Strong and weak, positive and negative - my change of position
by Francois Tremblay
The atheological debate over the terms “weak atheism” and “strong atheism” doesn’t seem to be anywhere near being solved. While two major works (“Atheism : A Philosophical Justification” and “Atheism : The Case Against God”) both affirm the distinction, other atheologists deny it altogether.
I’ve been involved in it for a while, and there’s a lot of bitterness on the part of “weak atheists” in trying to deny the existence of positive arguments. Since I was on the “strong” side, I always felt strongly that such attacks were unneeded and very insulting. I think it arises from the fact that “weak atheists” think they have the superior position (in not having to prove anything) and dislike other people putting the burden of proof on them.
Recently, however, I’ve done interviews with David Eller, who amongst other things wrote the book “Natural Atheism”. He says there is no distinction, but not becasue he denies the existence of “strong atheism”. Rather, he proposes that “weak” and “strong” atheism are in fact the same thing, two sides of the same coin. His basic reasoning is that, if you don’t believe in “God”, then the absence of evidence for “God” necessarily entails that you also affirm the non-existence of “God”. Or said differently : only a Believer is deluded enough to look past the total lack of evidence.
I think this argument hinges on our definition of “evidence”. Evidence is a piece of data which supports a claim in some way, in short, gives a comparative advantage to a claim against other claims. So does, say, the argument from design count as evidence ? Not at all – it could justify a lot of other competing claims, and in fact justify them better, such as polytheism, pantheon beliefs, belief in a non-divine supernatural being, belief in some all-encompassing supernatural process, belief in some all-encompassing natural process, Neo-Darwinism (in the case of living organisms), and all sorts of varieties in between. The belief in a single god, or in many gods, or in any god, is not comparatively advantaged by the Design Arguments.
We could go through each class of arguments, but I think you get the idea. For there to be evidence of “god”, we need either empirical evidence of gods themselves, or facts that can only be explained by the existence of gods. And if we had either of these, there would be no need for “belief” at all. The debate would not even exist – we would be busy trying to understand or communicate with this being, and since it would be material, we could understand it using the scientific method.
Yet there is belief. The implication seems obvious. And if there is no evidence, then that means there is no difference between “weak” and “strong” atheism : an atheist necessarily must see that there is no evidence, and thus uphold the non-existence of gods as well, if he is consistent at all. Rather like how an atheist must necessarily consider the Bible non-credible, since there is no evidence to support any of it.
So I think we should replace the labels “weak” and “strong” atheism with “negative arguments” and “positive arguments”. In essence, all they are, are arguments showing that belief in gods is false or undesirable, and arguments showing that gods do not exist.
Does this mean that atheists, thus defined, now have a burden of proof ? No. This seems to be a widespread fear, but why should we fear this ? Atheists still don’t have the burden of proof. The burden of proof belongs to he who makes a claim about reality. Until True Believers can give a meaningful account of their belief and give some actual evidence for said meaning, atheists have nothing to prove. All that positive arguments provide are a reiteration of this burden of proof, as well as some other fatal problems with certain assumed properties of the god concept.
By the way, I have already written about the problem of debating the properties of a meaningless concept in “The Consistency of Strong Atheistic Arguments”.
So, does that mean I’m going to change this domain name ? Well, no. I paid for it, and besides it’s catchy. “positiveargumentsforatheism.net” wouldn’t work at all. So there.
Last updated: 23/11/2005