Much Ado About “Nothing”

I looked in my wallet, to take out a note—
There was someone I needed to pay.
Now, I’m used to my wallet containing just nothing,
But there’s even more nothing today

I didn’t just not have a dollar today,
I didn’t have twenty or more!
I didn’t have hundreds, I didn’t have thousands,
More nothing than ever before!

It’s not that I’m working with negative numbers,
Just zeroes, and zeroes galore!
I thought that, with zeroes, just one was enough
But I’ve zeroes today by the score!

There’s nothing—just nothing—a whole lot of nothing,
There’s nothing all over the place
Just zeroes, and zeroes, and zeroes and zeroes…
I’m lucky they take up no space.

You’d think inundation with infinite nothing
Would be a particular hell
But the thing about nothing—no matter how much—
Is that nobody really can tell.

You can double my nothing, it’s still only nothing,
At double-or-nothing the odds
And nothing is nothing, when speaking of money
Or even believing in gods.

Long, involved rant after the jump:

I’m reposting this from a long while back, just because I have spent too much time reading comment threads recently–about atheist chaplains, about the Pendleton Cross, about the War On Christmas, about churches in schools, about “what atheists believe” when passed through the kidneys of a believer… This topic comes close to PZ’s “dictionary atheists” complaint, but is not quite the same thing (so don’t just throw those opinions in here; if you think it’s the same, either you or I have miscommunicated. And it’s not me.).

I wish to register a complaint. About nothing. And I’m serious.

It’s this “strong vs. weak atheism” business. I’m sure you have heard the terms; they purport to categorize those who “believe there is no god” and those who “hold no belief in a god”, respectively. A weak atheist allegedly does not believe, but a strong atheist allegedly believes that there is no god.

Stop using these terms. Stop it. Just stop it, right now. They are worse than useless.

Atheism is the “none of the above” category; it’s the “nothing for me, thanks” equivalent. A co-worker of mine, when he found out I am an atheist, asked me “which god is it you don’t believe in?” He was a christian minister, and must have thought himself very clever. Of course, he would have strongly believed in the god of the Bible–and it makes sense to speak of that as a strong belief. He had no doubts (despite plenty of reason to doubt, having lost family in a flood at a bible camp!), whereas others may have a few doubts, or grave doubts.

He also, as a devout believer, would have been a strong disbeliever in, say, Zeus. Which is why the terms are silly. Belief is object-specific. My sister is a believer–does that tell you much about her? Is she Christian? Muslim? Jewish? If she is Christian, what does that tell you? Is she Catholic? Lutheran? Baptist? Not all believers are the same (duh), and each of these different belief systems is positively defined, with regard to a specific object of belief. My co-worker, as an article of faith in his god, strongly believed that there were no other gods. His disbelief in Zeus was part of a positive description of his world-view, not merely an absence of belief in Zeus. (By the way, you may also have heard the argument “ask yourself why you do not believe in all the gods you don’t believe in–I just apply the same reasons to one more god than you do.” While this may be correct for some, it obviously would not work for my co-worker. His reason for not believing in god X was that god Y had told him not to–this does not generalize to god Y, and is also very probably not the reason an atheist does not believe.)

An absence of belief is just that–an absence. Zero on the scale. You don’t get more zero by adding exclamation points, or more zeroes after a decimal. You may have positive beliefs that are relevant–I, for instance, believe that an understanding of the psychology and neurology of belief more than adequately accounts for the reasons people believe in a god, without an actual god being required at all–but this is a separate positive belief, not a “stronger absence of belief”.

Stronger and weaker are terms that are appropriate when speaking positively of a belief, but irrelevant when speaking of an absence; to use the terms is to strengthen the anti-atheist position that speaks of “atheist agenda”. Catholics may have an agenda, but non-catholics? Muslims may have an agenda, but non-muslims? (note–I am not using “agenda” to mean anything other than their defining beliefs.) “None of the above” does not have an agenda.

(BTW, there were great comments on this one, on the old blog.)


  1. says

    My friend Bryan was raised without religion, doesn’t usually talk about it, just doesn’t care about it except when it impinges upon his life in some way. My friend Brian thinks that all theistic religion are both false and harmful, and will readily provide details.

