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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Subtle Distinction

Recently a reader, J.L.A., commented on my post: Responses to Dr. Francis Collins. Thanks very much to him for reading and for the comment.

Dr. Collins had characterized atheists as being opposed to the 'possibility' of a God, and I corrected that this is not what atheism is. Rather, atheism is merely the lack of a belief that a God does exist; a subtle distinction in itself, though not the one that is the subject of this post. J.L.A. wrote in response:
It is certainly true Dr. Collins is overgeneralizing the view of some atheists. However, there are some atheists who are convinced that there is no god and think that anyone who believes in one is deluded (I have had the misfortune of knowing several of them myself). Unfortunately, they are often the most vocal people in the group and that is often the reason that others misunderstand the meaning of the term "atheism".
I think there is a subtle distinction at play here that goes unappreciated. This unappreciated distinction makes it appear there are more 'strong atheists' (those stating certainty that God is non-existent) than there actually are. In reality, in all my dealings with atheists, I don't know that I have ever really met one.

The subtle distinction is this:

While we cannot know whether or not the claim of a non-physical entity immune to empirical observation is true are false, we do know that it is irrational to hold a belief in either position - specifically due to that fact.

Therefore, people who believe in God are deluded. And, even if they someday die and find themselves looking at God in the face, they will still have been deluded during their lives.

In such a case, they would not have been deluded about the existence of God itself, but deluded in thinking that it is reasonable or rational to accept as true such an extraordinary claim without empirical evidence.

It would be like being convinced that J.L.A. is actually an alien from a planet on the other side of the galaxy, posing as a human. Even if this bizarre claim turned out to be correct by chance, one would be no less deluded in thinking it reasonable to hold such a belief without justifiable, rational reason. In fact, even a much more likely possibility, such as believing J.L.A. to be 110 years old, would be irrational without some sort of evidence to believe it.

So, what happens is that believers encounter an atheist of this nature, who certainly doesn't believe God is impossible or claim to know that such a being could never exist. But the atheist unfortunately projects a sense that he sees the believer as generally silly, irrational, and wrong. The perception on the part of the theist is correct, but they confuse the source of the atheist's attitude as being a belief that they are wrong about God, when in fact, the source of their attitude is the belief they are wrong in their belief in God, regardless of whether or not there is actually a God.

In that judgment, the weak atheist is correct: the theist is objectively wrong.

Where these kinds of atheists are wrong, however, is in their attitude; and I think this is what you may really be referring to when you mention your unfortunate association with such people. I would advise all atheists not to project such attitudes in the first place. Aside from it simply being uncivil and rude, it is also unfair and conceited. Of our many millions of thoughts, we are all wrong (i.e. deluded) about something, and there is no evidence that a person is necessarily dumb or deserving of such treatment merely for being a theist. Most people are deserving of respect, and that in no way requires any censorship of the substance of our critiques. Furthermore, such attitudes only serve to raise walls and hamper communication. And, of course, it also leads to this common misunderstanding about atheists in general as being people who deny even the possibility of a God.

Mature people should be capable of communicating their positions clearly without smugness, intolerance, or demeaning attitudes. We are all part of the same human family and all attempts to convey truth or reason should be made with compassion in mind, and with the attitude that engenders.

As for those few people who might actually claim to know that a God cannot possibly exist, I consider them equally as wrong in that extraordinary claim.


  1. Wow, I did not expect an entire post in response to my comment. Thank you for clarifying the difference between strong atheism and weak atheism. I definitely agree that it is the attitude that is wrong in this instance.

    Also, the individuals I have encountered who hold that attitude do not reserve it strictly for this topic. They feel that way about anyone who disagrees with them on any subject. So, it is clearly not a trait inherent in atheism itself but a character trait in these individuals.

  2. Quite true JLA. I'd agree it's a much broader issue.

  3. Yes. I, too, find it amusing how some atheists are so adamant about doubting the existence of gods, yet give scant thought to doubting the non-existence of gods. If you're going to doubt, doubt evenhandedly. There's very little we know for sure. Most of what we 'know' to be true or false are just degrees of likelihood of being true or false.

    I never much liked the term 'weak atheist', although I agree that it is the wiser position over the strong version. I tend to refer to myself as a 'very skeptical agnostic', which I think means pretty much the same thing as 'weak atheist', but avoids the word 'weak' (which I don't like) and also the word 'atheist' (which a lot of other people don't like!)

  4. Good to hear from you Humāinism! Thanks for the comments :)

    I agree - the 'weak' word has a negative connotation. They should have chosen something like 'open atheist' and 'hard atheist', but these are technical terms, which usually do not take into account PR sensibilities.

    In any case, while I am an certainly an atheist in that I am "without theism", I prefer to identify as Humanist because it speaks of what I *do* believe. I often say that my non-belief in someone else's deity is perhaps the most insignificant thing about my beliefs that I can think of.

  5. I also prefer "agnostic" to "weak atheist", though there's a strong/weak distinction in agnosticism too: strong agnostics believe that it is impossible to confirm the existence or non-existence of a god, while weak atheists accept the possibility that we might one day manage it.

    This is a good time to restate Turner's Razor: where a theory has strong and weak versions, the weak version is more likely to be true.

  6. I guess I can't escape being weak, since that would make me a weak agnostic. :)

    Never heard of Turner or his Razor. Thanks for teaching me something new. :)

  7. Thanks guys - good comments :)

  8. Turner's Razor is just something I invented! (Turner is my surname.)

  9. Ah, well I like it, so I hope it catches on. If I ever have need to use it, I'll give you credit. :)

  10. The trouble with Collins is that he is (wittingly or not) part of a Poltical power-seeking movement that wants to re-"christianise" America and "christianise" the world altogether.

    And beside which the "god" that he is sympathic with is the mommy-daddy parental diety, who will "reward" his children if they are "good", and punish them if they are "bad".

    This reference describes the patriarchal parental deity that he/they subscribe to.


  11. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I didn't know that about Collins' view of God. How did you come by that impression? Also, are the sites you presented associated with him directly, or were they just meant as examples of the parental deity concept you mentioned? As for the effort to re-Christianize America, I agree he is part of it (wittingly or not, as you say).