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?

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4 comments

  1. GeeDeeTee · March 25, 2014

    Hi, and thanks for the mention! I think that your question is a very interesting one, and I’ll now take a stab at an answer.

    I agree with you: I see no inconsistency in professing to be a weak atheist while living like a strong one.

    One reason to think there is no inconsistency here is that we accept such reasoning in many other areas (most of which, interestingly enough, involve things as metaphysically spooky as God). What do we think about the ontological status of unicorns, or Zeus, or magic carpets? I would say that most people people cannot prove conclusively that none of those things exist anywhere in the universe (which is the sort of claim that the strong atheist is making about God). Still, most people live their lives tacitly accepting the non-existence of such things. I’d bet that almost no one worries day to day that they will be struck down by Zeus, and I’d bet that most people would be surprised to see someone flying around on an expensive looking rug.

    To further illustrate the point, consider a stereotypical argument against the existence of black swans. Suppose that I’ve seen 10 million white swans in the wild. And suppose that I come to the conclusion, based on my substantial body of evidence, that all swans are white (there are no black swans). I would indeed be justified in believing that there are no black swans, but I wouldn’t then have proved that there are no black swans. After all, despite the preponderance of evidence in favor of the non-existence of black swans, all it would take is a single black swan to invalidate the argument. Such is the nature of inductive (rather than deductive) arguments.

    Similarly, many atheists marshal arguments against the existence of God. And in the process, they make it very reasonable indeed to be unconvinced of God’s existence. But the mistake, I think, comes when they claim that they have disproved God’s existence outright. Perhaps they have invalidated many religions along the way. But what kind of evidence could they present that would conclusively demonstrate that a god does not exist in any form, anywhere within (or without) the boundaries of the universe? I daresay that no one could present such evidence. Yet all it would take is one appearance by a god to invalidate the (admittedly very strong) inductive argument against the existence of a God. Hence my ascription to weak atheism.

    All of this is to say that while the reasons to believe that God exists have all but vanished, we have yet to (and I think cannot) prove that some god, in some form, somewhere, doesn’t exist. And, for that reason, it is perfectly consistent to profess to be a weak atheist and live like a strong one.

    • thecaveatlector · March 26, 2014

      Gerald,

      Thank you for the response. I don’t think the Strong Atheist position has to exhaustively disprove all possible gods that could lurk behind every ontological corner, just the ones on offer. Likewise, I don’t think the Strong Atheist position requires conclusive disproof. I think you can justify a Strong Atheist stance by putting forward a sufficient Bayesian ‘Naturalism is more likely than Theism’ set of arguments to justify a Strong Atheist stance. (Something like: There are a limited number of swans, and I have personally observed millions of swans, and no swans have been black. This is more likely if no black swans exists. Therefore, I believe no black swans exist.)

      Truth be told, the Strong Atheist position simply commits one to giving a justification for believing no gods exist. It doesn’t need to be a good justification, we just want good justifications.

      However, part of what motivates me is that the debate about the existence of gods is old and not conclusive (as in, neither side has clearly convinced the other side). The thing about gods (including Zeus) versus unicorns or magic carpets is that gods have a larger implication on my life than unicorns or magic carpets. They impact my worldview in a much larger way than unicorns and magic carpets.

      Acknowledging the debate is inconclusive, I live like I’m taking a stand on one side or the other. It seems like I should just accept that stand. Isn’t that a tacit acknowledgement that the debate is settled for me?

      ***As I’ve been typing this, I might have worked out my intuition on this. Even if one does not feel the debate is closed, living like there are no gods makes one a non-culpable nonbeliever, which is an argument against certain theistic conceptions of God. This may be what is pulling my intuition. Living as if there are no gods may function as arguments against some conceptions of gods – which would encourage declaring belief that no gods exist, but not all conceptions of gods – which is why one would maintain a Weak Atheist position.***

      Sorry, this response is a bit all over the place. 🙂

      • GeeDeeTee · March 26, 2014

        I agree that one can be justified in believing there are no gods, for all the reasons that I cited before (regarding strong inductive arguments) and for the reasons you just gave. When I made the distinction between strong and weak atheists, I was talking more about the extent to which one could prove their beliefs. I think (and perhaps I’m unjustified in thinking this) that evidence for or against the existence of a god or goes is just not the sort of thing that people like us (read: human people) can provide. Such claims require a breadth and depth of knowledge that is simply unrealistic for us. Given that fact, I wouldn’t feel like I was being intellectual honest if I went around telling people I’d proved that God didn’t exist (or that He did). This is why I think there is a difference (maybe a subtle one) between saying ‘I don’t believe in God’ and “I believe that is no God’, and why I’d say I’m a weak atheist and not a strong one. Indeed, the claim that ‘there is no God’ seems to be just as faith-based as the claim that ‘there is a God’; we just don’t (and I think can’t) have the relevant evidence for either claim.

        That said, the question of whether particular gods exist (like Zeus, or Yahweh, or Allah) is a relatively easy one to answer. One need only point out the numerous logical errors and inconsistencies in the arguments for such beings to answer the question; alternatively, one could point out the breathtaking lack of real evidence for such beings; still another option is to point out the murky and questionable origins of the god stories themselves. But again, proving that a particular religion’s conception of god is false is a much different kind of task than proving that a god doesn’t exist at all, anywhere, in any form. (Notice that this reasoning is implicit in the god-of-the-gaps argument. The point of the argument is not that God doesn’t exist. The point of the argument is that we no longer have any reason to believe that a God-explanation is necessary for explaining the world; there are no more gaps in which God can hide.)

        The point is something like this: I think the “job” of an atheist (or of any critical thinker) is to point out when people aren’t reasoning in acceptable ways, and not to make metaphysical claims about the existence (or non-existence) of gods.

  2. Ignostic Atheist · March 25, 2014

    The issue I have is that people don’t have to disprove the existence of all gods to believe there is none. It’s a fairly simple exercise to go from not having any reason to believe in a god to believing there is none, and it’s called the null hypothesis. The only question is, what is your null hypothesis? If your default belief is that there is a god, but you just don’t have any reason to not believe, then you are a theist, taking the null hypothesis in the absence of conclusive data. If you can’t find a reason to believe, then you retain the belief that there is no god.

    My childhood, I believed and had sufficient evidence. Over time, that evidence wore thin, but I retained my null hypothesis. And one day that hypothesis reversed. So yes, I will happily say I can’t prove there is no god, because god is a poorly defined term which will frequently mean the most vague first mover someone can conceive (but that first mover is totally my insane, vengeful god!). At the same time, I will say that there is none, because there is no reason to believe there is.

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