be "Strong" or "Weak" depending on what god concept is being discussed.

To say that a person must be "Strong" for all god-concepts or "Weak" for all god-concepts excludes a rather large middle.

Shripathi Kamath said...

Regarding your Disney World example, I see three kinds:

There are people who have heard of Disney World and go there.

There are people who have heard of Disney World and do not go there.

There are people who have not heard of Disney World and do not go there

(other variations or categorizations may exist, but the above suffices for what I am about to say)

I do not think that the above three cases represent mapping on to theist, strong atheist and weak atheist respectively. The second category is analogous to atheist and contains both strong and weak. The third is again analogous to atheist, and until they are asked, we cannot determine which flavor.

In your parlance, one in the first group is a Disneyist, in the second or third is an adisneyist, whether strong or weak can only be determined by asking her.

Shripathi Kamath said...

'To say that a person must be "Strong" for all god-concepts or "Weak" for all god-concepts excludes a rather large middle.'

I am not saying that a person MUST be or MUST not be a strong atheist. I prefer the term atheist without qualifications. If you call yourself a weak atheist, no skin off my nose.

I am saying that weak atheists, in my experience, who insist on being distinguished as such, citing the intellectually superior (or at least the philosophically or logically correct) position do not accord the same care to a myriad of other things in life.

I am not asking that they do, I am simply pointing out that they give undue respect to the concept of gods, with that insistence.

A god that I consider for atheism is someone who is living (or immortal), performs magic and is worshiped.

Sure there is the concept of a deist god, which does not meet the above, and should not be lumped in the same pool. A person who has shaved his head for surgery or has chemotherapy is technically bald, we do not mostly consider them in the same pool as bald men.

Democurus said...

I'm not sure what we're talking about at this point. My point was two fold: to note and explain that the characterization of all atheists as necessarily strong is inappropriate and, in doing so, identify and clarify the relationship between strong and weak atheism.

I don't speak to the merits of the weak atheist position, I merely identify its logical existence. I'm unsure of your position.

Do you acknowledge its existence, but simply disagree with the merits of its position, or do you think that weak atheism doesn't even deserve acknowledgement?

Shripathi Kamath said...

I thought I was clear, but perhaps I will be clearer if I addressed your questions, with simple declarative sentences.

There are weak atheists. I acknowledge that readily.

I am a strong atheist.

I would prefer that all of us are known as simply atheists, but if a weak atheist wants the distinction, it is fine by me. Just like if somebody wants to be a Christian, it is fine by me. No skin off my nose. Both exist.

What I want to note is that weak atheists offer undue respect to the concept of gods and by inferences to theism, that they do not offer to myriad other concepts in their lives, and I find that to be inconsistent, sometimes hypocritical, and an unnecessary and distracting concession to theists, as I note with a few examples.

I am not challenging your thesis that there are strong, weak, and some in the middle depending upon the specific god-concept, rather commenting on the utility of the distinction.

Democurus said...

Ah, I understand. I apologize for any confusion on my part.

What would you attribute this "undue respect?" Perhaps social pressure? A desire to not be *too* ostracized?

Shripathi Kamath said...

The "undue respect" comes from a clever conditioning of atheists in a theist-dominated world. The atheist is often conscientious, always making sure that she is careful with her words, so as not to belie any certitude where there is, logically, none. The theist is not subject to any such precision or honesty.

For example, in a court of law, the standard is "guilty until proven innocent". The theist always co-opts this position for herself, and assigns the "in science, ideas are wrong until proven right" to the atheist. At the very outset, both start with the balance of a debate heavily in favor of theism, and it never changes.

Why bother debating, then?

I encountered this a lot in my exchanges, where any hedging on my part, by adherence to precise logic is taken as an endorsement of their position.

Then I examined that I do not use the same language with most anything in life. I say what I know, and then correct myself when I am wrong. I do not say "The current scientific theory says that nothing travels faster than the speed of light in a vacuum", but do say "Nothing travels faster than the speed of light in a vacuum".

So why do I do differently for gods, where no evidence is even examinable? I should be hedging my bets with a stock tip that is promised to reap me riches in three days, and often I dismiss it as "No, that is plain rubbish, no such returns exist". If I were consistent, I would be hedging similarly.

I do not. I do not do this for just about every other thing in life, even when I have had experiences to the contrary.

So why do I place gods on a pedestal, when that concept is weaker than anything else I deal with?

Social pressure would matter only if I was trying to hide the fact that I was an atheist to not get ostracized. Atheists are already ostracized more than most groups (The Tea Party overtook us recently, but I suspect that is a temporary change of rankings)

I suspect it is more a case of conditioning, and yet another example of religion being given unearned privileges.

Bill O'Reilly uses this often when he debates Dawkins on his show.

"Where did all this come from, if not from God?"

Dawkins stutters, hesitates and says "I do not know the exact or all the details but..."

And O'Reilly just jumps on that and says "Therefore, God".

In my opinion either a weak atheist should hold the theist to the same exacting standard they hold strong atheists to, or adopt the simpler stance "I know there are no gods. Of course I could be wrong, if you think I am, show me"

But like I said, no skin off my nose if they do not. I would prefer simply going by atheist, and not spend countless exchanges explaining the subtle differences between "believe there are no gods" and "do not believe there are gods"

What is asserted without evidence should be dismissed without evidence.