For a long time – years before I consciously acknowledged myself as an atheist – I got a kick out of visiting sites like Way of the Master (featuring mega-star Kirk Cameron and Banana Man Ray Comfort) or Jack Chick’s Haven of Paranoia and Bigotry, “just for the lulz” as they say. In the absence of any other plans for a given weekend, I found myself composing Chick Tract “dissections” after being inspired by the artistry of Enter the Jabberwock. (I’ll share them sometime later once I write a few things of actual substance first.) Really, it was a pretty target rich environment, since it never ceased to amaze me how so many logical fallacies and flat-out lies could be crammed into a single tract or video. This, combined with exchanges I’ve had with “true believers” has inspired me to put together a little “interview” that I hope will explain what atheism is, and what it isn’t.
SO … You don’t believe in God, huh?
That’s right. The broadest definition of atheism is “a lack of belief in a god or gods”.
You mean you think there’s no God.
Well, not necessarily. Atheism can actually be broken up into a few different categories. The first is implicit vs. explicit. Implicit atheism is a lack of belief stemming from an ignorance of religion or gods altogether. The best example is a newborn, or a lost tribe of people who never developed the concept of the supernatural. Explicit atheism is the result of an awareness – and subsequent rejection of – the concept of a god or gods. The vast majority of atheists fall into this category.
Now, in explicit atheism, there are two groups: strong (also called positive or hard) and weak (or negative, soft). Strong atheism does, in fact, claim that gods do not exist. Weak atheism, on the other hand, makes no such claims and is consistent with the original, broader definition I provided earlier. I strongly suspect that the majority of atheists fall into this group as well, but I don’t have any hard numbers to back that up.
Related to this position is agnostic atheism, which is the lack of belief in a deity, but no certain claim could be made regarding its existence based on a lack of knowledge. I fall into this category, since I think it’s the most intellectually honest position to have. (The scientist in me tends to shy away from statements of absolute certainty.) I will add, though, that if a god does exist, its giving me the impression it doesn’t want to be found.
That’s semantics. They’re the same thing.
I originally had a hard time seeing the difference, but there is one. If I were to flip a coin, cover it with my hand without looking at it, and then claim to you that I KNOW it’s heads … you wouldn’t believe me. That doesn’t necessarily mean you know it’s tails; you just reject my claim that it’s heads on the basis that I have no proof.
And really, that’s the basis of atheism right there: it is a rejection of the claim that god exists because it hasn’t met its burden of proof.
It’s still a belief that takes just as much faith as religion, so you’re no better.
This is the same category of one of my favorite self-described “GOTCHA” questions from such YouTube celebrities as “shockofgod” and others. They will ask, “What proof and evidence do you have that atheism is accurate and correct?” I suppose the reason they put it that way is because it’s an easy way to turn the very real problem of providing objective physical evidence for God back to the non-believer. After all, if the theist has to prove his or her faith, the atheists needs to prove theirs!
It doesn’t work that way, though. Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Community of Austin had a perfect response to this question: “Atheism doesn’t have a burden of proof; it is a rejection of claims that haven’t met their burden of proof.” That’s it. Now, in the interest of fairness, this definition is specific to weak atheism, since strong atheism takes this one step further and asserts that no gods exist.
(As a side note, I’m still on the fence about this one. On one side, I can see how by its nature, the strong position is less defensible because it makes a claim. However, would I honestly leave open the possibility that Jack the Ripper and Bigfoot are married and living in a spaceship orbiting Saturn just because some idiot came up with the idea 50 years ago and a million people fell for it? Or would I say that – getting back on topic – while I cannot technically disprove any god’s existence, the consistent lack of evidence and our demonstrated ability to describe the natural world without one leads me to think that the probability of such a deity being real is, for all practical purposes, nil. To that point, I’ll leave you with a quote from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”)
Enough for now … more later.