    Most natiive English speakers would readily recognise Brian as an ‘atheist’ but perhaps not Bryan. This is because the usual definition requires an act of denial, not merely living without theistic beliefs. I’m not saying that this is preferable, but is it what most people outside of atheist groups seem to think the term denotes.

  2. Clare says

    “I, for instance, believe that an understanding of the psychology and neurology of belief more than adequately accounts for the reasons people believe in a god, without an actual god being required at all”
    Oh yes. I find this fascinating. Despite being bought up in a religious family, I never really believed (despite wanting to at some points). What is different in my brain, my genetic make-up?
    I’m enjoying the why I am an atheist series on pharyngula. There are many different stories to explain the “why” and we may also hold associated positive beliefs, such as humanism, but ultimately there is zero religious belief in our lives and that puts us in the atheist “box”.

  3. chrisdevries says

    I agree with your points, but with some qualifications. Firstly, there are atheists who came to their atheism without a rational, progressive thought process. They are atheists because they don’t believe in god, or they believe god doesn’t exist (the word believe is important here; also, yes the statements are subtley different, but are similar enough to lump together). However, people like me (and you, and PZ and Dawkins, etc….a lot of us are like this) come to atheism by noticing a lack of physical and/or philosophical evidence for a god, and an ever-growing sum of evidence that things could have come to be the way they are without a god (and it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at a deist or theist god or gods, the universe probably didn’t need any type of god to either exist or to evolve). So you could say we have no belief, but not that we believe in no gods. The connotation that belief is faith-based is just too strong for me.

    In response to #1 (D4M10N):

    You actually merged two positions in describing Brian, and I am constantly reminding people to be precise in this kind of language. Brian is clearly someone who fits the above definition of rational, naturalistic atheism that applies to so many of us. However, there are still a lot of these types of atheists who either a) see some value in religion, or b) blame the harm done in the name of religion on things that are not religion (human nature, economic inequality, etc.). Those of us who not only use naturalism to explain the world, but see religion as a cancer that is destroying what should be prosperous societies are both atheists and antitheists.

    And here is where I think the term “strong atheist” is useful. I would describe a strong atheist as a person who is active in fighting against the influence of religion in his/her community. These people can be atheists for totally irrational, shallow reasons and still be completely rational in their antitheism, finding and disseminating the evidence that shows how religion poisons everything. Granted, this classification would not be very common, but I would argue that most of us are irrational with respect to at least a couple things that affect us, or do irrational things without realising it once in awhile. So I do expect that they are out there.

    Anyway, the naturalistic, atheistic antitheists are the ones that the religionists are most afraid of by far; we are the ones with the power to create more atheists who are like us; we are the ones who are increasing the profile of atheism in the world and showing everyone else that most of us are not immoral sadists or whatever. Because our position forces the weak religionists to consider what they believe and why, we are the threat. And contrary to popular (strong Christian) belief, we aren’t angry at god, we didn’t have bad experiences with priests (at least most of us didn’t), we aren’t rebelling for the sake of rebelling or because it’s cool/controversial. And yes, we get the attention, but most of us don’t seek the attention. We have merely considered the god hypothesis and found it both seriously wanting, and detrimental to societal progress.

    And for those Christians who don’t believe me, look at Pakistan. That is the Muslim version of the kind of Christian state Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry would have America turn into. There is a massive gap between the wealthy and the poor, with the middle class rich enough (in comparison to the poor), and rare enough to count as part of the wealthy. Free speech is discouraged. Women are treated slightly better than dogs (if they’re lucky). 1/3 of the children receive no formal education; the only school that is available to all kids in Pakistan (free) are the madrassas, which are exclusively religious training schools. This means literacy and numeracy are dismal, economic growth is stagnant, and a third of the younger generation will not ever be able to drag themselves out of poverty. Not to mention the fact that this is a vicious cycle; the worse it gets, the more fundamentalist Muslims there are. Religion isn’t working for Pakistan, and it’s not working for the world.

    Sorry for the long diatribe, but I had to get it all out there. Nice poem!

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