Atheism, Strong And Weak

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.


  1. says

    How about strong and weak believers: the weak believer thinks there might be one or more gods, whereas the strong believer believes there is exactly one God and is a strong atheist towards the rest?

  2. Cuttlefish says

    I did have a conversation with a Christian once, in which I tried to put his belief into a different perspective:

    Me: So, you do believe in one or more gods
    Him: No, I do not–I believe in God.
    Me: Well, yes, I am simply stating it more generally; what you said is a subset of what I said. You do believe in one or more gods.
    Him: Absolutely not–I believe in God.
    Me: Yes, one god–I have that covered in “one or more gods”.
    Him: God–not “one or more gods”–I believe in God.

    So… If an atheist is someone who does not believe in one or more gods… This person was by definition and self-confession an atheist. He also just happened to be a bible-believing Christian.

  3. grumpyoldfart says

    I used to tell people,

    “I am 100% certain that gods do not exist, just as you are 100% there is no dragon in my garage,”

    but they told me that nobody can be 100% certain of anything (and they seemed to be 100% certain about that!).

    So now I say to people, “You know how certain you are that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist? Well that’s how certain I am that god doesn’t exist.”

  4. says

    @Cuttlefish #2 – There is a rather famous quote attributed to Stephen F Roberts, one of the leading lights of the alt.atheism news group in the mid 90s:

    I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

    If I end up in a conversation like the one you describe, I will trot this out. Or, if I’ve got the time and am feeling really perverse, I will start asking “Which god? Allah? Ahura Mazda? Vishnu? There are dozens in current use, you know. Oh, the Christian one? Arian? Monophysite? Sabellian? The one that demands the Catholic mass or the one that demands the Orthodox holy liturgy? The Mormon one? The Jehovah’s Witness one? The one promising to send Christ again before the millennium, or the one who will send Christ after?” It is so much fun watching the veins in their foreheads start to throb.

    As for “strong v. weak”, I don’t like those terms either but they are the ones in common use. I prefer to use “philosophical atheism” and “theological atheism,” as the “weak” position is a belief statement (“I believe there are no gods” and the “strong” position is a theological statement (“There are no gods.”)

  5. says

    People like short, snappy descriptors, so strong and weak are useful terms to them. I would guess that “weak” atheists border on agnosticism, which is camouflage for not declaring their atheism loud and proud so as not to bring on a lynch mob of rabid believers.

    The other day I met a young man representing a Masonic lodge, who said anyone can join as long as they believe in God. I added, “and be male”. (Two strikes against me there.) With the influence of Masons in social matters, one has to wonder how many pretend to believe just to be allowed to join. Strong and weak believers?

  6. Peggy Mower says

    When I went to your website today and saw the post, it reminded me about something I discovered today about A. A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin Milne. I didn’t know they were atheists.

    I’m interested in children’s books and I’ve been reading some of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I was curious about A. A. Milne and I also wanted to see if his son Christopher was still living. His son was the inspiration for the Winnie-the Pooh books.

    A. A. Milne’s views on his Wikipedia page:

  7. says

    Hi. As I seem to have inspired this, I thought I might as well respond. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and apologies for using unpopular terminology. (But thanks for not blaming me!)

    My blog is pretty much about the process of deconverting, and the many strange and subtle ways I’m coming to look at the world differently. I don’t know whether I still hold to a distinction between strong and weak atheism, but it’s certainly a distinction I used to cling to. It’s a rhetorical trick. Strong atheists are arrogant, weak atheists aren’t actually sure, so both can be disregarded. Because it’s a common argument, and particularly because it’s one I used to use myself, I think it’s important to address it, whether or not it has any basis in reality.

  8. Cuttlefish says

    I actually very much liked your blog post, and your responses to comments! (Yes, I should have said that in my post–my apologies!)

    I agree, it is important to address it. But I really have no hopes that my complaints will make a dent in the juggernaut that is Strong and Weak atheism.

    (I like your analysis of the rhetorical trick–I hadn’t thought of that bit. I have long thought it was fully intended to phrase atheism in terms that were only appropriate to religious belief, and so to assume the conclusion that “atheism is a religion, too”.)

  9. says

    I do believe the problem lies primarily with people who insist on naming their god “God”.

    Do you believe in “God”? Nope. Mythological.

    Do you believe in “Thor”? Nope. Mythological.

    But you can dismiss the entire god concept as being untenable? Some pause here. I, for one, don’t. The conceptual chasm is not nearly as broad as some would make it out to be.

  10. says

    I also think (damn me for thinking of a different point just after I hit “Post”) that some atheists try to hide behind the “weak” concept.

