On Being a Weak vs a Strong Atheist

Another blog to share, Marginalia, recently posted an “interview with an atheist” in which he answered 30 questions directed toward atheists. If you haven’t read it, give it a visit. And read his other posts. Some good reads there.

A few of the “interview questions” illustrate a question I have about “being an atheist.” This is about the weak vs strong atheism. In short, my question is “Which one am I?” But, this skirts the context, so let me explain further.

The Weak vs the Strong

The difference between weak and strong atheism has to do with the kind of statement you are making regarding atheism. Weak atheism is lacking a belief in gods: “I don’t believe in gods.” Strong atheism is declaring gods don’t exist: “There are no gods.”

Although this may be an oversimplification, the difference comes down to whether or not you consider the case to be closed on the existence of gods. So, if you’re willing to leave open the possibility that gods exist, but don’t believe any exist, you are a weak atheist. If you don’t believe any gods exist because you claim their nonexistence is sufficiently demonstrable, then you are a strong atheist.

In this regard, I would call myself a weak atheist.

Doesn’t that Answer Your Question?

I know what you’re think, didn’t I answer my own question? Well, here’s where I can start to provide the context. I want to return to the questions Gerald Taylor (the blogger behind Marginalia) was answering. Specifically, questions 6 and 7.

6. Do you affirm that atheism is a worldview? Why or Why not?

7. Do you act in accord with what you do believe in (there is no god) or what you don’t believe in (lack belief in god)?

For question 6, I would use a more specific definition of worldview than the one Talyor uses: “…is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual or society’s knowledge and point-of-view. A world view can include natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.”

However, I would come to the same basic conclusion: that atheism informs a worldview without fully encompassing the worldview.

Question 7 is the million dollar question, for me.

Living Like there are no Gods

Taylor’s response to question 7 is a common one and the response I would give: “I can’t claim to prove that God doesn’t exist (and really, who could prove such a thing?). But, functionally, I live my life as though there isn’t a God.” This response professes a weak atheist belief while living in accord with a strong atheist position. Now, I don’t think there is anything inconsistent with this. However, I wonder if we should feel like it is inconsistent.

Should I take the ontological implication of the “way I live” more seriously? If I live like a strong atheist, why don’t I just call myself a strong atheist?

On the one hand, it seems like using the “way I live” as reason to call myself a strong atheist gives more conviction to the “way I live.” Alternatively, I see a value in embracing the contingency of maintaining the weak belief position when that is the case. I am happy to admit that I may be making much ado about nothing. Also, I really don’t have a solid answer to this.

Thoughts?

On Intermingling ‘Isms’

Ryan Bell posted a reply to Jonnie Russell’s [not the Russell of the previous post – I presume :)] article looking at ‘Evangelical Atheisms’.

I highly recommend Jonnie Russell’s piece, as I think it gives a very fair look at the Sunday Assembly and Bell’s ‘Year without God.’ He notes the ‘Christian-ness’ to them while keeping a fair assessment of the two projects.

One part of Russell’s article, regarding Bell’s journey, really stuck out to me: “Does Bell’s Christian exploration inevitably cast atheism as some kind of subtraction (life minus faith) rather than as a completely different way of experiencing and describing the human condition?”

If I had to sum up what ‘atheism’ does poorly, it is this last bit – clearly explicate how it is “a completely different way of experiencing and describing the human condition.”

I’ll have to comment on this more when I’m not extending my lunch break to post, but I thought I should share the article.

On New Blogs and Being a Nonbeliever

I recently encountered a new blog here on wordpress: Russell & Pascal. It is a blog written by two friends (one a Christian, one who recently deconverted). The blog aims to have a dialog about religious (non)belief that always remains civil.

I’ve touched on it from time to time, but growing up a nonbeliever, I often enjoy reading the experiences of people who have left religion because they provide a different perspective on nonbelief.  In this manner, reading Russell’s posts has been a pleasure.

In particular, I had an interesting experience reading Russell’s ‘about‘ page. In this post, he writes:

I am an aAAth. This is so very hard. I have actual tears trying to type that word. It appears I’m not ready to admit it yet.”

For all intents and purposes, I have been an atheist my entire life. It’s not quite right to say I was raised an atheist, but I was definitely raised without religion. My parents did not invoke god (or really even discuss god) while I was growing up. Let’s put it this way, my sensus santa clausis was much stronger than my sensus divinitatis. As a result, calling myself an atheist comes as easy to me as calling myself Jeff.

