Today, my friends, I’d like to speak
Of atheism, strong and weak—
Of godless views both weak and strong
Which might be right? Which may be wrong?
Weak atheists, they tell me, don’t
Believe in gods. They can’t. They won’t.
But still, they can’t and won’t insist
A god cannot, must not, exist
Strong atheists will make the claim
There is no god to call by name
They do not think it overbroad
To outright claim “there is no god”
But that’s the thing; the Christian horde
Believing in their Christian lord
Are atheists, cos what is more,
They strongly disbelieve in Thor
So, wait—do they believe, or not?
In just one god, or in the lot?
Belief, you see, is quite specific
While non-belief is, well… prolific
Believe in twenty, or in one,
But disbelief, you’re stuck at none
There really is no symmetry
In god belief or not, you see
So, yeah, I read yet another post somewhere (here, specifically) that used the “strong versus weak atheism” construction, which I despise. I don’t blame the site I read, of course–the strong/weak distinction is everywhere. I’ve complained about it before.
Strong and weak imply points on a single continuum; the positions labeled strong atheism and weak atheism are not stronger or weaker versions of each other. Both have precisely the same amount of god-belief: none. But a positive assertion (either belief or disbelief) is necessarily restricted to a given, particular god. We do not claim that “believers” believe in every god; their belief is specific to their particular deity. When they ask “do you believe in god?”, they are asking this for the case where god = their god. Active belief in their god is often (usually?) accompanied by active disbelief in other gods (or simply denial of those gods’ existence). Disbelief–even active, positive, disbelief–in any one god, then, is clearly not sufficient to label someone an atheist. There is a world of difference between one and zero.
The difference between strong and weak atheists has nothing to do with their comparative belief in a god or gods. Both are at zero. As for other beliefs… we all vary tremendously on a wide spectrum of beliefs. There is no set of beliefs that reliably separates two categories of atheists, without either overlap or leftovers, and without also covering a wide number of religious believers as well.
I posit, not for the first time, that the terms “strong atheist” and “weak atheist” are not useful, and indeed obfuscate where they intend to clarify.