Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"Strong" vs. "Weak" Atheism; The Debacle of Categorization

I used to think I knew what "atheism" was. I was an atheist, someone who had no belief in god's existence, and no faith that he/it did exist and was the cause of "all things that are."

Then I discovered, through an article written by Austin Cline, in "About.Com" http://www.about.com/ (which is printed below,) that there were those in the atheist community who either thought I was a "weak" atheist, or perhaps not a "strong" atheist. This amazing judgment of my beliefs/disbeliefs was made even more evident by comments in a thread in About.Com. It was hinted that I might not be atheist at all!

I was questioned as to whether or not I believed in a god called "Ahura Mazda," whether I put him in the same "creator gods bucket" as "Jehovah, which I presume is the god you are most familiar with," and I wondered, what sort of idiot did it take to ask me that after I had stated there were no gods.

Then, I was questioned as to whether or not I believed Alexander the Great had actually lived, because he had been "deified," and there is no "requirement" that god's be supernatural, which of course Alexander was not, and if I didn't believe in "gods," how could I believe Alexander was real?

In the name of all that is Naturalistic, where does this crap come from? This bothers me.

It bothers me for several reasons. If I had not happened upon this article dealing with this subject, I could have remained ignorant of the debate, for who knows how long? It seems to be a recent--within the last decade--division. I'm not certain yet whether it is primarily an epistemological division, or one of metaphysics. I suspect there are advocates of boths sides of the division some of whom are dividing the atheists by metaphysics, and some on both sides dividing us with epistemics.

It bothers me that there are two sides in each "camp." "One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything." [Occam's Razor] http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/occamraz.html

It bothers me because a rose by any other name is still a rose. The difference between a rose and "atheism" is that a rose is merely empirical, while "atheism" is not empirical at all. So as far as the denotational divisions go, it is perfectly understandable. We are, sometimes, in differing "camps of particularities." There are so many divisions of "naturalist" and "naturalism" that I can't keep them straight.

Here is Cline's original article, with my [commentary,] with a live link at the bottom to the original:

"Atheism is commonly divided into two types: strong atheism and weak atheism. [Commonly by whom? Attribution would be nice.] Although only two categories, this distinction manages to reflect the broad diversity which exists among atheists when it comes to their positions on the existence of gods. [Only two categories, now, folks, but wait until he gets finished with his propositions. He will have us so divided--but then, he is no different than those among you who believe what he believes--that, a division of a division of a division, is more descriptive of "individualism," or of "diversity."

[I had always believed our "position" on the existence of god's existence was one of nullity, either that we said they don't exist and gave our reasons; or that we gave to the gods no heed, thus nullifying their influence over our thoughts and morals. Gods represent the reification of dogma.]

"Weak atheism, also sometimes referred to as implicit atheism [attribution?], is simply another name for the broadest and most general conception of atheism: the absence of belief in any gods. A weak atheist is someone who lacks theism and who does not happen to believe in the existence of any gods — no more, no less. This is also sometimes called agnostic atheism because most people who self-consciously lack belief in gods tend to do so for agnostic reasons."

[But according to the Law of Existence and the Law of Identity, "agnostic atheism" against the Law of Non-Contradiction, or the Law of Contradiction, which means: is a contradiction in terms.

[Weak atheism is also sometimes called the natural state of the newborn. Is a newborn to be considered a "weak atheist" if he grows up maintaining his nature-given natural metaphysics, i.e., metaphysics developed without the Primacy of Deity over-riding the Primacy of Sovereignty, whereby each unique human has sovereignty only over him/herself, an no sovereignty over others except of children, and legally with some others. And does it without ever giving it further consideration? We often make the claim that religion is taught or imposed by the society which adopts it; if an entire society failed to consider god's existence, would it be a "weak atheist" society?]
"Strong atheism, also sometimes referred to as explicit atheism, goes one step further and involves denying the existence of at least one god, usually multiple gods, and sometimes the possible existence of any gods at all.

[Wait--a "strong" atheist may be one who denies the "possibility" of gods--as opposed to only denying the existence of particular gods?

[If that is to be the definition of "strong," then we must also cordon off those who deny only particualar gods, from those deny the possibility of any gods. Denying the possibility is what I thought every atheistic proposition consisted of. Now I am told that an atheist can deny specific gods, without denying the possibility that "some" god may exist. That is agnosticism.

[Cline is About.Com's resident expert and blogger in the category of "Agnosticism/Atheism." His academic credentials are excellent, having studied here and in Europe and gaining several degrees; he is a Regional Director for the Council for Secular Humanism. So I would give Cline the benefit of the doubt and hope he simply "wasn't thinking" when he wrote that. I have made similar huried or unthought-out mistakes myself. There are several typos and other editorial mistakes in this piece because I formatted incorrectly then could not back out of it.

[But it is a major gaffe, because if someone uses it later to back up a debatable question, the answer is going to be wrong. You cannot fail to deny the possibility of all supernatural gods, and still be labeled "atheist."]

