Robert Meyer
Defining Atheism can be a liability Part I
By Robert Meyer
September 30, 2017

These days it's more common and fashionable for atheist apologists along with atheists in general, to define their position as a "lack of belief in God or gods." While this definition is at least as old as Charles Bradlaugh's treatise, "A Plea For Atheism," written in the 19th century, it is different from the garden variety definition of atheism held by most people: "One who denies the existence of God or gods." This definition might be more prominent in older dictionaries as well.

Such distinctions are often referred as "weak atheism" and "strong atheism" respectively(sometimes the terms "negative" and "positive" atheism are used the same way). The average Christian, or general theist has probably scarcely given consideration to the significance in the implications of each classification.

Jeffrey Jay Lowder, co-founder of Internet Infidels concedes the liability of the attempts to fine tune the definition of atheism when he states "The atheist movement keeps shooting itself in the foot by failing to reach a consensus regarding the meaning of atheism." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker, in his presentations and debates, often uses the weak definition of atheism to describe the movement at large, but concedes both definitions apply to him personally(As it pertains to the God of the Bible). Many atheists will become upset if someone applies the strong definition to atheism in general, and may argue that atheism infers no positive claims regarding existence. This is rather ironic since the FFRF regularly posts placards to counter religious nativity displays, that are inscribed with the statement...

"At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

No gods, no devils, no heaven or hell? All we need is John Lennon playing piano.

Obviously this declaration is the epitome of a positive existence claim. While many atheists in theory will speak of "weak atheism" as the proper definition of atheism, it is a position virtually indistinguishable from agnosticism. In practical application this definition is forsaken as many atheists jump back and forth, habitually applying the hard atheism position the minute they debate with theists. How often have you heard atheists declare "There isn't a shred of evidence for the existence of God," not long after they have said atheism is just a lack of belief in God. We see here the logical tension inherent in atheist thinking, when uncertainty and certainty are coupled together within the corpus of their reasoning and assertions.

While many atheists will claim that they are atheists because of a "lack of belief in God or gods," few offer an example of what would count as sufficient evidence, making the claim virtually meaningless In that sense they claim becomes rather arbitrary.

Consequently, in my opinion, few atheists actually are atheists because of the lack of evidence. In most cases, I believe atheism is primarily the result of simple volition. As cultural critic Richard Weaver once observed "Nothing good can happen if the will is wrong."

The tendency to use the weak definition of atheism is self-serving. In the strictures of formal debate, if the debate thesis is an assertion(ex. The God of scripture exists), then the burden of proof falls on the affirmative position. If, however, the debate thesis is merely an interrogative(ex. Does the God of scripture exist?), then there is equal burden on both sides. Using the weak definition of atheism seems to establish atheism as a default position, leaving nothing necessary to prove. That in my opinion is the reason for the shift from strong to weak atheism as a working definition.

Obviously, trying to apply debate protocol to every day life interactions can lead to considerable dissonance. Suppose one friend tells another that he has become an atheist. When the other asks for the reasons, the atheist friend snaps back that atheism needs no proof since it isn't a positive claim for anything. Such a hypothetic interaction would come across as exceeding evasive and antagonistic. I've personally been the recipient of several of these gambits.

In the next installment we will examine some of the liabilities of using the "weak" definition of atheism .

© Robert Meyer


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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)


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