Are you a weak atheist or a strong atheist?
Most people who read this blog will have some idea what I’m talking about. And most of them, I suspect, will be one or the other. (Theists and agnostics, you can join in soon.)
To recap briefly, “weak atheism” commonly describes a position which doesn’t accept the existence of God, but doesn’t actively deny it either. A weak atheist won’t say “God does not exist”, but simply doesn’t positively believe in any such being.
“Strong atheism” you can probably surmise for yourself. There is no God, it affirms. It makes a positive statement, an active truth-claim.
I’ve written before about whether any form of atheism can really be wholly without affirmation, as weak atheism is often described. But regardless, it’s accepted by a lot of non-believers that strong atheism is somehow a step too far. We’re not obliged to be convinced by the evidence offered for God’s existence, but we don’t have ground to make truth claims ourselves. We shouldn’t say that he definitely doesn’t exist.
After all, you can’t prove a negative. If you were to claim that there’s a unicorn in your kitchen, I could safely withhold my belief until you offer some evidence. But can I ever really make the claim there is no unicorn? Especially if it turns out to be even more magical than regular unicorns, and can render itself invisible and intangible and otherwise impervious to detection?
I might say I don’t believe in such a beast. But can I ever claim to have proved that it’s not there?
Of course, this may seem a petty distinction. It doesn’t matter to most atheists if they can’t technically prove there’s no God (or unicorn). But a common stance they take is to explain why this lack of disproof doesn’t matter for their position. And I’m not sure they’re going about it quite right.
Let’s take two less contentious claims, and examine whether we need to be “weak” or “strong” in our disbelief of each one:
- I have never worn a hat.
- The entire Universe was created forty-five minutes ago.
You probably don’t believe either of these statements is true. But, if you had to pick, which would you say is more likely?
I’m guessing you’d go with the first. I mean, it sounds very unlikely, but it’s possible. Maybe it’s just never really come up in my life: nobody ever gave me a hat and suggested I try it on, my ears have always been good at keeping themselves warm, my family never bothered with Christmas crackers and any paper garments that might be kept inside them, that kind of thing. Or maybe I developed an aversion to hats at an early age and made a conscious decision never to let one touch my head.
It’s a bit of a stretch. And easily enough disproved by a picture of me wearing an awesome hat. But it’s less outright ridiculous than the second assertion. What possible reason could there be to suppose that the entirety of creation – all the galaxies already in motion away from each other, the light from the stars already on its way to our eyes, everybody’s memories of years past – were all summoned into existence, created wholly intact, in the last hour?
It’s obviously silly. But how do you disprove it?
There’s not much you can say to that. It’s completely implausible and not supported by a shred of evidence… but there’s nothing you can point to which actively refutes it. The best you can do is note that there’s no reason to suppose it’s true, it goes against every aspect of our understanding of how the world works, and it clearly seems to be something that’s just been made up to make some sort of point.
For the hat thing, though? There are pictures of me wearing a hat. It’s been disproved. Myth: BUSTED.
So, having seen the proof, are you now comfortable declaring it an outright falsehood that I’ve never worn a hat? You don’t have to just be agnostic any more; there’s evidence. Can that claim be rebutted, in a way which the forty-five-minute-old-Universe claim can’t?
I think you’re quite entitled to tell me: “Don’t be silly. You have worn a hat.” You’d be quite rational to base that on that picture of me wearing a hat. But can’t you be just as definite about my other claim, even without an equivalent picture which disproves it?
If you think that making an active negative claim is only acceptable where a palpable disproof exists, then this implies that “I’ve never worn a hat” is a less likely proposition than really really really really young Earth creationism. And that just seems wrong.
For one thing, the evidence you’re basing your truth-claim on might not be that conclusive. Maybe all the pictures that exist of me in hats are photoshopped. Maybe it’s not actually me in that one I linked to above, but just a top-of-the-head lookalike. Maybe there’s a grand conspiracy around it, covering up the truth of my hatless past. Can you prove there isn’t?
Of course you can’t. But despite this lack of disproof, you’re still entitled to actively deny such a situation, not just withhold acceptance. It doesn’t make you dogmatic to believe something sensible, even if you can’t produce knock-out evidence, if it’s a situation where you don’t need knock-out evidence for your claim to be almost certainly true.
It doesn’t mean you won’t be convinced by evidence. Everyone makes many statements of fact every day of their lives, without adding the words “provisionally, according to the best available evidence, but I’m prepared to change my mind if new data arises” to the end of every clause. It isn’t closed-minded to think that some things are true and others aren’t.
So go on, make a few bold claims, with certainty. Actively deny the truth of a claim you can’t disprove, but which has no supporting evidence of any note and which is vanishingly unlikely on its face.
Is there a conspiracy to make you believe I’ve ever worn a hat? No there is not.
Was the Universe only created 45 minutes ago, or less than 10,000 years ago, with every impression of being much older? No it was not.
Can Sylvia Browne communicated with deceased spirits? No she cannot.
Does homeopathy work? No it does not.
Is there a God? No there is not.
Reason is on your side.
This ended up being way longer than it needed to be. I guess that’s what re-writes are for, in principle. Oh well.