"Strong atheism is sometimes called “gnostic atheism” because people who take this position often incorporate knowledge claims into it — that is to say, they claim to know in some fashion that certain gods or indeed all gods do not or cannot exist.
"Because knowledge claims are involved, strong atheism carries an initial burden of proof which does not exist for weak atheism. Any time a person asserts that some god or any gods do not or cannot exist, they obligate themselves to support their claims."

[Oh! Now that you have decided to be a "strong" atheist who also claims to have epistemic proof that gods do not or that gods cannot exist--wait: either-or is one more division. Why didn't Cline think of it?--now that you have decided, then your atheism is to be more questionable i.e., defeatable,* than that of a weak atheist, because you now bear the burden of your proof, and if the subjectivism of the listener disagrees with you, your entire justification for being atheist goes out the window in his opinion, along with your supposed atheism. If your justification doesn't hold up one way or the other, must you not be required by epistemic ethics to reconsider your atheistic position?

[That is precisely the challenge laid upon us by theists who attempt to debunk your justification; but you are probably going to disagree with him as he disagrees with you, even thought you may not be able to defeat his justification.]

*Dr. Quentin Smith of Western Michigan University, wrote about "defeated
justifiers," and more inportantly about the one syllogism that must remain
undefeated by theists if the naturalist is to have a justified argument. We
cannot let thests have ground, except as is found in their historical
pre-Augustinian role as the skeptical position of naturalism.

"Where N means "naturalism":

"When contemporary science and naturalist philosophy,
conjoined with an evaluation of contemporary theist arguments for "not-N," can be said to justify N;
"and where in fact this conjoining does justify N;
"then N is justified."
[See 13., 14., 15., under "Justifications," in
"The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism" by Quentin Smith

[This is where the formatting mistakes begin.]

"This [gnostic] narrower conception of atheism is often thought by many (erroneously) to represent the entirety of atheism itself. Because strong and weak atheism are often called 'types' of atheism, some people develop the mistaken idea that these are somehow akin to 'denominations' of atheism, not unlike denominations of Christianity. This serves the bolster the myth that atheism is a religion or a belief system. This is unfortunate, in particular because the label of “types” is not entirely accurate; rather, it is simply used due to a lack of better terminology."

[I have thought all along that "strong" and"weak," and the actual epistemic propositions supporting them, were due to a lack of better terminology and denotational accuracy. That means: get the definitions in taxonomic order.]

"To call them different types is to imply on some level that they are separate — a person is either a strong atheist or a weak atheist."

[Is that not what Cline has been trying to tell us all the time???? Duh. It was right there in front of us all the time, because he said it. Then he denied it. If that is not what he means, what does he mean? Well...]

"If we look more closely, however, we will note that almost all atheists are both on various levels." [italics added]

[OMG, now you divide more? How many times can atheism be divided? You are not an Atomist--not that you ought to be--if you believe they are indivisible infinitely. Every "genus" must have at least two "differentia." (Ayn Rand) So every time you make a division of two into two more divisions, you create a new genus with two new differentia. (There comes a point when there is no point to the next genus; or, to one of the new differentia, which then would automatically disqualify that genus.)

[Since "almost all atheists are both on various levels," this proposition recombines two genuses, making them as indistinguishable as are the many combinations of Empiricists with Rationalists. That, then, eliminates one genus of "atheist."

[Rand herself, I suspect, would eliminate them to one genus with two differentia. I quote Rand (cut and paste):"concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity—the corollary of which is: nor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity." “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,”Introduction to ObjectivistEpistemology. That is called "Rand's Razor." Yes, she had her own, similar to Occam's. What they also had in common was that each had justified true belief in the metaphysics of essences as concepts, vs. Aristotle's/Aquinas' essences as "things in themselves."

[But by the same token, they are to be integrated only by necesssity. This is because we sometimes make errors of judgment caused by lack of data; or by any means of misjudging the truth. We can multiply as often as is necessary, but we should not re-integrate in haste. We are not saints. Men do not claim to be infallible. Infallibility is for the gods. We are not gods; "We wake to the world of Men." (MarcusAurelius)]

"The primary indication of [all atheists being both on some issues] can be seen in that the definition of weak atheism, lacking belief in the existence of any gods, is in fact that basic definition of atheism itself. What this means is that all atheists are weak atheists. The difference, then, between weak and strong atheism is not that some people belong to one instead of the other, but rather that some people belong to one in addition to the other. All atheists are weak atheists because all atheists, by definition, lack belief in the existence of gods. Some atheists, however, are also strong atheists because they take the extra step of denying the existence of at least some gods."

[This is an "unnecessary" division with no justification. Such people who are in denial of at least some gods, allow therefore the possibility that some gods do exist. This is not a division of atheism; it is agnosticism.]

"Technically, saying that “some” atheists do this isn’t entirely accurate. Most, if not all, atheists are willing to deny the existence of some gods if asked — few only “lack belief” in the existence of Zeus or Apollo, for example."

[And those who are not willing to deny the existence of all gods are agnostic.]

"Thus, while all atheists are weak atheists, pretty much all atheists are also strong atheists with respect to at least some gods. So is there any value at all in the terms? Yes — which label a person uses will tell you something about their general inclination when it comes to debates about gods. A person who uses the label “weak atheist” may deny the existence of some gods, but as a general rule isn’t going to take the step of asserting the nonexistence of a particular god. [!] Instead, they are more likely to wait for the theist to make their case and then examine whether that case is credible or not."

