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Austin Cline

The Utility of Weak Atheism

By December 29, 2005

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When religious theists attack atheism, they prefer to attack strong atheism, the denial of the existence of gods, because it's a positive claim which can be evaluated and critiqued. They don't like dealing with weak atheism, the absence of belief in gods, because they forces them to defend and support their own claims. Is that why they try to insist that weak atheism isn't real atheism?

Jason Bowden writes:

Atheism has been traditionally understood as disbelief in god. However, suspicious atheists have believed this is a result of religious people defining atheists from their own point of view.

I don’t know where Jason Bowden lives, but in my experience atheists object when theists insist that atheism must only be defined as the denial of the existence of God (note the capitalization: they only have one particular god in mind). Atheists point out the fact that dictionaries define atheism as disbelief or denial of gods — the “disbelief” definition is something they emphasize, not get upset about.

Why? Because in standard dictionaries, disbelieve does not mean the same as deny (if it did, it would be pointless to say “disbelieve or deny”). Disbelieve means “not believe” or “not credit.” Not believe is not, logically, the same as “believe not.” Disbelief in the existence of gods is the definition of “weak atheism” which Jason Bowden is seeking to discredit.

Lacking a careful response, many have introduced the idea of weak atheism, which means the lack of belief in god, as opposed to strong atheism, which is disbelief in god. Some have even revised what it means to be an atheist to this definition.

This is 100% false. First, because disbelief in gods is the definition of weak atheism — you can’t insist that atheism is disbelief in gods while denying the validity of weak atheism. Denial of gods is strong atheism, something which can be readily verified by looking at just about any atheism site or book (which Bowden apparently didn't do). Second, Jason Bowden implies that this is a recent development which just isn’t so — atheists have been using atheism to mean the absence of belief in gods since at least the 18th century.

In addition, suppose a person examines atheism and a few religions and decides not to believe any of them. This person explicitly rejects atheism, has an open mind towards spirituality but hasn’t affirmed a religion for whatever motivation. Shall we call those who reject atheism atheists? Under the definition of weak atheism, we should.

First, it makes no sense for a person “not to believe” atheism because atheism isn’t a claim. Like the adjective apolitical, the label either applies or it doesn’t — it’s not something you can “believe in” or “affirm.” Second, the fact that a person hasn’t “affirmed a religion” is irrelevant because atheism and religion are orthogonal categories. Some religions are theistic and some are atheistic; some theists are irreligious and some atheists are irreligious. Third, being open-minded about religion is also irrelevant. Some atheists are, some aren’t. It’s simply not a factor in whether a person qualifies as an atheist or not.

All that matters is whether the person affirms the existence of any gods. If they do, then they are a theist. If not, then they are necessarily an a-theist. Those are the only choices available.

Well, religious people are not actively believing in god every minute of their life; they may be thinking about the basketball game, the bills, what they want for dinner, et cetera.

Jason Bowden seems to be using a very odd definition of “belief” if a person can cease to “believe” something merely because it isn’t on their conscious mind at the moment. Belief, in the context of atheism and theism (and just about every other context I can think about, to be quite honest), simply means accepting some proposition as true. The fact that one isn’t actively thinking about the proposition doesn’t mean that one doesn’t believe it.

Does Jason Bowden stop believing that he is male simply because he isn't staring at his genitals at any given moment? Is this something that he simply forgets about when paying the bills?

I propose that the distinction between “weak” and “strong” atheism be jettisoned in favor of the standard definition found in the dictionaries.

If only the definition found in comprehensive, unabridged dictionaries didn’t already make the distinction between strong and weak atheism... since Jason Bowden began without realizing this fact, his entire post was doomed to failure. That’s what happens when people try to write about things they don’t understand. I don’t know if Jason Bowden is an atheist or not, but he doesn’t understand the subject well enough to be writing this sort of thing.


Update: Bowden reveals at least one of his problems: poor research skills. He claims to have checked several "dictionaries online" as to the definition of disbelief, coming up no definition for disbelief other than "to refuse to believe; reject as untrue." What is it about people who think that a couple of Google searches qualifies as research?

If Bowden had genuine research skills, or even just the ability to follow the link above, he'd have found that comprehensive, unabridged dictionaries define disbelieve first and foremost as "not believe." I say that he "claims" to have checked online dictionaries because I know for a fact that most list "not believe" and "withhold belief" as meanings.

If he had thought about it a bit harder, he'd have realized that "refuse to believe" (not to mention "not believe" and "withhold belief") doesn't mean "deny." It's amusing that he calls atheists like me "lazy" when it's clear that he doesn't put any work into researching or understanding what he wants to defend. At least he doesn't continue to try to defend the nonsense that people stop believing what they aren't currently giving conscious thought to, but he also doesn't acknowledge that it was wrong to propose it in the first place.

Then there is this strange idea of his that the fact that someone has a belief somehow trumps not accepting that belief is true. He really seems to believe in the validity of the ad populum and ad numeram argument: because our theism has existed in so many people for so long, that "wins by default" over simply not accepting it as true in the absence of any sound, non-fallacious arguments. I've never encountered anyone who thinks that fallacious arguments are better than no arguments at all. I honestly don't understand how a person's thinking can be so twisted and thus don't really have any response except to note that once a person has openly jettisoned basic logic, there's no reason to take anything else they say seriously.


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