Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Weak atheism vs Strong atheism

Lost among the shit-flinging over at Lothar's blog (sorry pal) was an interesting conversation about weak versus strong atheism.

One thing I encounter a lot in these online discussions is a certain kind of burden-dodging when it comes to arguments: (typically Gnu) atheists try to insist that they merely 'lack God belief' rather than 'believe God doesn't exist'. Thus, they are making no claims, and have no burden as a result.

A problem that routinely comes up with this move is that Gnu atheists I argue with typically switch back and forth between making and not making claims. Sometimes this honestly seems like ignorance - other times, it's a bad attempt at bullshitting. If you tell me you merely lack belief in God and are not claiming God does not exist, alright - I think that's often nonsense, but I actually won't press it. But they cannot claim that they lack God belief, and then a moment later start telling me how God doesn't exist or is extremely unlikely to exist. The moment they make those claims, they've given up the weak atheist position for the strong atheist position - now they've got a burden of proof. For various reasons, most atheists are positively allergic to this burden.

So, there remains weak atheism - mere lack of God belief. Putting aside problems with defining atheism in such a way, I think what goes underappreciated is the position that that leaves the atheist in. A weak atheist, pretty well by necessity, also has to 'lack belief' on the following questions:

The truth of naturalism or materialism.
The question of whether or not evolution is ultimately guided by God or gods.
The question of whether or not nature in general is ultimately guided by God or gods.

The list goes on, but those? Those are some key pieces of intellectual territory that have to be evacuated by the consistent weak atheist. Number two alone is too much for most of them to swallow, since evolution's main intellectual appeal for the gnu atheist is in its supposed demonstration that there is no design in nature - but if one is silent about God's existence, then one is likewise silent about God's activity and providence. If someone asserts that evolution proceeds without guidance or plan, by necessity the question of God's existence comes into play - and we're right back to making claims and getting burdens.

The cost of intellectually avoiding burdens is having vastly fewer arguments. You'd think this would be appealing to people, and yet...

12 comments:

Acatus Bensley said...

They avoid the burden because it's like impossible to defend the assertion. I honestly am starting to believe Gnu atheists are dumber than ordinary people when it comes to things that matter. Very few of them can really behave like adults when it comes to important philosophical or political discussion. They seem to think that they have some intellectual credibility that other people don't have just because they can sit around making corny ass jokes on the internet that offend people. They're so emotionally invested in being pretentious and offensive that ultimately reasoning with them won't work. For a group that considers itself the champions of rationality, logic, and brutal honesty they really have no idea what any of these things are.

Crude said...

Actually, for a while it's been my suspicion that the primary effect of New Atheism has been to make atheism appealing to a far more stupid class of person. Atheism used to be relatively confined to highly educated sorts, at least in the US. Now plenty of full-blown morons are atheists.

Also, frankly - skepticism is vastly more fun than making claims (and therefore getting skeptics on your case.) A skeptic is constantly on the attack, a claimant spends a considerable amount of time on defense. Few people like defense.

Acatus Bensley said...

Well Crude you of all people should know most things are meant to appeal to morons these days. Make it cool, sex it up, and give it this atmosphere of exclusivity and all all the people who long for an identity hop on the bandwagon. I was just stating that because they try to act so intellectually stimulating while at the same time not being capable of taking criticism. If you're gonna talk the talk at least walk the walk. These people like to pretend to be the enlightened individuals of society while actually being the most moronic. And I agree with you regarding skeptics. I love sitting in Sunday school watching my father try to handle my criticism of the bible with questions right out of left field. The look on his face is priceless.

Rubati said...

I think most of us, whether we're professed theists or not, are "weak atheists" in this sense, lacking a positive belief or faith in God's goodness and grace. A theist by definition would not maintain a positive belief in God's non-existence, but in many parts of our lives, we simply lack of a positive faith or belief in God, when we worry about our life situation, when we sin, etc, at those moments a belief in God's goodness or warnings and rewards is simply absent from our minds. It's not that we positively deduce that God does not exist, it's just that we lack the belief in those moments.

Being a gloomy despondent Lutheran (on the Melanchthonian side!), I think belief in God and positive faith in his goodness occurs only at rare moments by the grace of God. It may be given as a response to prayer, but the default mode of most believers is that of "weak" atheism.

grodrigues said...

Without a doubt, this must be one of the most asinine distinctions ever foisted on mankind: atheism as "lack of belief"? So a turnip is an atheist since it clearly lacks a belief by virtue of its incapability of forming beliefs. So qua atheists, there is no difference between a turnip and an atheist and, in rational discussion, we are therefore permitted to treat them the same.

Unknown said...

I don't think this distinction exists, everyone has beliefs, there is no such thing as "lack of belief" (purposefully took out of context). What differs is just how well defined those beliefs are and how assertive you are about them. Many atheists just want to avoid conflict, and thus are less assertive about their beliefs for a moment, plain and simple.

Crude said...