[But because of the divisions of "weak" atheists, we are still in the position of having to ask this "weak atheist" to determine for us which position he takes on this or on that.]

"A strong atheist, on the other hand, may be a weak atheist by definition, but by adopting that label the person is in effect communicating a willingness and interest to take a much more proactive role in theological debates. They are more likely to assert right up front that a particular god does not or cannot exist and then make a case for that, even if the theist doesn’t do much to defend the position of belief."

AustinCline, About.com http://atheism.about.com/od/atheismquestions/a/strong_weak.htm

Why I am An Atheist by Curtis Edward Clark

I am an atheist, not primarily because a of disbelief,whether positive or negative; nor from a belief, whether positive or negative. Rather, I am atheist because I do not sacrifice my reason to religious faith.

Religious reason is something else altogether. For one thing, it is the "religion" of Deism, the "religion" of the Founding Fathers of America. Do you know why it is not a "religion" in the dogmatic sense? Because each man or woman was allowed, under Deism, the absolute religious freedom to believe what he/she wanted in the pursuit of Reason. http://www.deism.com/deism_defined.htm

If that individualistic belief was anything other than in search of reason, then it was tinged with faith, and therefore suspect until the character of the individual had been assessed. Atheism as a religion is the merely the same religious freedom when granted to atheists, no more, no less. It is the belief, whether Deist or atheist, that is within the bounds of epistemic reason, of the individual sovereignty of each to believe in his own ideas.

It is within the bounds of "organized religions" that each person is advised to believe, not in his/her reason, but in the dogma. Witness the political candidates who are forced to choose between politics and their church, and choosing politics are told not to come to Communion.

Those in the eighteenth century who could not bring themselves to sever their beliefs from their church were theists, yet were trusted as much by Deists as the Deists trusted themsleves. They went to church with those theists, had discourse with them, voted for some of them in politics and in church affairs, and married together; but those who could and did sever themselves from the politic of the church they attended were called Deists.

Atheism can be religion when "religion is a frame of reference to man’s life and a code of moral values, [such as during the time] before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy. And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points. They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very—how should I say it?—dangerous or malevolent base: on the ground of faith. “Playboy’sInterview with Ayn Rand,” March 1964.

That was Rand's opinion, with which I agree. Deists, however, did not have belief in God, as supernatural religions have. Deists had justified true beliefs (undefeated justifiers) and were not dangerous or malevolent in their overall beliefs. Not, at least, on the grounds of faith, because they had no faith, as do no atheists. But a Deist has justified true belief in God, instead. Atheists have justified true beliefs that the existence of a creator is a contradiction to the Primacy of Existence, even if they have no idea what that amounts to and even if they have never heard it. State it to an atheist, and he will say, "That is what I've always felt."

The atheist has no reason to justify the existence of a God that to him is neither an epistemic truth, nor an object of metaphysical knowledge. So they each have a "sound" syllogism, the Deist and the atheist, a soundness which comes from having chosen one of the fifteen "valid" syllogisms of post-Aristotelean logic. (Aristotle allowed 24.) And each of their undefeated justifiers can and will always defeat the evangelicals, when the defeat of theistic propositions is accomplished with formal syllogistic logic that meets the criteria for "valid" and for "sound."

But when the evangelical has as valid and as sound an argument, then, like atheists and Deists on one side of the opposed-to-religion coin, then the evangelical joins the Deist on the same side of the opposed-to-atheist coin.

Rand also had something to say about her own use of the word religion, which I agree with and which I use in the definition of the Free Assemblage of Metaphysical Naturalists. (See the first Academy of Metaphysical Naturalists' weblog, under "Archive." )

"[There is one] possibly misleading sentence . . . " Rand wrote, "in Roark’s speech:

“From this simplest necessity to the highest religious
abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man—the function of his reasoning mind.”

"This could be misinterpreted to mean an endorsement of religion or
religious ideas. I remember hesitating over that sentence, when I wrote it, and deciding that Roark’s and my atheism, as well as the overall spirit of the book, were so clearly established that no one would misunderstand it, particularly since I said that religious abstractions are the product of man’s mind, not of supernatural revelation."

Amen, as she herself said a few times. Since an atheist by definition says "religious abstractions are the product of man’s mind, not of supernatural revelation," then I say an atheist by any other name smells as sweet. And I affirm that atheists can have religious convictions, if those convictions do not attend the existence of a god of any nature, supernatural or "natural," as with Alexander the Great.

*Free will is here used as in "free will," both the kind attributed to man's ego; and the kind attributed to legal papers such as "free wills," or generically called "free will forms." http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&aq=t&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4GGQD_enUS290US290&q=free+will+form

Please send all comments to



The Free Assemblage of Metaphysical Naturalists is the sm of the
Academy of Metaphysical Naturalism tm, the educational arm of the Assemblage.
This publication © 2008 by Curtis Edward Clark and Naturalist Academy Publishing ®

blog comments powered by Disqus