A common part of many deconversion stories is a sadness in leaving a religious identity, and Russell’s expression is in line with this theme. However, for some reason, reading this line from Russell’s about page struck me differently. He was brought to tears self-identifying as what I’ve always been. I don’t know how to describe it but that I had one of those life is weird moments.

I wanted to read Russell’s line as: becoming like Jeff brought Russell to tears. Obviously, this is completely false and misses the point entirely. Russell is going from Christian Russell to atheist Russell, and accepting this means letting go of certain ways Russell understood his place in the world. In so doing, Russell was bringing himself to tears. Jeff has nothing to do with it. Jeff is a totally different person. Jeff is feeling kinda weird referring to himself in the third person. But, in the moment, I couldn’t help but personalize it.

When I encounter religious people say things like “being an atheist is lonely and depressing” or that “atheists actually know god exists but they delude themselves to justify being selfish,” my response is a hearty, often defensive “fuck you.” My reaction to Russell’s post wasn’t a defensive reaction. I want to say it was sympathy, but I don’t think that’s quite right. In my head I was saying: “Nah, Russell. Wipe those tears. Atheistland is awesome. I’m walking on sunshine! Whoaoh!  

In a post from a couple weeks ago, Russell listed some of the reasons he is not a Christian. His list had 43 points. I remember laughing to myself as I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled. There is something chuckle-worthy in how the earnestness of human conviction can result in really long lists.

For myself, I am not a Christian for 1 reason: I don’t believe in the existence of any gods. I cannot say I’ve come to this position for intellectual reasons. As I mentioned above, I’m here by parentage. However, I’ve never become a theist because I’ve never been given a convincing reason to believe in a god that mattered. More importantly, I’ve never felt compelled to seek a god. Contrary to the platitude, there has never been a god-shaped hole in my heart. I recognize that these are vague explanations. Perhaps I’ll unpack them at a later time, but I’m leaving them for now.

This world, this life, has always been enough for me. It has to be; it’s what I’ve got. I’ve got my interests, my relationships, and my ability to have a positive impact on those around me. I can be a good person and a good example. My life feels small and simple. It’s mostly getting up, getting some coffee, and getting on with it. But it’s quite fulfilling.

That fulfillment. Reading about Russell’s tears didn’t mesh with that. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to express a sense of contentment. There are things in my life and in the world that I want to be different. But that’s all just a part of the getting up and getting on with it. Living. It’s fulfilling.

To be fair, if I found myself intellectually compelled to leave my worldview, I would be sad too. It would be disquieting; my worldview defines the meaning of my life and my relationships. I don’t fault Russell his tears. I’d have them going the other direction. But, again, that’s the disconnect. That’s the “sympathy” I mentioned earlier. Leaving this life is worth crying for as well. As far as I can tell, at least. Being sad about becoming something you’d be sad to leave. I don’t know. Life is weird.

On Things That Make You Go “Ugh”

1. Headline: STEPHEN HAWKING’S BLUNDER ON BLACK HOLES SHOWS DANGER OF LISTENING TO SCIENTISTS, SAYS BACHMANN

Key Quote: “Actually, Dr. Hawking, our biggest blunder as a society was ever listening to people like you,” said Rep. Bachmann. “If black holes don’t exist, then other things you scientists have been trying to foist on us probably don’t either, like climate change and evolution.”

Minnesota, I get that she holds office due to gymnastics-level gerrymandering,  but I blame all of you. You’re dead to me until her term’s finally over.

2a. Headline: Fake arrests of pastors cause real grief for Summit County sheriff

Key Quotes: “The goal of the dramatization is to make people more aware of what it takes for pastors to defend the Christian faith beyond preaching on Sundays.”

and

“Barry said his deputies (two who were off duty and unpaid and two who were on duty and paid) participated as an act of good will to help the faith community in its efforts.”

MEANWHILE

2b. Headline: U.S. IMMIGRATION SERVICES DENIES APPLICANT BASED ON SECULAR BELIEFS

Key Quote: “A California resident applying for U.S. citizenship has had her application denied because immigration officials did not accept as valid a conscientious objector, declaration to “bear arms” in defense of the U.S. because it is secular in nature.”

So, pastors are joining up with local police to stage fake arrests as part of a marketing campaign for their upcoming stage show, while a person is being denied citizenship because of her secular beliefs. It really is hard to be a Christian in America.