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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Weak vs. Strong Atheism

This post is meant to present a clearer explanation of my sense of atheism. I discussed the distinction between weak and strong atheism earlier, (see "Why I Am Not A Teapot Agnostic") but I will go over it in more detail here.

Weak atheists are ultimately concerned with evidence. Some simply claim that there is no evidence of God's existence, and so no reason to believe in God. Others say that the evidence is so strongly against God's existence that they cannot take the God hypothesis seriously. Generally speaking, weak atheists view the God hypothesis the way most people view the Thor hypothesis. It is theoretically possible that Thor exists, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it. Weak atheism is thus a form of agnosticism, because it does not deny the possibility that God might exist. While weak atheists accept that there is a very small chance that God exists, they see no reason to put any stock in the idea.

Strong atheism is different, and it comes in two basic varieties. The first kind of strong atheism claims that God certainly does not exist. It is a flat denial, based on the evidence. The second kind--my kind--is also known as "theological noncognitivism," and it argues that belief in God is not something we can rationally consider, because the term "God" is incoherent.

The distinction here is subtle but significant.

The first kind of strong atheism is, like weak atheism, focused exclusively on the question of evidence. It claims that the evidence is strong enough to determine absolutely and without a doubt that God does not exist. This kind of atheism has been ridiculed by atheists and theists alike, because the empirical sciences are not a perfect or complete body of knowledge. They leave at least a small crack open for doubt on all existential questions.

My kind of atheism is more philosophically grounded. Atheists like me point out that "God exists" is not a valid proposition, and so it cannot be regarded as either true or false. This is because of the way the term "God" is defined. It is, in fact, defined right out of conceivability.

Theologians for ages have known that the term “God” is defined in a way that is impossible to understand. By recognizing the lack of coherence here, I am only pointing out what religious believers through the ages have willingly acknowledged. They have claimed that the inability to understand the meaning of the term “God” is one of the main reasons why God must be embraced as a matter of faith.

My perspective shows more respect for language. If you want to talk about some X, and you want people to acknowledge the possibility that X exists, then you must provide a definition people can understand. If you can’t do that, then I will conclude you are confused and don’t understand what you are talking about.

“God doesn’t exist” and “God exists” are both meaningless statements. God, as generally defined, cannot be regarded as a real, or even a possible, object of belief. According to theological noncognitivism, one cannot believe that God exists, or that God doesn't exist, or even that there might be a small chance that God exists. One cannot believe anything at all about God, because the word "God" doesn't mean anything. When people think they are thinking about God, they're simply wrong. They just don't know what they're thinking about.

One might ask, since the word "God" doesn't have any meaning for me, why would I bother to call myself an atheist in the first place? Aren't I adopting an attitude towards God by calling myself an atheist, and isn't that against my principles as a theological noncognitivist?

I am not being hypocritical and I am not adopting an attitude towards anything other than the integrity of language itself. While I do have a lot to say about how the term "God" is used, I cannot be said to have any beliefs about God. I cannot be said to regard the God hypothesis as a theoretical possibility, because that would entail having some beliefs about God. Thus, I am a strong atheist by all counts, even though I am not saying anything about whatever people think they are talking about when they use the word "God." In truth, I don't think believers know what they are talking about, either. If they knew, they could explain it in coherent terms.

In my view, weak atheism is just as absurd as theism. Both suppose that the term "God" has some coherent meaning, when in fact it does not.

It is important to note that I am not taking on the burden of proof here. The burden is not on me to provide a coherent definition of a term that other people demand I adopt. Rather, the burden is on people who use the term “God” to define it coherently. If they cannot do that, then they are at fault, not me.

My argument for atheism is logically equivalent to my argument for naturalism. It is one and the same argument. The point is, the terms "God" and "the supernatural" are both defined out of comprehension. My argument for atheism thus provides a clear and decisive argument for rejecting supernaturalism as a philosophical position. Other atheists (weak and strong) reject supernaturalism as a scientific perspective, because they say it is not supported by evidence. Atheists like me, however, reject supernaturalism as a philosophical position because it is incoherent. My atheism (and my naturalism) is a matter of philosophical integrity, not scientific probability.

In my view, the assertion of a belief in God can only be interpreted as the manifestation of a desire to conform to some ritualized performance. This performance no doubt serves any number of purposes in people's lives, but it has nothing at all to do with whatever God people think they are talking about. In sum, I don't think anybody believes in God. What people call "belief in God" is a peculiar psychological and sociological phenomenon, and not a rational position one could ever consider.