Rubati,

I don't think that's apt at all, really. Your view seems to hinge critically not on God's existence, but His goodness and grace, or even his concern. What would be more apt, I think, is to think of many theists as having their view of God shifting in context. In fact, I think in that respect our view of God is often like our view of other humans - when we lie to one, betray one, let one down, it's not that we stopped believing that the person exists. But our attitude and maybe even view of that person, if only for a moment, changes.

Grod,

I agree it's inane, and more than that, I think it's dishonest. It's very clearly a modern definition, and one hand-crafted not to reflect actual beliefs and attitudes, but 'the sort of belief one has strictly for the purposes of debate.'

But I think what truly follows from weak atheism is such that the very people who'd want to use it for that cheap 'debating tactic' reason actually wouldn't once it's taken to its logical conclusions. And I suspect a lot of theists miss those logical conclusions out of habit.

Acatus,

Well, I imagine that approach has been around for a long time, and in a lot of ways. I think what may be key here is that for a lot of Gnus, this is not an entirely conscious act - the slower New Atheists seem to literally believe that merely being New Atheists is itself sufficient to make them very smart. (I imagine the reasoning may at times be 'I saw a report that says atheists have a higher IQ on average! So if I become an atheist, that means I have a higher IQ!')

Crude said...

Unknown,

I don't think this distinction exists, everyone has beliefs, there is no such thing as "lack of belief" (purposefully took out of context). What differs is just how well defined those beliefs are and how assertive you are about them. Many atheists just want to avoid conflict, and thus are less assertive about their beliefs for a moment, plain and simple.

Well, I think there can be a lack of belief in some senses. Does hypothetical thing-I-never-heard-of exist? Well, I never heard of it, so it seems I truly lack a belief about that. I bet someone could get technical and argue I, say... /virtually/ do or don't believe in it, on the grounds that TINHO is of a class of things I do or don't believe exist, but ugh, I'm not concerned with going down that particular rabbit hole right now.

Weak atheism as 'lack of God belief but also a lack of belief that God does not exist' does come across as tremendously artificial, and rightly so. As I said with Grod, I think the typical theist response to it is to go after the artificiality, which is a danger because at that point you're arguing against 'what a person thinks' and they have privileged access to that information - though you can get around this just by examining their writings, etc. But I think a more promising response is to just hold them thoroughly to their supposed weak atheism, because the cost is extremely high.

Jakeithus said...

This topic always makes me think of sports. As the fan of an incredibly popular, but recently unsuccessful, hockey team, I have to put up with a large share of individuals who take their primary joy out of seeing my team fail. I'm not talking about fans of different teams that hate my team the most, I'm talking about people who put a hatred of my team above any other allegiance they might have.

What I've come to understand is that such people are cowards. By rooting against a team, rather than taking a positive position, they get to experience success 95% of the time. They never have to defend their own team, and in the rare case the team they root against actually wins, it's easy for them to say they were never that invested in the first place. It loses the real value and emotion that can only be found in being a fan of a team.

Weak atheists are no different, they're often intellectual cowards who have put "winning" (it's easy to win a debate if you have no obligation to defend) over the development of a valuable and satisfying position. Once it becomes clear that it's all about stacking the deck in their favour, it's simply not worth the time to treat with those people any further.

Crude said...

That's a good point about the teams, and it captures the pleasure of the common brands of 'skepticism' nicely.

De Ha said...

"You'd think this would be appealing to people, and yet..."

And that right there is your biggest problem.

You think people *choose* to believe what hey believe or doubt what they doubt. No, they don't. The choice you have is either blind faith or skepticism, thinking or not thinking. You have no control over what conclusions you draw.

Me, I believe that Christianity is complete bullshit, however, I have not studied every religion on the planet enough to completely categorically say that all of them are complete bullshit. So, I say that all other religions are PROBABLY bullshit. As for god-like aliens or the Deist god... no idea.

Crude said...

You think people *choose* to believe what hey believe or doubt what they doubt. No, they don't.

Sure they do. This like saying people don't choose their wants, their desires, their behaviors - fat people are fat forever, barring some kind of weird mental scarring that makes them eat less. In reality, people make choices, and their choices affect their will, and even their beliefs. Consciously. You can choose to acclimate yourself to beliefs.

Saying 'You have no choice over what conclusions you draw' is not just wrong, it's kind of pathetic, and runs contrary to observation.

More than that, you miss the point. It's not appealing to people not because of honest beliefs, but because of what they're willing to cop to. They lie, in other words.

Me, I believe that Christianity is complete bullshit, however, I have not studied every religion on the planet enough to completely categorically say that all of them are complete bullshit. So, I say that all other religions are PROBABLY bullshit.

This is a good demonstration of largely atheist mental retardation: "I can make blanket statements about shit I have no idea about so long as I preface it with a 'probably' and I'm being rational and fair."

Your problem is that your atheism is an emotional crutch and identity for you. Remove the crutch and the identity, and you'll be better for it, without even being a theist necessarily. Don't fetishize a metaphysical stance.