    “Oh no,” they say. “I’m not close-minded…surely, if some evidence were brought forth that proved the existence of your god, I’d be happy to worship it.”

    Nonsense. Every single atheist who has made that statement knows that no such evidence is forthcoming. Each and every god has had thousands upon thousands of years to make itself known clearly, objectively, unambiguously, and permanently. You’ve already judged the available evidence and found it lacking — else you wouldn’t declare yourself an atheist.

    It’s nothing more than a polite way to not piss on someone’s shoes at a party.

    And then you get “but what if some evidence does come forward?”

    Then I’ll change my mind. I don’t believe in anal-probing aliens to the same degree I don’t believe in gods. If someone shows me the alien and the anal probe, I’ll be happy to admit I’m wrong. Until then…I’m going to declare myself firmly against the concept from a specific and a general perspective. No single alien has anal-probed a human, nor is the concept of anal-probing aliens tenable.

  11. Cuttlefish says

    But you can dismiss the entire god concept as being untenable? Yes. For one, the “god concept” is a generalization from all the specific cases you had no trouble denying. An understanding of the history of religions does not lead to greater belief.

    For two, if we start without an assumption of a god, is there anything that points to the necessity of a god?

    The question “But you can dismiss the entire god concept as being untenable?” asks us to start by assuming the god hypothesis, and choosing to reject it. It shifts the burden of proof from “must X exist?” to “can you dismiss X?”. For each individual vision of god (as your comment 11 suggests), it’s easy to dismiss. But, certainly, we can concoct a version of “god” so ephemeral, so ambiguous, so non-interacting as to be unfalsifiable. And an unfalsifiable god, once assumed, cannot be rejected.

    But why assume? We know enough of history, of psychology, of cultural anthropology, to know there are more than sufficient means for “god-belief” to arise in the utter absence of an actual god or gods. Our universe needs a god like automobiles need an animus. If we assume cars have an animating spirit, on top of an internal combustion engine, we can propose one subtle enough it can’t be falsified.

    What if some evidence comes forward that cars actually do have an animating soul?

    As I’ve said here before… somewhere… all of the best counter-arguments are hypothetical.

  12. says

    I do have a problem with the whole “can’t be falsified” thing. You can’t falsify that aliens aren’t anal-probing Bubba in the swamp right now. There are thousands and thousands of nonexistent things that can’t be falsified. From the sublime to the ridiculous.

    Trying to define something into existence by creating a sublime definition that doesn’t describe anything seems to me to be mental masturbation. And fundamentally dishonest when it comes to the god concept. Because those gods don’t demand parsonage allowances for their priests.

    And, yes, I know that Karen Armstrong has made herself quite wealthy doing precisely this. I wish I had her capacity for making shit up and hiding the fact behind pseudo-academic theological language. I’d be a much more-famous writer than I am.

    Darn me for writing clear English sentences.

    “There is no god. Not even yours.” … Crap, that’s all I got. Gonna be hard to sell that down at the Barnes & Noble.

  13. says

    “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). ”

    Some believers are open to the existence of others’ gods and the plausibility of worshipping same without wanting to join in themselves. (I just wish “henotheist” as a term had a polytheistic parallel.)

    Even as a polytheist, though, the idea of actually BELIEVING in *all* gods seems like a lot of effort. I neither believe nor disbelieve in the divinity of Jesus; it’s not relevant to my interests. It’s more like I’m willing to provisionally grant plausibility to the idea in passing. I don’t have any investment in proving Christians generally wrong about the existence of their God.

    Actively disbelieving/denying a whole bunch of gods while clinging to the truth of one doesn’t make sense from this side of the fence either. At least atheists and polytheists can both agree “yes AND no” logic is puzzling!

  14. Randomfactor says

    While it’s only a related divide, I’ve decided that “agnostic” is a philosophical position and “atheist” is a scientific one.

    Can I prove that no gods exist? That’s a question for the philosophers. Not to put down philosophers.

    Have I any “need of that hypothesis” in my daily life? No more than I need to take quantum gravity, if that exists, into account when I’m walking to my car. If I find myself in a situation where quantum gravity or gods need to be considered as part of the equation, no doubt there will be some evidence for my doing so. (Like Einstein explained Mercury’s funny orbit without need for a planet Vulcan closer to the Sun.)

    So I don’t see the need for “weak” or “strong” atheist terms either. Do I need a variable to account for Zeus’ influence on a lightning bolt? No, not until my sums stop adding up properly. And probably not then, either.

  15. The Ridger says

    I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.
    —Isaac Asimov

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