The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Strong atheism

Strong atheism or positive atheism is the philosophical position that God or gods do not exist. It is contrasted with weak atheism, which is the lack or absence of belief in God or gods, without the claim that God or gods do not exist. The strong atheist positively asserts, at least, that no God or gods exist, and may go further and claim that the existence of some or all gods is logically impossible. For example, strong atheists commonly claim that the combination of attributes which the Christian God is asserted to have (e.g., omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, transcendence, omnibenevolence, etc) is logically contradictory, incomprehensible, or absurd, and therefore that the existence of the Christian God is 'a priori' impossible.

The strong atheist may also conclude on the basis of lack of evidence or other rational grounds that god or Gods do not exist, but concede that it is possible that they do, although extremely unlikely. This position is close to some weak atheist positions, in that many weak atheists strongly doubt the existence of gods and consider it improbable that they exist, but think it is not currently known whether gods exist or not. The difference between such weak atheists and strong atheists may come down to an epistemological disagreement as to what constitutes sufficient grounds to justify an assertion of non-existence in the case of gods.

Some strong atheists qualify their position by stating what specific conception of god they think does not exist. They may believe that specific gods, such as the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god, do not exist, based on the description of the gods provided by their followers. They may believe certain gods to be logically impossible based on these descriptions, or they may be swayed by one or many of the arguments against the existence of certain conceptions of god (e.g., the problem of evil). It is not unusual for a person to be a strong atheist with respect to particular gods, but to be a weak atheist with respect to other gods. Indeed, one may be (and in fact the majority of people are) theist with respect to one, or several, gods, and a strong atheist with respect to all other gods. For example, Christians typically believe that God exists, but believe that Zeus, Thor, Krishna, etc, do not. A typical strong atheist joke is that there is only a small difference between himself and a Christian: they agree on a very long list of gods that don't exist, and only disagree about one of them.

While strong atheism does not necessarily preclude belief in supernatural entities or processes other than gods, the majority of strong atheists would likely also reject such beliefs. However, belief in such things would not preclude someone from calling him- or herself a strong atheist.

It should be noted that for some people the strong/weak dichotomy is itself objectionable. They will define the term 'atheism' so that it denotes only those who deny the existence of deities, reserving other terms (such as agnostic) for "weak" atheists. This article uses the strong/weak terminology, which is quite common, but the reader will encounter discussions of atheism where this terminology is not used, particularly in older sources.

Common criticisms and strong atheist responses

Some weak atheists and agnostics view strong atheism as just as untenable a position as theism. They may hold strong doubts about the existence of particular gods or gods in general but be unwilling to rule out the possibility that a particular god or all gods exists. They may feel that "you can't prove a negative" or, at any rate, that the non-existence of gods cannot be proven and is not known. Therefore they may hold that to positively assert the nonexistence of a god or all gods in itself requires the same type of "faith" as theism. They may argue that in denying the existence of gods, one assumes a burden of proof similar to the one the theist assumes in asserting it, and that neither the strong atheist nor the theist has satisfied his burden of proof. If he is a strong agnostic, he may argue that the existence or non-existence of gods can never be known.

A common strong atheist retort is that we live in a world where existence is determined rationally through science and observation. Therefore, it is the position of many strong atheists that the default position is non-existence, that the burden of proof always lies with someone asserting the existence of an entity, and that things which cannot be observed and tested and proven to exist beyond a reasonable doubt do not exist. The idea that non-existence is the default is based on Occam's Razor. By this argument, absolute certainty about the nonexistence of the god or gods is not required to be justified in denying their existence. This sentiment was expressed by biologist Richard Dawkins, as follows:

"Agnostic conciliation, which is the decent liberal bending over backward to concede as much as possible to anybody who shouts loud enough, reaches ludicrous lengths in the following common piece of sloppy thinking. It goes roughly like this: You can't prove a negative (so far so good). Science has no way to disprove the existence of a supreme being (this is strictly true). Therefore, belief or disbelief in a supreme being is a matter of pure, individual inclination, and both are therefore equally deserving of respectful attention! When you say it like that, the fallacy is almost self-evident; we hardly need spell out the reductio ad absurdum. As my colleague, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, puts it, we must be equally agnostic about the theory that there is a teapot in orbit around the planet Pluto. We can't disprove it. But that doesn't mean the theory that there is a teapot is on level terms with the theory that there isn't." [1]

Another argument for strong atheism as opposed to weak atheism is that refusing to believe in the nonexistence of gods while believing in the nonexistence of ghosts, Santa Claus, or the Invisible Pink Unicorn is inconsistent. Strong atheists maintain that the existence of gods is no more likely than the existence of these other beings, and that it is no less justifiable to deny the existence of gods than it is to deny the existence of these other things. They would contend that to be a weak atheist one must either refrain from asserting the non-existence of ghosts, Santa Claus, etc, or else explain what is special about gods that requires one to stop short of denying them -- when one does not hesitate to deny the existence of ghosts, Santa Claus, and so on. Indeed the strong atheist typically finds no difference between ghosts, goblins, fantastical creatures of all kinds, and gods, pointing out that belief in gods most likely arose historically from precisely the type of natural events, frightening experiences, hallucinations, and improbable occurences from which the beliefs in ghosts, goblins, and other superstitions arose. (It should be pointed out that not all religions treat gods differently from other supernatural beings such as giants or elves.)

The most well-known arguments for strong-atheism include the problem of evil, noncognitivism, incoherency arguments (which seek to prove contradictions within the nature of "god"), atheistic teleological arguments, and the Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God.

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Last updated: 05-21-2005 01:57:04